Washington • If a Democrat lands in the White House after next year’s election, Americans should expect a wholesale reversal of the Trump administration’s approach to public lands.
Most of the Democratic hopefuls are promising to prohibit new leases for oil and gas drilling on federal acreage — or phase it out altogether — as well as spend billions to fix aging national park structures and restore the original boundaries of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments in southern Utah.
Public lands may not be a topic brought up during the national debates, but most Democratic candidates are making it an issue and calling out President Donald Trump for allowing federally managed lands to be used for oil and gas exploration and coal mining to the detriment of the environment.
Environmentalists have charged that Trump is the least-friendly land steward in generations. Less than a year in office, he carved 2 million acres from the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments and has opened up more federal tracts for mineral extraction, including big chunks of southern Utah, offshore waters and the coastal plains of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
Just recently, the Interior Department agreed to transfer 500 public acres along the U.S.-Mexico border to the Pentagon to help with construction of the border wall Trump has demanded be built before Election Day.
The Salt Lake Tribune reached out to all the contenders seeking to topple Trump — including Republicans Joe Walsh, Mark Sanford and William Weld — to ask about what their approach as president would be toward public lands. Some answered questions, while others highlighted their positions on their campaign websites.
One theme is clear: Trump’s policies, particularly his aggressive expansion of new oil and gas leases, would end.
Here's a look at where the candidates stand:
The former vice president promises to stop leasing public lands for oil and gas drilling and coal mining and change the rates companies that already hold leases pay to extract minerals from land owned by the American people.
Biden also says he will, if elected, ensure that any new and existing oil operations be held to “aggressive methane pollution limits.”
He would protect, his website says, “America’s natural treasures by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attack on federal lands and waters, establishing national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage, banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,” and change royalty fees to account for climate change costs.
Biden has also vowed to halt subsidies for fossil fuel companies.
“There is simply no excuse for subsidizing fossil fuel, either in the United States or around the world,” Biden's website says, noting an International Monetary Fund study found more appropriate fossil fuel pricing would have reduced global carbon emissions by 30 percent.
Biden has also pledged not to take any campaign contributions from oil, gas or mining groups or executives.
The Vermont senator says that he will restore the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments as established by Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, respectively. Trump shrank the two Utah monuments in December 2017.
“This was the largest rollback of federal land protection in our nation’s history,” says Sanders’ Western press secretary, Joe Calvello. “Trump’s decision to sell off this land that Native American communities consider sacred to fossil fuel companies so they can profit off of destroying our planet must be reversed. We should be doing everything we can to protect our national monuments and sacred Native American lands, not opening them up so fossil fuel companies can make a bigger profit.”
Sanders says that fossil fuels on public lands should remain in the ground and proposes to not only stop any new permitting, but also halt drilling leases already issued.
“Bernie will immediately end all new and existing fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands,” Calvello says, including any proposed drilling in ANWR.
Sanders also plans to address the $12 billion maintenance backlog at national parks — and more.
“Our national parks have fallen into serious and dangerous disrepair,” Calvello says. “We will perform more than $25 billion of repairs and maintenance on roads, buildings, utility systems, and other structures and facilities across the national park system. This will help ensure that park visitors have a safe and enjoyable experience connecting with nature for years to come.”
Sanders’ proposals also include putting $171 billion into restarting the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps to help build green projects, plant billions of trees, prevent flood and soil erosion, clean up plastic pollution as well as build and maintain paths and trails.
“We must take these natural solutions seriously as an important part of our strategy to solve the climate crisis,” Calvello says.
The Massachusetts senator says that on her first day she will place a “total moratorium” on any new fossil fuel leases on public lands and would limit methane emissions on existing oil and gas projects.
Ahead of a visit to Utah earlier this year, Warren outlined her plans for public lands in a Medium post, calling out Trump for “poor stewardship” of America’s public lands.
Warren not only called for fully funding public land agencies and ending the maintenance backlog at national parks, she also said she wants to make national parks free for Americans.
“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,” she wrote. “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.”
She also pledged to restore the two Utah monuments from Trump’s action, which she said would cause “irreversible damage.”
The former Texas congressman says he will return the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments back to their original designations.
“In his climate change plan, Beto calls for protecting our most wild, beautiful, and biodiverse places for generations to come — and he has a record of doing just that,” says O’Rourke’s national press secretary, Aleigha Cavalier.
O'Rourke also promises to ban any sale of public lands.
“Beto is committed to protecting our public lands — including establishing more national parks and monuments— not selling off these spaces to the highest bidder,” Cavalier says.
Moreover, O’Rourke would stop new fossil fuel leases on public lands, ensure that any permits account for climate change and community impacts, change royalties paid to the federal government to reflect the costs of climate change as well as boost renewable, green energy projects.
Cavalier points out that when O’Rourke served in Congress, he sponsored legislation to fix the maintenance backlog at national parks and his climate plan would tackle the issue.
The New Jersey senator also plans a moratorium on drilling on public lands and waters and to require consideration of climate change impacts for any new structures on existing leases. Booker would end any subsidies for fossil fuel extraction and prohibit new oil and gas drilling when a clean energy alternative is competitive and available.
Booker's campaign says he will reverse Trump's slashing of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments.
The senator’s climate plans call for “Ensur[ing] that every American can enjoy our national parks, forests, and other public lands by fully funding the maintenance backlog and waiving admission fees for all.”
The California Democratic senator is on board with the proposal to end mineral extraction on public lands.
“Our public lands and waters belong to all Americans and are a critical tool for combating climate change," Harris says on her website. “We must stop extracting fossil fuels and use our public lands to our collective benefit.”
And she wants to end subsidies for fossil fuel companies and tax incentives.
Harris also says she would use existing law and work with Congress to phase out current leases and add emissions mitigation to ongoing oil and gas operations.
She adds that her administration would work to help transition communities that are dependent on fossil fuel developments to find new “opportunities in the new clean economy.”
“To combat the climate crisis," Harris’ website says, “we must phase out fossil fuel development and extraction on these landscapes immediately and use our public places to our collective benefit.”
She says, if elected, she will begin to address the national parks’ maintenance backlog by urging passage of the Restore Our Parks Act, a bipartisan measure that would use money from mineral extraction to fund park projects.
And she pledges to using the Antiquities Act to restore the original footprint of the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments.
The billionaire businessman says climate change is a top priority and will, on his first day in office, declare it a national emergency.
“Tom Steyer is the only candidate that is treating climate as a crisis as big and urgent as any other that this country and our planet has faced,” says Steyer’s national press secretary, Alberto Lammers. “To that end, Tom will keep publicly owned oil, coal, and gas in the ground by stopping the expansion of fossil fuel leases. He will also establish a careful process to wind down federal onshore and offshore fossil fuel production.”
Steyer will roll back Trump's cuts to the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase monuments, Lammers says, as well as make national parks free for every American and pump $25 billion into upgrading and maintaining park facilities.
“Tom pledges to protect our national monuments and parks — including Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante — from fossil fuel companies who are looking to profit from land that is sacred to Native Americans and belongs to all Americans,” Lammers says.
Additionally, Steyer will create a Climate Corps that would enlist Americans to help mitigate the effects of climate change.
The former congressman from Illinois, who is challenging Trump for the Republican nomination, says the Bears Ears monument designation and Trump’s cuts to it highlights the need for reform of the process.
“One of the most troubling aspects of the Bears Ears issue that doesn’t get talked about is how broken our process is when it comes to designating — and un-designating — national monuments,” Walsh said. “With a stroke of a pen in the final days of his administration, Obama change the status of these public lands. This made it easy for Trump to justify reversing course soon thereafter in precisely the same manner.”
Walsh also pushes back on the idea of just halting fossil fuel exploration. Why?
“Because that sort of commitment does not make practical sense — it could actually undermine well-intentioned efforts to protect precious wilderness area,” Walsh says. “For instance, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal land holders possess many in-holdings that have been identified as properties they should sell for this very calculation; they’re often parcels in the midst of cities that can be sold or swapped for lands that are more appropriate for wilderness status. This presents opportunities for sales or exchange of land that thereby expands and improves the federal portfolio of wilderness areas we want to protect.”
Walsh says there is no “one-size-fits-all answer for how to handle leasing on public lands and offshore because the contexts vary widely.”
“It’s disingenuous of politicians to make false promises to affected communities that coal mining is coming back, however there’s no question that we need to develop oil and gas reserves domestically over the long term for the sake of national security and stability,” Walsh says. “Given the huge range of land in the federal portfolio, an openness to leasing of public lands for these purposes does not mean we can’t still be good stewards of our precious wilderness areas.”
On the national park maintenance backlog, Walsh says there are many options to address it.
“There is a huge range of types of national parks — for instance, many are historical sites in visitor-dense areas that can generate funding streams for these backlog needs if we harness creative solutions,” Walsh says. “As president, I would work with Congress to craft legislation to leverage public-private partnerships and community engagement to incentivize and reward innovative approaches to solving this funding gap.”
The former secretary of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t address much about public lands on his website and his campaign did not respond to questions.
He plans to replace all coal-powered electrical plants with zero-emission sources.
The Minnesota Democratic senator says on her website she will end subsidies for the fossil fuel industry.
“For too long, taxpayers have subsidized the massive profits of fossil fuel companies,” he website says. “Senator Klobuchar will end federal tax subsidies for fossil fuel exploration and production.”
Klobuchar says she'll bring back the original boundaries of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments “to protect their ecological and the tribal cultural significance and undertake a review of other boundary adjustment and management changes initiated by the Trump administration.”
The senator also supports the National Park Service Legacy Restoration Fund, which would address the maintenance backlog.
The South Bend, Ind., mayor says that he will reverse Trump’s move to slash Bears Ears and Grand Staircase national monuments and notes that his climate plan includes a proposal to end new leases on fossil fuel leases on public lands.
The other presidential contenders did not respond to questions about their proposals for public lands and did not have any information about public lands listed on their websites.