In the 14 months since Democrats gained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-NY), and Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ) have led congressional members in efforts to reverse a decade of legislative obstruction and stagnation in U.S. land, water, and wildlife conservation.
In the eight years before this most recent Congress, the United States lost an estimated 19,000 square miles of natural area to urban sprawl, oil and gas fields, and other human development. In that same period—with a Congressional Republican anti-parks caucus blocking nature bills—Congress protected less than one-tenth of the amount of natural area that disappeared to development.
Since January 2019, however, the House has passed bills that would protect more than 5.5 million acres of public lands and waters across the nation—nearly five times as much natural area as Congress protected in the previous eight years. Further, each of the nature protection bills that has passed the House has garnered bipartisan support.
Most recently, on February 12, 2020, the House voted to pass the Protecting America’s Wilderness (PAW) Act. If signed into law, the act would protect more than 2,000 square miles of wilderness in California, Colorado, and Washington; establish new national recreation areas; and designate more than 1,000 miles of new wild and scenic rivers.
Confronting the growing loss of nature around the world
The House’s efforts to accelerate land, water, and wildlife conservation come amid mounting evidence that natural systems both in the United States and globally are rapidly deteriorating.
A scientific study that the Center for American Progress commissioned in 2019 found that from 2001 to 2017, the United States lost an average of more than a football field’s worth of natural area to development every 30 seconds. This loss is rapidly fragmenting wildlife habitats: During the same time period, the average distance in the contiguous United States from a natural place to the nearest human development shrunk by more than 40 percent.
Squeezed by development and facing the mounting strains of climate change, more than 12,000 species of animals and plants in the country need special conservation attention to survive. Globally, more than 1 million wildlife species are at some risk of extinction.
To confront the growing loss of nature in the United States and globally, scientists recommend that countries commit to protecting at least 30 percent of all lands and oceans by 2030 (30×30), with a long-term goal of conserving approximately half the Earth in a natural condition. Pursuing this 30×30 goal, scientists argue, is necessary to protect the biodiversity, clean water, clean air, and natural systems upon which all human communities depend. It is also a vital strategy in the fight against climate change.
Obstacles in the White House and the Senate
The progress that the U.S. House is making on nature conservation contrasts sharply with the Trump administration’s anti-environmental agenda. Since 2017, the administration has undertaken the largest elimination of land protections in American history, putting Bears Ears National Monument, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Tongass National Forest, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and other nationally prized lands in the crosshairs for mining, drilling, and logging.
But the passage of land, water, and wildlife protection bills is as much a return to Congress’ conservation traditions as it is an act of defiance against the Trump administration. Land conservation has long been a popular source of bipartisan agreement. In the decade from 1981 to 1991, Congress protected almost 16.6 million acres of land. In the following 10 years, it protected nearly 20 million acres of land. (see Figure 2)
But House leaders’ current efforts to confront the decline of nature in America face obstacles in the Senate and in the White House. The Trump administration has threatened to veto the Protecting America’s Wilderness Act, which recently passed the House. Meanwhile, Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) has not been willing to endorse the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act—introduced in the Senate and House by fellow Coloradoans Sen. Michael Bennet (D) and Rep. Joe Neguse (D), respectively—which would establish new wilderness and recreation areas in the state. Likewise, Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ) has been unwilling to support legislation to protect public lands around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining. This legislation, the Grand Canyon Centennial Protection Act, has been introduced in the Senate and the House by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Chairman Grijalva, respectively.
Establishing bold goals for nature conservation
Still, there is unmistakable and growing momentum—in Washington, D.C., and in communities across the country—for a more ambitious approach to nature conservation.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM), Sen. Bennet, and Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM) have introduced resolutions in the Senate and the House that would establish a national goal of conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and oceans by 2030. More than 140 conservation, sportsmen, outdoor recreation, scientific, and environmental organizations have voiced their support for these resolutions.
States are also working to establish bold goals for nature conservation. Virginia and Hawaii have established targets for land and ocean conservation, respectively. And Republican and Democratic lawmakers in South Carolina are jointly supporting bills that would establish a 30×30 goal for their state.
Congress should continue to embrace its important role as a powerful engine for conservation by passing popular, bipartisan bills to establish wilderness areas, national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges, and other strongly protected areas. It should also do more to help farmers, ranchers, and other private landowners conserve their lands.
With the example that leaders in the U.S. House are setting, congressional members from every state should feel encouraged and energized to bring forward bills that protect and restore lands, waters, and wildlife for the benefit of all communities in the nation.
Jenny Rowland-Shea is a senior policy analyst for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. Matt Lee-Ashley is a senior fellow at the Center.
The authors would like to thank Zainab Mirza, Meghan Miller, and Chester Hawkins for their contributions to this column.