In an executive order issued one week after he took office, President Joe Biden set a goal of having the United States legislatively protect 30 percent of its public lands and oceans by 2030.
While the decree might be overly ambitious, it is far preferable to the previous administration’s view that public lands should be profit-making engines for extraction companies. By definition, public lands are owned by all Americans; protecting them now can ensure that they remain pristine for future generations.
The U.S. Senate has an important opportunity to move toward that goal. The Protecting America’s Wilderness and Public Lands Act (H.R. 803) passed the House of Representatives last month largely on a party-line vote (all Washington Democrats voted in favor while Republicans, including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, were opposed).
The legislation, which would designate 1.5 million acres of Western wilderness for federal protection, would resonate in our state. The package includes 126,000 acres of Olympic Peninsula land containing the region’s last unprotected old-growth forests — adding land along the edges of Olympic National Park. It would cover 19 rivers and their tributaries, improving federal support for salmon and steelhead habitat.
Large areas of Colorado, California and Arizona also would be granted federal protection — including around the Grand Canyon.
Rep. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor, had introduced an Olympic Peninsula protection bill that was merged with other items to form the comprehensive legislation. “Public lands are a really big deal in our region,” Kilmer said. “They contribute to the fabric of who we are. I think there’s a real appreciation for the fact that protecting public lands isn’t just about saving these unforgettable places for future generations; it also means protecting high-quality jobs.”
Now the bill moves on to the Senate, where it has support from both of Washington’s Democratic senators but will face stern opposition. From the 1970s through the 1990s, environmental protections generally had bipartisan support, but the political landscape has changed.
Instead of viewing protection of public lands as anathema, members of both parties should recognize that such measures have broad public support and continue a long American tradition.
As Tom Dillon wrote for Pew Charitable Trusts: “President Biden’s commitment builds on more than a century of U.S. leadership and dedication to environmental conservation, from the creation of national parks and the conservation of other public lands to policies designed to ensure clean air and water and the protection of endangered species.”
In addition to reversing the abuse-and-plunder philosophy of recent years, President Biden also is recognizing the reality of climate change. He has paused gas and oil leases on public lands, but has demonstrated pragmatism in saying his administration will not work to ban fracking for fossil-fuel extraction.
The United States in recent years has become the world’s largest oil producer, and oil will continue to drive the global economy — even as we work to develop alternatives and reduce dependency on fossil fuels.
All of that reflects a necessary balance that is represented by the need to protect public lands. As Kilmer noted, the bill passed by the House will neither diminish the amount of harvestable timber nor close Forest Service roads.
Instead, it will move the United States toward a laudable goal of ensuring that public lands are available to the public in the future.