The Most Anti-Nature President in U.S. History

A camper drives through the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument outside Escalante, Utah, May 2017.

President Donald Trump has thrown in reverse the United States’ proud, bipartisan record of nature conservation. Unlike every modern-day U.S. president before him who helped build up America’s awe-inspiring system of public lands and waters, President Trump has pursued an agenda aimed at removing protections from vast swaths of public lands and waters. In fact, President Trump is the only president in U.S. history to have removed more public lands than he protected.

The Center for American Progress calculates that over the past three years, the Trump administration has attempted to remove protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands—approximately 1,000 times more land than his administration has protected. While the courts may overturn many of the Trump administration’s rollbacks, these actions equate to stripping protections from an area the size of Florida.

This column provides a comprehensive accounting of the Trump administration’s public land rollbacks—from the well-known rollbacks on Bears Ears National Monument and Tongass National Forest to those included in lower-profile agency planning documents and regulatory publications. It also notes that the president’s destructive agenda has expanded areas available for fossil fuel development and threatens offshore waters that belong to all Americans.

Trump’s anti-conservation policies come at a time when humankind needs nature more than ever. As the coronavirus pandemic has laid bare, protected lands and waters are a critical service—from providing clean air and water, to regulating diseases, to offering an open space to get outside and stay active. In short, healthy, intact natural systems underpin healthy, prosperous communities.

Unfortunately, as this analysis shows, Trump has led the most anti-nature presidency in U.S. history at precisely the time when our leaders should be doing everything in their power to save it.

35 million acres unprotected

Stripping protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments was, in many ways, the opening salvo in the Trump administration’s attack on public lands. More than 2 million acres designated for conservation and cultural use are now actively being sold for mineral development. These removals alone amount to the largest rollback of federal land protection in U.S. history. Although many legal scholars believe that President Trump’s attempted repeal of national monuments was illegal and will likely be overturned in court, the Trump administration’s crusade against public lands has since exposed wildlife refuges and national forests, opened public lands to mining and development, and stripped protections out of land management plans.

To understand the scale of the Trump administration’s efforts to eliminate protections for public lands, CAP reviewed all administrative actions taken since 2017 that resulted in the elimination of protections for monuments, wildlife refuges, and wilderness areas. The authors also included in their analysis actions that led to the elimination of mineral withdrawals and segregations, the removal of roadless areas and special areas, and the ousting of areas of critical environmental concern from final and draft resource management plans (RMPs).

CAP’s analysis found that the Trump administration has removed or is in the process of removing protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands, or roughly 53,125 square miles. This is approximately equivalent in size to the state of Florida and is 15 times the size of Yellowstone National Park. Put differently, President Trump has eliminated protections on 16 times more land than President Teddy Roosevelt protected as national parks and monuments.

The Trump administration’s repeal of protections for public lands spans 12 states, but Alaska has been ground zero in its push to expand logging, mining, and drilling in sensitive areas. In what can only be described as a liquidation of public lands in Alaska, the Trump administration has put at risk vast swaths of the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) and the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The administration is also in the process of stripping protections from 9.2 million acres of old-growth forest in the Tongass National Forest. Within the past year, the U.S. Department of the Interior has revoked Public Land Orders that open 1.5 million acres to mining and has indicated that it is considering similar measures for an additional 50 million acres in the state.

Outside of Alaska, the Trump administration has overturned more than 11.5 million acres of mineral withdrawals. These actions have opened ecologically sensitive areas to drilling and mining in the California desert, lands surrounding the Minnesota Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and in the six states containing critical habitat for the greater sage-grouse.

President Trump’s attempt to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is having similarly damaging effects on America’s natural and cultural heritage. In Arizona and Texas, border wall construction has bulldozed through 150 miles of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge.

Beyond these headline-grabbing rollbacks, the Trump administration has been quietly writing conservation out of the plans that are intended to guide the Bureau of Land Management’s operation of public lands for decades to come. In the seven RMPs under revision since 2017, the Trump administration has removed 2 million acres of existing protections, excising 93 percent of identified Areas of Critical Environmental Concern from those plans.

Onshore and offshore oil and gas leasing

The driving force behind most of the Trump administration’s rollbacks has been to give the fossil fuel industry unfettered access to public lands and waters. While not delineated in CAP’s 35 million acre calculation, the Trump administration has leased more than 24.4 million acres of public lands to the oil and gas industry. Through RMPs, the administration has also proposed opening more than 5.6 million acres of public lands that were previously closed to oil and gas leasing. The administration’s aggressive leasing has put large swaths of public lands in the hands of private industry—an expanding footprint that threatens big game habitat, drinking water, and the growing outdoor recreation economy.

In the oceans, the Trump administration has attempted to open nearly all U.S. coasts and waters to drilling. In April 2017, President Trump signed two executive orders to remove mineral withdrawals in the Arctic and the southeastern coast of the Atlantic Ocean, totaling more than 120 million acres. Although the courts quickly blocked the action, the Trump administration has appealed the ruling.

Furthermore, the administration’s draft U.S. Outer Continental Shelf plan proposes opening and removing protections from 1.5 billion acres—a whopping 94 percent of U.S. oceans. If the plan is adopted, the Trump administration will have opened a swath of ocean that is three times the size of Greenland to industrial activities.

Conclusion

Protected lands and waters are a bulwark against the rapid decline of nature, offering a refuge for people and wildlife alike. But in parts and in sum, the Trump administration’s attacks have stalled the nation’s progress toward conserving nature and wildlife. Rather than building upon the bipartisan conservation legacy of presidents before him, Trump is the only president to have removed more protections from U.S. lands and waters than he put in place. With the United States losing a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds to human development, the planet simply cannot afford any additional destructive anti-conservation actions.

Jenny Rowland-Shea is a senior policy analyst for Public Lands at the Center for American Progress. Zainab Mirza is an intern for Energy and Environment at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Kate Kelly, Matt Lee-Ashley, Nicole Gentile, Tricia Woodcome, Chester Hawkins, and Shanée Simhoni for their contributions to this column.