As the Biden administration nears its halfway point, there are encouraging signs of progress and plenty of room for growth when it comes to conserving public lands. The Biden administration has made strides towards reigning in extractive industries that operate on public land and has leaders in place who embrace the importance of climate action and species protection. Still, stronger leadership from the Biden administration and within federal land agencies is critical to act on both the climate and biodiversity crises. No public lands agency more epitomizes the challenges and opportunities ahead than the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) – the country’s largest land manager at more than 245 million acres.
On the campaign trail and in office, President Joe Biden, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, and BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning have pledged to undo the Trump administration’s rush to sell off public lands to the highest bidder. That’s a welcome change from the Trump administration’s Department of the Interior that was run by industry lobbyists and anti-public lands crusaders who favored extractive industries over land conservation. During the Trump administration, budget cuts, a hollowed-out leadership corps, and a bungled relocation of BLM headquarters all served to undermine the mission of the agency and the dedicated staff charged with stewarding BLM lands.
Now, Biden’s administration has an important chance to build a conservation legacy and culture within BLM. The administration’s signature “America the Beautiful” campaign lays out a grand vision of public lands critical role in conserving 30% of lands and waters by 2030. In order to make that vision a reality, BLM will need strong leadership and support systems for workers in the field. It will also need concrete commitments and standards that ensure land that’s being counted as conserved remains in a natural state that serves native and endangered species.
The consequences of inaction by BLM are clear and immediate. BLM managed lands were responsible for more than 900 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions in 2020. That’s far more than the entire country of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the “Sagebrush sea,” the vast landscape of the interior West where BLM land dominates the landscape, habitat destruction and climate driven catastrophes are driving the entire ecosystem to the brink of collapse.
Biden’s BLM has failed to match the urgency of the current moment with action. For the most part, the agency has continued to conduct business as usual and shirked the comprehensive reforms needed for the fossil fuel leasing, mining, and grazing programs. Now, the clock is ticking and leadership within the administration must seize the closing window of opportunity to right the ship at BLM. Without strong political leadership within the administration and agency, and major investments in agency staff, the Biden administration will fail to meet this critical moment.
BLM must act swiftly and boldly to confront the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss. Several key areas of focus which will require stronger leadership within the agency and the support of the Biden administration and Congress are:
- Addressing staff shortages and increasing the quality of the jobs;
- Improving the Agency’s politics and culture; and
- Overcoming legal and policy shortcomings.
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