Andy Kerr

Conservationist, Writer, Analyst, Operative, Agitator, Strategist, Tactitian, Schmoozer, Raconteur

A Congressional Conservation Agenda for the Twenty-First Century

With President-elect Trump having won the Electoral College and the Republicans being in the majority of both houses of the coming 115th (2017-2018) Congress, the public lands conservation community is going to be on defense like never before.

It was either the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz (1780–1831) or the Manassa Mauler, William Harrison "Jack" Dempsey (1895–1983) who famously said that the best defense is a good offense. The conservation community needs to be for good things while we are opposing bad things.

Though we’ve burned through one-sixth of the current century, Congress has yet to enact any sweeping and bold public lands conservation legislation in the new millennium. There’s still time though, and a crying need.

You may be questioning my grip on reality at this moment, given the recent election. While I am quite cognizant of the dark times that await us, I’m equally aware that it often takes several Congresses (two-year terms) to enact sweeping and bold legislation into law.

Acts of Congress to elevate the conservation status of federal public lands can do more than just move the needle a bit toward conservation; they can move whole landscapes in the right direction. Though the chances of a functional Congress these days are quite low, eventually the legislative body will again be able and willing to legislate for the good, so the conservation community should have a set of legislative priorities ready for congressional action.

The list below, offered in no particular order, suggests big and bold initiatives. It doesn’t include small-bore legislation, such as individual wildernesses, wild and scenic rivers, and similar bills that elevate the conservation status of particular parcels of the federal public lands. While these bills are important to the conservation of nature, especially cumulatively, big and bold initiatives will get more done faster. Nonetheless, doubling National Wilderness Preservation System and National Wild and Scenic River System holdings is an admirable goal.

The agenda addresses only onshore federal public lands. The tools of national marine sanctuaries, national wildlife refuges, and national monuments are adequate to permanently conserve vast amounts of the offshore lands and waters in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone for the benefit of this and future generations. Presidents, perhaps not our next one (but then again, he’s all over the map on many issues), just need to more fully utilize the powers granted them already by Congress to establish such areas.

1. Establish a National Desert and Grassland System.

Most federal public lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) aren’t in a conservation system comparable to the National Park, National Forest, and National Wildlife Refuge Systems. Only 11 percent of BLM lands are in the National Landscape Conservation System, and that just doesn’t cut it. A National Desert and Grassland System could be modeled on the National Forest System.

2. Establish a U.S. Desert and Grassland Service.

Most other federal public lands are administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The name Bureau of Land Management calls to mind a bureau filled with bureaucrats rather than a service filled with public servants. The BLM should be abolished and replaced with a U.S. Desert and Grassland Service.

3. Enact a National Forest Conservation and Restoration Act.

The National Forest Management Act of 1976 as amended is rather long in the tooth. Public attitudes toward national forests have changed dramatically for the better in the last four decades. The Forest Service’s social license to log mature and old-growth forest, roadless areas, and other important forests has expired.

4. Permanently and generously fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

The Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) was established in 1965. A fraction of federal offshore oil and gas revenues is credited to the LWCF and Congress was then supposed to spend that money on federal land protection and assistance to states to protect local parks and recreational resources. However, Congress has spent nowhere near the money available in the fund (see Figure 1). The solution is for Congress to enact a law that automatically appropriates the full amount of available LWCF funds each year. The money would go to the federal land management agencies and the states to spend as they think best.

With that money, Congress could, among many other worthy activities, acquire these lands:

• the existentially threatened Elliot State Forest in Oregon to return to the Siuslaw National Forest;

• much of the 39 million acres of nonfederal inholdings in the National Forest System

• a Maine Woods National Park;

• million of acres of private timberland to reconvert into public forestland for the multiple and priceless species, ecosystem, watershed, landscape, cultural, social, economic, and climate-protecting benefits; and

• inholdings in existing units of, and also acreage to expand, the National Park and National Wildlife Refuge Systems.

Figure 1. LWCF Funds and Offshore Revenues, FY1994–2013

Figure 1. LWCF Funds and Offshore Revenues, FY1994–2013

5. Change federal revenue sharing to be true payments in lieu of taxes.

It’s unconstitutional for state, county, and other governments to collect property taxes on federal public lands within their jurisdictions. To compensate, Congress over the centuries has shared portions of receipts from various exploitative activities (logging, mining, grazing, ski areas, and such) or, for those counties that otherwise wouldn’t get a share of such booty, a minimum payment to help the local governments cover the cost of providing law enforcement, search and rescue, and other services on federal public lands. The result is that the counties, in particular rural counties, are advocates of exploitation because they need to get their cut.

For federal properties in town such as post offices and federal buildings, the federal government voluntarily pays some level of “taxes” so the fire and police departments will show up when called. The education of children and the filling of potholes should not be dependent on the clear-cutting of forests and the mining of coal. The federal government should voluntarily pay an amount of money to each county for federal lands equal to the amount those lands would be taxed if they were in private ownership. Since 1939, the federal government has done just this for the so-called Coos Bay Wagon Road lands, 73,583 acres in Coos and Douglas counties in Oregon of federal public lands that came back to federal government due to a land grant gone bad. It is the only fair and complete federal “payment in lieu of taxes” law.

6. Double the National Forest System.

Public lands should provide goods and services that the private sector is unwilling or unable to provide, such as species conservation, watershed protection, ecosystem functions, carbon storage and sequestration, and compatible forms of recreation. There is a compelling need to not only halt the transfer of carbon from lithosphere to the atmosphere but also remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. Reconverting private timberlands to public forestlands can sequester huge amounts of dangerous atmospheric carbon safely in the biosphere.

7. Double the National Park System.

Our incomparable National Park System is far from complete. There should be many more national parks, monuments, recreation areas, preserves, historic parks, historic sites, international historic sites, battlefield parks, military parks, battlefields, battlefield sites, memorials, seashores, lakeshores, rivers, reserves, parkways, and trails to effectively conserve outstanding natural, cultural and recreational resources for this and future generations.

8. Double the National Wildlife Refuge System.

To adequately conserve species, the National Wildlife Refuge System could easily be doubled from its present 150 million acres. For many species of wildlife, their best hope for conservation is for their habitat to be in public ownership.

9. Facilitate voluntary federal grazing permit retirement on all federal public lands.

Livestock have done more damage to the earth than the bulldozer and the chainsaw combined. Livestock grazing is a factor in the decline of 22 percent of all Endangered Species Act–listed species, more than the 12 percent for logging and 11 percent for mining. On federal public lands, livestock grazing interferes with recreation, watershed protection, species conservation, and other uses. It is also heavily subsidized by federal taxpayers.

For limited areas (for example, two national monuments in Oregon, several wilderness areas in Idaho, the California Desert Conservation Area), Congress has enacted legislation to facilitate the voluntary retirement of federal grazing permits by directing that the federal grazing permits be permanently retired if voluntarily waived by the permit holder. Conservation interests have struck financial deals with interested ranchers that have provided a golden saddle to those in a declining industry. Voluntary federal grazing permit retirement facilitation is ecologically imperative, economically rational, fiscally prudent, socially just, and politically pragmatic.

10. Impose an excise tax on outdoor equipment.

A federal excise tax of 10 percent should be levied on outdoor equipment including, but not limited to, binoculars, ice chests, tents, camp stoves, and hiking boots, with the proceeds used to support the conservation of nongame fish and wildlife by state fish and wildlife agencies. It may also be useful to dedicate a portion of these funds to the maintenance of recreational facilities such as hiking trails.

Similar excise taxes have long been levied on hunting (guns, ammunition, and so on) and fishing (rods, reels, and such) to benefit state efforts for hunted and fished species. The Federal Aid in Wildlife [Game] Restoration Act and the Federal Aid in Sport Fish Restoration Act have been extremely successful. If you want your state fish and wildlife agency to pay the same amount of attention to nongame species as it does to game species, you’ll support a Federal Aid in Nongame Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act.

11. Establish a National Wildlife Corridor System.

Wildlife often need not only large areas to roam but also safe corridors to travel between large areas of habitat. Vital wildlife corridors are disappearing to development and exploitation. We need a conservation system of nationally important wildlife corridors similar to the conservation systems we have for nationally important rivers, parks, wildlife refuges, and wildernesses.

Like units of the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, units of the National Wildlife Corridor System would be managed by the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, or the Bureau of Land Management, as appropriate. Federal lands within a designated corridor would be dedicated to wildlife conservation and migration. Nonfederal lands would not be regulated by the federal government but would receive priority funding for conservation easements and other activities that benefit wildlife, including wildlife conservation programs in the farm bill. Federal subsidies for activities harmful to wildlife would be prohibited in these corridors and federal projects (like highways) and licenses (like dams) would have to accommodate fish and wildlife.

There is no time like the present to begin to change political reality.