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Top 5 Threats to Public Lands

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The battle for America’s public lands has devolved into a collection of sneaky leadership appointments, subtle policy changes, big budget cuts, and arcane rule changes—a vicious combination that is leaving our public lands exposed to private interests.

The current Administration has made no secret of its agenda to establish America’s “energy dominance.” And when early attempts to outright sell public lands to private industry didn’t work, we began to see a less obvious, more complex assault that is easy to miss if you don’t know where to look. But Access Fund policy analysts are in the weeds every day. We see the bigger picture, and it’s not pretty.

THE THREAT: An astounding 60% of top leadership positions at our public land agencies have remained vacant under this Administration. These positions are supposed to be appointed by the President and confirmed by the elected members of the U.S. Senate, providing critical checks and balances that ensure America’s public lands are being managed responsibly and not being used for political gain. Instead, the Administration has placed “acting administrators” who have not been vetted by the Senate. Every day, these unconfirmed, administrators are making key decisions that will affect our country and planet for generations. And many of them are former advocates for the oil and gas industry or have advocated for the outright disposal of public lands. The use of acting administrators sidesteps America’s democratic system and allows our public lands to be controlled for politically motivated purposes.

THE THREAT: As climbers, we deeply appreciate the experience of climbing in protected landscapes that allow us to enjoy nature, clean air, and an incredibly rich cultural history. However, the current Administration had rolled back 85 environmental rules—paving the way for unmitigated drilling, extraction, and industrial development on public lands. Removing environmental regulations will damage the climbing experience on our public lands and the sensitive ecosystems, imperiled species, and traditional values these lands support—not to mention the dire impact on marginalized communities and global climate. The systematic reduction of environmental rules is expected to significantly increase greenhouse gas emissions and lead to thousands of additional deaths from poor air quality each year, according to a recent report prepared by New York University Law School’s State Energy & Environmental Impact Center.

THE THREAT: Under the guise of “streamlining government,” this Administration has made sweeping changes to the way public land agencies comply with the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Public comment periods for land management decisions have been cut from 30+ days down to a mere 10 days, and the number of “categorical exclusions” that are allowed to bypass NEPA entirely has been dramatically increased. The public comment opportunities guaranteed under NEPA ensure a fair and balanced review of land management decisions and give us—the American public—the opportunity to voice concerns or opposition. With only 10 days to comment, watchdog advocacy groups like Access Fund barely have time to flag an issue—let alone rally our constituents to submit their own public comments. These changes are blatant attempts to silence opposition from the American public. We’re all for streamlined government, but not at the expense of environmental review and public participation.

THE THREAT: America’s public lands are notoriously underfunded. The National Park Service alone has nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance backlogs, to say nothing of the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Despite bipartisan support for our public lands, the current Administration has proposed a budget for 2020 that would slash funding for the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service, as well as cut funding for critical conservation programs. These proposed budget cuts would force land managers to lay off rangers, resource specialists, and many other stewards of our public lands. Climate science research and environmental standards would also suffer. And history has shown that when our land management agencies are short-staffed and underresourced, they propose entrance fee increases and err on the side of broader and longer closures, both of which threaten access for all.

THE THREAT: Over the last several years, the President and some members of Congress have attempted to dismantle the Antiquities Act, a law that gives sitting presidents the ability to declare new national monuments to protect significant cultural or scientific features on America’s public lands. In December 2017, President Trump issued an executive order to reduce Bears Ears National Monument, home to world-class climbing, by more than 80% in order to open the monument up to oil and gas leasing. No president has the authority to significantly shrink an existing national monument—only Congress has that power. If the 2017 executive order to reduce Bears Ears stands, it undermines the Antiquities Act itself and threatens the very foundation of our public lands system. Several classic climbing areas—including Devils Tower, Grand Teton, and Joshua Tree—were originally protected by national monument designations through the Antiquities Act (Grand Teton and Joshua Tree are now national parks). Access Fund is engaged in an ongoing lawsuit to defend the original boundaries of Bears Ears and the Antiquities Act itself.

Prepare for 2020

The fight for America’s public lands is constantly evolving, but the one constant is that the front line is in Washington, D.C., among our elected officials—which means we all have the ability to make an impact with our votes. The climbing community is a passionate and powerful force—and we can make a difference.

As you prepare to exercise your vote next November, our commitment to you is that we’ll keep you informed of the greatest threats to our public lands. Sign up for our 2020 Election Prep series to stay informed.

Originally published on