Languishing Lands

Nov 21, 2022

A new report from the Center for Western Priorities finds that bills to protect over 16 million acres of public land in the West are currently languishing in Congress. Protecting these landscapes would bring the nation closer to achieving the goal of conserving 30 percent of public lands and waters by 2030, a scientifically-driven priority backed by the Biden administration.

Despite incredibly strong and enduring support for conservation actions, worsening partisan gridlock has caused progress on conservation to grind to a halt. Over the decade from 2000 to 2010, Congress protected 9.5 million acres of lands through legislation. The next decade, from 2011 to 2021, Congress protected just 3.3 million acres, one-third of what had been protected the previous decade. This has not been for a lack of effort—many bills have been introduced and several have passed the House, some of them multiple times, only to stall out in the Senate.

This report, titled Languishing Lands, details a selection of landscapes that have been proposed for protection, including the greater Grand Canyon region and the Great Bend of the Gila in Arizona, the Ruby Mountains in Nevada, Castner Range in Texas, and the Owyhee Canyonlands in Oregon. The President has a clear opportunity to deliver for the communities that have worked hard to craft broadly-supported proposals, and should not hesitate to exercise the authority that the Antiquities Act gives him for exactly this purpose.

Fortunately, the president can step in and use the Antiquities Act to protect landscapes when Congress fails to act. For over a century,  eighteen presidents of both political parties , from Teddy Roosevelt to Joe Biden, have exercised the authority Congress gave them under the Antiquities Act to protect sites and landscapes, in some cases rescuing lands that had been languishing for years in the gridlock of Congress. Only three presidents—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush—forfeited the opportunity to make their own contributions to America’s shared legacy of protected public lands.

There have been rare glimmers of hope in Congress. In 2019, Congress passed the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. This law permanently authorized the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which invests offshore oil and gas royalties in conservation and recreation projects across the country, and provided about half of the funding the program was intended to receive. The Dingell Act also protected approximately 1.3 millions acres through wilderness designations, and additional acres via permanent mineral withdrawals and new or expanded national park and national heritage sites. In 2020, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which authorized permanent full funding of $900 million per year for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and authorized significant additional spending over five years to address repair and maintenance backlogs on public lands. In addition, a small number of other land protection bills have passed, after languishing for years, often by being added to larger must-pass legislative packages such as the annual National Defense Authorization Act.

Unfortunately, millions of acres of unprotected lands continue to languish due to congressional inaction. Members of Congress do not introduce these proposals lightly—they are the result of years of community engagement, thoughtful incorporation of input from stakeholders, and robust analysis of the contributions these protections will make to our shared American heritage. Many bills even pass the House of Representatives multiple times only to stall in the Senate. In an era of partisan paralysis in Congress, it no longer makes sense to wait for the legislative process to play out when that process is broken. Presidents have a clear opportunity to deliver for these communities who have worked hard to craft broadly-supported proposals, and should not hesitate to exercise the authority that the Antiquities Act gives them for exactly this purpose.

Languishing Lands Progress

Since the release of the first edition of  Languishing Lands  in 2014, several popular proposals have been rescued from congressional inaction by a presidential Antiquities Act designation, actions that have proven to be popular and to bring myriad benefits to gateway communities.

Gold Butte National Monument

Legislation to protect Gold Butte in southern Nevada was first introduced in 2008. After eight years of congressional inaction, President Barack Obama designated the area as a national monument in 2016. The monument protects nearly 300,000 acres of land held sacred by Paiute tribes, and hosts cultural and historical artifacts including Indigenous rock art and relics from settler and mining history. Current and future generations of outdoor recreationists are able to enjoy the unique mountain and desert landscape. The area’s wildlife and plant communities—including desert bighorn sheep and Gila monsters and Joshua trees—also benefit from the protection offered by a monument designation.

Browns Canyon National Monument

First proposed for protection in 1991, and despite consistent bipartisan support for the proposal over time, this stunning Colorado landscape languished in Congress for 24 years before President Obama protected it as a national monument in 2015. The monument now protects almost 22,000 acres of geological, cultural, and historical features. The creation of the monument also provided a boost to the local recreation economy, attracting visitors who come to raft the Arkansas River through the canyon or fish in the designated Gold Medal Trout Fishery.

Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument

This monument in southern New Mexico was designated by President Obama in 2014, five years after broadly-supported protections were first proposed. The designation protects nearly 500,000 acres that hold a wide variety of prehistoric and historic sites and features—prehistoric rock art, archaeological sites, the historic Butterfield Stagecoach Trail, and a training area for the Apollo missions to the moon are all included in the area protected by this monument. A wide variety of geological features, wildlife, and plant communities are also found across the monument’s four distinct groups of mountains.

Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument

Initially designated by President Obama in 2015, this national monument offers a wide variety of day-trip recreation opportunities for communities from the San Francisco Bay Area to the Sacramento area. The monument also protects wildlife and plant communities that are of scientific interest for their ability to withstand drought and thrive in nutrient-poor soils. But the job is not yet finished: A proposed expansion of this existing national monument would protect nearly 4,000 additional acres of adjacent land containing Indigenous cultural sites that merit inclusion in the monument. This legislation is destined to languish in Congress, just as the original monument did before its designation, and this landscape is ripe for protection using the Antiquities Act. In fact, members of California’s congressional delegation, along with leaders of Indigenous nations to whom these lands are sacred, have directly requested that President Biden exercise his Antiquities Act authority to complete this expansion.

Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument

Designated in 2022 by President Biden, this monument preserves the legacy of the soldiers of the 10th Mountain Division who trained at the site for high alpine combat situations during World War II and later returned to Colorado to launch the state’s ski industry. The landscape protected by Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, covering almost 54,000 acres, was part of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Economy (CORE) Act, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate. The remainder of the lands proposed for protection in the CORE Act deserve to be rescued from congressional gridlock in order to finish the job for Colorado.

The West’s Languishing Lands

Table 1. Languishing land protection bills. These bills, which correspond to the landscapes profiled in this report, have each been introduced multiple times but have repeatedly been the victims of congressional inaction. The bills span ten Western states and a diversity of habitats and ecosystems, and propose a variety of protective designations for existing public lands.

Many landscapes are proposed for protection year after year, only to get stuck in the gridlock of Congress.

Graph 1. A selection of landscapes that have been proposed for protection in multiple Congresses over the course of a decade or more. These landscapes could be protected by President Biden through executive action.
The 19 languishing landscapes profiled in this report are spread across ten Western states and represent a wide variety of wildlife habitats and outdoor recreation opportunities.