America’s Public Lands Managed by Split Personality in 2000s

Dec 30, 2009

The Wilderness Society offers mixed review for first decade of 21st century

WASHINGTON - The Wilderness Society today assessed the past 10 years of public lands management, saying it had a Jekyll-and-Hyde flavor.

photo: Bristlecone pine in California protected by the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act. Photo by John Dittli.“This has been a Jekyll-and-Hyde decade for the lands belonging to all Americans,” said Dave Alberswerth, a senior policy advisor for The Wilderness Society. “The decade was bookended by administrations committed to sound stewardship of our natural treasures. But for most of the decade, we had an administration that emphasized the commercial exploitation of our public lands, such as more oil and gas drilling, and tried to undermine the protection of our roadless national forests. Fortunately, a broad coalition of Americans combined to thwart much of what that administration attempted.”

Alberswerth added that with the arrival of the Obama administration, many misguided policies have been reversed, and there is renewed commitment to genuine stewardship.

“This shift is more important than ever because of the threat posed by climate change—and the growing understanding that protecting forests and other natural areas will help us counter that threat,” he said.

Following is a more detailed Wilderness Society assessment how 13 major environmental issues fared over the past 10 years. They range from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and climate change to oil and gas drilling and wildfire. The Wilderness Society then offers a brief look at its goals for the next decade:

What’s at stake

Every American owns 623 million acres: national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and 258 million western acres overseen by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM). With this inheritance comes a duty, summarized a century ago by President Theodore Roosevelt: “The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased, and not impaired, in value.”

National Wilderness Preservation System

Since January 1, 2000, the Wilderness System (NWPS) has grown by five million acres and now stands at 109.4 million acres. The 127 new wilderness areas are in Puerto Rico’s Caribbean National Forest and 14 states: Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, New Mexico, Wisconsin, Michigan, Vermont, New Hampshire, Virginia, and West Virginia. These lands now enjoy the strongest protection possible, and it is permanent.

However, the Department of the Interior and the State of Utah reached a settlement agreement in April 2003 that effectively (and illegally) terminated the BLM’s authority to designate new “wilderness study areas” on the lands it manages.  The agreement throws open millions of acres of wilderness-quality lands to oil and gas leasing, off-road vehicle use, and other activities that can damage the environmental values of these fragile lands. Though The Wilderness Society and other organizations have appealed to the Obama administration to reverse this policy, no changes have taken place.

National forest roadless areas

During the 1990s, U.S. Forest Service Chief Michael Dombeck directed a rulemaking process designed to protect roadless portions of the national forests that had NOT yet been protected via addition to the Wilderness System. In January 2001 the Roadless Area Conservation Rule took effect, barring road building and logging on 58.5 million acres. But the Bush administration, during its initial days, blocked implementation of this rule and began devising a substitute.

For eight years, the rule bounced around the federal courts, with varying outcomes. Meanwhile, the Bush administration created a petition process that allowed individual states to create their own plans for managing roadless areas—even though these lands belong to all Americans, not simply to a state’s residents. Conservation groups managed to thwart virtually all efforts to build roads into these undeveloped areas. Only seven miles of logging roads were constructed.

In May 2009, the Obama administration announced that roadless area projects would require approval by the secretary of agriculture, except in Idaho. On August 5 the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a district court decision invalidating the Bush state petitions rule and reinstating the 2001 Roadless Rule.

National Landscape Conservation System

The newest American land system was created in June 2000 by former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to protect the crown jewels of public lands overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The NLCS includes some of the country’s most spectacular scenery, holds some of our most valuable natural and cultural treasures, and plays a critical role in maintaining the environment of the western landscape. The system contains some 27 million acres, roughly ten percent of the BLM’s lands. They include wilderness areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, wild and scenic rivers, national historic trails, and other lands. During the decade, several million acres were protected forever in eight new national conservation areas and fifteen new national monuments. On March 30, 2009, the National Landscape Conservation System was permanently established by statute in the “Omnibus Public Lands Act of 2009.”

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Over the past ten years, the oil industry’s Capitol Hill allies have tried repeatedly to pass legislation that would have authorized oil and gas leasing on this refuge’s spectacular coastal plain. This portion of the refuge is its biological heart. Each spring the 120,000-strong Porcupine Caribou Herd heads for the coastal plain from Canada, traveling hundreds of miles to bear their young. The native Gwich’in people, whose culture and subsistence lifestyle depend on the caribou, call this area “the sacred place where life begins.” The area is also vital to grizzlies, muskoxen, wolves, and millions of migratory birds. The Wilderness Society has helped lead the successful defense of this pristine area of our Arctic natural heritage.

National Wildlife Refuges

Since 2000, 30 refuges have been established, putting the total at 551. One of the 30 is Mariana Trench, a marine refuge in the northwestern Pacific Ocean designated by the Bush administration. Stretching across more than 50 million acres, it is about three times the size of the next-largest refuge and is the deepest point on Earth (35,840 feet). These additions have increased the size of the Refuge System by 52 million acres, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which manages the system.

Oil and Gas Drilling

Early in its tenure, the Bush administration adopted  policies that have led to leasing tens of millions of acres of public lands in the Rocky Mountain West, and which eventually resulted in the issuance of over 50,000 drilling permits to oil and gas companies. 

Nevertheless, conservationists were able to protect some key sensitive places from drilling, such as Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front adjacent to the Bob Marshall Wilderness, New Mexico’s Ville Vidal, Wyoming’s namesake Wyoming Range. We continue to fight for protection of other areas, including Utah’s Red Rock Country and Colorado’s Vermillion Basin.

During his first year, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has vowed to provide a better balance between development of oil and gas resources on the West’s public lands and protection of the environmental, wildlife, and cultural values of those lands.

Renewable Energy

In the midst of this giveaway of public lands to the oil and gas industry, the Bush administration squandered an opportunity to promote development of renewable energy sources. Although there was some lip service to renewables in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, that legislation put more emphasis on fossil fuel incentives. The same was true of the Administration’s West-wide Energy Corridors initiative.

With a strong commitment to expanding environmentally responsible development, Secretary Salazar has led an effort to take advantage of opportunities to develop renewable energy. The BLM has moved quickly to identify areas appropriate for solar energy development and permit projects in those areas.

Off-road Vehicles

The use of ORVs has risen dramatically over the years. Because these vehicles are loud and can travel across a wide range of landscapes, their impact on wildlife and land can be devastating. The presence of ORVs also makes the public lands less appealing to non-motorized visitors.

There are signs of hope, however. In 2001 the Forest Service declared its intention to create a sleeker, smaller, and more sustainable mot transportation system and put the policy framework in place. So far, the agency has moved too slowly, but at least there is progress.

In 2005 the Forest Service declared that it would end cross-country driving of ATVs, dirt bikes, and other off-road vehicles within four years.  That goal has not been met, but there is reason to believe that within the next year or so it will be. One sign of progress: In planning documents issued since 2005, the Forest Service has closed over 6,000 miles of roads to motorized travel. The BLM also has adopted policies that aim to end cross country use.

The highest-profile ORV controversy may be the debate over snowmobile use at Yellowstone National Park. Studies conducted a decade ago found that while cars and other vehicles in the park outnumbered snowmobiles 16-to-1 during the course of a year, snowmobiles were responsible for most of the air pollution in the park. Their two-stroke engines spit out 78 percent of the park's carbon monoxide emissions and 94 percent of its hydrocarbons, leaving a smelly blue haze in their wake.

Since 2000 a series of studies has verified that even limited numbers of four-stroke snowmobiles reduce Yellowstone’s air quality, drown out natural sounds, and harm wildlife more than snowcoaches. (Snowcoaches are enclosed vehicles that are quieter and cleaner, with room for a number of passengers.) Nearly 900,000 Americans have submitted comments on this issue to the National Park Service, and 80 percent have favored snowcoaches over snowmobiles.

In 2000, NPS adopted a phase-out of snowmobile use in Yellowstone. However, the Bush administration, at the behest of the snowmobile lobby, overturned the phase-out and sought to justify expanded snowmobile use. Federal courts have twice overturned subsequent plan that authorized snowmobile use in Yellowstone, ruling that they violated NPS’s fundamental obligation by elevating snowmobile use over conservation of the park. This fall, the Park Service established an interim ceiling of 318 guided four-stroke snowmobiles a day while it studies what to allow in a long-term plan.

Bogus Roads on Public Lands

Spurred on by the sympathetic Bush administration, dozens of counties used an obscure Civil War-era law titled R.S. 2477 to assert rights-of-way across federal lands. Though the law was repealed in 1976, counties can still rely on the old law if they can prove extended pre-existing use. Most of these proposed "highways" are remote jeep trails, dry desert streambeds, or cow paths. In Utah alone, there are more than 10,000 R.S. 2477 claims for primitive trails in national parks, forests, wilderness areas, and lands proposed for wilderness protection.

The Bush administration published a rule and initiated a policy that made it easier for RS 2477 promoters to lay claim to countless new highways, even in wilderness-quality lands, on routes that the BLM found not to be significant enough to amount to real roads. Thanks to a coalition of conservation groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), and The Wilderness Society, legal challenges have blocked all RS 2477 claims.

Buttressing this courtroom success, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar put a stop to the processing of RS2477 applications in February 2009, pending policy review. Dozens of applications for routes through conservation lands that could have resulted in developed and maintained roads through wilderness, parks, and monuments have been put on hold. This sent a strong signal to BLM staff that the new administration will revise the Bush policies on RS2477.

Land and Water Conservation Fund

Created by Congress in 1964, LWCF Congress established the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) to acquire, and thereby preserve natural areas threatened by development and to help states and localities pay for recreation facilities. It was a simple idea: Use revenue from offshore oil and gas drilling to support the conservation of America's lands and waters. Each year, $900 million from OCS drilling are dedicated to LWCF. Unfortunately, much of this money has been diverted, especially over the past decade.

Since 2000, LWCF has received $2.79 billion for the acquisition of over 1.5 million acres.  Though this represents a large investment in land protection, it still amounts to only 30 percent of the dollars that would have been appropriated had the program been funded at its full level of $900 million annually. LWCF was severely cut during the latter years of the Bush administration, going as low as $113 million in Fiscal Year 2007. But President Obama has begun to restore LWCF to its previous funding levels and has pledged to fully fund the program by 2014. During this decade, LWCF has helped acquire land at Cape Cod National Seashore, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, White River National Forest, Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge, and scores of other special places in almost every state.

Another land protection option is the Forest Legacy program to help preserve working forestlands. More than $500 million of federal funds have been paired with more than $600 million of non-federal funds to help preserve working forestlands since the program’s inception in 1990. The program received relatively stable levels of funding throughout the decade, but these dollars have proven to be insufficient with nearly $200 million annually in requests received by the Forest Service. The Forest Legacy program has protected nearly 1 million acres in 36 states and Puerto Rico.

Forest Restoration

Forest restoration has begun and is picking up speed. The environmental community lobbied for and won the creation of the Legacy Roads and Trails Remediation Fund, which provides money to decommission—or repair, as appropriate—roads causing damage to watersheds and sensitive fisheries. Since its inception three years ago, this initiative has provided $179.4 million. The U.S. Forest Service has used this funding to improve more than 120,000 acres of watersheds, decommission almost 2,200 miles of system and unauthorized roads, improve 5,304 miles of roads, and maintain to standard 3,170 miles of trails. 

Congress also passed the Forest Landscape Restoration Act, in 2009. The legislation directs the Forest Service to set up ten pilot projects on representative forests across the nation, which will operate on a landscape scale of at least 50,000 acres each to restore watersheds and forest vegetation. Both the new chief of the Forest Service, Tom Tidwell, and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack declared that restoration of the health and resilience of our public forests is a primary Forest Service objective.


Over the past decade, the nation had the hottest, largest, and most expensive fire years on record. In response, Congress and the public land agencies began to address the new fire management challenges caused by climate change, hazardous fuel buildups, and expanded development adjacent to forests and rangelands. Congress passed the Federal Land Assistance, Management and Enhancement (FLAME) Act in late 2009, to protect the Forest Service’s budget by establishing a separate fund to address the increasing costs of wildfire suppression.  Congress made a commitment to not only ensure that disruptive funding transfers will not take place but also make certain that the FLAME fund is not replenished to the detriment of other programs.  

While fire management commandeered almost half of the annual public land agency budgets through much of the 2000s, fire managers concentrated suppression efforts in populated lands around communities, in the so-called Wildland Urban Interface, and instituted a policy to allow fires to burn their natural course for resource benefit – where possible. This important shift in policy recognizes the ecological role of fire and institutes management policies to get fire on the landscape.

Climate Change and Public Lands

Dramatic changes in public policy occurred over this decade, making it possible to envision sustained attention to the role of our public lands in moderating the worst effects of climate change.  The pace of global warming and the scale of its impacts are increasing, driven primarily by 150 years of industrial emissions that we cannot now avoid.  Yet in 2000, the Bush administration took the words “climate change” out of the vocabulary of our public land managers and froze public discussion in an obsolete paradigm that refused to acknowledge the changes that scientists were warning about. In 2008, this era ended with the change of administrations and with new leadership at the Department of Interior and the USDA.

Today, public land managers are seeking out the best science to guide landscape-scale decision-making based on climate change effects, with an eye towards enhancing ecosystem health overall and preserving the carbon storage capacity of our forested public lands. The connection between resilient, intact ecosystems, the health of communities that rely on them for clean water and clean air, the jobs made possible by preserving forest sustainability, and effective strategies for coping with a warming world, are all now receiving attention at the highest levels of our government.  This augurs well for public land management guided more and more by ecological principles and less by exploitation and extraction in the decades ahead.

Goals for the Next Decade

Sound management of the lands owned by all Americans has always been a challenge—and always will be. Too often, decisions have been based on short-term considerations, but lands that we hold in trust for all future generations need to be managed for the long term. It is also vital that decision makers never lose sight of the fact that the public lands belong to each of us equally, no matter how close or far away we may live. Over the next ten years, we urge:

  • Continued additions to the National Wilderness Preservation System;
  • Conservation of forests and other public lands that will help the world limit the impact of climate change;
  • Protection of all roadless portions of our national forests;
  • Better regulation of motorized vehicles on public lands;
  • Limits on oil and gas leasing so that sensitive lands and wildlife are not put in jeopardy;
  • Wise siting of renewable energy facilities;
  • Managing for clean water and healthy populations of wildlife;
  • Full funding of the Land and Water Conservation System so that at-risk natural areas can be protected before it is too late;
  • Strong management and growth of the National Landscape Conservation System;
  • Management that returns our forests to health and resiliency, including safely restoring fire across the landscape;
  • Adoption of steps that enable visitors to take advantage of the world-class recreation opportunities;
  • Restoration of public lands that have been damaged by logging, roadbuilding, and other activities, and
  • Adoption of other measures that will enable us to pass down our natural legacy in good condition.



photo: Bristlecone pine in California protected by the Eastern Sierra and Northern San Gabriel Wild Heritage Act. Photo by John Dittli.