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How the Trump administration is shaping the future of America’s public lands

The Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction of federally protected land in U.S. history, according to a recent study by the journal Science. And in the wide expanses of the American West, Trump's encouragement of industry and development has conservation advocates concerned for the future of public lands intended for varied use. Jeffrey Brown reports from central Montana.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • William Brangham:

    A recent study published in the journal "Science" found that the Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction of federally protected land in U.S. history.

    President Trump has moved to shrink national monuments such as Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.

    Jeffrey Brown has a story of a fight over land in Central Montana. It's about the tension between conservation and development and what it could mean for the future of all of America's public lands.

    It's part of our regular segment on the Leading Edge of science.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's a landscape of rugged mountains, vast grasslands and tree-covered slopes. In this part of Central Montana, there's hardly a human in sight.

    Wildlife can be hard to spot, too, but the area is home to populations of elk and sage-grouse, as well as migratory birds. It's a paradise for hikers and hunters, like Rob and Katy Beattie of Lewistown, Montana.

  • Rob Beattie:

    We usually like to go out into some of these areas and take big, long walks with the dogs. We look specifically for these big tracts of land that don't have roads in them, that are harder access for other people.

    And then we go way back into them, hoping to find a deer that maybe hasn't seen a person in its lifetime.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    This is public land, just a fraction of the 245 million acres in the United States administered by the Bureau of Land Management, or BLM.

    Now, though, a familiar question hangs above this terrain, how best to use and protect it. Land fights in the West over energy production and conservation have gone on forever, of course. But this one, like so much else, is now caught up in today's political divides.

    In 2014, under President Obama, the BLM identified some 200,000 acres in Central Montana as having — quote — "wilderness characteristics." But in May, more than two years after President Trump took office, the agency released a draft of its new preferred plan for managing that land, and none was set aside for protection.

    Instead, the plan would open more than a million acres to oil and gas exploration. And it calls for eliminating eight existing so-called areas of critical environmental concern. These spaces require special protection for wildlife, history, culture, or scenery.

    Conservationists have cried foul, saying guidance from career professionals was ignored.

    Aubrey Bertram is a field director for the Montana Wilderness Association. She says the BLM's longstanding mission to allow multiple uses of public land, a range of activities commercial and recreational, is under threat.

  • Aubrey Bertram:

    We're seeing a prioritization of oil and gas over all other uses. And that is not multiple use.

    When we when we put these extractive industries on the landscape, that that impact doesn't go away. That stays on the landscape for a really, really, really long time. It is about the integrity of the land, and it's also really about the integrity of the public process.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    What changed?

    Al Nash is the spokesperson for the Bureau's Montana-Dakotas state office.

  • Al Nash:

    Our documents need to reflect those current policies. And this draft document does.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, this is elections do matter, right?

  • Al Nash:

    I have worked under, a number of administrations, a number of interior secretaries. Each of those brings its own emphasis and perspective. And you do see change from year to year or four years to four years. It is part of our American political landscape.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Meanwhile, the new plan has won praise from Montana's oil and gas industries.

  • Alan Olson:

    We agree with everybody else. This is public land, and it should be open to the public. But we are a part of that public.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Alan Olson is executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association. He said the BLM is now leveling a playing field that was tipped too far in favor of conservation under President Obama.

  • Alan Olson:

    We have got land that's preserved. We have got it. Why do we need to keep dying the death of 1,000 cuts?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're saying you don't think we need more protection of wild — of wilderness areas. The other side says, we don't need more energy production.

  • Alan Olson:

    Every Tesla that's manufactured is hauled on the back of a diesel truck or behind a diesel locomotive. If they're riding bicycles, those tires come from oil.

    If we didn't have the petroleum industry, farmers would be farming behind a team of mules, and not sitting in a tractor.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even so, BLM's own assessment of this land indicates it has little or no potential for more oil and gas development, at least for the time being.

    One wonders, why bother opening it up, then, to that kind of production?

  • Al Nash:

    It is part of our mandate to look at those opportunities and to make them available. But, ultimately, it's extraordinarily unlikely that there would be leasing or any significant development.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And that's looking at changing technology, because this is going to last for several decades?

  • Al Nash:

    It's based on our best information and our best analysis looking out 20 years.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    While the two sides grapple over this part of Central Montana, there's a broader battle playing out over the future of all public lands in the U.S. Last month, the BLM announced plans to move its headquarters and most of its staff from Washington to Grand Junction, Colorado, and other Western states.

    The Department of Interior said the location is — quote — "closer to the Western lands the agency is tasked to care for. This move will make the Bureau of Land Management stronger, more responsive, better informed, more accountable, and more in touch with the people who matter."

    But Mike Penfold sees it differently. Now retired, Penfold directed the BLM state offices both for Montana-Dakotas and Alaska. He was also an assistant director in the BLM's national office.

  • Mike Penfold:

    It's ridiculous. It's purposeful. It's purposeful. It's directed to make this totally a political arm in Washington, D.C., and not representing what the people feel out in the field.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're afraid they're moving the people who actually know something out of Washington.

  • Mike Penfold:


  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Even more concerning, Penfold says, is the recent appointment of William Perry Pendley as acting BLM director. Pendley is a conservative lawyer who's advocated for selling public lands.

    In 2016, he wrote in "The National Review" — quote — "The founding fathers intended all lands owned by the federal government to be sold." He also said in a tweet this year: "Fracking is an energy, economic, and environmental miracle."

  • Mike Penfold:

    That's like putting the arsonist in charge of the fire department. I'm a multiple use guy. I probably made more timber sales than most guys. I sold more oil and gas than most guys. I have leased more coal than most guys in my career. I'm not a lock everything up kind of a guy.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're just afraid it's out of balance, it's out of whack.

  • Mike Penfold:

    It's out of balance.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Pendley was unavailable for an on-camera interview, but an Interior Department spokesperson said in a statement: "The department adamantly opposes the wholesale sale or transfer of public lands, which is also Perry's position as he exercises the authority of the BLM director."

    Back in Lewistown, however, the Beatties remain concerned about the future of the public lands they frequent.

    It's so large, so big, the land. Isn't the argument that there's room for everything?

  • Katy Beattie:

    I think that that's why it's so unique and why we love it, is because there are these large landscapes that are still so intact. It's a rare thing. And I feel like we should rally behind that and understand what a unique area we live in.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The Bureau is expected to release its final plan early next year.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in Central Montana.

  • Editor’s note:

    This story mentions the Bureau of Land Management's plans to move its headquarters from Washington, D.C., to Grand Junction, Colorado. While most of the staff will, in fact, be relocated from Washington, many will be scattered in Western states, not just Grand Junction.

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