Chart: Obama Has Protected Fewer Public Lands Than Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, And George W. Bush

by Jessica Goad and Christy Goldfuss

President Barack Obama has overseen a resurgence in U.S. oil and gas production on both private and public lands. Under his watch, oil production on federal lands was higher every year from 2009 through 2011 than it was from 2006 through 2008. In 2011 the Bureau of Land Management held three of its five largest-ever lease sales for the rights to drill on public land for oil and gas. And as the president said himself, “we are drilling all over the place”—in fact, the United States is expected to become the world’s largest crude oil producer by 2020, according to the International Energy Agency.

But the Obama administration has significantly more work to do when it comes to balancing energy development and land conservation on our public lands. The president has begun to establish his conservation legacy, in ways such as removing the threat of uranium mining around the Grand Canyon for 20 years, establishing four new national monuments, and fighting for conservation funding. Nevertheless, his efforts fall far short when it comes to permanently protecting public lands for their economic, scenic, and environmental values. Protecting public lands means restricting drilling, mining, and other industrial activities that can take place on them, and can be accomplished either by bills passed in Congress or actions taken by a president and his administration under their authorities.

The president’s shortcomings in permanently protecting public lands are particularly clear when his conservation accomplishments are compared to those of previous presidents. As seen in the graph below, just 2.6 million acres of public lands have been permanently protected during the Obama administration by both the president and Congress. Of this total, 186,000 acres were protected by the president using administrative authorities.

The number of acres protected over the last four years is far fewer than under President Obama’s four predecessors, including even President George W. Bush, who was condemned by environmentalists and the public for his dismal environmental record.

The graph above includes federal public lands that have been permanently protected by Congress or the president. “Permanently protected” lands are defined here as those lands that would require an act of Congress to change their designation and/or level of protection—such as national parks, national monuments, wilderness areas, and many others. Areas that have been just temporarily protected—such as the 20-year withdrawal of 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon from mining—are also not included. Similarly, congressional mineral withdrawals are not included as they offer protection only from mineral extraction. And finally, only federal public lands are incorporated, so places like national wildlife refuges that have been created through easements on private property are not a part of the graph. 

President Obama’s inadequate record on lands protection is even more conspicuous when compared to the amount of energy development recently approved on public lands. As seen in the graph below, this administration has leased approximately 2.5 times more land to oil and gas companies than it has permanently protected for the American people and future generations to use for recreation, clean air and water, and historical purposes.

Energy development is an important use of our public lands and waters—in fact, 32 percent of the nation’s oil and 21 percent of its natural gas comes from them. And as the president stated, he is pursuing an “all of the above” approach to energy development on our public lands by encouraging the development of both fossil fuels and renewables on these lands.

But a progressive public lands management strategy means that conservation must also be part of a balanced energy policy. And the graph above shows that land conservation and energy development on public lands have been very much out of balance under this administration.

The president and his administration have a chance to correct the imbalance between energy development and conservation on public lands by taking real action to protect the places across the country that local communities have worked hard to save. This can be achieved in multiple ways, such as:

  • Designating new national monuments under the Antiquities Act, which allows presidents to protect places of “historic or scientific interest” and has been used by 16 out of 19 presidents since 1906
  • Establishing new wildlife refuges
  • Working with Congress to create new wilderness and other protected areas

It is especially vital for the administration to take action to permanently protect our public lands because Congress has not recently done so. The 112th Congress, which just ended, was the first since 1966 to not designate any new wilderness areas, and the House of Representatives was last year termed “the most anti-environment House in the history of Congress.” Because party leadership remains much the same, there are few signs that this will change over the next Congress.

President Obama and his cabinet secretaries responsible for managing public lands have a serious opportunity to fill the shoes of their predecessors and establish their own conservation legacies. What remains to be seen is if and how they will make it happen.

Jessica Goad is the Manager of Research and Outreach for American Progress’s Public Lands Project. Christy Goldfuss is the Public Lands Project Director.

13 Responses to Chart: Obama Has Protected Fewer Public Lands Than Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, And George W. Bush

  1. wili says:

    Clearly it is now the job of those of us who give a damn about the future of our children and our earth to scream bloody murder till Obama and others are forced to move rapidly in the opposite direction of these devastating policies.

  2. Cervantes says:

    I’m no Obamabot, but this is completely unfair. A) Obama obviously has no way of making the Republican House do anything — they are top blame for congressional inaction, not Obama. B) He’s just starting his second term, you’re comparing him to 8-year presidencies. C) The opportunities for him to take the sort of administrative actions you call for are limited — there’s not a lot left out there. D) Obviously the setting aside of conservation land will slow down over time, or the whole country would be wilderness. E) States, towns, cities and private trusts also conserve land. A great deal more is happening at those levels and with more local mechanisms than in the past. You do not account for this.

    You may have a point to make but this essay is superficial and inadequate.

  3. rollin says:

    If he works really hard he can catch up to G. W., but only if Congress gets going too. Probably more important to get the EPA off strangle hold at this point.

  4. His “renewables” policy is equally destructive, denuding and ruining hundreds of thousands of acres of public land for inefficient, remote, heavily-subsidized industrial wind and solar developments. A smart, responsible, non-corporate-owned president would put those renewables on rooftops, on damaged land, and on the millions of acres of contaminated and degraded lands the EPA had identified as suitable to that purpose.

  5. Larry Gilman says:

    Agreed. We must not become mere propagandists, praising renewables no matter how, or where, they are developed — lest messaging morph into mere manipulation. “Solar on the nuclear model” is a horror: see . Yet there is more than enough developed-land acreage — co-located with demand! — on rooftops etc. to power our entire civilization, if paired with storage and/or quilted together with other forms of generation: . No single panacea. No technology about which legitimate doubts cannot be raised at least in certain forms of deployment. The best watt is the one never used.

  6. Larry Gilman says:

    These might be good points, but to blame Obama’s paltry (even at 1 term) preservation record on the Republicans and/or a shortage of preservable-but-unpreserved land, one would have to show — not merely assert — that Obama had _tried_ to preserve land, but been blocked by wicked Republicans; and/or that preservation is indeed running into the constraint of finitude. Sure, preservation in absolute acres must slow down and stop someday, based on the finite-Earth theory, but the mere existence of that eventuality doesn’t prove that it’s relevant to recent preservation efforts. I’d say “case not proved” for both the original post — and for your critique of it (though you do raise legitimate _questions_).

  7. When considering one of the president’s four national monuments, the one at Fort Monroe, Virginia, it’s important to recognize that when it comes to open public land, the president actually either colluded with or succumbed to developer-dominated Virginia politicians. As can be seen in a quick glance at the combined map-and-aerial-photo illustration at , crucial sense-of-place-defining land was omitted from this precious public treasure merely for private profit. An irony is that this shortsightedness will actually cost all of us, starting with financially. Making things worse, the national media have almost all unskeptically accepted the false belief that all of Fort Monroe became a national monument. Virginia’s leaders have capitalized on confusion stemming from the fact that there’s a stone fortress within the historic landscape, giving two footprint meanings to the name “Fort Monroe.” The claim that all of Fort Monroe is a national monument has become an Orwellian Big Lie, as seen in statements from Virginia’s governor, in much journalism, and even formally from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which sides bizarrely with the overdevelopers. (Big Money exerts big power, you know, even subverting good people sometimes, by trapping them.) See a link at to a Norfolk Virginian-Pilot editorial calling for unification of the split national monument lest it remain “degraded.” And if you’re interested in the national imperative to discourage unwise coastal development, you need look no further for a textbook example of that foolishness. Virginia’s leaders grimly intend to countenance the short-term extraction of private profit from this public treasure on a low-lying but otherwise Gibraltar-like sand spit that has figured in American history since even before the first captive Africans stopped there en route to Jamestown in 1619. Because of what happened there to begin the end of slavery a quarter-millennium later, the historian Edward Ayers has called Fort Monroe the site of the start of “the greatest moment in American history.” (Source: final paragraph at .) It is this treasure that President Obama has irresponsibly scanted, with plans now being cemented to delete the heart of its sense-of-place-defining open land on the Chesapeake Bay. Thanks for the chance to comment. E-mail SaveFortMonroe [[[at]]]

  8. Keith Derby says:

    Ft. Monroe is an asset that must be managed and preserved. I am certain the president would have devoted more borrowed money if he were even less responsible he has proven himself to be. In a perfect world we would devote millions maybe billions toward preserving Ft.Monroe. The problem is that any money spent on Ft. Monroe will be paid for by our childeren and grandchildren. Maybe we should think about the debt we are passing on to them before supporting additional federal funding to preserve Ft. Monroe.

  9. Tidewater is full of conservatives who offer genuine wisdom about the need to confront the entitlements crisis and the debt bomb. But a few of them unwisely do as Mr. Derby does when he elevates the relative nickel that is Fort Monroe’s temporary transition cost. That small fraction of Virginia conservatives elevates the relative nickel to the level of the nation’s actual financial problem, which is many orders of magnitude larger than that relative nickel. Now, it’s true that every nickel counts. But it’s also true that a great nation doesn’t panic hysterically when the stakes have thousand-year implications (as touched upon in my earlier comment, above). That’s why we don’t pull our hair fearfully and dump NASA. I’ve debated Mr. Derby many times online. I don’t know him, but I respect his sincerity and his seriousness. Nevertheless he remains profoundly wrong to offer this advice that can only be valid if American history is over and if we’re no longer a great nation. Moreover, he’s wrong about the costs anyhow. The way to burden the taxpayer with Fort Monroe is to kowtow to the developers, as Virginia’s leaders are now doing, so that a few exploiters can take short-term private profit from that precious, four-centuries-old public landscape. On the other hand, beyond the few-year near term, the way to permanently profit the taxpayer — and the citizen — is to cultivate this national treasure for the long term, above all preserving its 400-year-old sense of place. And that’s why we’re discussing Fort Monroe in a Climate Progress posting about preservation of open public land. To see what this is all about in just a glance, please consult the map-and-photo illustration at — and please note that the area on the left gets developed in anyone’s scenario anyway. To see a true conservative’s view, please consult . It’s from a retired conservative legislator, the Republican Tom Gear, known for his Fort Monroe leadership. To see the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot’s view, please consult . Only a handful of people immersed in this issue in Virginia agree with Mr. Derby’s obtuse view. (Two handfuls, if you count the back-room deciders who kowtow to the developers in defiance of the public will and despite their own starkly obvious fiduciary duty.) Thanks for the chance to comment. E-mail SaveFortMonroe [[[at]]]

  10. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I believe the correct expression is ‘Obamaton’.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    An eye-witness account.

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Yep, a ‘responsible’ and ‘conservative’ President would have sold the lot, to raise funds for more tax cuts for the wealthy or for more subsidies for fossil fuels. The land could then have been properly ‘developed’ by Donald Trump or some other similar paragon, into a gated estate with a 72 hole golf course so that the elect might better relax after their ‘wealth creation’ toils.

  13. That’s not too much of an exaggeration of what actually is happening with the precious land at the center of the historic landscape at Fort Monroe — land that should be a prime candidate instead for expansion of U.S. public open space. Please glance at the area indicated in red on the illustration that I mentioned at . That’s the land we’re talking about. It gives Fort Monroe its Chesapeake Bay sense of place. You and I and everyone else are being forced to donate it to private interests. And members of the national media don’t know it because, unskeptically, they bought the press-release language portraying all of Fort Monroe as having been presidentially designated a national monument.