Conservative lawmakers from Western states unveiled their own plan to conserve public lands this month in response to a Biden administration initiative setting a goal for their preservation. Tourists have their photograph taken as they visit Chicken Point Overlook in the Coconino National Forest in Sedona, Ariz., Sunday, June 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane) Jenny Kane/AP

Lawmakers counter Biden’s public lands plan

Kate Scanlon October 16, 07:00 AM October 16, 07:17 AM

Conservative lawmakers from Western states unveiled their own plan to conserve public lands this month in response to a Biden administration initiative setting a goal for their preservation.

In May, the White House released its “America the Beautiful” initiative, which established what it called “the first-ever national conservation goal” of “conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.”

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An Interior Department document about the president’s initiative said it “specifically emphasizes the notion of ‘conservation’ of the nation’s natural resources (rather than the related but different concept of ‘protection’ or ‘preservation’) recognizing that many uses of our lands and waters, including of working lands, can be consistent with the long-term health and sustainability of natural systems.”

But Republican lawmakers in the Senate and Congressional Western Caucuses called the president’s proposal “ambiguous,” and they said it fails to “focus on the vast restoration and management needs of our public lands and waters.”

In a joint statement, Rep. Dan Newhouse of Washington and Sen. Steve Daines of Montana said: “In the West, we know firsthand that locking up lands with preservationist designations does not automatically guarantee healthy landscapes.”

“In fact, the opposite is often the case,” they said. “The Western Conservation Principles demonstrate that conservation and working lands go hand-in-hand.”

The lawmakers said that if the Biden administration “is serious about restoring America the Beautiful, they will embrace Western Conservation Principles and promote these time-tested, science-based practices we know equate to real conservation outcomes for our lands and waters.”

In their own proposal titled “Western Conservation Principles,” the Republicans argued that conservation of land often requires human intervention, citing forest management to prevent wildfires, curbing invasive wildlife species that threaten an area’s native wildlife, and cleaning up abandoned mines.

They cited 63 million acres of the National Forest System and 54 million acres of Interior Department lands that they called at “high or very high hazard for wildfire,” arguing that “our forests are a perfect case study on why increasing protected acreage will not suffice to accomplish conversation goals and, in fact, can — and have — resulted in the unintended consequence of devastating land health outcomes.” The report said 7.1 million acres of federal land burned in wildfires last year, while another 4 million acres are in need of reforestation.

“Our landscapes are suffering from stalled agency decisions and/or lack of proactive efforts,” their report read.

The Western Caucus lawmakers outlined their proposal to increase collaboration with local, state, and tribal leaders, as well as streamlining review processes.

“We know firsthand that protective land designations do not necessarily mean healthy landscape,” the caucus said. “Healthy and resilient landscapes are the cornerstone of our western, rural way of life, and we call on the Biden Administration to refocus its conservation efforts with this in mind.”

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The Department of the Interior document said the president’s goal of conserving 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030 “is more than a number — it is a challenge to build on the nation’s best conservation traditions, to be faithful to principles that reflect the country’s values, and to improve the quality of Americans’ lives — now and for decades to come.”

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