Public Lands: Interior Department Directions under Obama

As Barack Obama readies his administration, we’re getting a clearer picture of what his polices towards public lands might look like. Throughout his campaign, President-elect Obama voiced strong opposition to oil and gas development on federal lands and stressed the importance of public lands conservation. He articulated his position with concrete policy goals for the management of federal forests, including increased funding for restoration activities and wildfire protections, and coordinated land-use regulations to ensure conservation.

By Noelle Straub, Greenwire reporter
Washington, DC (November 7, 2008)- Management of national parks, forests and other public lands will shift significantly as Interior Department agencies in an Obama administration emphasize consensus building, tighter restrictions on drilling, and funding aimed at conservation priorities. The new direction will especially affect the West, where environmental and industry groups anxiously await the changes to come from the White House and the expanded Democratic congressional majorities next year.
During the campaign, President-elect Barack Obama talked of increasing federal collaboration with the state and local officials most affected by land-use policies. He also promised to increase funding for national parks, emphasize restoration of national forests, change wildfire policy and implement a “use it or lose it” approach to oil and gas leasing.
Obama’s campaign website pledged “a new vision for conservation that both protects our existing publicly owned lands while dramatically expanding investments in protecting and restoring forests, grasslands, and wetlands.” Now that he is headed to the Oval Office, the spotlight has turned to how the specifics will play out through the federal land management agencies.
“We’re obviously anticipating a much more receptive administration to the conservation community in general,” said Dave Alberswerth of the Wilderness Society, predicting that environmentalists’ concerns will get a fair hearing. “We’re going to have a better balance in terms of policy affecting the public lands, vis-a-vis development activities and conservation activities.”
Environmental groups also want Obama to roll back some of the public lands decisions made by the Bush administration. Others warn him not to overreach and risk alienating Western voters with sweeping new policies, as previous Democratic presidents have done. “I guess what we hope is that we don’t see a Carter-esque interventionist policy toward energy, but one more where government partners with the various domestic energy producers to come up with a diverse portfolio of affordable, clean energy,” said Marc Smith of the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.
Former Wyoming Republican Sen. Alan Simpson said he is not overly concerned about policy shifts under Obama because the Democratic senators and governors in the West understand public land-use issues very well and will have Obama’s attention. “It’s pretty good portent for me at least,” he said. “There will be plenty of guys from his party watching to see that he does the right thing.”
That will contrast with the Clinton administration, Simpson said, which “understood nothing about Western public lands. They’re not going to rip off the West, they’re not going to do that,” Simpson said of an Obama White House. “I don’t see anything in his campaigning that indicated anything to that effect.”
Simpson noted that Obama campaigned heavily in Montana and Colorado, where energy development is a top issue, and comes from the coal-producing state of Illinois. Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal (D) spoke with the candidate and was “satisfied that Obama knew about energy and public lands and coal gasification and production,” Simpson said.
Roadless areas, wildfires, forest policy
Environmental groups also hope the next Congress will pass additional wilderness and land protection bills, Alberswerth said. Obama supports the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which granted blanket protection to about 58 million acres of federal land nationwide and has been mired in legal battles ever since President Clinton put it in place just before leaving office. The Bush administration opposed it and implemented its own policy allowing states to petition for roadless protections.
National parks have been threatened by lax protection, Obama has said. “As president, he and Joe Biden will repair the damage done to our national parks by inadequate funding and emphasize the protection and restoration of our national forests,” his campaign Web site pledged. He also supports increased funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
Obama’s campaign issued a fact sheet devoted solely to wildfire policy. It said he will aggressively pursue plans to decrease the risk to communities and increase the federal commitment to those who fight wildfires. “Unlike the Bush administration, they [Obama and Biden] will not finance these efforts by raiding the budgets relied upon” by the Forest Service and BLM for other priorities, it said.
Obama “sounds like he’s going to be restoring an emphasis on balance, consensus, and science to public land management,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst in the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Boulder office. NRDC is concerned about several measures expected to be finalized before Bush leaves office, including oil shale regulations, a final roadless rule for Colorado and resource management plans in several Western states. The group is “certainly hoping we can work with the new administration on changing the direction of those policies,” Mall said.
Mall also predicted that Obama’s consensus approach will lead to fewer appeals and less litigation than there has been in the last eight years. But she acknowledged that there still will be differing opinions on conservation issues among members of the new Congress and even in the administration. “I don’t think our jobs are going to go away,” she said.