We’re just over three months into the Biden-Harris administration and our initial assessment is that we could get used to—and are not yet tired of—the winning. And we don’t mean “winning” only in the narrow sense of keeping score, but in the overarching sense that there are serious people running the federal government who care about the future of humanity, recognize the existential threat the climate crisis poses, and are laying the groundwork to address it.
Closer to home, President Joe Biden’s appointees are now overseeing the management of federal public lands that make up more than 63 percent of Utah. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) alone is responsible for administering 23 million acres of public lands in Utah, more than 42 percent of the state’s total land mass. New leaders at the Interior Department and the BLM are already working to reject the backwards-looking “fossil fuels first” obsession in favor of an approach that prioritizes renewables, conservation, and environmental justice.
It’s an understatement to say this won’t be easy, but we’re encouraged by the early signs and want to share the good news.
Change Starts at the Top
From his first full day in office Biden has prioritized environmental protection. One of his first executive orders stressed the importance of tackling the climate crisis and restoring the role of science to federal agency decision-making processes. It also ordered a review of Donald Trump’s dismantling of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments. The president made it clear that his administration would pursue these goals while emphasizing equity, diversity, and fairness.
He promptly backed up this order by focusing the first full week of his administration on tackling the climate crisis, declaring it a goal of his administration to put the country on a path to protecting 30 percent of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030 (shorthanded as “30×30”), and hitting the pause button on any new oil and gas leasing on public lands.
At the same time, Biden nominated to be his Interior Secretary then-Representative (and America’s Red Rock Wilderness Act cosponsor) Deb Haaland (D-NM). Now confirmed in that post, she becomes the first Native American to serve in a cabinet-level position.
Haaland is from Laguna Pueblo. She proudly calls herself a thirty-fifth generation New Mexican. Secretary Haaland has already begun charting a path that addresses the seriousness of the climate crisis. She recognizes that its impacts fall with disproportionate severity upon disadvantaged communities and communities of color and that we must deal with that disparity.
In short, we’re thrilled with Secretary Haaland’s selection!
President Biden also appointed Nada Culver as the BLM’s Deputy Director of Policy and Programs, the agency’s highest ranking political appointee not subject to Senate confirmation. She is currently exercising the delegated authority of the BLM director. Director Culver most recently worked at the Audubon Society and before that she established and then ran the BLM Action Center at The Wilderness Society. She is deeply familiar with the BLM and its work in Utah, and also with the redrock.
With these two women and dozens of other political appointees, the president has assembled a powerful and diverse array of cabinet and agency officials to implement his climate and public lands agenda. To be clear, we’re not Pollyannas. The fossil fuel industry has dominated the Interior Department and the BLM for decades. That agency has also catered to rural county commissioners, which won’t change overnight. But the groundwork has been laid to give us hope that things can and will be different.
Tackling the Climate Crisis by Protecting Wild Public Lands
Protecting climate and biodiversity through the 30×30 initiative is one of the most important action items the Biden administration will undertake. To support that work, we are encouraging the administration to act swiftly to consider designating as new wilderness study areas (WSAs) public lands that the BLM itself has identified as having wilderness characteristics.
The Interior Department has broad authority under Section 202 of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA). The department has many tools at its disposal with which to protect the wild places, the irreplaceable cultural resources, and the native species the BLM is responsible for. But none has the reach and durability of designating new Section 202 WSAs under FLPMA.
In Utah alone, the BLM has identified more than 3.4 million acres of public land as having wilderness characteristics (places like White Canyon, Hatch Point, and Dome Plateau). Across the West, the total is close to 30 million acres. For the most part, they are unprotected and subject to land management plans that prioritize oil and gas leasing and off-road vehicle use over the protection of undisturbed landscapes.
Protecting these lands in their natural, undeveloped state is crucial to combating climate change. They provide real, quantifiable carbon sequestration and climate adaptation benefits. They also conserve scarce water resources and reduce fugitive dust emissions, which exacerbate climate change effects.
Creating new WSAs will also keep fossil fuels in the ground and with them climate-damaging pollution from the exploration, production and combustion of those resources. WSAs are statutorily closed to new oil and gas leasing.
Some will argue that promoting such designations is “risky,” and that conservationists instead must focus exclusively on consensus-driven “small ball” opportunities. We respectfully disagree. This isn’t a zero-sum game in which if someone wins, someone must lose. The administration needs to pursue an all-of-the-above approach to make sure public lands play a significant role in combating the climate crisis. We can’t afford to wait until the last days of President Biden’s first term to set this ball in motion and hope for the best. There is too much at stake and no time to waste.
Hitting the Pause Button on New Oil and Gas Leasing
We know that ending the sale and development of oil and gas leases on federal public lands is a question of “when,” and not “if.” So we’re greatly encouraged by the president’s executive order directing Secretary Haaland to pause all new oil and gas leasing on public lands and waters pending a “comprehensive review and reconsideration” of whether any part of this practice is consistent with the realities of the climate crisis. While we don’t expect the BLM’s leasing and drilling program to end overnight, the stage is set to begin winding it down.
Among the things we expect to see emerge from this review is a priority effort to clean up so-called “orphaned wells” (those that companies have abandoned without properly plugging the wellhead, reclaiming the drill pad, etc.). We also hope to see the end of policies that allow companies to hold onto leases for decades with no activity in “suspension” of requirements for timely development.
It is also way past time to end the sale of new leases on public lands with only low-to-moderate energy potential. This is particularly significant for Utah’s redrock wilderness. The vast majority of these lands are marginal at best for oil and gas development. It is unproductive all the way around for the BLM to expend the time and energy to offer these leases for sale and for the public to spend time challenging them. Shifting BLM staff to work on real priorities (renewable energy development, reclaiming orphaned wells, etc.) makes much more sense. We can tell you that our legal team won’t miss filing comments and protests over no-hope leases nominated by a lone prospector sitting in his basement.
Pro-fossil fuel states and state attorneys general, as well as oil and gas trade groups, are reflexively up in arms at the mere idea. They began filing lawsuits before the ink was dry on Biden’s executive order calling for the leasing pause. SUWA is working with our conservation colleagues to both defend the president’s actions in court and to support them in the court of public opinion.
Build Back Better: Restoring Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears
On the campaign trail the president made clear that reversing the unlawful dismantling of Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears National Monuments is a “top of the list” priority for him. His actions to date affirm that pledge and offer hope that the two monuments will be restored and, in the case of the Bears Ears, perhaps expanded. On his first day in office, Biden directed Secretary Haaland to conduct a review of Trump’s actions, “determine whether restoration of the [original] monument boundaries and conditions . . . would be appropriate,” and to submit a report with recommendations for presidential actions.
The secretary traveled to Utah in early April and met with Native American leaders, local residents and stakeholders, and elected leaders to hear their hopes and concerns about the monuments. SUWA representatives were invited and attended meetings in both Blanding (Bears Ears) and Kanab (Grand Staircase). Unsurprisingly, Utah’s congressional delegation was out in force at these meetings, wringing hands and spinning a false narrative about the uncertainty that restoring the monuments would bring to southern Utah. If only President Biden would wait, they complained, and give the delegation a chance to pursue legislation, that would be ever so much better. But there is nothing preventing the delegation from legislating after Biden acts to restore (or in the case of Bears Ears, expand) the monuments. We’re not holding our breath.
Looking ahead, we anticipate President Biden will fully restore or expand both monuments to their rightful place as crown jewels among the lands entrusted to BLM management.
It’s a Brand New Day
These first few months of the Biden administration have been exhilarating—with priorities laid out, decisions made, and staff put in place that met or exceeded our expectations. We know it’s not going to be all roses and that there are disappointments ahead, but for the first time in a long while we can tell you that we’re excited about prospects for protecting America’s redrock wilderness.
(From Redrock Wilderness newsletter, Spring 2021 issue)