August was a great month for public lands

Aug 28, 2023

By Kate Groetzinger

From a new national monument designation to some major legal decisions upholding climate action and conservation, August brought a deluge of good news

It’s been a great month for public land conservation in the West. From a new national monument designation to some major legal decisions upholding climate action and conservation, August brought a deluge of good news for public lands. Here’s a roundup of the headlines that had us smiling (and occasionally even cheering) here at the Center for Western Priorities:

White House tells agencies to measure the value of nature

Starting off strong on August 2, the White House told federal agencies to measure the value of nature — specifically, the benefits that ecosystems deliver for people. In a joint blog post, the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Science and Technology Policy explain that these benefits, which the White House calls “ecosystem services,” are often sidelined in the benefit-cost analyses that government agencies use to make sure policies are having a positive impact on Americans.

For example, wetlands protect against property damage from flooding. Trees, while having value as an agricultural product, also provide shade, climate benefits, and wildlife habitat when left intact. The new draft guidance instructs agencies across the federal government to ensure that the full value of ecosystems is captured during the decision-making process. The importance of measuring the economic value of nature was explained earlier this year in a New York Times video op-ed featuring British economics professor Sir Partha Dasgupta and actor Alexander Skarsgård.

river runs through dense forest

The Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which holds over 40 percent of all carbon stored by U.S. national forests; Credit: Velkiira, CC BY-SA 2.0

BLM proposes protections for over a million acres in Colorado

On August 3, the Bureau of Land Management released draft Resource Management Plans (RMPs) that would remove more than a million acres of public lands in Colorado from future oil and gas leasing, while also designating tens of thousands of acres of new protected areas on the Western Slope. The proposed plan would close 80 percent of the lands managed by the Colorado River Valley Field Office to new oil leasing and 81 percent of the lands managed by the Grand Junction Field Office. The area that would be closed in the plan includes lands with low oil and gas potential, as well as areas that are striking for their wildlife, conservation, or wilderness values.

The Colorado River Valley Field Office plan would also establish nine Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) on more than 100,000 acres of BLM lands, including a 24,600-acre one in the Colorado River Valley Field Office that’s designed to protect the greater sage-grouse. The Grand Junction Field Office plan includes eight proposed ACECs, including one covering 27,200 acres to protect the Gunnison sage-grouse, which is found only in portions of Colorado and Utah. There’s also a proposed 28,200-acre ACEC designed to protect rare plants, wildlife habitat, and scenic values.

Biden protects Grand Canyon, honors Tribes with new monument

On August 8, President Joe Biden signed a proclamation to designate nearly 1 million acres of public land as Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument. The monument was proposed by a large group of Tribes called the Grand Canyon Tribal Coalition.

Baaj nwaavjo means “where Indigenous peoples roam” in the Havasupai language, and i’tah kukveni means “our ancestral footprints” in Hopi. For Carletta Tilousi, a member of the Havasupai Tribe, the monument designation means that her ancestors “are finally going to be feeling rested.” During his speech, President Biden said the establishment of the monument will help tell the “full American story” of the people who have called the region home for millennia.

The monument will help protect the region surrounding the Grand Canyon from new uranium mining, a current and ongoing threat to Grand Canyon National Park, the Colorado River, and the Tribal communities that call the Grand Canyon region home. According to the proclamation, the 917,618-acre national monument includes lands currently managed by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, and the agencies will share “co-stewardship of the monument” with Tribal nations.

tribal leaders stand around desk at which joe biden sits

President Joe Biden traveled to Arizona to designate Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni National Monument alongside Tribal leaders. Credit: White House

Judge dismisses Utah lawsuit against national monuments

On August 11, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit from Utah politicians who challenged President Joe Biden’s restoration of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments. Judge David Nuffer ruled, consistent with numerous prior cases, that since Congress granted the president the authority to designate national monuments on national public lands, “Congress knows how to restrict statutory presidential power.”

Both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante were designated as national monuments under the Antiquities Act: President Barack Obama designated Bears Ears in 2016 and President Bill Clinton designated Grand Staircase-Escalante in 1996. In 2017, President Donald Trump attempted to shrink them, but President Biden restored them to their original boundaries during his first year in office. The lawsuit contended that the Antiquities Act doesn’t grant the power to protect expansive landscapes, despite its use for this purpose multiple times since Theodore Roosevelt designated the Grand Canyon as a national monument in 1908.

Judge rules in favor of Montana youth in landmark climate case

On August 14, a Montana judge ruled in favor of young people who claimed the state violated their right to a “clean and healthful environment” by promoting the use of fossil fuels. Led by 16 children, teens, and young adults, this is the first U.S. youth-led climate lawsuit to go to trial. The win could inspire a wave of cases aimed at holding governments and fossil fuel companies accountable for their climate impact.

Judge Kathy Seeley of the 1st District Court in Montana issued the decision following a trial in June, where plaintiffs testified about injuries they have suffered as a result of climate change causing extreme weather, exacerbating wildfires, drying up rivers, and worsening health conditions such as asthma. Montana is one of a few states to include environmental rights in its state constitution, a provision added in a 1972 amendment that the state would “maintain and improve a clean and healthful environment in Montana for present and future generations.” Seeley ruled that the state legislature violated this amendment when it revised the Montana Environmental Policy Act to exclude consideration of climate emissions.

fire burns in mountains in distance

Smoke billows from the 2017 Blacktail Fire in Montana’s Crazy Mountains. Credit: USDA, Flickr

Colorado River water cuts will ease in 2024

On August 15, the Bureau of Reclamation announced that it will lessen restrictions on Colorado River water use next year after an unusually wet winter boosted low water levels in Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The announcement was made on the same day the Bureau of Reclamation released its 24-month projections for the Colorado River Basin. These projections play a critical role in determining the amount of water available from the river system for the following water year, which begins in October.

Under the new projections, Arizona and Nevada will still need to reduce their consumption of Colorado River water. However, these reductions will be smaller than those mandated in 2023. The scale of these cuts is based on the water levels and is categorized into different “tiers” of shortage under a series of water management agreements among the states. This entails Arizona having to reduce its consumption by 512,000 acre-feet of water, which is roughly 18 percent of its annual allotment, while Nevada will relinquish 21,000 acre-feet, equating to 7 percent of its yearly share. California, which owns the largest and oldest share of Colorado River rights, is not required to give up any of its water under Tier 1 standards.

Poll finds conservation is a winning issue in the West

On August 17, the Center for Western Priorities released the 2023 “Winning the West” poll, showing that public lands conservation remains a winning election issue for Western voters in Arizona, Colorado, and Nevada. Overwhelming majorities say that national public lands, parks, and wildlife issues are not only important to them but that these issues will play an influential role in how they choose to vote.

Heading into next year’s elections, 87 percent of Western voters — with strong majorities across parties — say a candidate’s support for conservation plays an influential role in how they choose to cast their ballots. Specifically, 71 percent of Western voters say they are more likely to support a candidate who prioritizes protecting public lands from being taken over by private developers and oil and mining companies. 71 percent also say the same thing about a candidate who supports protecting and investing in national parks and monuments. 84 percent of voters in Colorado say they support the Dolores River Canyon Country national monument proposal, and 77 percent of voters in Nevada say they support the Bahsahwahbee (Swamp Cedars) national monument proposal.

BLM proposes new conservation areas in Wyoming

Also on August 17, the Bureau of Land Management released a draft Regional Management Plan (RMP) for 3.6 million acres of public land in the Rock Springs region of southwest Wyoming, which includes popular recreation destinations, culturally significant sites, and important wildlife corridors. The proposed plan would update outdated management practices in order to better balance conservation, recreation, and oil and gas leasing in the area. It has strong support from local communities and was drafted in consultation with Tribes that have ancestral connections to the area.

The draft RMP proposes 16 new Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACECs) — a BLM designation that offers special management practices for areas with important natural, cultural, and scenic resources, intact landscapes, habitat connectivity, and ecosystem resilience. It also proposes expanding existing oil and gas closures in the Northern Red Desert and Big Sandy Foothills, areas that have low oil and gas potential. The release of the draft RMP kicks off a 90-day comment period where the public can provide input on the proposed plan.

lone butte rises on horizon in distance

Boar’s Tusk in Wyoming’s Red Desert; Credit: weesam2010/Flickr

Uinta Basin Railway on hold for now

On August 18, the U.S. Court of Appeals dealt a major blow to a plan to direct billions of gallons of crude oil from Utah through Colorado by rail.

The proposed Uinta Basin Railway would connect oil fields in Utah with the national rail network, directing billions of gallons of crude oil through Colorado. The railway was proposed by Utah’s Seven County Infrastructure Coalition and would quintuple production in the Uinta Basin, with an estimated 3,300 new oil wells.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Eagle County, Colorado and several environmental groups that have sued over the plan, overturning federal approval of the proposed railway by citing violations of the National Environmental Policy Act. The judge ruled that the Surface Transportation Board failed to consider downstream impacts along the Colorado River. The appeals court ordered the Surface Transportation Board to redo its environmental review of the project, putting the project on hold for the foreseeable future.

BLM designates 120,000-acre conservation area in Idaho

Also on August 18, the Bureau of Land Management announced a Resource Management Plan that designates over 120,000 acres of rolling grasslands in southwest Idaho a Backcountry Conservation Area (BCA). The region is home to upland game bird species and serves as elk and mule deer habitat. The Bennett Hills BCA is part of the BLM’s new Four Rivers Field Office Resource Management Plan. The plan sets guidance for the management of fish and wildlife habitat, outdoor recreation, and livestock, as well as renewable energy development, mining, and drilling across approximately 783,000 acres of public land in southwest Idaho. The plan also closes areas with low and no potential of oil and gas development to leasing.

Bennett Hills is the first BCA designated in Idaho. The BLM issued formal guidance in 2017 for the adoption of BCAs, which are intended to “support wildlife-dependent recreation and hunting activities” while still allowing grazing, drilling, and mining, according to the Four Rivers Field Office Resource Management Plan.

Pronghorn drinking water  on horizon

Pronghorn drinking water in southwest Idaho; Credit: Thayne Tuason, Wikimedia

National parks drove record spending last year

On August 21, the Interior Department announced that visitor spending in communities near national parks in 2022 resulted in a record $50.3 billion economic benefit to the nation’s economy and supported 378,400 jobs, according to a new study by the National Park Service. Annual appropriations for the National Park Service totaled $3.3 billion in fiscal year 2022, effectively turning a $1 investment in the national park system into a more than $10 boost to the nation’s economy.

Hotels and restaurants saw the largest share of visitor spending dollars. Visitors also spent heavily on gas, outdoor recreation, and retail. California, Utah, and North Carolina brought in the most visitor money out of the 50 states. In the West, Zion and Grand Canyon national parks and Golden Gate National Recreation Area brought in the most spending, with Grand Teton and Rocky Mountain national parks following closely behind. The Great Smoky Mountains brought in the most spending out of all NPS-managed sites, at $2.1 billion.

White House proposes new national marine sanctuary off California coast

On August 24, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released a proposal to designate a 5,617-square-mile area offshore of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in central California as Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. The announcement follows a long advocacy campaign by the Northern Chumash people, who have been protecting and caring for California’s Central Coast since before the United States became a country.

The proposed sanctuary would benefit marine life, the environment, the local economy, and the Chumash people. The proposed boundary for the sanctuary would stretch along 134 miles of coastline from Hazard Canyon Reef, south of Morro Bay, to an area just south of Dos Pueblos Canyon. This proposed designation is the first Indigenous-led nomination for a national marine sanctuary. A detailed description of the proposed sanctuary, as well as additional information about opportunities to provide public comment, can be found on the website for the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.

two women stand on beach

Northern Chumash tribal member Violet Sage Walker (left) has fought for decades for a federal marine sanctuary designation. Credit: Center for Western Priorities

Feature image: Marble Canyon, located within Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument; Credit: Jim Dublinski