State of the Wild 2016: What we need to achieve this year

Utah's Bears Ears region, site of a potential national monument in 2016.

Credit: Mason Cummings.

The Wilderness Society looks at priorities for American wildlands in 2016.

In 2015, we celebrated a number of major conservation victories while continuing to combat a small group of ideological opponents to public land protection. In the face of significant and sustained efforts to undermine wildlands in Congress and elsewhere, Wilderness Society members and supporters stood strong and many repelled attacks—and even strengthened some laws and protected new places.

Similarly, many challenges and opportunities await conservation in 2016. These are some of our big goals for the year ahead:

1. Protect parks and wild places

Our members helped bring about many positive developments for wildlands protection in 2015. President Obama used his authority under the Antiquities Act to designate six new national monuments; his administration made an official recommendation that the coastal plain of the Arctic Wildlife Refuge be federally protected as wilderness; Congress passed bipartisan legislation to protect the long-awaited Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness in Idaho; and Congress renewed the Land and Water Conservation Fund for three more years while significantly increasing the program’s funding level. In 2016, we hope to build on these successes to:

  • Designate more wilderness through congressional action. The Wilderness Society worked for decades with partners both locally and nationally to get the Boulder-White Clouds of Idaho protected as wilderness this past year, and many special places still await that status (including many that have bipartisan support). Among these are outstanding areas in Tennessee’s Cherokee National Forest and California’s Central Coast.
  • Repel local and national land takeover attempts. Anti-conservationist forces from the local level all the way up to Congress have recently ramped up “land takeover” efforts. Chief among these are campaigns pressuring state governments to seize public forests, refuges, parks, wilderness and other lands so they can be privatized or auctioned for drilling, mining and logging. We will work to defeat these radical ideas wherever they rear their heads, keeping national parks and other lands open for all Americans to enjoy.
  • Protect more national monuments. The Antiquities Act has been used by almost every president to designate iconic landmarks as national monuments—an important tool when there is strong local support for conservation but Congress won’t act. In 2016, potential monuments include three in the California Desert, an expansion of the existing California Coastal National Monument and a picturesque region of Utah known as “Bears Ears.”
  • Defend the Antiquities Act. In recent years, some members of Congress have waged an all-out war on the Antiquities Act, chiefly by proposing to place arbitrary limitations on monument designation and make monuments subject to congressional review. The law has a venerable century-old legacy of bipartisan use and must be upheld.
  • Protect the Arctic Refuge. We will advocate for legislation to permanently protect vital caribou and polar bear habitat from oil and gas exploration on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Wilderness designation for the coastal plain would be a tremendous step, and would ensure that oil and gas infrastructure will never destroy the most threatened part of one of our nation’s greatest wild places.

2. Modernize energy development on public lands, balanced with land conservation goals

In 2015, we made more progress in our push to balance responsible energy development with land conservation--from the development of “master leasing plans,” a new planning tool used by the BLM to help guide oil and gas development away from sensitive wildlands, to the cancellation of a highly contested oil and gas lease in the threatened Badger-Two Medicine area of Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front. We also saw permits issued in record time for much-needed solar energy projects in prescreened Solar Energy Zones in Nevada. These are among our big goals for this year:

  • Develop responsible renewable energy. We must meet America's growing energy needs while fighting climate change and protecting wildlife habitat and other irreplaceable landscapes. This means prioritizing wind and solar energy over fossil fuels. There are significant opportunities to place wind and solar projects on public lands, but we must locate them in places where they do the least harm to sensitive habitat.
  • Address climate change by reducing pollution from energy development on public lands. According to our recent report, greenhouse gas emissions from energy development on public lands are a major “blind spot” in American plans to combat climate change. We must be more diligent about measuring and managing emissions on public lands. The government is already committed to a greenhouse emissions reduction target for many aspects of federal activities, but public lands energy development has been excluded. Targets have been set for renewable energy deployment, but not for emissions reduction. It is long past time to develop systems to quantify, disclose and reduce the carbon consequences of our federal lands energy decisions.
  • Develop a rule to curb natural gas waste on public lands. Up to 84 times more harmful than CO2, methane emissions are a particularly big problem. We are working to reduce their impact by pushing for national standards that would reduce pollution from venting, flaring and leaky infrastructure on public land.
  • Protect places that are “Too Wild to Drill.” Continue to push for much-needed reforms to the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) oil and gas program to ensure that drilling is done in the right way, in the right places and with fair return to American taxpayers. This includes identifying the areas that are simply "Too Wild to Drill”  and placing them off-limits to development.
  • Overhaul the federal coal leasing system to protect wildlands, the climate and ensure companies pay their fair share. Right now, coal companies are operating under rules written more than a generation ago, and paying far less in royalties than the going market rate for their leases on public lands. In recent years, serious efforts have been made to update leasing systems for other forms of energy, and now we must also take a hard look at where, whether and how coal gets leased on our public lands.

3. Connect more Americans with nature

Nature is a vital restorative balm for Americans, and we want to make sure as many people as possible have access to the outdoors and the ability to appreciate it. Going into 2016, the centennial year for the National Park Service and President Obama’s “Every Kid in a Park” program, this goal is as relevant as ever.

  • Keep our trails accessible and well maintained. We are working to pass legislation that would keep more trails in our National Forests open for hiking, biking and other recreation by working with volunteers and partner organizations. The bill would also help prioritize trail maintenance to the areas that are most in need of repair.
  • Invest in the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. The 21st Century Conservation Service Corps aims to put young people and veterans to work on America's public lands while at the same time working to engage public and private sector partners in fully funding service corps projects on our public lands. In addition to providing jobs, training and conservation benefits, this program helps to strengthen a new generation’s investment in stewardship of America’s public lands and waters.

4. Make sure our nation’s parks and public lands are well funded

As we try to protect America’s threatened wild places, we must ensure that the government properly invests in their care and ongoing preservation.

  • Fully reauthorize and fund LWCF. The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF), which uses fees from offshore energy development to preserve local and national parks and other places, was reauthorized for three years in December 2015—a great win, but not the permanent reauthorization and full funding it deserves. It is vital that we remain vigilant to ensure that the program is extended past the new 2018 expiration date and permanently funded so that communities across the nation can continue to benefit from it.
  • Fight for a federal budget that invests in conservation. Funding for conservation—which includes national parks, forests and wildlife refuges—makes up barely 1 percent of the federal budget, despite the important role these places play in supporting local economies. Our public wildlands and the conservation programs that sustain them deserve more.
  • Change how we deal with wildfires. We support common sense legislation that would allow Congress to budget for wildfire suppression the same way they budget for all other natural disasters. This will allow Congress to sustain support for important conservation initiatives, rather than continuing to rob them of much needed dollars to pay for wildfires—an especially urgent need with fires getting more extreme and expensive.