After four years of rollbacks to environmental protections and reductions to public lands introduced by the Trump administration, President-elect Joe Biden and his incoming administration will be presented with a chance to reverse course, say outdoor recreation and advocacy groups. The Biden administration’s stated goals for conservation and stewardship — if upheld — would be a boon for Washington state’s outdoor recreation community, and the public lands they rely on.
Betsy Robblee, conservation and advocacy director for The Mountaineers, has already drafted a guide to what the new administration means for the outdoors community and a detailed set of policy goals that would impact outdoor recreation specifically.
She said the group expects Biden to restore key safeguards for public lands that have been eroded under the Trump administration. While the most notorious of these reductions have involved national monuments outside Washington state, they could have set the stage for further diminution of public lands, even in the Northwest.
But mitigating the reductions could “happen quickly through executive actions, like reversing the unlawful reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments,” Robblee said. “This unprecedented executive order by the previous administration set a dangerous precedent for public lands protected by the Antiquities Act, like the San Juan Islands National Monument here in Washington state.”
In 2017, the Trump administration shrunk Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase, both located in Utah. Bears Ears was reduced by about 85%, and Grand Staircase was cut to about half its original size.
Citing similar curtailments, Alex Craven, an organizer with the Sierra Club, says Biden and the new administration will have their work cut out for them.
“The Biden-Harris administration will come into office facing an urgent need to reinstate safeguards, from endangered species protections to those governing public input,” he said. “Among the most vital shifts, though, will be a need to change how public lands are used and managed. It’s time public lands and forests are managed as part of the climate solution, rather than contributing to the problem.”
Craven said that preserving old-growth forests and ending fossil fuel development on public lands will be essential steps in this process; the latter may be possible with a new administration that acknowledges the threat of climate change and plans to embrace policies rooted in scientific fact.
Robblee also emphasized the need to restore protections for the Tongass National Forest in Alaska and key environmental laws like the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), which allows outdoor recreation enthusiasts to have a voice in how public land management is shaped.
“The previous administration significantly weakened NEPA earlier this year, which will speed up development activities [like logging, road-building and natural resource extraction] on public lands and waters, and will do so by limiting opportunities for public engagement and environmental review,” Robblee said. “These regulatory fixes will take longer and will require continued advocacy by the outdoor community.”
Still, the past four years have not been uniformly disastrous for outdoor-focused groups.
The Dingell Act, which was signed into law in March and fully funded by the passage of the Great American Outdoors Act in August, includes a provision safeguarding 340,079 acres of the Methow Headwaters from industrial mining. It also designates as a National Heritage Area the Mountains to Sound Greenway, an area encompassing forests and parks popular with the state’s outdoor recreation community.
The Great American Outdoors Act, a bipartisan bill, permanently funded the Land and Water Conservation Fund and long-needed maintenance for national parks.
Still, it’s clear more policies are needed to improve public lands’ availability and longevity, and advocates are ready to put pressure on the Biden administration to get there.
“For many years, The Mountaineers have fiercely advocated for wild places, and we’ll continue to push the administration and Congress to protect the places we love,” Robblee said.
Craven said he hoped to see Biden’s goal of preserving 30% of public lands and waters by 2030 realized, and added that it’s also important that changes to outdoor recreation and public lands under the new administration take on issues of accessibility.
“The new administration also needs to expand the idea of public lands, extending conservation into park-poor areas and making the outdoors more accessible and welcoming for all visitors,” Craven said.