In his successful 1980 campaign for the White House, Ronald Reagan proclaimed himself a “sagebrush rebel,” indicating support for a movement spearheaded by some libertarians and livestock operators who sought to transfer ownership or, at least, effective control of most U.S. public lands to states or the private sector. Upon taking office, he appointed the pro-development firebrand James G. Watt as Interior secretary and for a brief period turned public land policy over to the libertarian wing of the Republican Party.
But the movement never attracted any support in the political mainstream, and as this became clear, President Reagan quickly retreated. Congress (including the Republican-controlled Senate) continued passing bills adding protections to millions of acres of public lands, and Reagan signed them into law. Indeed, by the time he left office, he had signed legislation putting more acres of public lands into the National Wilderness Preservation System, the most protective classification, than any president except Jimmy Carter.
The sagebrush rebellion ran up against the strong bipartisan consensus that had gradually taken hold after the Civil War and eventually produced today’s public lands—those more than 600 million acres, or nearly 30 percent of the U.S. landmass, that the nation holds and manages for broad public purposes.
While most people are familiar only with “crown jewels” like Yosemite and Yellowstone, the public lands encompass an astonishing array of landscapes, wildlife, and other resources, from the nation’s highest peaks to its lowest point, from Arctic tundra to coastal wetlands, from sites steeped in cultural and historic resources to vast open spaces offering quiet contemplation. These lands carry a confusing mix of labels: national park, forest, wildlife refuge, conservation area, recreation area, monument, wilderness, and others. Although concentrated in the West, they are found throughout the nation. In at least a dozen non-western states, for example, more than one of every 20 acres is public land. Each year, these lands offer millions of people life-changing encounters with the nation’s natural and cultural heritage, and public lands–related tourism is the economic anchor of many communities.
This vast portfolio is administered by four government agencies. The least known, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), looks after the most land, about 256 million acres. The other three are the U.S. Forest Service (193 million acres), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (91 million), and the best known, the National Park Service (78 million). Some of these lands have been logged and mined, and a significant portion are grazed by domesticated livestock, but today the vast majority have been set aside for recreation, inspiration, environmental conservation, science, and preservation of cultural heritage.
Yet Congress has given only about one-fifth of this acreage wilderness status, protected by law from practically all development. Another one-quarter is subject to congressionally imposed limitations that constrain—but do not entirely prohibit—an aggressive executive from intensively developing these lands. And although another one-third has been protected by decisions made by earlier presidential administrations, these are reversible unless Congress intervenes. The Trump administration thus has considerable power to strip protections and to open public lands to exploitation, and it has done exactly that.
President Trump camouflaged his intent while campaigning for his party’s nomination, telling Field & Stream magazine in January 2016 that the United States should keep and be “great stewards” of its “magnificent” public lands. Although that summer the GOP’s libertarian wing inserted a plank in the party platform calling on Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism” to convey some public lands to the states, Trump never mentioned it in his campaign. His celebration of public lands helped him carry five intermountain western states and Alaska, most by very substantial margins, in the 2016 election. Once in office, he promptly named former Montana congressman Ryan Zinke, who had resigned from the platform committee at the 2016 convention in protest over inclusion of the plank, to be Interior secretary.
All this initially provided the Trump administration some political cover as it began to pursue its principal objective—aggressively transferring as much control as possible to fossil fuel and other industrial enterprises. To make this happen, it has done more than any administration since the Civil War to strip existing protections from public lands.
The November election will decide, along with so much else, whether U.S. policy will revert to its long-standing trajectory of safeguarding more and more public lands, or whether President Trump will be free to continue on the contrary course he has charted.
A 2017 protest of a Congressional move to allow drilling in the vast wildlife refuge (U.S. Senate/Planet Pix/Alamy)
From the very beginning, America’s public lands were an instrument for forging national unity. To settle a dispute that had stymied the formation of the first national government after the Declaration of Independence, seven of the 13 original colonies agreed to cede to the new nation their claims to lands west of the Appalachian Mountains, after the six colonies that had no such claims objected. Over the next several decades, as the United States acquired clear title to vast acreages from foreign governments and Indian tribes (most often by negotiation and purchase, but sometimes by force), the policies it crafted regarding these lands were crucial in building a unified nation. Congress used land grants to promote public school systems, agricultural settlement, public works projects like roads, canals, and railroads, and the admission of new states into the union. It also kept a few of these lands in public ownership for purposes of defense and commerce, such as safeguarding supplies of wood and minerals vital for the military and providing sites for lighthouses to promote navigation.
After the Civil War, a powerful political movement gradually took hold that resulted in the nation’s not only keeping many of the public lands it still held but acquiring even more. One impetus for this movement was the idea (first put in effect at Yosemite and Yellowstone) that government preservation of iconic American landscapes for inspiration and public enjoyment could help heal the wounds of that war. The movement was also fed by growing awareness that the traditional policy of using land grants to advance settlement through small farms could not work in the arid, rugged terrain of the western third of the nation, and that forested uplands needed to be protected to safeguard vital and relatively scarce water supplies. The movement also gained strength from calls to stimulate economic activity through scenery-based tourism and to preserve open spaces and wildlife habitat for future generations. Last, but certainly not least, was a perceived need for the federal government to check the appetite of large industrial enterprises like railroads and mining and logging companies for pushing common folk aside and taking control of these lands in pursuit of private profit rather than public benefit.
Although at first the main objective of this movement was to reserve in permanent national ownership lands the government already owned, it was not long before the federal government began acquiring lands for such purposes from state and private owners by purchase or donation. About 10 percent of today’s public lands, or some 60 million acres, came into national ownership this way.
To libertarians like Milton Friedman or the Koch brothers, this long-term trend to protect public lands was creeping socialism. To conservationists like Aldo Leopold or the eminent biologist Edward O. Wilson, it was growing enlightenment. But it can also be seen simply as our political system operating through representatives chosen by the people to reflect changes in public opinion and culture.
These public land reservations and acquisitions sometimes encountered resistance. A handful of sagebrush rebellions had preceded the one that President Reagan flirted with in the late 1970s. But the most notable thing about the resistance was how isolated and limited these episodes were. The movement to safeguard vast tracts of land in public ownership had strong support across the political spectrum, from elected officials from all regions of the country. And once under way, it kept advancing with almost no retreat.
There were occasional hiccups after Reagan. One came in the mid-1990s, when the GOP’s libertarian wing succeeded in inserting in the party’s 1996 platform a call for a “thorough review” of U.S. public lands aimed at retaining only “unique property worthy of national oversight” and transferring the rest to state or local governments. This occurred shortly before President Bill Clinton established the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, an otherworldly landscape of geologic wonders on nearly two million acres of public lands in southern Utah.
As in the Reagan era, the party’s rhetorical bark lacked bite. Days after handily winning reelection, Clinton signed legislation that modestly expanded the wilderness system and established several other new protected areas in nearly a dozen states. Just one of a series of omnibus public lands protection packages enacted in the modern era, it had been guided through the Republican-controlled Congress by Representative Don Young, a Republican from Alaska. Before Clinton left office, Congress approved, with bipartisan support, numerous other public land protection bills, and Clinton himself put millions more acres of public lands in national monuments.
Another hiccup came in 2001. The early months of the George W. Bush presidency contained echoes of the early Reagan administration. Vice President Dick Cheney and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, a protégé of James Watt, openly considered undoing the Clinton monuments and other executive protections but found little support either in or outside Congress. In 2002, conservative messaging strategist Frank Luntz bluntly advised Republicans not to challenge what he called “the most popular federal programs today,” namely, “conservation of public lands and waters through parks and open spaces.” Bush got the message. Before he left office in 2009, he had signed into law numerous bipartisan bills protecting areas of public lands, and he broke important new ground by establishing four marine national monuments covering vast expanses of U.S. waters in the Pacific Ocean.
President Barack Obama’s administration continued in this direction. Early in his tenure, he signed an omnibus public land act into law, most parts of which had been crafted during the Bush administration. It continued the practice of curtailing road building and conventional economic development by designating new wilderness areas in eight states, a new national monument, and four new national conservation areas. It also put Congress’s imprimatur on a collection of protected “national conservation lands” that the BLM had been assembling since the 1970s. Obama himself established many new national monuments. The most notable was the Bears Ears, 1.35 million acres of public lands in southeastern Utah, designated at the instigation of a consortium of Native American tribes that were seeking to preserve and gain influence over the management of a landscape of immense importance to their cultures. Obama also followed up the Bush initiative by establishing huge new marine national monuments offshore.
Muskoxen on the tundra in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (Accent Alaska/Alamy)
The Trump administration has taken many steps to open previously protected public land to fossil fuel and other industrial interests and thus reverse the lengthy and practically uninterrupted tide of advancing protection. The move that attracted the most attention came in late 2017, when President Trump signed executive orders drastically shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. This rollback of protections from some two million acres of public lands had no precedent in the nation’s history.
That action was just the most glaring of a seemingly unending series of measures to strip public lands of safeguards. The Trump administration also moved to open to oil and gas drilling several other protected places:
- The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in northeastern Alaska (the heart of the calving ground of the Porcupine caribou herd, which has one of the largest and longest migrations of any land mammal);
- Hundreds of millions of acres of U.S. waters that had been closed to oil and gas leasing by Trump’s Republican and Democratic predecessors; and
- Most of the 25-million-acre national petroleum reserve in northwestern Alaska that had been closed to development by an Obama-era management plan.
And the administration has set in motion many additional changes designed to clear the way for intensive development of public lands. One is revisiting the Clinton administration’s roadless rule, which protects nearly 60 million acres of national forest land, and threatening to open to logging much of the country’s largest national forest, the Tongass in Southeast Alaska, which is also the largest temperate rainforest on the planet.
The administration has shown a particular eagerness to undo actions by its predecessor. It has, for example, sought to revise a successful collaboration between the Obama administration and a bipartisan group of western governors that restricted development on millions of acres of public lands in order to keep the sage grouse, an emblem of the sagebrush country of the intermountain West, off the list of endangered species. It has also launched an effort to rewrite a conservation plan that the Obama administration crafted for nearly 11 million acres of BLM desert regions in seven California counties. That plan, developed after meticulous consultation with affected interests, so carefully balanced protections with energy development and other uses that no interest group challenged it in court—an almost unprecedented outcome in our litigious age. The Trump administration has also proposed to remove constraints on development in BLM management plans covering more than 21 million acres in Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Oregon.
At the same time, it has moved to do away with numerous general policies installed and maintained through several prior administrations, Republican and Democratic, which will also strip protections from public lands. These include weakening regulations that implement bedrock national laws like the National Environmental Policy Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon a half century ago, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and a 1918 law that implements international treaties protecting migratory birds. The current administration has also overturned a long-standing U.S. policy requiring regulated industries to provide what is known as “compensatory mitigation” in return for gaining approval to take certain kinds of destructive actions on public lands or elsewhere.
The Trump administration initiative that might well be the most destructive of all is its campaign to hollow out the federal agencies that manage and protect public lands. This push has come along several fronts. From the beginning, the administration has consistently asked Congress to make deep cuts in the budgets of practically every public land program except those promoting fossil fuels. A revealing moment came during the government shutdown in late 2018, when the Interior Department leadership furloughed national park rangers but ordered BLM staff to process permits to drill public lands for oil and gas.
The Trump administration has filled many public land leadership positions with “acting” officials. This allows important decision makers to escape the Senate confirmation process, where their suitability for office, including possible conflicts of interest, can be explored in background investigations and public hearings.
It has made wholesale transfers of senior career agency officials to remote locations in an undisguised effort to remove them from the federal service, with its Office of Management and Budget director bragging that this was a “wonderful way to streamline government” because it circumvented formal downsizing processes. The resulting loss of talent and experience will not be easy to remedy.
What the administration is doing to the BLM deserves particular mention. It has moved the agency’s headquarters from Washington, D.C., to western Colorado—not far from where David Bernhardt, the current Interior secretary, grew up—which has led to the departure of much of its career leadership. It has put William Perry Pendley, who has long supported the right-wing fringe view of America’s public lands, in charge. Back in 2016, Pendley published an essay in National Review calling for the complete divestment of public lands, trumpeting that the “Founding Fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold,” an assertion that would have been news to the likes of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Over the summer, Trump formally nominated Pendley to be BLM director, and then withdrew the nomination under pressure from western Republican senators facing reelection, but Pendley remains in charge for now.
Taken all together, the Trump administration’s public land policies aim at nothing less than a complete upending of many decades of bipartisan policymaking. There has, to be sure, been some pushback. An informal, bipartisan coalition is resisting the administration’s plan to open up practically the entire Outer Continental Shelf to oil and gas development. A number of states, including some in the West, have joined conservation groups in challenging many of the rollbacks in court. Political appointees of prior Republican as well as Democratic presidents have denounced many of the administration’s initiatives. Former BLM directors from both the Bush and the Obama administrations have called the attack on the BLM a “stealth plan” to render the agency dysfunctional and ultimately to “dismantle public ownership” of the land and its resources. Fifteen senior officials who served in four of the past five Republican administrations and the past two Democratic administrations—several in Senate-confirmed positions—have condemned the “huge loophole” the administration is creating by what they describe as its “new, contrived” interpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918.
But with few exceptions, Republicans currently serving in Congress have said little about the administration’s public land policies. One reason they have been able to stay silent is because the administration has rarely sought Congress’s help in implementing its agenda, being instead content to act almost entirely on its own, pushing the boundaries of executive authority when necessary.
A rare exception came in 2017, when Congress included a provision in tax legislation that overturned a 1980 congressional ban on oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska’s political establishment had long pushed for this, since diminished oil production from state lands on the North Slope had reduced revenues on which the state is so dependent. The measure passed Congress on a strict party-line vote, with some Republicans in the lower 48 arguing that developing the refuge would generate revenue for the U.S. Treasury as well.
Still, most congressional Republicans have not—at least not yet—wholeheartedly embraced the Trump administration’s efforts to eliminate or weaken protections for public lands. For example, Republican members have united with their Democratic colleagues to rebuff the request to make huge budget cuts in programs not related to fossil fuels. This was the case even in 2017–2018, when both houses of Congress were under Republican control.
Congressional Republicans also worked with Democrats to enact, in March 2019, the latest in the long series of omnibus public land protection bills. President Trump signed it into law, albeit without fanfare. Most of its parts had been fully worked out earlier when the Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, although its final approval came after the Democrats recaptured the House in the 2018 midterm elections. Among other things, it established a national recreation area, a national monument, and a national conservation area on BLM land in Utah—ironically, not far from the Bears Ears National Monument that President Trump had shrunk by some 85 percent a little more than a year earlier. It also permanently reauthorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) that Congress established in 1964. Over the years, the LWCF has provided several billion dollars to acquire and move millions of acres into public ownership (state as well as federal) for conservation and recreation. The multiyear campaign for its permanent reauthorization had gained the support of some congressional Republicans from western states as well as elsewhere. This legislation left funding for the LWCF up to the annual congressional appropriations process.
Then, in a startling reversal of policy in early 2020, the president tweeted a call for Congress to “send me a Bill that fully and permanently funds the LWCF,” which would be “HISTORIC for our beautiful public lands.” Permanent funding would give the LWCF nearly a billion dollars a year. Only days before this tweet, the administration had submitted a budget for fiscal year 2021 that proposed slashing LWCF funding to less than $15 million—compared with the $495 million Congress appropriated for it in fiscal year 2020. This reversal paved the way for Congress to approve, by substantial bipartisan majorities in both houses, the Great American Outdoors Act and for the president to sign it into law in early August. The act not only permanently funds the LWCF but also greatly expands funding for restoring deteriorating infrastructure on public lands.
Rather than signaling a genuine change in attitude toward public lands, the president’s support for this legislation was widely regarded as a transparent attempt to boost the campaigns of western Republican senators like Colorado’s Cory Gardner and Montana’s Steve Daines, who are facing tough reelection fights. (While these senators were taking credit for turning the president around, over in the House some conservative Republicans were, in a rare departure from their usual fealty to the president, expressing outrage.) It did not take long for the administration to resume its assault on public lands, threatening to veto a bill pending in the House that would add protections to more than 2.5 million acres of public land in Colorado, California, and Washington. The bill’s “unnecessary and harmful restrictions,” the administration said, “could impede future energy and mineral development” and off-highway vehicle use. The House passed the bill anyway, but only six House Republicans voted for it, and its fate in the Senate is uncertain.
The Lower Calf Creek Falls in Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is about 130 feet high. (William Mullins/Alamy)
Plainly the Trump administration is posing a stress test for the public lands, as well as for the rest of our governance system. But is it marking a turning point in American public land policy away from the long bipartisan tradition of adding more protections to more public lands? The answer to this question very likely depends on whether Trump is reelected this fall. If he fails to win a second term, history will probably view his administration as just one more hiccup in the modern history of public lands. Mainstream public opinion still seems solidly in favor of strong protections. Many of the administration’s efforts to eliminate them are works in progress or can be readily reversed, especially if Democrats gain control of both houses of Congress.
Four more years of a Trump administration, however, could well mark a paradigm shift in the politics of public lands. It would have time to bring into full effect many of the rollbacks it has initiated. Removing protections from even a fraction—tens of millions of acres—of this natural heritage would dramatically reverse the long-term trend.
It would, moreover, come at a time when climate change is profoundly altering what these lands will one day look like. “Your Children’s Yellowstone,” the headline of an article in The New York Times warned not long ago, “Will Be Radically Different.” Florida’s Everglades and numerous other protected areas of public lands along our coasts—including nearly one-third of the nation’s 550 national wildlife refuges—are facing inundation as the seas rise. The changing climate exacerbates threats to biodiversity, which is already under siege as the human footprint continues to expand across the American landscape. E. O. Wilson—who 40 years ago called the loss of biodiversity from “careless misuse” and destruction of natural habitats the “folly that our descendants are least likely to forgive”—has advocated setting aside about half of Earth’s surface as a protected natural reserve. Yet the Trump administration is resolutely marching in the opposite direction.
There is also the challenge of “loving the public lands to death” as recreational visits skyrocket. What has happened at Grand Canyon National Park is typical. In 1980, it hosted two million visitors; in 2011, four million; and in 2017, six million. At the same time, public lands managers have to grapple with aging, inadequate infrastructure as well as funding and workforce limitations.
The Trump administration has paid almost no attention to any of these challenges. There is no reason to expect it will do anything different in a second term.
In particular, it has been remarkably persistent in attacking, undermining, or ignoring the teachings of science, especially climate science. Last year, Interior Secretary Bernhardt told Congress that he has “not lost any sleep” over the dramatic increase of carbon dioxide in Earth’s upper atmosphere, despite the strong scientific consensus that the increase is the primary driver of climate change that, unchecked, could lead to catastrophe. Bernhardt has also denied any legal obligation to make public lands part of the climate solution. This flies in the face of numerous laws requiring him to leave national parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” to “ensure” the “environmental health” of national wildlife refuges, and to manage other public lands to serve “the long-term needs of future generations.”
The impact of a second Trump term on the institutions that manage our public lands might be still more profound. Even if its successors sought to reverse course, rebuilding agency capacity to meet these challenges could take much more time, political energy, and money than Americans are willing to expend.
But if the 2020 election is a potential inflection point in the nation’s public land policy, it is not likely to be a popular referendum on the Trump public lands agenda. Although most Americans voice strong support for protecting public lands, the fate of these lands is rarely a decisive issue for most voters, even in states with large amounts of them. That is probably even more the case now, given voters’ concerns about the pandemic and a host of other issues. A Trump reelection could, in other words, cement in place public land policies most Americans heartily dislike.
Still, what about the checks and balances built into our governing system? Might other branches of government stop or at least slow down some of these actions? Perhaps, but there is much room for doubt.
First, consider the Congress. Although many Republican members have supported public lands protections in the past, Trump’s hold on the GOP has made most of its dwindling number of moderates unwilling to cross him. There is little reason to believe that would change in a second Trump term.
What about the judicial system, which public-land-protection advocates have used with great success to advance their agenda for a half century, and where multiple challenges to Trump initiatives are pending? Thanks to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s conversion of the U.S. Senate into a judicial confirmation machine, so far Trump has put more judges on the federal bench in a single term than any American president but one. Most are young (in their 40s) and conservative (many are dedicated members of the right-leaning Federalist Society). Courts will almost certainly be, for a long time, much less receptive to arguments for protecting public lands than in the past. Giving Trump another four years to further reshape the courts makes that even more certain.
Although states have from time to time exercised substantial influence on how public lands within their borders are managed, numerous examples show the limits on their ability to stop a determined presidential administration that can claim to be merely exercising the discretion Congress has vested in it.
And what would happen to public opinion in a second Trump term? Would Americans continue to support protecting public lands as droughts intensify and large wildfires increase in frequency? Would they want to maintain the strict protections of the Endangered Species Act as extinctions multiply? Would they support taking measures needed to prevent places from being “loved to death”? Would a reported decline in interest among younger people in outings in the great outdoors undermine support for public lands?
Adding all this up, a second Trump term could produce a kind of death spiral as the public lands deteriorate and the agencies that manage them downsize, decentralize, and hand off more responsibility to state and local governments and private entities. Ultimately, the dreams of the sagebrush rebels, those committed libertarians who want all or most of the public lands privatized, could be realized.
Still, a second Trump term could produce something else. A persistent sluggish economy could help lead to a political reform movement similar to the Progressive movement that emerged in the wake of a severe recession in the 1890s. That one was fed by disgust with income inequality and a political system that seemed ineffectual, dominated by powerful corporations and plutocrats, not unlike what many perceive to be the case today.
The Progressive movement laid down much of the foundation for today’s public lands policy. It was, notably, not captive to either political party. Republican Theodore Roosevelt was one of its biggest champions. This leaves room to believe that Republicans might someday once again enthusiastically embrace the cause of protecting public lands. After all, President Nixon called the public lands “the birthright of every American” in his first State of the Union address. Even Barry Goldwater, who cast one of the few votes against the Wilderness Act in 1964, shortly before Americans overwhelmingly rejected his bid for the presidency, came eventually to support bestowing more public lands with wilderness status.
From its roots in the desire to bind up the nation’s wounds after the Civil War, the movement to protect public lands has continued to bridge cultural and political divides like the ones that now separate large segments of rural from urban America and the nation’s coastal regions from its interior. The growing engagement of Indian tribes in the movement is another hopeful sign that public lands can still be a catalyst for bringing people together. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that, eventually, America’s public lands might once again furnish a platform for rejuvenating civic engagement and civil public discourse, and thus help to overcome the contemporary political climate’s toxic polarization and cynical disillusionment with established institutions.
Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.