Our national public lands made headlines last year, with Congress permanently protecting deserving places for the first time in five years, President Barack Obama’s designation of his largest national monument yet, the continued volatility of America’s fossil fuel industry, the plight of the greater sage-grouse and collaborative efforts to avoid an endangered species listing, and the antics of outlaw rancher Cliven Bundy who drew national attention to important Western issues.
As 2014 rolls into 2015, we’re watching a number of public stories that we expect to make news over the next twelve months. Here are our top stories to watch.
1. The Obama administration’s conservation legacy
The president, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack will be cementing their public lands legacy over 2015, the year before the 2016 presidential race formally kicks into high gear.
President Obama addressed land conservation in his 2014 State of the Union address ‚Äì his most high profile remarks on the issue ‚Äì by promising to use his “authority to protect more of our pristine federal lands for future generations.”
While the president has used executive authority to protect 12 national monuments and one marine national monument, Westerners are looking to him to continue protecting lands in the face of congressional inaction. A number of incredible places remain at risk, from Utah’s Red Rock country to northern California’s forests, and the president can act to protect them.
2. State efforts to seize American lands
Sportsmen, conservation organizations, taxpayer groups, and Westerners are closely watching the efforts of a handful of fringe Western politicians to takeover America’s national public lands. So far this year, bills to this effect have already been introduced in Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and Wyoming.
The fact of the matter is that this idea is expensive, unpopular, and unconstitutional. And yet, politicians will continue wasting their constituents’ time and money on these efforts rather than focusing on workable and collaborative solutions to improve land management.
3. Increased Congressional attention to land, air, and water issues
Key committees in the U.S. House and Senate keep tabs on federal environmental agencies, but in 2015, there will likely be even more Congressional attention to land, air, and water issues than in previous years due to the creation of new committees to oversee land management agencies.
In particular, Westerners will want to keep an eye on the House Natural Resources Committee and its new Oversight Subcommittee, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and its new Interior Subcommittee, and the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. They are all led by members with deep interests in removing protections on public lands and rolling back some of the most important laws that have made the West the incredible region that it is today.
4. The impending expiration of America’s most important conservation program
Since it was signed into law in 1964, the Land and Water Conservation Fund has protected millions of acres of local parks, playgrounds, urban forests, and other public lands. The program uses a tiny portion of offshore oil and gas revenues ‚Äì rather than taxpayer dollars ‚Äì to ensure that all Americans have access to outdoor spaces.
But the Land and Water Conservation Fund is set to expire in September 2015. Unless Congress takes action, communities will lose a critical funding source for parks and public lands.
5. Balancing the energy boom and the well-being of communities and landscapes
For too many years, the oil and gas industry has had a sweetheart deal on our public lands. Federal royalty rates are lower than those charged by the states, it costs less than a cup of coffee to rent an acre of public lands for a year, and taxpayers are on the hook for paying for the industry’s inspections and enforcements.
With leadership from the Bureau of Land Management, however, this is finally changing. The agency is finalizing key reforms to the nation’s broken oil and gas regulatory system, and over the coming year is set to modernize rules on hydraulic fracturing on public lands, modernize the outdated royalty rates, and ensure that companies pay for the natural gas that they waste by venting and flaring it into the air.
6. Protections for the iconic Western sagebrush ecosystem
The millions of acres of public lands that make up the West’s sagebrush sea are under increasing threat from housing developments, oil and gas drilling, wind energy development, and grazing. The greater sage-grouse ‚Äì an indicator species for the health of the ecosystem and for other important animals like elk and mule deer ‚Äì have lost approximately half of their historic range and are at risk of losing even more.
The Bureau of Land Management and the Fish and Wildlife Service are working on one of their most ambitious efforts ever to save this species and its habitat. The efforts to reform land management plans will improve habitat for big game and create new opportunities for recreation like mountain biking. Sage grouse protections will be rolled out over the coming year and published by September of 2015, but some in Congress will continue working to undermine science and conservation of the species.
7. The growing problem of wildfires, drought, and climate change
The American West is in the midst of a long-term drought which is “unlikely to end any time soon,” according to Bloomberg News. As efforts to decrease carbon pollution gain steam, the West will continue struggling climate change impacts, including more frequent and more intense wildfires.
However, unlike most natural disasters, which can be paid for out of emergency funds, the U.S. Forest Service is required to pay for wildfires out of its own budget. This means that the agency is forced to rob its own programs‚Äîincluding those that help decrease the risk of wildfires‚Äîin order to pay for disastrous fires. Luckily, a broadly supported, bipartisan bill has already been introduced this Congress to solve this problem, but it remains to be seen whether the measure will be passed or if congressional intransigence will prevail.
8. Crackdown on coal companies fleecing taxpayers
Coal companies have long taken advantage of policies that shortchange U.S. taxpayers, but recent reports have revealed just how bad it has become, especially on our public lands. New investigations show that companies have been dodging royalty rates by selling coal to themselves at prices below market rates and thus pay taxpayers fewer royalties. In fact, one analysis shows that five major Wyoming coal companies operate with a network of 566 subsidiaries to which they sell themselves coal.
The Interior Department’s Office of Natural Resources Revenue is beginning to look at this problem, and is writing rules this year that ‚Äì taxpayer advocates hope ‚Äì will ensure that U.S. citizens get a fair return on their publicly-owned coal.