In what is being hailed as a “landmark” conservation policy, President Obama on Tuesday released a presidential memorandum establishing that energy, mining, and other development projects on America’s public lands should result in a net benefit — or at minimum no net loss — for the nation’s rivers, lands, and wildlife resources.
“We all have a moral obligation to the next generation to leave America’s natural resources in better condition than when we inherited them,” President Obama said in the memo. “It is this same obligation that contributes to the strength of our economy and quality of life today.”
The “no net loss” memo instructs federal agencies to establish clear standards by which they seek to avoid, mitigate, or offset the impacts of mining, drilling, transmission, timber, and other development projects on federally-managed lands and waters. If damages are unavoidable, agencies are encouraged “to promote investment by the non-profit and private sectors in restoration or enhancement of natural resources.”
The presidential directive could help spark new private investment in conservation and the expansion of conservation financing strategies such as mitigation banking.
“Across the country, the private sector is increasingly looking for opportunities to invest in solutions that restore natural resources,” writes Christy Goldfuss, managing director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in a blog post. “Impact investors like these seek measurable environmental benefits alongside conventional return on capital.”
Conservation groups praised the new policy and its direction that agencies first aim to avoid damages to sensitive environmental resources when reviewing proposed development projects.
“This is a significant advance in how our nation both develops and conserves our natural resources,” said Mark R. Tercek, President and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. “In the face of accelerated interest in developing our country’s energy resources and building transmission and other related infrastructure, agencies have seen that landscape-level planning, carried out in advance, can result in significant benefits for both industry and nature.”
Alongside the presidential memorandum, the Department of the Interior (DOI) on Tuesday released new planning guidance that directs land managers to conduct earlier, landscape-level planning to help keep development projects away from environmentally sensitive areas. Deputy Secretary of the Interior Michael Connor noted that DOI’s agencies will aim to build on the strategies the DOI has deployed to reduce the environmental impacts of utility-scale solar plants on public lands and to create a path for the recovery of the greater sage grouse.
A trade association representing oil and gas companies, many of which are drilling on national forests and other public lands, criticized the presidential memorandum.
“Setting in stone a no net loss ideal essentially puts wildlife and other natural resource values above human needs,” said the Western Energy Alliance’s Kathleen Sgamma in USA Today.
The Obama presidential memorandum echoes a successful policy implemented by President George H.W. Bush and expanded by President Bill Clinton that set a goal of “no net loss” of wetlands in the United States. This wetlands policy is credited with reducing the pace at which riparian areas in the U.S. are disappearing and with sparking private sector investment in wetland conservation.
Nicole Gentile and Matt Lee-Ashley work on the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. You can follow them on Twitter at @nicolegentile and @MLeeAshley.