Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush announced his plan for managing public lands and natural resources Wednesday in Reno. His suggestions ranged from giving states more control over federal lands within their borders to moving the Interior Department headquarters to a western state.
The announcement could be a sign that natural resource issues will play a more prominent role in the 2016 election than they have in the past.
“The last two election cycles there was very little discussion of public lands and energy resources on public lands. I think that’s going to be different this time around,” says Matt Lee-Ashley, Senior Fellow at the politically progressive-leaning Center for American Progress.
Part of this likely has to do with lingering national debate over infrastructure projects like the Keystone XL and the Pacific Connector pipeline in Oregon, the coming Paris climate talks, and the relatively recent fossil fuel boom, especially in the West.
But Lee-Ashley says public lands issues are gaining prominence as an anti-government platform for conservative politicians.
The Cliven Bundy dispute and armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada last year focused attention on the issue. Similar conflicts have threatened to escalate in Southern Oregon, where an armed group has aligned itself with miners when the BLM challenged a claim.
Another issue that’s becoming a political football of sorts is the Land and Water Conservation Fund. The 50-year-old fund uses royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling to pay for land acquisition and conservation projects nationwide. It expired at the beginning of October after not being reauthorized by Congress.
“It’s a critical program for protecting places here in Oregon. And I do think in the long term, it has to get reauthorized. There’s too much on the line,” says Kelley Beamer of the Coalition of Oregon Land Trusts.
The fund is a $900 million pot of money, and there’s varying opinions about how that money shoud be spent. Although there’s support to reauthorize, politicians, like Bush, want to do so with changes – specifically to focus less on public land acquisition and more on public lands upkeep.
“I don’t think the Land and Water Conservation Fund is a partisan issue,” Beamer says. “I think it’s just a matter of efforts to tinker and make small changes, and it’s divided folks.”
If natural resources and public lands emerge as a focus of the coming election, Western states could have a greater say in shaping the conversation.
More than half the land in the West is federally owned. The federal government owns over 50 percent of the land in Oregon and about 30 percent in Washington, increasing the likelihood of voter interest in these states. And this has played out in public polling done by the Center for Western Priorities says Jessica Goad.
“These issues are incredibly important to Western voters, and politicians are realizing that and giving more air time to them,” she says.