Is the new administration following through on its park promises? Where things stand for 8 of NPCA’s top priorities, plus critical next steps for each.
The National Park Service is currently facing an array of threats to our public lands unlike anything the agency has experienced in its 104-year history. President Joe Biden ran on a platform to “build back better,” proposing a variety of initiatives to address ongoing crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, racial inequity, climate change and plans to improve our parks and public lands. Are his actions following through on his promises? Here is some of the progress the new administration has made in its first 100 days and the most important next steps we’re urging Biden to tackle on 8 of our top priorities for national parks.
1. Protect national parks from oil and gas development
The Trump administration auctioned more than 25 million acres of public lands for oil and gas development during its four-year term, and many of those parcels were offered without public input, Tribal consultation or proper environmental review. Fossil fuel extraction scars landscapes, threatens wildlife, and pollutes air and water near national parks.
During his first week in office, Biden temporarily paused the government from offering new federal lands for oil and gas development. He also directed federal agencies to engage with underrepresented and underserved communities, which will help bring stakeholders back to the table to have a voice in what happens to their lands, including traditional and ancestral lands that are sacred to Native American nations and tribes. NPCA will continue to push the Biden administration to phase out the development of fossil fuels on public lands in favor of more just and sustainable energy solutions.
2. Take bold action to address the climate crisis
Climate change is the greatest threat the national parks have ever faced. Nearly everything we know and love about the parks — their plants and animals, glaciers, beaches, historic structures, and more — is already under stress from these changes, amounting to a state of crisis for our public lands and cultural resources. On his first day in office, Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change, signaling that the U.S. will recommit to becoming a global partner in combating the crisis. The president’s Build Back Better plan, released in March, emphasizes investments in clean energy, green infrastructure projects and environmental justice that will reduce the pollution driving climate change, and help national parks build resiliency to threats such as flooding and fires, and protect vulnerable communities from intensifying natural disasters. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland also established a task force on climate earlier this month that will help bring better scientific integrity and transparency to land management and develop plans for how the department will address the crisis.
Now, Biden must work across his administration to make sure these plans are followed by concrete actions to achieve a nationwide power sector that is free of carbon pollution by 2035, commit the U.S. to a “30 by 30” plan of conserving 30% of our lands and waters by 2030, issue rules to sharply curb methane from the oil and gas sector, and ensure states issue strong plans to reduce pollutants that cause haze and harm human health, among other important policies and practices.
3. Restore full protections for our national monuments
In 2017, the Trump administration illegally slashed the size of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah by 2 million acres, opening culturally significant and scientifically important lands to drilling, mining and off-road vehicle use. Biden issued an executive order on his first day in office requiring the Department of the Interior to conduct a full review of these actions within 60 days. Earlier this month, Secretary Haaland visited the state and talked with stakeholders about the importance of these lands.
Now, Haaland must send the department’s recommendations to the White House, and Biden must move swiftly to reinstate full protections for these places. These spectacular monuments have been vulnerable to damage for more than three years despite millions of public comments opposing these devastating cuts to their protections. These Tribal sacred sites and lands are too important to ignore any longer.
4. Support new and expanded national parks
As our country continues to evolve, so must our national parks and the stories they tell. The National Park Service has new opportunities to preserve the historic Blackwell School in Texas, lands in Chicago and throughout the South associated with visionary philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, and other important places across the country.
NPCA will urge the administration and Congress to study and designate new national parks and expand existing park sites to protect nationally significant lands and preserve a fuller picture of our history.
5. Protect people and parks from overcrowding
The spread of COVID-19 has been one of the worst crises facing the nation over the past 14 months, and parks have served as both refuges and places where the effects of crowding have caused serious concerns over public health and the health of the parks themselves. Biden issued a mandate within his first two weeks in office that requires people wear face masks on all public lands while indoors and where distancing is not possible. His administration’s work to increase the supply and hasten the distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been one of its most significant accomplishments in its first 100 days, making public venues significantly safer, including national parks. NPCA will urge officials to continue offering guidance, protocols and personal protective equipment for park staff.
Overcrowding is not a new issue for parks, however. For years, many of our most popular public lands have seen overwhelming numbers of visitors, which can negatively affect wildlife, trails, traffic and many other aspects of the visitor experience. Last year, several parks implemented timed entry and reservation systems to help alleviate problems caused by crowding, including the spread of COVID-19. These systems have proven to be very successful, and NPCA urges the National Park Service to make them permanent at the parks most affected by overcrowding.
6. Fund park transportation and infrastructure
Roadways and transportation systems are integral to the national park experience, providing safe access to world-class sights for hundreds of millions of visitors each year. But years of underfunding have led to roads, bridges, shuttles, ferries and buses falling into disrepair across the National Park System. Last year, Congress passed the Great American Outdoors Act, sweeping bipartisan legislation that will provide billions of dollars in funding for national park maintenance and repair needs. Now, the Biden administration must allocate these funds to the projects that most desperately need them.
The president’s Build Back Better plan supports new investments in green infrastructure — but lacks park-specific initiatives. We urge the Biden administration to ask Congress to ensure park needs are part of any infrastructure package that moves forward.
7. Mitigate damage caused by the border wall
The wall at the southern border divides neighborhoods, blocks wildlife migration, destroys park ecosystems, disrupts the flow of water and limits access to cultural sites. On his first day in office, President Biden paused all construction on the wall and directed the government to conduct a 60-day review of the resources used to build the wall — important steps toward stopping the harm from this destructive and expensive project.
Those 60 days have now passed, and there has been no word yet on next steps. Much of the damage cannot be repaired, but the government can still mitigate some of the harm to our lands, waters and wildlife, and the most egregious sections of wall, including construction near Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, which must come down.
8. Nominate a National Park Service director
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Parks need visionary leadership to thrive. NPCA strongly supports Biden’s historic choice in nominating Interior Secretary Haaland as the first Native American to serve in a presidential Cabinet. Halaand is a longtime champion for public lands with years of experience advocating for environmental justice and national park protection.
The National Park Service has not had a director for more than four years, depriving the agency of a voice in congressional hearings and clear, strategic guidance for its employees. Many qualified candidates exist, and we urge the president to pick one as soon as possible!
About the author
Christina Hazard Legislative Director, Government Affairs
Christina Hazard joined NPCA in 2006 and is the Legislative Director for the Government Affairs team.