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?

A mountain rises in the distance, short grasses and trees in front

Red Butte on the Tusayan Ranger District, Kaibab National Forest. Photo taken July 28, 2023
(USDA Forest Service photo by Marcos Roybal)

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. As we did after the president’s first and second years in office, we’ve chosen to call this report 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.

We didn’t pull any punches in last year’s report . While we praised the president for making initial progress toward his 30×30 land protection goal and for signing the landmark Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), we warned that implementing the IRA would be a massive challenge for the short-staffed Bureau of Land Management. We raised red flags over the need to complete formal rulemakings to lock in the IRA’s overhaul of America’s oil and gas leasing system. We also noted that several high profile campaigns to protect new national monuments were in limbo.

One year later, we’re pleased to report that the president and his team have addressed many of these 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. The question for President Biden as he begins the final year of his first term is whether he will capitalize on the many conservation opportunities available to him.

The good

Significant progress toward 30×30

In his first few weeks in office, President Biden set an ambitious goal as part of his America the Beautiful initiative : for the country to protect 30 percent of its lands and 30 percent of its waters by 2030. This 30×30 goal would go on to be adopted by the international community in 2022 at the COP15 biodiversity conference. But in those first two years, President Biden lagged significantly behind previous presidents when it came to providing new protections for public lands. That changed dramatically in 2023.

President Biden started the year by making good on his 2022 promise to designate Avi Kwa Ame National Monument in Nevada, a Tribally-led request to protect more than 500,000 acres in southern Nevada. He also designated Castner Range National Monument in Texas, honoring a community request to transform a former bombing range into a permanently-protected landscape for the community in El Paso.

In August, the president made the largest use of the Antiquities Act so far in his presidency, designating Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni – Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument in Arizona. This designation protected more than 900,000 acres from the threat of future uranium mining claims and other forms of extraction and development.

Beyond the Antiquities Act, the Biden administration completed a mineral withdrawal around New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon , protecting 325,000 acres from future oil and gas leasing. It finalized a mineral withdrawal in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters , protecting the area from the imminent threat of nickel and copper mining.

In Alaska, the Bureau of Land Management finalized its management plan for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska , closing nearly eleven million acres to future oil and gas leasing. And the U.S. Forest Service reinstated roadless protections for more than nine million acres of the Tongass National Forest , which is considered America’s largest intact carbon sink.

In Montana, the BLM and the Forest Service negotiated the retirement of the last remaining oil and gas leases in the Badger-Two Medicine area , completing protections for 130,000 acres near Glacier National Park and the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The administration also created new wildlife refuges in Tennessee and Wyoming .

Yellow flowers on a green hill, snow-capped mountains in the background

Badger-Two Medicine, Montana. Photo: Troy Smith, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Taken as a whole, these protections show that President Biden has made significant progress towards his conservation goals . A recent CWP analysis found that the president was 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.

Perhaps more importantly, the variety of mechanisms that the Biden administration is using to protect lands shows that the president’s team understands the importance of what CWP calls the Conservation Toolbox —the full spectrum of designations, planning, and funding that must play a combined role if America is to reach the 30×30 goal.

Beyond these landscape-scale protections, the Biden administration also took significant steps to ensure America’s public lands tell a more complete story of the country’s history. He designated a national monument in Mississippi honoring Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley . He signed legislation designating the Amache National Historic Site in Colorado, recognizing the injustice of Japanese-American incarceration during World War II. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland launched an oral history project to preserve the stories of Indigenous children who were separated from their families and forced into federal boarding schools that stripped them of their Tribal identities and traditions.

The reconstructed barracks, guard and water towers at Amache National Historic Site.

Amache National Historic Site, NPS

President Biden also made good on his promise to increase Tribal co-stewardship on public lands. At the third annual White House Tribal Nations Summit in December, Secretary Haaland announced that the Interior, Agriculture, and Commerce departments had signed nearly 200 new co-stewardship agreements with Tribes, Alaska Native Corporations, and consortiums. The Interior department’s official manual also has a new chapter that recognizes Indigenous Knowledge as a foundational piece of the department’s mission.

Putting BIL and IRA to work

Any major piece of legislation is only important if it’s effective. That’s especially true for laws that touch as many pieces of the American economy as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) do.

BIL, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act , which passed in 2021, included billions of dollars in funding for natural resource and Tribal projects across the West. 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. These funds will go toward Tribal water rights settlements, drought resilience, and cleaning up abandoned mines and oil wells, among other projects. BIL funds are also replacing culverts in 22 states , restoring fish habitat across the country.

The IRA, passed in 2022, was a landmark moment for America’s climate policy, and the Biden administration wasted no time getting funds out the door in 2023. A Treasury department analysis found that 81 percent of the IRA’s clean investment dollars have gone to counties with below-average wages. For the Interior department, the IRA overhauled the century-old oil and gas leasing system on public lands. Oil companies now have to pay to nominate public lands for leasing and give taxpayers a fair return on those lands through higher rental rates on the land they lease and royalty rates on the oil they extract. Ongoing federal oil and gas lease sales are required by the IRA as a condition for approving new renewable energy projects on public lands, and the Interior department is required to offer 50 percent of the acres nominated by oil and gas companies over a 12-month period.

While CWP was initially critical of the size of post-IRA oil and gas lease sales, especially in Wyoming, it appears the Bureau of Land Management has right-sized upcoming lease sales , in part due to dwindling acreage nominations. This reflects the reality that oil and gas companies are simply not interested in spending significant money to lock up new public lands when the vast majority of land that will ever produce oil has already been leased. In the second quarter of 2023, BLM offered 127,000 acres for lease in Wyoming, the largest of any state. By the fourth quarter, BLM offered just 35,000 acres, and in the first quarter of 2024, BLM is proposing to lease just over 13,000 acres in Wyoming.

As a whole, the Biden administration’s implementation of the IRA and BIL has been very successful; but, as we’ll discuss later in this progress report, the Interior department must finalize an official rule in the coming weeks in order to protect the IRA’s oil and gas overhaul into the future.

Setting the stage

The Biden administration also took major steps toward addressing the long-term health of the Colorado River and the states and Tribes that rely on its water. In May, California, Arizona, and Nevada agreed to use less water in a deal that removed the immediate risk of water in Lake Mead falling to levels that would jeopardize water supplies across the region.

In December, the administration announced follow-up conservation agreements with several California water agencies to conserve more than 600,000 acre-feet of water through 2025. The agreements, which are largely paid for by IRA funds, provide short-term certainty for the West. They also provide a starting point for a potential long-term deal to permanently reduce water usage from the Colorado River. While the current rules regarding the river run through 2026, negotiators from the Western states that rely on the Colorado are rushing to reach an agreement by the end of this year , fearing the uncertainty that would come if there is a change of administration in 2025.

A large bend in a river surrounded by red rock cliffs

Horseshoe Bend, Arizona. Photo: Shutter Runner, CC BY-NC 2.0

The Biden administration looked to the future in a landmark report on the need to reform America’s mining laws. The report represents an all-of-government approach to address the need for responsible mining to power the clean energy transition and recommends major reforms to the 150-year-old law that still governs hardrock mining on public lands today. While an interagency report does not have the power of substantive reforms, the Biden White House is acknowledging the need to overhaul the 1872 mining law. That report, along with the Rosemont court decision that limited where mining companies can dump their waste, has sparked renewed interest on Capitol Hill, for better and worse , putting mining reform into the spotlight after years of advocacy by the conservation community.

The bad

Helping big oil plan for the future

In March, the Biden administration approved ConocoPhillips’ controversial Willow oil and gas project in Alaska. The project, which opponents describe as a “carbon bomb” in the Arctic, could produce 180,000 barrels of oil a year. Although the White House paired the Willow announcement with new limits on drilling in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska and the Beaufort Sea, the Willow project will eventually lead to more than 200 oil wells and miles of pipelines and roads across the rapidly-thawing Arctic. In the ultimate irony, ConocoPhillips may have to use giant chillers to keep the permafrost under its drill pads from thawing.

An ice floe close to shore

Beaufort Sea. Photo: ShoreZone, CC BY 2.0

The Biden administration also held an offshore lease sale in December, bringing in $382 million from Shell, Chevron, Anadarko, Hess, and others that bid on the rights to drill across 72 million acres of the Outer Continental Shelf. Just 2.4 percent of the acres offered received bids. 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 and was expanded after a federal judge sided with oil companies that sued to restore six million acres that the Interior department had tried to remove from the lease sale in order to protect an endangered whale species .

While the Biden administration deserves praise for moving America toward a cleaner energy future, the Willow approval and deepwater lease sales show that oil and gas companies will continue to be an impediment to the energy transition, at a time when the country and the world are not cutting carbon emissions fast enough to avoid the most catastrophic and costly effects of climate change.

The incomplete

Getting new rules over the finish line

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. Although rulemakings may sound boring or academic, when done properly, they are one of the most important tools an administration has for locking in enduring policy changes.

For President Biden, rulemakings are not just “nice to have” items in the last year of his first term—they’re central to his public lands and energy legacy, and his administration has just a few months to complete them. The good news is that all of the major rulemaking efforts appear to be on track. It’s vitally important that the White House prioritize the completion of these rulemakings this winter and spring.

At the top of the rulemaking list is the Bureau of Land Management’s Oil and Gas Rule implementing the Inflation Reduction Act’s overhaul of the oil and gas leasing system. Beyond locking in guidelines that the Interior department issued after the IRA’s passage, the Oil and Gas Rule tackles the largest omission from the final text of the law by updating the bonding rates that drillers have to post in order to guarantee there’s enough money to clean up their wells if they abandon them. The oil and gas rule also provides guardrails to ensure oil and gas companies can’t abuse the system for nominating public lands and instructs land managers to avoid leasing parcels that conflict with wildlife migration corridors or public access.

The BLM has also proposed a rule to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands. The BLM rule would complement an Environmental Protection Agency rule finalized in December that will eventually eliminate the routine venting and flaring of natural gas. The BLM’s methane waste rule would go further by requiring oil and gas companies to compensate taxpayers for any publicly-owned methane that is wasted during drilling. (The EPA also just proposed a separate rule to codify the IRA’s financial penalties for wasting methane starting in 2024.)

Beyond oil and gas, BLM must finalize its proposed Public Lands Rule , which would give land managers on the ground additional tools to respond to the pressures of drought, climate change, and invasive species. The rule would put conservation on equal footing with other uses of public land, including drilling, mining, grazing, and recreation. This focus on conservation has always been a part of the plain text of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act —the 1976 law that defined BLM’s multiple use mandate—but it’s never been explicit in BLM’s instructions to land managers.

The Public Lands Rule has been the subject of repeated disinformation campaigns , most recently a conspiracy theory drawing an imaginary connection to a completely unrelated (and now withdrawn) Securities Exchange Commission proposal. The best way for the Biden administration to shut down the misinformation and speculation would be to quickly publish the final Public Lands Rule to make it clear how the rule strictly follows existing law , as law professors have repeatedly confirmed .

Everything else

Several other key rules and regulations are also awaiting final approval, including a plan to guide solar energy development across public lands . That framework, which was released in draft form this week , will be key to responsibly meeting the president’s goal of permitting 25 gigawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2025. In November, the Interior department advanced 15 onshore clean energy projects , many of which will receive funding from the BIL.

The BLM is also on track to finalize several long-overdue resource management plans in 2024, including a contentious plan to protect wildlife migration corridors in Wyoming . In Alaska, BLM is expected to finalize its proposed regulations for the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska , which will create a new framework that protects areas with significant ecological value as well as traditional subsistence uses. The Interior department is also expected to finalize mineral withdrawals to protect the Buffalo Tract area in New Mexico and Colorado’s Thompson Divide .

In December, the Forest Service launched an ambitious project to simultaneously revise all 128 of its forest plans , banning most commercial logging of old growth forests across all 193 million acres of USFS land and managing these lands to retain and expand old growth in the face of climate change. Keeping old growth ecosystems intact is one of the keys to slowing climate change, but it remains to be seen if the Biden administration can finalize this approach within a year and put the Forest Service on a path to durably conserve and expand old growth forests.

We could also see the long-delayed Conservation and Stewardship Atlas , which President Biden instructed the Interior department to create back in his first few weeks in office. The Atlas will be a key tool for measuring America’s progress toward 30×30 by consolidating the many forms of land protection and stewardship, from wilderness to working regenerative lands, into one living document.

The Commerce department, which houses the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is also working to designate new marine sanctuaries in 2024, including the Pacific Remote Islands and Chumash Heritage , which is off the California coast. Those sanctuaries would establish President Biden’s ocean conservation legacy and help offset the damage caused by future offshore oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.

Tick tock

While President Biden has a full year left in his first term, all major rulemaking must be complete by late April in order to protect them from potential repeal under the Congressional Review Act . As long as President Biden is in the White House, the CRA is effectively moot. But the window for Congress to block a rulemaking extends 60 legislative days after a rule is finalized. That means any rules that are published within that 60-day window are potentially subject to review by the next Congress. If there’s a change of administration, the next president could sign CRA resolutions, as happened several times at the beginning of President Trump’s first term.

Because the exact 60-day legislative window isn’t known until Congress adjourns for the year, the Biden administration needs to complete all of its major rulemakings by the end of April in order to ensure they aren’t at risk of being immediately erased by a future administration. The CRA also bars similar rules to those that are repealed from being implemented in the future, raising the stakes for completing these rulemakings in time.

The upcoming major rules at the Interior department have all been proposed, revised, and gone through the required public comment periods. But with so many agencies rushing to get their rules published this spring, there is a real risk that the White House Office of Management and Budget , which gives final approval to rules before they’re published, could become a bottleneck that threatens much of President’s Biden’s conservation legacy if it’s unable to approve the final rules by the end of April.

What it all means for 2024

Looking past the rulemaking window this spring, President Biden has an opportunity to build up his conservation legacy throughout the year. In 2022, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called on President Biden to unleash “ executive Beast Mode ” to address the climate crisis. Many of the rulemakings underway would fit that description. Now, faced with a Congress that struggles to pass bills to keep the government running, prospects for any major conservation legislation in 2024 are vanishingly small. The best way for the President to show how serious he is about protecting public lands is to do it himself.

After the success of Camp Hale-Continental Divide, Avi Kwa Ame, Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni, and Castner Range, other locally-driven conservation campaigns are shifting their focus from Congress to the White House, asking President Biden to use the Antiquities Act to designate national monuments via presidential proclamation.

CWP has highlighted many of these proposals for new or expanded monuments in our Road to 30: Postcards series, including the San Gabriel Mountains near Los Angeles, Colorado’s Dolores Canyon Country , Great Bend of the Gila in Arizona, and Molok Luyuk , a proposed expansion of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument. Other potential monument designations include Bahsahwahbee (Swamp Cedars) in Nevada, Chuckwalla near Joshua Tree, and Oregon’s Owyhee Canyonlands .

Snow-capped mountains behind a city skyline

San Gabriel Mountains, USFS

President Biden has used the Antiquities Act to protect 1.5 million acres of public land so far— close to President Clinton’s first-term record . If the president was to use the Antiquities Act to designate just the monuments mentioned in the previous paragraph, he could easily double the number of acres of public land that he has permanently protected for future generations.

Protecting public lands and designating new national monuments continues to be one of the few issues that unite Americans, especially in the West . Polling consistently shows broad bipartisan support for monument designations and land conservation.

If President Biden listens to voters and conservation advocates across the West who are calling on him to protect fragile and important ecosystems this year, he could finish his first term with an environmental legacy larger than that of any other president in modern history. Three years ago, the president’s America the Beautiful initiative set the bar for global conservation. In 2024, he can show the world that America is willing to lead the way toward the 30×30 goal.