New progress report takes stock of President Biden’s second year on public lands

Jan 25, 2023

DENVER—As President Joe Biden reaches the halfway point of his first term, the Center for Western Priorities today released its progress report looking at President Biden’s successes, challenges, and missing pieces on America’s public lands. The report is both laudatory and a warning, advising President Biden that unless he commits to taking swift and significant executive action in the next 12 months, he will find himself entering 2024 with a conservation track record that is largely aspirational but with few concrete accomplishments to point to.

“Although the President has made historic progress towards combating climate change and clearing the path for an energy transition, the Biden administration must dramatically accelerate its land protection and rulemaking efforts if the president hopes to campaign on or leave a lasting legacy on America’s public lands in 2024,” writes Aaron Weiss, deputy director of the Center for Western Priorities and author of the progress report. “While President Biden has much to be proud of, his record on land protection lags behind what President Barack Obama and even President Donald Trump had accomplished, with help from Congress, at a similar point in their first terms.”

The progress report credits Biden for properly spending much of his first year reversing the damage caused by President Trump’s administrative actions. It also notes that Trump’s legislative record on public lands was remarkably strong, thanks to bipartisan support for public lands bills during his time in office. The Dingell Act, which Trump signed in March 2019, designated 1.3 million acres of wilderness, established a national monument and national conservation area in Utah, and expanded two national parks.

Similarly, the 2009 omnibus public lands bill signed by President Obama early in his first term designated two million acres of wilderness, protected 620,000 acres across four new national conservation areas, and created one new national monument.

President Biden, by contrast, has added less than 400,000 acres of new durable land protections during his first two years in office—50,000 acres at Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, and 346,000 acres of wilderness and national conservation areas in Nevada that were designated when he signed the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act. Other potential land protection efforts, including Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, and Colorado’s Thompson Divide, remain incomplete.

The progress report recognizes the landmark nature of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which overhauled the oil and gas leasing system on America’s public lands. At the same time, the report warns that the Interior Department is rushing to hold large oil and gas lease sales that are inconsistent with the department’s own guidance on how to implement the IRA. The Biden administration also faces a looming deadline to fully reform the oil and gas leasing system with a durable federal rulemaking.

“Realistically, it takes at least a year for any major rule to go from the draft stage to being finalized,” Weiss writes. “That means if the Biden administration hopes to lock in reforms to the oil and gas leasing system and protect them from repeal under the Congressional Review Act, it must publish those draft rules by this March or April at the latest.”

The report concludes with a recommendation for President Biden to unleash “executive beast mode” in the coming year to put the country on track to reach his America the Beautiful conservation goal of protecting 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by the end of the decade.

CWP’s full year two progress report is available on CWP’s website and Westwise blog.