Biden Land Management: More Clarity, Less Contradiction

Logging operation in the Oregon Coast Range. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

President Biden is seeking a second term. Halfway through the current term his record on federal land and wildlife management shows more clarity and less contradiction are necessary. Several policies and executive orders effectively cancel each other out and others are being undermined by federal agencies.

The policies on Mature and Old Growth (MOG) forests and Habitat Connectivity are based on sound science. Both are critical in the face of a changing climate, serving as buffers to wide temperature swings, free carbon storage and habitat areas that allow animals and fish to maintain genetically viable populations and move in response to changing habitat conditions.

These objectives are undermined by the unscientific Wildfire Crisis Strategy and emergency declaration from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. Former governor of Iowa, Vilsack has shown little understanding of western forest ecosystems. The Fireshed maps associated with the Strategy are nothing more than areas where the Forest Service would like to cut more trees.  A new paper in the science journal Fire (Baker et al. 2023) shows the federal fire crisis narrative is partially based on withholding non-conforming data.

The Forest Service has undermined the MOG Policy through the recently released national inventory, which appears to overestimate old growth so the Forest Service can log more of it. This harkens back to the “Phantom Forests” of the Kootenai National Forest where old growth existed only on paper until foresters in academia blew the whistle.

Likewise, new roads authorized by the Wildfire Crisis Strategy would be built in primary connectivity areas for wildlife and impair streams vital to migratory fish. Connectivity is federal policy for grizzly bear, salmon and bull trout recovery and federal courts have ruled that genetic connectivity is required for grizzly bear recovery and delisting. Regardless, the already heavily logged Salish Demographic Connectivity Area is designated a Fireshed and targeted for intensive logging. The Wildfire Crisis Strategy is a direct threat to connectivity for grizzly bears and other fish and wildlife.

The Administration’s climate change policies are undermined by the fact it has taken no significant moves to reduce grazing on federal public lands, even when it is dewatering the Colorado River system and others. Despite its impacts on water quality, quantity, fish and riparian habitats, the federal government still charges less than 5% the market rate for grazing leases, losing $120 million each year while worsening the climate crisis.

The Department of Interior’s Bison Management Policy in Yellowstone National Park is a national disgrace devoid of science. Bison can easily be relocated to the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge and the American Prairie Reserve which together comprise an area approximate in size to Yellowstone. There are other areas of public land in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where bison could reside. The current policy directly undermines the Habitat Connectivity Policy. What’s more contrary to connectivity than opening up on herds and killing thousands when they cross an invisible line?

A remaining wild card is what the Administration will do with petitions from Montana and Wyoming requesting the delisting of the grizzly bear, the American symbol of Wilderness. The fate of the President’s environmental legacy depends on the outcome.

Sadly, the President’s worthy goal of conserving 30% of the nation’s land and waters by 2030 has been compromised. In the race to reach 30%, nearly everything counts as conservation, including logging for “wildfire prevention.” He ran on the premise of “leaving it in the ground” but has turned heel by approving oil drilling in the environmentally sensitive Arctic. The next two years present an opportunity to eliminate collision and canceling out of public lands policies so nationally supported ideals can become reality.

Mike Bader is an independent consultant in Missoula, Montana with nearly 40 years of experience in land management and species protection. In his early career he was a seasonal ranger in Yellowstone involved in grizzly bear management and research. He has published several papers on grizzly bears and is the co-author of a recent paper on grizzly bear denning and demographic connectivity that has been accepted for publication in a scientific journal.