OUTSIDE NATURITA, Colo. ― Along Highway 141, the mud-stained Dolores River snakes its way through sheer canyons carved between towering mountains of crimson sandstone. Patches of grayish-green sagebrush, yellow flowering rabbit brush and stands of stunted junipers dot the sun-baked landscape.
The area’s natural beauty contrasts sharply with the telltale scars of its industrial past. A few miles to the south, signs warn visitors to keep out if they want to avoid radiation ― a legacy of the uranium mining that once fed the Manhattan Project. Gravelly heaps of spent rock called tailing piles make chunks of the land look like an abandoned construction site.
From a boulder pile perched on the edge of a 700-foot cliff with a panoramic view, nearly all the visible territory belongs to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an agency within the Interior Department charged with overseeing about one acre for every 10 of American land.
Despite the proliferation of mining claims, much of it remains undeveloped ― largely free of roads that repel wildlife and act as funnels for invasive species. During the summer, campers flock to the river bottoms. In wetter years, the more adventurous float down the Dolores Canyon on trips that can last days.
These lands stayed pristine largely by accident. With the exception of two nearby swaths where BLM has barred new roads or industrial use, about 20,000 acres each, nothing shields the hundreds of thousands of acres from becoming new mining sites ― an increasingly realistic possibility as the war in Ukraine drives the price of uranium up, making the region’s low-grade ore more commercially viable.
Within days of taking office, President Joe Biden set an ambitious goal to conserve 30% of U.S. land and water by 2030 ― an initiative later rebranded as “America the Beautiful” and widely known as “30-by-30.” Many viewed formal protections for neglected backwaters like these in southwest Colorado as some of the lowest-hanging fruit toward reaching this goal.
And as the largest federal land manager in the United States with the fewest acres set aside for conservation, BLM offers the most opportunity for quick progress. As many as 100 million acres of BLM land may qualify for some level of protection that approximates wilderness and qualifies for 30-by-30, according to an estimate by the Wilderness Society, a conservation nonprofit.
“The administration can’t hit its target unless the BLM steps up and starts identifying lands now,” Michael Carroll, an advocacy director with the Wilderness Society, told HuffPost.
But nearly two years after Biden took office, many conservationists worry that the agency, historically tied to industry and hobbled by former President Donald Trump, is moving too slowly.
For Scott Braden, director of the Colorado Wildlands Project, the confluence where the Dolores River meets the San Miguel draws a virtual dividing line between the area’s past and its possible future.
“The BLM’s got opportunities,” Braden said. “There’s not an endless amount of time in this administration. They need to take advantage of every opportunity they have to advance conservation.”
America’s Largest Land Manager
The federal government owns nearly one-third of America’s land. Most of those 640 million acres serve the country’s industrial needs, with private parties leasing the rights to graze, mine, drill, or log it.
Since the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, the U.S. government has also pioneered a unique system of shielding public land from industrial development. Public pressure to protect iconic landscapes drove the first major conservation push. Still, the list of reasons has snowballed since then to include everything from preserving wildlife habitat and the integrity of watersheds to advancing science and guaranteeing public access to untrammeled nature.
Those unspoiled lands have become one of our greatest assets in the fight against climate change, along with every other ecological disaster turbocharged by a warming planet.
New roads and construction send carbon dioxide spewing out of soils and forests that once sucked the most notorious greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. Wildlife and clean water supplies depend on long chains of unbroken habitats to thrive. Forest cover cools the local environment by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to a recent study published by Frontiers.
With such expansive reform on the table, many eyes naturally drift toward BLM. With about 250 million acres under its control, BLM is the country’s largest land manager. But unlike the other three major federal land agencies, conservation has taken a backseat to development at BLM.
Part of that stems from the agency’s history. The U.S. Forest Service emerged from a movement to create forest reserves and shield the headwaters of western rivers from unbridled industrialization. Wildlife habitat protection and public recreation are baked into the missions of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
BLM, by contrast, manages large swaths of mid- and low-elevation ground that the federal government hung onto because it was too arid to parcel out to homesteaders.
Since Congress merged the General Land Office and the Grazing Office to create BLM in 1946, livestock grazing, oil drilling and mining for minerals and precious metals have played an outsized role in its priorities. Until 1964 the agency’s logo pictured a miner, logger, rancher, surveyor and engineer drawn against a backdrop that included a pair of oil dereks and a smokestack, John Leshy notes in his landmark book ”Our Common Ground: A History of America’s Public Lands.”
That year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act into law, creating one of the most stringent forms of conservation. Lands designated by Congress under the act as federal wilderness areas bar mining, drilling, road construction, motorized vehicles and mountain biking ― though they often allow livestock grazing.
In the world of federal land conservation ― governed by an overlapping hodgepodge of federal laws, executive directives, and agency-specific rules ― wilderness areas offer one yardstick for comparison. Federal wilderness accounts for more than half of the acreage controlled by the National Park Service and about one-fifth of lands held by the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For BLM, the figure is only 4%. By contrast, nearly 90% of its holdings remain open to mining, logging or oil and gas leasing, according to a Center of American Progress report published this month. The report urges Biden to make wide use of executive action for 30-by-30, including conserving BLM land more aggressively.
“BLM probably has more potential than any other agency,” said Leshy, who also served as solicitor for the Interior Department from 1993 to 2001. “It has far more land than any other agency manages, and its lands have historically been viewed as the ‘leftover’ lands that people didn’t quite know what to do with.”
Advocates and critics prefer that Congress take the leading role in land protection. The bar for passing federal legislation is so high that it forces bipartisan cooperation. Once etched into law, it takes a second act of Congress to repeal, which is about as permanent as American land conservation gets.
But permanence comes at the cost of speed. All four major landholding agencies are legally required to identify tracts that qualify for Wilderness Act protection, then send those recommendations to Congress. Federal lawmakers have sat on most of them for decades.
The current backlog includes agency recommendations for 10 new national parks, one national seashore, and 491 BLM Wilderness Study Areas – a chunk of land the agency treats as if it were federal wilderness until Congress decides whether it will formalize the recommendation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service hold millions of acres each that Congress could permanently protect tomorrow.
The hold-up is partly explained by the fact that big chunks of land Congress could easily agree on have already been designated. Former President Jimmy Carter signed into law more than 65 million new wilderness acres, the most of any president by far ― largely because of massive designations in Alaska, where federal public land accounts for 60% of the state’s territory.
Except for Richard Nixon, every president from 1964 until Bill Clinton signed at least 3.8 million new acres into the wilderness system for every term they served in office. (Nixon signed off on fewer than 1 million acres after nearly six years in the White House.)
With many of the most obvious candidates for wilderness long identified and approved, however, the pace of new designations has trickled down to just over 1 million acres per presidential term since 2000.
“The low-hanging fruit has been designated,” Leshy said. “It becomes politics. What are you trading to get what you need? You’ve got to persuade local members of Congress that this is a good idea. That doesn’t happen easily.”
At the same time, the polarization that has paralyzed Congress on most issues for the last decade has also made conservation measures harder to agree on. Though they poll well across party lines, a vocal minority of Republicans have taken a hard stance against new protections, describing them as an attack on rural economies orchestrated by clueless urbanites.
The Core Act has become polarization’s most prominent conservation casualty. Championed by Colorado’s Democratic delegation, the bill would have shielded around 400,000 acres in the state from mining and drilling, expanded wilderness areas, and designated former mountain warfare training installation, Camp Hale, as the country’s first “National Historic Landscape.” Colorado Democrats have pushed for years to get federal protection for Camp Hale.
But Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) threw cold water on the Core Act after the bill’s first committee vote in May. “We need to increase American development of energy and critical minerals,” Barrasso said. “Now isn’t the time to be permanently withdrawing federal land.”
And firebrand Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), whose district includes several of the tracts in question, dealt the bill its death blow, calling it “a land-grab promoted by big-city Democrats who aren’t affected by the land-use bureaucracy that they are shoving down rural Colorado’s throat.” Congress rarely votes to protect lands against the wishes of local members.
‘Sheer Numbers Game’
Interior Department spokespeople dismissed the notion that America the Beautiful entitles the Biden administration or agencies like the BLM to shower public land with new protections, describing 30-by-30 as a “call to action” rather than a roadmap for executive action.
“This is about supporting locally led and voluntary efforts to conserve, steward, and restore lands and waters on local, state, Tribal, and private lands,” Interior Department Press Secretary Tyler Cherry wrote in an email.
But with the Core Act stalled, Biden broke the logjam over Camp Hale by designating it as his first national monument on Oct. 12. The same day, his administration initiated a 20-year ban on new drilling and mining on 225,000 acres of nearby land on the Thompson Divide.
Six weeks later, Biden followed it up by designating a second national monument at Avi Kwa Ame, known as Spirit Mountain in English, in southern Nevada ― a move that could add around 450,000 acres to the site’s existing wilderness protections. A dozen Tribes consider the area sacred ground.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland visited the Castner Range outside El Paso, Texas, where activists have fielded broad support for a national monument, raising expectations that the White House may soon designate a third.
The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives presidents a powerful tool to skirt debate in Congress by giving them the broad power to turn public owned land into national monuments to protect cultural and scientific heritage. President Barack Obama used it to shield some five million acres of land from development, including the 1.3 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southern Utah, cementing a conservation legacy that would have been impossible otherwise.
Biden’s designations have boosted hopes among conservationists who were growing impatient with the lack of progress toward 30-by-30 as the president approaches the midway point of his term. But he still has a long way to go to even outpace new protections under Trump, a president who mostly worked to roll back conservation measures ― let alone aspire to the loftier 30-by-30 goal.
If national monuments remain a key Biden strategy, his greatest opportunities almost certainly lie on BLM land. Nine of the country’s 10 largest national monuments in the lower 48, not counting those below seawater, were carved in whole or partly out of BLM holdings.
But like federal wilderness areas, national monuments usually emerge from years-long campaigns with grassroots support. For BLM to make quick progress, reformers say, the agency needs to take swifter action.
“This is a sheer numbers game,” said Carroll, the advocacy director with the Wilderness Society. “We need to protect more places.”
BLM has several ways of limiting industrial development through its planning process. Individual field offices and the general public can suggest protections that might get considered after cycling through a multi-year public comment and review process.
BLM doesn’t necessarily oppose extending more protections. The agency issued new guidance prioritizing Tribal co-management and wildlife corridor protection this year ― measures that didn’t snag many national headlines but that have big impacts on the ground. And conservation groups generally use the agency’s inventory of lands with wilderness characteristics to identify the spots they want to preserve.
But those requests often languish for years, even with grassroots campaigning and broad support from members of Congress. Seven U.S. Senators, including Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Martin Heinrich (D-NM), asked Haaland in January to direct BLM to re-inventory its holdings and administratively conserve more of them as Wilderness Study Areas, with no apparent effect.
One way the White House could grease the wheels of the BLM bureaucracy is by laying out the agency’s conservation priorities, ideally through regulatory rule-making, said Drew McConville, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. Unlike executive actions or agency directives, rule-making is a formal process governed by the Administrative Procedure Act, making it harder for future administrations to undo.
“It’s about taking what is probably a pretty ad-hoc process and providing clearer direction ― ‘this is how our public lands should be managed,’” McConville said. “It shouldn’t just be for the oil and gas industry.”
Trump found this out when he tried to roll back “roadless rule” protections in the Tongass National Forest in southeast Alaska to open up old-growth logging there. Implemented by Clinton, the roadless rule limits the construction of new logging roads on U.S. Forest Service land. The courts held up Trump’s change throughout his term. The Biden administration reversed it within days of taking office.
The Clock Is Ticking
The greatest obstacle to Biden’s biggest conservation opportunity is time. BLM’s land-use plans take years of surveying, public comment and stakeholder meetings to develop. If the administration does push for rule-making to guide the agency, that too will take up to about two years, according to McConville, who spent six years on the White House Council on Environmental Quality under Obama.
And BLM has seen more efficient days. Shortly after taking office, the Trump administration moved the agency’s headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado, and nominated William Perry Pendley, a champion of selling off federal public lands, to head it.
The Biden administration brought BLM’s headquarters back to Washington, but the shakeup left lasting effects, including the loss of career staffers who either rejected the agency’s new direction or refused to move.
“I understand how people can have big expectations for the BLM right now,” said Madeleine West, public lands director at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “But if you could even get them to say ‘yes,’ could you get them to do it?”
But while the politics are often complex, public support for land conservation has historically remained strong. Neither Congress nor new presidents have historically succeeded in rolling back major land protections once put into effect ― no matter how controversial and regardless of whether they were implemented by Congress, ordered by the White House or carved out by an agency. To the country, the public land base has steadily grown over the last century through purchases, donations and easements.
A survey from the nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities of more than 2,000 voters from the American West over the summer showed over three-quarters favored politicians who shield public lands from development. About the same number worried that overdevelopment threatened the country’s public lands. Only 21% of respondents said they favored candidates who wanted to open up public lands for oil drilling or mining.
“From all the polling the president can see, this is wildly popular,” Center for Western Priorities’ Deputy Director Aaron Weiss told HuffPost. “It’s one of the easiest political wins you’re going to find.”
Part of the reason for the broad support is that most Americans, regardless of where they live or how they vote, happily use public land ― whether to hike and backpack, target shoot, rock climb, mountain bike or hunt and fish.
Connections like those drove Braden to join the conservation movement in the first place. As a river guide in southern Utah in his 20s, he saw new oil leases chomp away at the edges of a favorite stretch of the Green River year after year. Many areas that the Colorado Wildlands Project now works to shield from development are the same BLM properties where he and his wife take their daughters camping.
“These places are very important to me personally,” Braden said. “They also just happen to be the largest, unprotected wildlands in the state.”