Progress report: President Biden’s third year on public lands

Jan 18, 2024

A remarkable turnaround in just one year—but can he stick the landing?

DENVER—Three quarters of the way through his first term in office, the Center for Western Priorities is taking stock of President Joe Biden’s public lands legacy in a new progress report.

We didn’t pull any punches in last year’s report. One year later, we’re pleased to report that the president and his team have addressed many of our criticisms. President Biden made substantial progress toward his conservation goals in 2023 and is on the precipice of being able to claim he is the most consequential first-term conservation president since Teddy Roosevelt. In the final year of his first term, President Biden has the opportunity to capitalize on the many conservation opportunities available to him.

The Center for Western Priorities released the following statement from Deputy Director Aaron Weiss:

“President Biden made an epic comeback from last year in terms of protecting public lands. The administration is going into this year with major conservation momentum, but the president’s public lands legacy depends on whether his administration is able to execute important rulemakings and whether the president himself is willing to pick up his pen and protect over a million more acres of public land.

“The stage is set to make 2024 one of the most consequential years in public lands history. The question is whether President Biden is bold enough to fulfill his own vision.”

The good

The president made significant progress in the past year toward his administration’s goal of protecting 30 percent of the country’s lands and waters by 2030. A recent CWP analysis found that the president is on the brink of setting a conservation record among recent first-term presidencies by protecting more than 1.5 million acres using the Antiquities Act alone. He also made use of important tools like mineral withdrawals and land management plans to protect millions of acres of public land, from New Mexico to Alaska, from mining, oil and gas drilling, and logging.

President Biden’s Interior department oversaw massive investments in natural resource and Tribal projects across the West, paid for by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act. A CWP analysis last fall found that the Interior department alone had allocated over $8 billion in BIL funding nationwide, half of which was going to Mountain West states.

The administration initiated a host of other pro-conservation reforms in 2023, including a plan to guide solar energy development across the Bureau of Land Management, several BLM resource management plans that could increase conservation, and a plan to protect old growth across all 193 million acres of Forest Service land.

Finally, the Biden administration took major steps toward addressing the long-term health of the Colorado River and the states and Tribes that rely on its water.

The bad

Unfortunately, the Biden administration sold a significant amount of public land out to Big Oil through its approval of the Willow Project. The project, which opponents describe as a “carbon bomb” in the Arctic, could produce 180,000 barrels of oil a year.

The Biden administration also held an offshore lease sale in December, selling the right to drill on 72 million acres of the Outer Continental Shelf. Unlike the Willow approval, however, the Biden administration’s hands were tied in this case: the offshore sale was required by the Inflation Reduction Act.

The future

In last year’s progress report, we sounded an alarm bell about the need for the Interior department to write and finalize a number of administrative rules governing public lands. These rules include the BLM’s Oil and Gas rule, which would codify fiscal reforms to the federal oil and gas leasing system made by the Inflation Reduction Act as well as increase minimum bonding rates for new wells; and the BLM’s Public Lands Rule, which would put conservation and restoration of public land on equal footing with extractive uses like drilling and grazing. In order to be safe from the Congressional Review Act, these rulemakings must be completed by the end of April 2024.

In addition to finalizing these rulemakings, the president has the opportunity to more than double the amount of public land he has so far protected using the Antiquities Act. There are a number of locally-led campaigns to establish and expand national monuments, including: the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, Colorado’s Dolores Canyon CountryGreat Bend of the Gila in Arizona, a proposed expansion of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument in California, Bahsahwahbee (Swamp Cedars) in Nevada, Chuckwalla near Joshua Tree, and Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands.

As we did after the president’s first and second years in office, we’ve chosen to call this a progress report rather than a report card, as several pieces of the president’s public lands policy are still winding their way through the federal bureaucracy and his ultimate conservation legacy depends in large part on whether they’re completed in time. Right now, President Biden is on track to cement his legacy as the greatest first-term conservation president of all time, but only if the rulemakings and land protections mentioned in this report are completed. 

Read the full report on Medium or on CWP’s website.