On January 20, during the first few moments of his first day in office, standing at a podium, President Biden asserted his commitment to protecting our planet, acknowledging its cry for survival “that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear.”
With a stroke of his pen, Biden was able to undo many of the executive orders that his predecessor had enacted, including putting a temporary moratorium on oil and natural-gas leases in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, stopping construction on a border wall that might have sliced through Big Bend National Park in Texas, reviewing the reduced boundaries for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments in Utah, and ceasing commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the New England coast.
However, executive orders are just the low-hanging fruit. In June, in a landmark bipartisan effort, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, securing permanent financing for the Land and Water Conservation Fund and allocating $9.5 billion over the next five years for the National Park Service and other federal land-management agencies to address their mounting maintenance backlogs. The NPS alone has nearly $12 billion in deferred maintenance requests, and the former president’s Department of the Interior failed to meet the deadline to designate these funds. If Biden wants to cement his legacy within the parks system, proper distribution of those dollars will be key.
“The moon shot was the Great American Outdoors Act, honestly,” said Will Shafroth, president and CEO of the National Park Foundation. “If I were betting a year ago, I wouldn’t have predicted that it was going to happen at the scale that it happened. The challenge right now is that we have to execute effectively. We have to make sure that these dollars are invested intelligently and strategically to make the biggest impact that they can, as soon as they can. So that’s the hard work, and it’s not as sexy as ‘Let’s pass this giant bill.’”
Phil Francis, chair of the executive council for the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, heads a group of over 1,800 mostly retired NPS employees, with a laundry list of requests that they’re urging the incoming administration to act on immediately. “The first item on our list is to make sure that there’s a permanent director selected for the National Park Service. For the first time in the Park Service’s history, we went through an entire administration, all four years, without a permanent director,” said Francis. His council would also like to see a mask mandate within the national parks and personal protective equipment provided to all staff to help ensure their safety.
According to Francis, the Biden team needs to focus on two things: “Undo what was done over the past four years. Then accomplish the new agenda.”
Perhaps the best way for the new administration to enact a bold new agenda will be via the 30 by 30 initiative that Biden campaigned on. More than just a snappy name, this plan to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and 30 percent of its water by the year 2030 is based on scientific research stating that this level of conservation is critical to slow climate change and avoid catastrophic species loss.
Shafroth believes that the National Park Service could play an integral part in accomplishing this ambitious goal. “The Park Service has, fundamentally, a conservation mission, so they are already manifesting this,” he said. “What I see as an opportunity is the connectivity between and among public and protected private lands to ensure that we maintain the integrity of ecosystems. We can’t just think about the parks as islands of protected places.”
With huge bipartisan and public support, and an ability to make personal the importance of conservation (over 300 million people visited the parks in 2019), the NPS could see itself as a figurehead for larger efforts like 30 by 30, drumming up support for more protected land by fostering deep connections with entities of natural spaces, making new stewards out of younger generations, and managing huge swaths of preserved wilderness between safeguarded private lands.
The path to get from our present to that future is complicated and will take years. At the moment, 26 percent of U.S. ocean waters are protected, but only 12 percent of the land meets these requirements.
A coalition of 135 groups, led by the Center for Biological Diversity, lobbied President Biden to create 25 new national monuments and 50 new national wildlife preserves to accelerate the process, but a modern conservation policy to meet such an objective will also require the support of private landowners, through tax incentives like conservation easements and tribal leadership. With Representative Deb Haaland tapped to head the Department of the Interior, it seems apparent that Biden is serious about giving voice to historically excluded communities and listening to tribal priorities. The NPS currently manages 84 of 129 national monuments, so a push for more protected lands would likely be a big boon for the organization.
Though there’s still much work to be done, parks lovers should be able to sleep a little easier knowing there’s a new administration in the White House already introducing many of the policies needed to protect the wild spaces and species we love. Francis, of the Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks, said he’s certainly looking forward to a break from the legislative chaos of the past four years. “Five years ago, we took 20 different actions. This past year, it was over 260,” he said. “We hope to become a little less busy.”