Look, I know that a blog post like this can sound like the most boring thing ever. But it shouldn’t! These huge environmental laws are the very reason we have wild places to camp, hike, paddle, photograph, climb, and experience! And without them, well, we very well wouldn’t have wild places at all. These laws are definitely not to be taken for granted — lots of people, organizations, and politicians have been working to erode them - and by extension, our wild places.
Let’s dive into a few of the most important environmental laws you might be familiar with and a few you maybe haven’t heard of (and why they’re so rad):
Endangered Species Act (ESA)
Most people have heard of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Basically, we agree that an animal is threatened to become extinct and we take measures to help protect them and bring the population back, like requiring federal agencies to check that their actions aren’t jeopardizing listed species or critical habitats. Scientists credit the ESA for saving 227 species from going extinct. Just as important, this law has the power to protect huge, vast landscapes of important habitat for the animals that depend on it. That makes it a big target from extractive industries like oil and gas, timber, mining, and grazing interests that profit from developing these landscapes.
Not everyone is so stoked about creating healthy habitats for the species (and humans) that depend on them. Earlier this year, the Trump administration pushed through changes to the ESA that weakens protections for species and gives extractive industries much more leeway to develop threatened areas. Even though the ESA itself wasn’t changed, these new rules change how the federal government (USFWS & NOAA) enforce the ESA. About 83 percent of Americans (including a large amount of conservatives) support the ESA and its great track record - but the roadblocks it creates for mining and oil and gas drilling has made it controversial.
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)
Before NEPA, you could develop public lands without needing to study how it’d affect the environment or if there were better alternatives to development. It’s easy to take this law for granted, but it was really a game-changer in how we manage our public lands. NEPA forces the federal government comply with environmental regulations, study how a project will affect the environment (and if there are better alternatives), and it gives you - the public - a say in how the federal government manages your public lands. Want to voice your opinion on not supporting a mine to go up in your favorite national forest? You have NEPA to thank for ensuring your voice matters in the process.
Unfortunately, there are special interest groups (cough, cough: extractive industries) that would rather not have to comply with NEPA so they can develop public lands more easily. These groups are trying to roll back NEPA’s strength (usually by saying it’ll create jobs & strengthen the economy), and they’re starting with public engagement. In 2019, it was proposed to remove the public engagement process from up to 93% of all Forest Service Projects - allowing speedy, large extraction projects on public lands. Check out this phenomenal post on NEPA to learn more.
Wilderness Act of 1964
This is the piece of legislation that created "wilderness designation" - where we as a country decide to set aside large places undeveloped by humans to be undeveloped indefinitely, for us and future generations. It’s hard to understate just how radical of an idea this is - and how lucky we are to have public lands managed to be left as they are, “untrammeled” by humans. As Terry Tempest Williams puts it, wilderness is a place where open spaces open minds - an insurance policy against ecological disasters and mindless development, an idea by humans to set aside wild places that, ironically, will only continue if humans continue to uphold this law.
The Federal Land Policy Management Act, or FLPMA (pronounced “flip-ma”), isn’t too talked about in public land circles, but it’s the bedrock of how the Bureau of Land Management, the largest of the “Big 4” federal agencies, actually manages the land. Since the BLM is multi-use, it determines whether an area is used for mining, hiking, habitat conservation, or all too often: cattle grazing. It’s easy to treat the national parks as places to “play in and pray in,” as John Muir so famously said, but FLPMA determines how BLM land is used - and it’s so much more vague, multi-use, and opaque. Outdoor recreations advocates would love FLPMA a lot more if the federal government enforced it differently, since preference and lenience is often given to industries instead of hikers & campers. But despite these shortcomings, FLPMA is the law on how we manage BLM land - for better or worse.
Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF)
The LWCF invests money from offshore oil and gas leases on public lands into the natural areas, water resources, cultural heritage, and recreation opportunities on our public lands. It uses the funds from environmentally-unfriendly uses of our public land and supports conservation projects on public lands elsewhere. It’s an awesome way to fund conservation projects throughout the US (literally every county in the US benefits from the LWCF) without using any taxpayer dollars.
The LWCF is great for our wild places, great for our economy, and has bipartisan support. Even better, in March of 2019, Congress permanently reauthorized the LWCF so that it’s fate wasn’t up in the air every few years. The only downside: sometimes Congress takes the LWCF money and “diverts” it for other uses — essentially taking money that was supposed to be used for conserving land and water to use for something else instead. No bueno. There’s currently a bill in a House Committee that would ensure the LWCF gets $900 million every year and can’t be reallocated — a huge win for our wild places.
Antiquities Act of 1906
The Antiquities Act gives the President the ability to establish national monuments on federal lands. It’s a powerful act, because it allows the President to quickly protect large areas of public land without needing Congressional approval - which usually comes at a glacial pace. (To learn more about the difference between National Monuments and National Parks, read this Outside article).
Even though the bipartisan Antiquities Act can create national monuments quickly, they’re they’re historically very well-planned and thought-out: it can take years for local stakeholders to agree on what the national monument looks like before it’s actually created. Plus, national monuments are great for tourism and recreation! The battle over the Antiquities Act, however, began in 2017 when Pres. Trump used it to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments by 85% and 50%, respectively. Check out our blog post on the threats to public lands to learn more about how the Antiquities Act has become one of the most controversial and important laws in the current public land debate.
Resources to learn more:
If you’re interested in the Endangered Species Act and the Wilderness Act, read Terry Tempest Williams’ new book Erosion: Essays of Undoing.
For an in-depth (and often frustrating look) into the history of FLPMA, read This Land by Christopher Ketcham.
The Outdoor Advocacy Project has a number of great articles on federal policies, plus other great public land resources, too.