What a New Congress and a New Administration Means for Public Lands

We enter 2021 with a new Congress, a new Administration, and exciting opportunities to protect public lands. Check out how all this will affect our outdoor advocacy efforts in the New Year and beyond.
The Mountaineers The Mountaineers
January 21, 2021

Outdoor advocates enter 2021 with a vastly different federal landscape to navigate than we saw in 2020. With a new Congress and a new Administration, we have exciting opportunities to protect our public lands, outdoor experiences, and climate. Here is a summary of some of the key changes that will affect our work to conserve the public lands and waters of the Pacific Northwest and beyond:

new congress

Democrats maintained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, and most of the key committee chairs responsible for public lands remain the same. We’re fortunate that our Washington State House members gained new leadership roles: Congresswoman Suzan DelBene is the Chair of the New Democrat Coalition, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal is the Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Congressman Adam Smith retained his Chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. We also welcomed a new member of the Washington House delegation, Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland of the 10th Congressional District. 

Over in the U.S. Senate, the chamber is split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans. Because Vice President Harris will cast tie-breaking votes, Democrats gain control. This means that Democrats control the committees and decide what legislation comes to the Senate floor. Washington Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell will both gain powerful committee chair positions. Murray ranks third in the Democratic leadership as assistant majority leader, chairs the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP), and is the No. 2 Democrat on the Appropriations Committee. Cantwell chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. We’re also thrilled that Senator Cantwell will remain on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where she is a strong leader for public lands. Both Senators will be extremely influential in setting agendas, shepherding legislation, and directing federal spending. 

A split Senate and slim majority in the House will make it more difficult to pass sweeping legislation. A narrowly-divided Congress may result in more incremental, compromise-oriented legislation. However, even with a divided Congress the last two years, we’ve achieved significant conservation wins with the recent passage of the Dingell Act and the Great American Outdoors Act. These bills passed with overwhelming bipartisan votes, showing that protecting public lands and waters has strong support across the political spectrum. We’re optimistic that we will see legislation passed in the new Congress that protects the outdoor experience. 

Legislation

Last year we advocated for the Wild Olympics Wilderness and Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, which would protect over 126,000 acres around the Olympic National Park as Wilderness. The House passed the Wild Olympics bill as part of a larger lands package not once, but twice! Ultimately, despite hundreds of messages to lawmakers sent by our community, the Wild Olympics Act did not pass. We’re working with our partners and Congressional champions to make these land protections a key priority for the new Congress. 

We worked hard to introduce the Simplifying Outdoor Access to Recreation (SOAR) Act, a bill that would help fix the current inefficient and unpredictable recreational permitting system that creates barriers for people to experience the outdoors through organized programs. The SOAR Act made some great progress in the last Congress - it received a hearing in both the House and Senate and passed out of a key House committee - but it did not advance. We plan to work with the bill sponsors to reintroduce the bill in the 117th Congress and continue collaborating with the Forest Service to make administrative changes to the permitting process. 

Finally, we’ll push the new Congress to protect the outdoors as a part of economic recovery, climate action, and infrastructure funding. While Congress faces many urgent challenges like COVID-19 and economic relief, there are many opportunities to promote conservation and sustainable, equitable access to the outdoors. 

New Administration

The Biden Administration has pledged to restore key protections for public lands, such as reversing the reductions of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments, restoring protections for the Tongass National Forest, and rebuilding bedrock environmental laws like the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). Climate change is one of the four main priorities of the Biden Administration, including COVID-19, economic recovery, and racial equity. You can read our thoughts on what the new administration will mean for public lands in this blog post and this Seattle Times article

Last month, President Biden announced his intent to nominate Congresswoman Deb Haaland (D-NM) as the Interior Secretary. If confirmed, Haaland will be the country’s first Native American cabinet secretary. We’re thrilled with Haaland’s nomination; not only because of her background, but because she’s a strong champion for public lands and climate (and she’s the House sponsor of the SOAR Act!). She knows our issues well and will help make public lands more equitable and sustainable. President Biden has also announced his intent to nominate a new special envoy on climate and a domestic ‘climate czar.’ 

First 100 Days

The first 100 days are the most important time in any new administration. Our partners at Outdoor Alliance have developed a First 100 Days Checklist for Public Lands: a list of ten things outdoor advocates would like to see happen in the first 100 days of the new administration. They include reintroducing protections for 4 million acres of public lands, making immediate commitments to protect public lands for climate and recreation, and reversing rollbacks to conservation laws like NEPA. 

The Mountaineers is working hard with Outdoor Alliance's policy team to deliver recommendations to the next administration and to work with new leaders in Congress. Check out the full list of ten actions we want to see happen and how you can get engaged. It’s easy to learn more and take action for every item on the list. 

First 100 Days Checklist

main image by dustin wintczak.