With a full set of tools, there has never been a better time to protect America’s public lands

Oct 19, 2023

By Sterling Homard

Selecting the right tool for the job can make all the difference. The same applies to conservation — there are many different mechanisms and designations for protecting land, water, and wildlife. In order to effectively protect valuable public lands, policymakers must utilize the full range of tools available.

The Center for Western Priorities’ new report, Conservation Toolbox, demonstrates that beyond some of the more well-known examples like national parks and national monuments, there are other lesser-known types of conservation tools that can achieve similarly beneficial outcomes. Some of these more niche tools — maybe comparable to hex keys or orbital sanders — are tailored to a particular ecosystem or landscape, wildlife habitat, or other recreational or land protection purpose.

“As this report demonstrates, there are many tools available to increase protections for public lands, each with their own strengths and differences,” said Center for Western Priorities Director of Campaigns Lauren Bogard. “We hope that this report will help Western communities identify and pursue the best tool to protect vulnerable public lands.”

Bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, Colorado. Photo by Michael Levine Clark, Flickr

There is no shortage of conservation tools — the report highlights 18 different types of federal protections that can be used to conserve federal public lands of all different shapes and sizes. These 18 types of designations can be utilized to conserve wildlife, protect natural resources, and safeguard recreation, among other things. In other words, the conservation toolbox almost always has a tool for the job. So many tools, in fact, that there are at least a dozen more federal land designations not listed in the report which implement even more specialized protections, such as national fish hatcheries and wildlife coordination areas.

In addition to describing the different types of protections, Conservation Toolbox compares each designation in terms of strength and durability. Designations that rank higher in strength are typically those that allow designated areas to limit or eliminate activities like oil and gas drilling, mining, grazing, and off-road vehicle use, while those that rank lower in strength typically allow some or all of these activities to take place. The level of durability was assigned based on the permanence of the designation, including the ease with which a designation could be overturned and whether or not protections are temporary.

The durability (x-axis) and level of protection (y-axis) of federal land protections. Graph by the Center for Western Priorities.

Selecting the right tool from the metaphorical conservation toolbox can be a daunting task, but similar to something like a multi-tool, conservation tools can be used for a wide variety of applications.

For example, national monument designations can be used to protect scenic lands and waters with natural value, like Browns Canyon National Monument in Colorado, which features rugged granite cliffs and dramatic mountain vistas. But national monument designations can also be a tool to honor and acknowledge American history and cultural significance, like the Emmett Till & Mamie Till-Mobley National Monument, which was established to recognize the violent murder of teenager Emmett Till as a galvanizing event in the modern struggle for the civil rights of Black Americans.

Browns Canyon Naitonal Monument in Colorado. Bureau of Land Management, Flickr

National monuments are a particularly powerful tool — while most designations require congressional approval, the president has authority to protect national monuments using powers granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906. Some of the nation’s most beloved national parks were originally protected as national monuments using the Antiquities Act, including the Grand Canyon in Arizona, Zion National Park in Utah, and the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. President Joe Biden has used his power under the antiquities act to designate five national monuments to date. With more national monument proposals on the table, President Biden has the potential to set the record for the most public land protected by any recent president in their first term.

“Conservation Toolbox seeks to emphasize that conservation is not a ‘one and done’ scenario. It is more often a path than a final destination.”

— Lauren Bogard, Director of Campaigns, Center for Western Priorities

National monument designations, in addition to the other designations outlined in Conservation Toolbox, are necessary in order to reach the national goal of protecting 30 percent of America’s land and water by 2030, a target scientists urge is necessary to protect biodiversity and mitigate the worst impacts of climate change.

“A local effort to better preserve a special area or fragile landscape today could start a cascade that leads to the designation of a new national park or monument years from now,” said Bogard. “And at the current rate of biodiversity loss, there’s no time to wait.”