Skip to main content

Elizabeth Warren's Plan to Protect Public Lands Highlights Environmental Justice Issues

Warren's plan includes ending fossil fuel drilling on public lands, eliminating entrance fees for national parks, and mandating spending for the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
A view from the north of the Valley of the Gods, one of the areas excised from Bears Ears National Monument by President Donald Trump's December 4th, 2017, proclamation.

A view from the north of the Valley of the Gods, one of the areas excised from Bears Ears National Monument by President Donald Trump's December 4th, 2017, proclamation.

Elizabeth Warren, a United States senator from Massachusetts and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, published her plan for the protection of public lands on Monday. The detailed plan aligns with her policy-first platform and outlines specific actions she would take as president to increase protections for—and access to—public lands.

Warren has a consistent track record on environmental legislation. The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental advocacy group, gave her a 99 percent "Lifetime Score" on its National Environmental Scorecard.

Warren wants to make public lands part of the solution to climate change, not a contributor. Her proposal includes an executive order (to be implemented on her first day as president) that would eliminate new fossil fuel leases for drilling offshore and on public lands. She also calls for increasing renewable energy on public lands.

In addition, Warren intends to the use of the Antiquities Act to restore protections for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante national monuments in Utah, which President Donald Trump reduced in 2017.

While Warren has a detailed plan for public lands, critics point to her lack of proposals that broadly tackle climate change. "Elizabeth Warren does not have a record of advocacy and leadership on climate change issues," Jack Clarke, director of public policy and governmental policy at Mass Audubon, one of Massachusetts' largest conservation groups, told E&E News.

Some have also pointed out that Warren's plan will be up against ongoing funding issues, which continue to plague congressional budgetary decisions. "One of the challenges that this vision, and many like it, face is the stepwise implementation of these ideas and how they can be properly funded in a perpetually under-appropriated Department of Interior," says Ani Kame'enui, legislative director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

Environmental proposals like Warren's will be an important part of 2020 candidates' platforms, as polls suggest that voters are increasingly concerned about climate change. "Candidates for the 2020 election will be challenged with walking back the Trump administration's consistent and methodical undoing of environmental and public-health protections," Kame'enui says.

Here's how Warren's plan for public lands addresses issues of environmental justice.

Eliminating Entrance Fees at National Parks

Warren criticizes unequal access to national parks. Despite a total of 318 million visits to national parks last year, "these places are still out of reach for scores of low-income families," she writes. By eliminating entrance costs, Warren wants to make national park access "within reach for every American family."

A 2018 report citing multiple studies found that less than 5 percent of visitors to national park sites were Hispanic or Asian American, and less than 2 percent of visitors were African Americans. The authors offered three reasons for this disparity, which work both independently and in tandem to make parks less accessible to these groups.

One of the reasons is that outdoor recreation at national parks is greatly limited by socioeconomic status. Affluent Americans (regardless of race) are three times more likely to visit national parks than poor Americans. Entrance fees aren't the only barrier to entry, however; other constraining factors include travel costs and lack of transportation.

Cultural factors and boundary maintenance (defined as the act of affirming behaviors that are "culturally relevant" for certain ethnic or racial groups) are also responsible for the disparity, which is largely along racial lines. The researchers note that this disparity can be attributed in part to the idea that outdoor recreation has been—and continues to be—promoted as a leisure activity for white people.

The cultural factors that influence participation are also reinforced by exclusionary and discriminatory practices, many that continue in the parks system today. The researchers note that Americans' tendency to perceive the behavior of white people as the standard for what is good and moral further plays into this discrimination.

Providing More Money for Conservation

Warren's plan also includes permanent funding for the the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The LWCF is a bipartisan congressional program created in 1964, designed to "safeguard natural areas, water resources and our cultural heritage, and to provide recreation opportunities to all Americans." Since its creation, the LWCF has worked at the federal level protecting national parks and public lands, at the state level protecting forests, and at the city and local level providing grants for green spaces in economically disadvantaged areas that lack outdoor recreation opportunities.

According to Alex Taurel, conservation program director at the League of Conservation Voters, we often think of environmental justice only in terms of "communities that are overburdened by the impacts of pollution and climate change," but "there's a similar issue about access to green space and the outdoors: Some communities have a lot of access, and others just lack [access to] those parks." The LWCF, he says, is "a great program to help address some of those equity questions."

Prioritizing Local Stakeholders

Warren wants to ensure "that everyone with a stake has a voice in decisions about the management of our public lands." Her plan seeks to highlight local actors in discussions of the use of public lands, especially tribal nations that have been historically excluded from those conversations.

It's important to hear these voices at the outset of public lands management, rather than as a last step or as a corrective measure, Kame'enui says.

According to Warren's proposal, she plans to "incorporate tribes' traditional ecological knowledge, making provisions for tribal culture and customs on public lands, and exploring co-management and the return of resources to indigenous protection wherever possible."