Americans won’t vote for our next president until next year, but the race is already crowded, with 21 Democratic candidates and 2 Republicans in the mix. While those hopefuls have weighed in on education and economics, they’ve said almost nothing about their plans for public lands—with one notable exception.
Last month, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled a comprehensive public lands proposal on her campaign’s Medium site, becoming one of the first candidates to weigh in substantially on the subject. (The only other candidates who have come close are Bernie Sanders, who proposed a ban on fracking and drilling on public lands, and Andrew Yang, who recently released a plan that involves reinstating land and water protections stripped away under the current administration).
“America’s public lands belong to all of us,” Warren writes. “We should start acting like it — expanding access, ending fossil fuel extraction, leveraging them as part of the climate solution, and preserving and improving them for our children and grandchildren.”
Around 610 million acres of land are held by the U.S. government within four agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. That’s more than a quarter of the nation’s land, and it holds most of the best hiking–the Forest Service alone manages more than 158,000 miles of trails.
So what would Warren’s plan mean? Let’s break it down.
Free entry to national parks
Out of the 419 sites the National Park Service oversees, 112 parks currently charge an entry fee. Warren’s plan would make all NPS sites free to enter. “The National Park Service is funded by taxpayers, and it’s long past time to make entry into our parks free to ensure that visiting our nation’s treasures is within reach for every American family,” Warren writes. “There’s no better illustration of how backwards our public lands strategy is than the fact that today, we hand over drilling rights to fossil fuel companies for practically no money at all — and then turn around and charge families who make the minimum wage more than a day’s pay to access our parks.”
Expanding access to public lands
Public lands across the U.S. are attracting record numbers of visitors, with the National Parks Service recording 318 million visits last year, the fourth consecutive year to top 300 million. These numbers are a nightmare for hikers seeking serenity, as parking lots fill up quicker and trails become more crowded.
In order to combat this, Warren proposes opening up some of the nearly 10 million acres of public lands she says are currently closed to public access due to “a patchwork of ownership and access rights.” “I commit to unlocking 50% of these inaccessible acres, to grow our outdoor economy, help ease the burden on our most popular lands, and to provide a financial boost across rural America.”
Improved trail and park infrastructure
The $11.6 billion National Park Service maintenance backlog means that roads, bridges, buildings, trails, and other infrastructure throughout America’s parks are badly in need of updates. Warren promises to eliminate the backlog in her first term, not only in National Parks but throughout U.S. public lands. “It’s not just an embarrassment. It’s also poor stewardship of a hugely valuable economic resource. So let’s fix it,” Warren writes.
The economic impacts of outdoor recreation play a big role in Warren’s plan–she cites an Outdoor Industry Association report, writing that, “Outdoor recreation accounts for $887 billion in consumer spending each year and creates 7.6 million sustainable jobs that can’t be exported overseas.”
21st Century CCC
In order to help rebuild public lands infrastructure and eliminate the backlog, Warren’s plan looks back to a major part of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal: the Civilian Conservation Corps, which put unemployed Americans to work on projects on federal lands. In Warren’s plan, this takes the form of recruiting 10,000 young people and veterans in what she calls a “21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps,” funded through a budget increase to Americorps’ one-year fellowship program. “This will create job opportunities for thousands of young Americans caring for our natural resources and public lands, deepening their lifelong relationship with the great outdoors.”
Warren’s plan parallels the bipartisan 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Act, a public-private partnership signed into law in March as a part of the Natural Resources Management Act. The Act, championed by the late Senator John McCain, would use existing funding to expand the number of federal agencies that can develop conservation projects. Where Warren’s plan differs is in offering increased federal funding for an independent program.
Increasing Land and Water Conservation Fund spending
On a federal level, the Land and Water Conservation Fund provides money to each of the four federal agencies that oversee public land in order to purchase land for conservation or recreation purposes. Each year since Congress first created the Land and Water Conservation Fund in 1964, energy companies have paid millions of dollars in royalties from oil and gas drilling into the fund. However, Congress frequently diverts money from the LWCF to other uses, leading to a backlog of about $30 million in federal conservation needs, according to the Land and Water Conservation Fund Coalition. Currently, a bipartisan bill to guarantee $900 million in "permanent, declared funding" annually is making its way through the Senate.
Warren supports those efforts: “It’s time to make Land and Water Conservation Fund spending mandatory to ensure that we continue to preserve and enhance public lands for conservation and recreation.”
Reducing fossil fuel extraction on public lands
In 2017, President Trump rolled back protections for two million acres of land by shrinking the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, opening them up to extraction and drawing lawsuits from tribes, advocacy groups, and even Patagonia. Warren promises to restore these protections, as well as any other public lands protections that the Trump Administration rolls back. In addition to these restorations, Warren promises to end new fossil fuel extraction on all public lands and sets a goal of generating 10% of overall electricity from renewable sources offshore or on public lands—a stance that’s certain to be divisive.