The Times Call for a Bold Conservation Agenda, Will Biden Seize the Moment?

Mt Whitney at sunset. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

For four long years, Donald Trump and his industry cronies have waged war on lands, wildlife, climate, and science itself. They leave behind a legacy of shattered agencies, broken regulations, and demoralized public servants. At the same time, America’s awareness of environmental justice disparities – and the moral imperative to alleviate the burdens of pollution and destruction of nature borne disproportionately by the poor and by communities of color – has never been greater. This is a time of both environmental crisis and opportunity, and after promising to “build back better” from the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Biden administration should seize this opportunity to create a better and more just future.

The Biodiversity Crisis

The federal government needs to embrace the ecological role of large native carnivores. Re-listing wolves under the Endangered Species Act is the first and most obvious step, given that the species still isn’t recovered across most of its natural range. In California, there is only one active wolf pack. Wolves have been spotted in Nevada and Utah, but there are no breeding populations, and in Utah wolves are killed or deported. Wolves remain listed under state Endangered Species statutes in parts of Washington and Oregon, signaling that populations there remain at risk. In Colorado, one pack showed up, only to have half its members shot. The three western states where wolves were previously de-listed are cautionary tales demonstrating that state and local agencies can’t be trusted with wolf management. Idaho is at war with wolves, driven by a belief that nature exists solely for human use and domination. Wolves are shot without any wildlife management across 85% of Wyoming – no license, no permits, no seasons, no bag limits.

The Biden administration should also stop funding the ag industry’s war on wildlife: The trapping and aerial gunning of coyotes, the poisoning of prairie dogs, the trapping of beavers, the killing of elk in reprisal for crop depredations. It could establish regulations banning the most egregious hunting practices from federal public lands, including bear baiting, hound chasing, coyote whacking with snowmobiles, and predator killing contests. Violations should be punishable by federal imprisonment and fines sufficient to pay for law enforcement.

Federal agencies should review all private livestock use of public lands, and discontinue those uses that are not 100% compatible with maintaining or improving healthy native ecosystems and coexisting with native wildlife.

There is also a need to protect and restore wildlife habitats in a way that connects large core protected areas so wildlife and plants are able to adapt as climate change shifts the distribution of vegetation types and weather conditions. Wildlife migrations should have their own protections through the establishment of National Migration Corridors. New National Wildlife Refuges should be established, and existing Refuges and National parks should be managed to maximize wildlife habitats and populations of native species in all cases.

The Climate Crisis

There is no longer room for debate over humanity’s responsibility to stop the carbon pollution that is cooking our planet and endangering the survival of own species and the biosphere as whole. Concentrations of atmospheric carbon already are well beyond the 350 parts per million threshold that scientists have established as necessary to maintain a planetary climate suitable for humans – and all the other species on the planet – to survive and thrive. It’s not enough to reinstate the modest goals of the Paris accords.

President-elect Biden has promised to end fossil fuel leasing on public lands. This is a long-overdue measure, given the enormous costs to the taxpayers to mitigate and clean up the damage from the fires, superstorms, droughts, and sea level rise stemming from emissions of the greenhouse gases that come from burning fossil fuels. Because federally-owned minerals belong to the taxpayers, the best investment for the owners is to keep them safely sequestered in the ground. The new president should also ban fracking, a risky and destructive method of oil and gas drilling that threatens our communities and groundwater supplies.

Limiting new sources of carbon pollution will not be not enough, and there is a need to responsibly increase renewable energy production to bridge the gap. Distributed renewables should be the backbone of this effort, empowering individuals and communities to generate their own power. Given the vast potential for solar panel siting on rooftops and shade canopies for the nation’s vast acreage of parking lots, there is no need for huge commercial solar farms destroying the habitats of rare desert tortoises and other wildlife. Wind farms should be subject to similar smart-siting considerations, built on croplands or other brownfield areas, not in wildlife habitats or bird migration corridors. And there is an immediate need to develop new technologies like roadways that generate solar power, clean fusion energy that doesn’t create radioactive waste, and environmentally-friendly geothermal and tidal energy methods.

Protected Lands

E.O. Wilson, one of the world’s foremost ecologists, boldly proposed that in order to give biodiversity a fighting chance, humanity should set aside half of the Earth’s land area for nature. This proposal inspired the “Thirty by Thirty” campaign to set protect 30 percent of land in the United States by 2030, as an interim measure on the way to protecting 50 percent of the land area by 2050. This would help both with the biodiversity crisis, by providing necessary habitat to maintain wild species, and with the climate crisis, by maximizing carbon sequestration and protecting carbon sinks from disturbance.

The backbone of the Thirty by Thirty campaign is establishing “protected lands.” But what lands should qualify? National Parks offer the strongest protection, but National Monuments vary, often allowing practices fundamentally incompatible with healthy natural systems. Wilderness designations prevent heavy industry and motorized intrusions, although livestock production and killing of large native carnivores are still causing serious ecological problems in many wilderness areas. National Wildlife Refuges might qualify, if they are managed to provide native ecosystems rather than commercial agriculture. Many Americans think National Forests ought to be protected lands, not realizing that commercial logging and livestock grazing – not conservation or public enjoyment – are the Forest Service’s top priorities.

Private lands also might qualify. While conservation easements are frequently touted as protecting open spaces, and do have some conservation value, in most cases they only prevent rural subdivisions, allowing native ecosystems to be completely destroyed. The American Prairie Reserve and Ted Turner’s Flying D Ranch, where native species of herbivores and other wildlife are restored, promoting natural ecosystems, offer better examples of protecting private lands to promote biodiversity.

All public lands should be managed with an eye towards meaningful environmental justice.

The Biden administration is expected to restore Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments, and should reinstate tribal co-management and the full extent sought by the tribes when it does so. The Biden administration should adopt Elizabeth Warren’s campaign promise to eliminate access fees for National Parks, and should extend these ideas to other public lands as well, eliminating discriminatory barriers that restrict access to public lands to those who can afford it. Protected lands should also be established close to urban centers to create more opportunities for underserved populations to interact with nature.

An Opportunity to Rededicate the Nation to Environmental Stewardship

For the past two decades, administration after administration has limited conservation initiatives to those that appease the anti-conservation obstructionists who exploit the natural world for their own profit. The last major conservation initiative was the Roadless Rule, during the Clinton administration, and the most recent landmark conservation legislation was in 1976, when the National Forest Management Act and Federal Land Policy and Management Act were passed. It is long past time to turn away from conservation policies based on the wishes of the tiny minority of Americans involved in environmentally damaging commercial enterprises. The Biden administration should instead set its conservation compass by the public interest, to achieve the strong environmental protections favored by majorities of voters in both parties, in urban and rural areas alike.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and is the Laramie, Wyoming-based Executive Director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting and restoring watersheds and wildlife on western public lands.