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Trump-Era Bid to Let Locals Overrule Conservation Buys Blocked by Biden

The Biden administration reversed a Trump-era rule that would have given state and local officials the authority to block conservation purchases made by the federal government.

(CN) — Of the many midnight regulations passed by the Trump administration on the way out the door, Secretarial Order 3388 may have had the shortest run. 

Former Interior Secretary David Bernhardt issued the order less than a week after the election, when much of the national attention remained focused on former President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the results. 

The order allowed state and local officials to block federal conservation purchases while limiting those purchases to land already inside existing parks or wildlife refuges, attempting to limit the expansion of those jurisdictions. 

It was lambasted by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, particularly as conservation purchases under the Great American Outdoors Act represented one of the few areas of bipartisan comity during the Trump years. 

“This must be corrected going forward to ensure Montana voices are heard,” said Senator Steve Daines, a Republican from Montana and a Trump ally.

On Thursday it was corrected, with Acting Interior Secretary Scott de la Vega announcing the department was rescinding order 3388. 

“Interior’s actions today affirm our support for one of America’s most successful and popular conservation programs,” said Shannon A. Estenoz, a deputy at the Interior Department. “We look forward to further strengthening this successful program to ensure that all communities — from hikers and sportsmen to urban and underserved communities — have access to nature and the great outdoors.”

As part of the Great American Outdoors Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund — one of the main sources for federal purchases of private lands for the purpose of conservation — will be permanently funded at $900 million per year. 

The conservation fund has fueled the purchase of $4 billion worth of projects in every county of the country since its inception in 1965, the Interior Department said in a statement on Thursday. 

The fund has helped fund recreational areas from Big Sur in California to Yellowstone National Park, to small parks and playgrounds in urban areas. 

In November, soon after the outdoors act’s passage, federal officials announced $125 million would be allocated toward the purchase of private lands within Glacier Bay National Park in Alaska, the Green River National Wildlife Refuge in Kentucky and the Everglade’s region in South Florida. 

The purchases were all within existing federally managed lands and as such would have not been affected by that part of Bernhardt’s directive. But had local or state officials demurred at the purchase for any reason, they could have blocked the conservation moves. 

“Congress, not the secretarial order, will determine the final list of projects that will receive funding,” said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia. 

The November implementation of the secretarial order and Thursday’s reversal reflects a long-running controversy in the American West that also fuels the battle over national monument boundaries. 

When President Bill Clinton set aside the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996, many of the local residents and officials complained they were not consulted and saw the move as a federal overreach of power that disregards the voices of locals who may rely on the land for jobs and income. 

Trump’s effort to shrink some monuments in the American West, including Bear’s Ears, which was set aside during the Obama administration, was predicated on returning some control to local and state officials. 

But a bipartisan consensus regarding purchases from the conservation fund has emerged that allowing local and state veto undermines the work that the federal government has done and will continue to do in conserving notable land. 

Daines said Thursday that local and state input will be part of the process but should not be the final veto. 

“I look forward to continuing to see the Land and Water Conservation Fund program be a success for public access and conservation in Montana and across the country, which will be the case so long as we continue to rely on local input and follow the letter of the law,” Daines said in a statement released Thursday.

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