2023 update: Public land conservation lagging in Western states

Mar 2, 2023

Oregon, Arizona and Wyoming fall behind as California, New Mexico, and Utah set an example for the West; Colorado moves up thanks to presidential action

PORTLAND—An updated analysis from the Center for Western Priorities finds that not every Western state is living up to its conservation reputation. States like Oregon and Arizona have a proud conservation tradition, but efforts by their elected leaders to protect public lands have run into the reality of a dysfunctional Congress.

The report, Conservation Gridlock, updates an analysis from 2022 that looked at the acres of national public land protected over the last 20 years in eight Western states. It finds that in the last decade, Oregon, Arizona, and Wyoming have conserved far less land than neighboring states. In fact, the three leading states—California, New Mexico, and Utah—have protected 37 times more acres of public land than the three bottom states.

“It’s a shame that conservation has slowed in states where the vast majority of voters support protecting public lands,” said Center for Western Priorities Deputy Director Aaron Weiss. “There are well-crafted conservation proposals in Oregon and Arizona that have been languishing in Congress for years. It’s time for members of Congress to work with President Biden to deliver for their constituents and protect these unique and valuable public lands before it’s too late.”

Today’s report updates a May 2022 report from the Center for Western Priorities which spotlighted Colorado, a state whose conservation track record in recent years was not living up to its reputation as a national conservation leader. Soon after the release of the report last year, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet worked alongside President Biden and his administration to secure permanent protections for the Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument. The widely celebrated action was the first new national monument created by President Biden, conserving nearly 54,000 acres in the Rocky Mountains with incredible historic and natural values, and outstanding opportunities for outdoor recreation.

Similar opportunities exist today. In Oregon, a decades-long effort to permanently protect the stunning Owyhee Canyonlands has the support of 79 percent of Oregon voters. Legislation to conserve Oregon’s canyonlands, championed by Oregon senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, has languished in Congress for almost ten years. In Arizona, the widely supported effort to safeguard the culturally and ecologically significant rimlands next to Grand Canyon National Park, which are threatened by uranium mining, has been stalled for almost 15 years.

Sadly, the prospects for major conservation bills are dimmer than ever in the current Congress. The House Natural Resources Committee this week held a hearing on a bill that would grant a long wish list of oil, gas, and mining industry priorities on public lands. All of the bills prioritized by the House so far are dead on arrival in the Senate.

With little to no hope of public lands legislation making it out of Congress, Western senators and representatives should partner with President Biden to realize his historic commitment to conserve and restore America’s lands and waters, and get locally-driven popular conservation initiatives moving again.

“Protecting public lands is always popular with voters,” Weiss added. “They don’t care whether it gets done by Congress or the president—they just want to see the lands they love protected for their kids and grandkids.”

Featured image: Lower Owyhee Canyon, Greg Shine, BLM