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The Bush Record On Public Lands

The citizens of the United States own over 700 million acres of National Forests, National Parks, National Wildlife Refuges, historic sites, wilderness areas, and other federal lands. These resources are a national treasure and an integral part of our American heritage. They preserve our history and culture, provide a bounty of recreational opportunities, and represent our last best chance to protect wildlife and pristine ecosystems.

Since his first day in office, President Bush has worked to weaken environmental protections on our public lands. Under his direction, the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior have made decisions to roll back decades of an American land ethic dating back to Republican President Theodore Roosevelt. The Bush Administration's assault has eroded long-standing protections for public lands, leaving them vulnerable to unrestrained mining, oil and gas drilling, logging, road building, and other commercial activities.

Rather than balancing the various interests that make multiple use of our nation's public lands, the Bush Administration has favored the extractive industries and special interests through "behind-the-scenes" efforts to roll back environmental restrictions and conservation laws. In doing so, President Bush has misled the public about his environmental record and even drawn concern from some of the beneficiaries of his pro-development policies.

The Bush Record

Rather than protect our nation's natural heritage, President Bush has consistently called for the exploitation of public lands, making it clear he wants to "put public lands to work."

  • In April 2003, BLM announced plans to streamline oil and gas permitting requirements and expedite the approval process for extraction on public lands, including lands in National Monuments. Specifically, the President has encouraged energy exploration in Canyons of the Ancients National Monument in Colorado, one of the highest density archeological sites in the country, and coal-bed methane extraction in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, where BLM has approved the drilling of 40,000 new wells on 8 million acres.
  • In 2001, Secretary of the Interior, Gale Norton, in her own words, "rolled back environmental restrictions" on the mining industry. Following Norton's reversal of existing rules, the Administration approved Rock Creek Mine in Montana's Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area, home to one of the last populations of grizzly bears in the lower 48 states, and overturned a decision by the Clinton Administration by approving the Glamis Mine in Southern California, a site sacred to Quechan Indian tribe and habitat for the endangered desert tortoise.
  • The Bush Administration has also brought to a halt any effort to designate land as potential Wilderness Areas, and the Secretary of the Interior has renounced the authority to conduct wilderness inventories. In an April 2003 settlement between the Department of the Interior and the State of Utah, the Bush Administration reversed the government's prior litigation position and declared that Interior acted without authority when it recommended 3 million acres of land in Utah for wilderness designation in 1996. Instead, the administration is proposing to develop 3 million acres in Red Rock Canyons, Utah-areas that had been recommended for wilderness protection-for oil and gas exploration, oil drilling, and pipeline and road building.
  • The Bush Administration is also removing limitations on off-highway recreational vehicles (OHVs) on public lands. In March 2002, Bush reversed a Clinton-era decision to phase out snowmobile use in Yellowstone National Park overturning a five-year environmental impact study, which showed overwhelming public support for the ban.
  • In January 2003, the Bush Administration re-activated an antiquated 1866 law that granted states and localities rights-of-way across unreserved federal lands. The Administration's decision to recognize state and local claims to rights of way in thousands of miles of abandoned dirt roads, mining routes, wagon trails, and cattle paths opens up millions of acres in National Parks, National Forests, wilderness areas, and other public lands to road building. This policy "will allow [BLM] to give away some of America's most beautiful and pristine wild lands to special interests," harming up to about 17 million acres of national park land alone.

How President Bush Misleads the Public

The Bush Administration claims that its policies benefit the environment. For example, on January 30, 2003, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Director, Kathleen Clarke announced that BLM, "in an effort to improve its management of the public rangelands" would change its grazing-related policies and regulations in order to "enhance community-based conservation and promote cooperative stewardship of the public rangelands." In truth, these policy changes roll back restrictions on cattle grazing on public lands by requiring BLM to factor "local culture and economy" into grazing studies, "streamlining" the appeals process for grazing decisions, and allowing ranchers to hold property rights in fences, stock ponds and other projects constructed on public land. The proposed changes would shut the public out of the process, prioritize economics over environmental concerns, and bolster private property rights claims on public lands, making it harder for land managers to ensure that abusive grazing practices are changed.

Similarly, the Bush Administration labeled its efforts to increase oil and gas production on federal lands by improving the processing of drilling permits as "innovative strategies [that] will update the permit application process while ensuring protection of cultural and other resources on the public lands." Instead, the policies prioritize drilling over resource protection, automatically assuming that oil and gas production will deliver the greatest value to the public; which is "not consistent with the BLM's mission or the values of many of the region's residents."

In the Powder River basin, even some ranchers who are reaping thousands of dollars a month in mineral royalties think the price of the Bush mining policy may be too high. They lament a countryside overtaken by gas wells, compressor stations and power lines, and pastures devastated by millions of gallons of salty water pumped from underground to release coal-bed methane gas.

The Bush Administration's policy change to recognize state and local rights-of-way across federal lands was characterized by BLM as "simply an efficiency measure" to expedite the settling of existing claims. However, Senator Patrick Leahy disagreed, stating, "[t]his will let the administration enter into closed-door negotiations for paving our national parks, refuges and forests. It's another dilution of the 'public' part of public lands."

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