By Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Speaking today at the Center for American Progress, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said the Obama administration will not shy away from pushing for expansions of the nation’s network of protected lands, including the designation of new national monuments. He also issued a strong defense of his department’s new policy giving interim protections to wilderness-quality federal lands just a few days after the House voted to block the use of funds to implement the policy this year.
In unveiling the America’s Great Outdoors initiative last week, President Obama laid the foundation for what could become a solid administration legacy on land conservation in the 21st century. Building on the broad national support for community-based efforts to protect America’s rich land and waterway resources, the initiative seeks to re-invigorate our connections to the outdoors, particularly among the young and urban residents, to facilitate local and state conservation programs, to look at land conservation in a broader, landscape-level context, and to begin managing federal lands to build resilience to climate change.
Interviewed by historian Doug Brinkley, Salazar said the initiative will rely heavily on what he called an extensive and broad-based “dialogue with the American people” about conservation priorities. He defended the administration’s new “wildlands” policy that seeks to provide interim protections for pristine federal lands as was done for several decades before the Bush administration relinquished that authority in a legal settlement with the state of Utah:
We need to manage the public estate for all purposes, including wilderness characteristics. . . . I think there are people who’ve made more of this issue than they should have, including people who are doing it for whatever political agenda they want to serve. . . . Wilderness is not a bad thing.
The launch of the America’s Great Outdoors initiative comes against a backdrop of Republican hostility on Capitol Hill to sensible land conservation efforts by the Obama administration. The House of Representatives has adopted a budget bill that would prevent the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management from implementing its wildlands policy, and only narrowly turned back a GOP-led effort to strip the president of his authority to designate national monuments, a power used by most presidents for more than a century.
Supporters of those extreme measures are so beholden to special interests that want to open treasured federal lands to more oil and gas drilling and other commercial development that they fail to understand how strongly the public supports stronger land conservation efforts.
Even in the midst of the great recession, voters across the country remain strongly committed to funding land conservation and acquisition measures. In 2010, according to the Trust for Public Land, 41 out of 49 state and local initiatives to fund land conservation were approved by voters, and those measures will provide nearly $2.2 billion for those purposes. Since 1988, voters across the country in local and state elections have dedicated more than $56 billion to conserving open space and other land conservation projects, approving bonding and pay as you go ballot questions more than 75 percent of the time.
And a new Colorado College poll conducted in five Rocky Mountain states finds that westerners are strongly committed to conservation and believe that environmental protections and a strong economy go hand-in-hand. The survey found that for 87 percent of western voters “having clean water, clean air, natural areas, and wildlife” is either extremely (47 percent) or very (40 percent) important to quality of life. And two-thirds say that boosting renewable energy production will create jobs in their state.
Westerners understand, Salazar said today, that protected areas like national monuments, are “economic generators” and that there is a direct connection between conserving land and economic development. “We can tone down the rhetoric,” he said. “We in the United States have some very special places — they are not Republican places, they are not Democratic places, they are not independent places, they belong to all of us.”