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Why President Obama Should Discuss Conservation for the First Time in His State of the Union Address

SOURCE: AP/Charles Dharapak

President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, February 12, 2013.

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In his upcoming State of the Union address on January 28, President Barack Obama has the opportunity to make a bold new commitment to protect America’s national parks, lands, and water resources for future generations as part of a strategy to leave a conservation legacy that will create jobs and help Americans prepare for the impacts of a changing climate.

Although the president has used previous State of the Union speeches to set visionary goals to reduce carbon pollution and transition to a clean energy economy, he has not yet used the platform of a joint session of Congress to discuss land and water conservation as 13 out of the 18 presidents since Theodore Roosevelt have done, including Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

But that could change this year. President Obama has said that he intends to use the upcoming State of the Union address to outline the actions his administration will take with its existing executive authorities, independent of Congress, to help grow the economy and advance the priorities of middle-class families. “[W]e are not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we are providing Americans the kind of help that they need,” he said at a recent cabinet meeting.

With the president’s renewed focus on using executive action to advance his agenda, we identify below three ways he can use the State of the Union as an opportunity to re-energize his conservation agenda, jumpstart the outdoor recreation economy, and build a lasting legacy for America’s lands, water, and wildlife.

President Obama should challenge Congress to protect new national parks and wilderness areas, making it clear that he will use his executive authority to do so if Congress fails to act

Congress’s long-standing, bipartisan tradition of protecting parks, forests, and wildlife habitat for future generations has ground to a halt. The last Congress was the first since World War II that did not protect a single new acre of public land as a national park, wilderness, or monument. The current Congress is on track to become the second, as it did not protect one acre in 2013.

Furthermore, since the Tea Party takeover in 2010, the House of Representatives has delivered blow after blow to conservation, from budget cuts that forced seasonal closures of national parks to proposals to sell off public lands to the highest bidder.

The 16-day government shutdown last October and the resulting closure of national parks focused Americans’ attention on Washington’s neglect of public lands. According to public opinion research we commissioned, the shutdown fueled a sense that neither political party is doing enough to protect national parks and public lands. The research found that, even though voters express somewhat greater trust in President Obama—37 percent—than in congressional Republicans—29 percent—to protect national parks and public lands, 45 percent of independents do not believe anyone is doing enough to address these issues.

With Congress gridlocked, land conservation is an area in which the president can assume the mantle of leadership and use his executive authorities and his bully pulpit to make real progress. In particular, he should echo the challenge that Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell made to Congress in November, when she said, “If Congress doesn’t step up to act to protect some of these important places that have been identified by communities and people throughout the country, then the president will take action.”

Not only will the use of already-existing executive authorities—such as to create new national monuments under the Antiquities Act, establish new wildlife refuges, and protect iconic landscapes from industrial development—protect our American heritage, but they will also create jobs and boost the economy. Recreation on lands the Interior Department manages, for instance, stimulated $45 billion in economic impacts, along with 372,000 jobs in fiscal year 2012.

The president should make the protection of places that are ‘too special to develop’ a core component of a balanced, sustainable, and strong energy strategy

Although the ongoing energy boom is reducing U.S. reliance on foreign oil, it is also resulting in widespread loss of open space and wildlife habitat, growing public concern about the impacts of drilling on water quality, and worsening air quality in many areas.

According to a CAP analysis, the pace of energy development on public lands since 2009 has far outpaced efforts to conserve lands for future generations. From the beginning of the president’s term through 2013, 7.3 million acres of public lands were leased to oil and gas companies, while only 2.9 million acres have been permanently protected.

The president should make environmental protection a pillar of his “all-of-the-above energy strategy” and affirm his commitment to reducing the impacts of the energy boom on land, water, wildlife, and local communities. Specifically, he should pledge that as his administration continues to offer new opportunities for development on public lands and waters, it will also identify and set aside certain areas that are too special to drill.

As part of his Climate Action Plan, the president should announce that his administration will establish a carbon-emissions reduction strategy to guide the management and conservation of America’s public lands and waters

In December, the Center for American Progress published an analysis that found that America’s national forests, national parks, and public lands are no longer fulfilling their natural role in absorbing carbon and balancing the carbon cycle; as a result of fossil-fuel extraction, they have instead become one of the largest sources of U.S. carbon emissions. When burned, the coal, oil, and natural gas extracted from public lands in the continental United States is currently contributing nearly 4.5 times more carbon pollution to the atmosphere than those same lands are able to absorb.

While the president’s Climate Action Plan aims to reduce overall U.S. carbon pollution, the administration’s all-of-the-above policy promotes the expanded production of all energy sources—be they renewable or conventional—from public lands and waters, a policy that adds to high levels of carbon pollution.

In the State of the Union, the president can reconcile his goals of reducing carbon pollution and encouraging safe and responsible energy development on public lands by announcing the establishment of a carbon-emissions reduction plan for public lands and oceans. This plan, which would help fulfill the president’s commitment to reducing U.S. carbon emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020, should include goals for both increasing the ability of public lands to naturally sequester carbon and reducing carbon pollution that results from fossil-fuel extraction on public lands.

By using his upcoming State of the Union address to discuss America’s proud legacy of land conservation, President Obama will take his place in a long line of leaders who have used their executive authority to protect our country’s best lands for future generations, create jobs, and honor our natural and cultural heritage.

Matt Lee-Ashley is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Public Lands Project at the Center for American Progress. Jessica Goad is the Manager of Research and Outreach for the Public Lands Project at the Center.

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