The State of the Public Lands: Five Issues to Watch in the Coming Year

When President Biden goes before Congress to deliver the annual State of the Union address, he’s expected to talk about the overall successes Congress and his administration have had in the previous year and what he hopes to accomplish in 2023.

We’d like to do the same when it comes to the state of our nation’s public lands. Here are five areas where Congress and the Biden Administration made some significant gains but where more work still needs to be done.

Oil and Gas Leasing Reform

Rusty oil rig equipment in the forest.
Abandoned oil well in Appalachia. Photo courtesy: Amy Townsend-Small

In August, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act which contained long-overdue fiscal reforms for the oil and gas leasing system on the nation’s public lands. It increased royalty and rental rates to bring them into line with fair market prices and it ended the practice of noncompetitive leasing, which for too long has allowed oil and gas companies to lease lands for as little as $1.50 an acre. Unfortunately, the legislation did not reform the bonding system to hold oil and gas companies—not taxpayers—accountable for paying for the clean up of the land after development. The current bonding system is woefully inadequate. Companies pay as little as $100,000 in bonding to develop an unlimited number of wells across the country, even though a Government Accountability Office report says the average cost to clean up and plug just a single well is $267,600. This  leaves taxpayers to foot the bill for the rest. The White House must immediately begin the rulemaking process to raise bonding rates and we hope Congress will swiftly follow by passing legislation to add further durability to those reforms.

Protecting Important Historic Landscapes

a desert landscape with mountains in the background.
Caja del Rio in New Mexico. Photo credit: Andrew Black

There are some landscapes that hold such significant wildlife, cultural, and historic values that they must be permanently protected to ensure they survive and thrive for future generations. President Biden’s decision to create the Camp Hale National Monument in Colorado will honor military veterans who served in the 10th Mountain Division while also protecting critical wildlife migration corridors. The President has announced he will also designate the Avi Kwa Ame region in Nevada as a national monument to safeguard Indigenous sites and wildlife habitat. We hope President Biden will swiftly carry out this designation as well as work collaboratively with local communities and Tribal nations to offer permanent protections for the Castner Range in Texas, the Caja del Rio in New Mexico, and Oak Flat in Arizona.

Renewable Energy Sources on Public Lands

Outdoor solar panels.
Photo courtesy: Department of Interior

In December 2022, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) started the process of revisiting its existing plans for utility-scale solar energy development on public lands. The agency is considering expanding the process to include solar development in all eleven western states, evaluating technological advances since the plans were last revised in 2012, and considering ways to avoid and minimize impacts to lands and resources. This is a great step toward comprehensively and responsibly planning for build out of renewable energy on public lands and we applaud the agency’s efforts. Moving forward, it is critical that the BLM also amend plans to programmatically address wind and geothermal energy development and associated transmission in a way that furthers our clean energy goals without harming wildlife and habitat, Indigenous and cultural resources, water quality, and other important lands and resources.

Wildlife Corridors & Crossings

A group of hoofed, horned animals are grazing in a pasture.
Photo credit: Aaron Kindle

At the end of 2021, Congress passed a bipartisan infrastructure package that allocated $350 million for a wildlife crossing pilot program to fund wildlife crossings in all 50 states. These crossings don’t just benefit wildlife – they benefit motorists as well. A 2008 Department of Transportation study found that animal-vehicle collisions cost Americans $8 billion every year. Wildlife crossings can reduce those accidents by as much as 97 percent. We look forward to working with the Biden Administration in the coming year to ensure that the wildlife crossing investments are distributed efficiently and equitably for the benefit of wildlife and humans alike.

Restoration of Grasslands, Forests, and Watersheds

A person in a red coat walks in the forest.
Photo courtesy: U.S. Forest Service

Legislation passed in the last Congress contained historic levels of funding to restore forests, grasslands, and watersheds. The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act provides $4.7 billion dollars to clean up orphaned oil and gas wells while the Inflation Reduction Act provides $5 billion to restore forests. Some of this work has begun – cleaning up abandoned oil and gas wells, mitigating wildfire damage, and reducing pollution in watersheds. Restoring natural infrastructure benefits wildlife, makes communities more resilient, and helps to fight climate change by storing more carbon. Grassland, forest, and watershed restoration work must be drastically scaled up in the coming year, using the best available science and public input to ensure that biodiversity and local communities thrive in the face of our changing climate.

Our public lands provide us with so much: clean air and water, habitat for wildlife, ample opportunities for recreation, and economic vitality for local communities. Many initiatives were launched last year to ensure the long-term health and viability of these lands. We must now double down and continue this work for the benefit of all.