CREDIT: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
In her first major policy speech since taking office in April, Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell condemned Congress on Thursday for the recent federal government shutdown and called for adequate funding of national parks and public lands, as well as the protection of new areas for their economic and recreational benefits.
Echoing President Obama in his 2013 inaugural address, when he appealed to elected officials to address climate change by declaring that “If Congress won’t act soon to protect future generations, I will,” Jewell also called on Congress to answer the demands of Americans across the country to protect their special places.
As she put it in response to questioning, “If Congress doesn’t step up to act … then the president will take action.” And in her remarks she elaborated:
We need a comprehensive public lands package that conserves our nation’s most special lands and waters, just like the one that President Obama signed into law in 2009 … Those are the kind of commonsense, bipartisan actions that Americans want to see Congress take — but we cannot and will not hold our breath forever. We owe it to future generations to act. As he has already demonstrated, President Obama is ready and willing to step up where Congress falls short.
Jewell’s call to protect parks and public lands is particularly timely, considering the Tea Party’s forced shutdown of 401 national parks, 561 national wildlife refuges (at the beginning of hunting season), and countless other locations for 16 days earlier this month.
But the shutdown isn’t the only way that Congress has actively worked against supporting America’s best places. The last Congress was the first since World War II to not protect a single new acre of public land as a national park, monument, or wilderness area. And not a single land protection bill has been sent to the president for signature, despite the fact that more than two dozen bills protecting more than four million acres have been introduced.
Congress has also continued to chronically underfund national parks and public lands, seen for example in sequestration, the massive across-the-board spending cuts enacted earlier this year, which will continue to cause park and refuge closures over the coming months.
Since the start of the Obama administration, more than 6.9 million acres of public lands have been leased to oil and gas companies for drilling, while only 2.8 million acres have been permanently protected by Congress and the administration.
One of the ways to address this imbalance that Jewell proposed today was a Secretarial Order outlining a mitigation strategy for energy development, a way to pay for the impacts that oil and gas development have on our landscapes. As the Center for American Progress wrote earlier this summer, “the scale of the energy boom … demand a redoubled commitment to reform and aggressive steps to protect public lands for public use,” and this is one policy to do just that.
Jewell also took the time to describe the key role that lands and waters will play in the President’s Climate Action Plan. She noted that her agency will help address climate change by understanding to mitigating its impacts. As she summed up, “President Obama believes that we have a moral obligation to the next generation to leave our land, water, and wildlife better than we found it.”