McCain & Obama in woods

We’ve heard the presidential candidates talk a lot about energy and a little bit about climate change on the campaign trail this year, but there hasn’t been much discussion about a whole host of other environmental concerns. Here we look at the statements and platforms of Barack Obama and John McCain on public-lands issues.


Barack Obama:

Perhaps the most contentious public-lands issue in recent years has been the so-called “Roadless Rule” that the Clinton administration put in place during its final days in 2001. It prohibited new roads — and, by extension, essentially all logging, mining, and other commercial activity — on 58.5 million of the 190 million acres of national forest land in the U.S. On President Bush’s first day in office, his administration temporarily froze work on implementing the rule. The admin has since attempted repeatedly to throw it out, and the rule is now caught up in legal wrangling.

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“Obama supports the Roadless Area Conservation Rule to keep over 58 million acres of national forests pristine,” according to the candidate’s environment plan [PDF]. “As president, he will repair the damage done to our national parks by inadequate funding and emphasize the protection and restoration of our national forests.”

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When it comes to logging on public lands in general, Obama told the Flathead Beacon of Montana that he thinks we can balance economic growth and sustainability. “If we’re going to have timber industries operating on public land, then we should make sure that old-growth forests aren’t destroyed but it’s that second growth are what are harvested.”

On national parks, Obama has said he is “committed to addressing the funding shortfall that the National Park Service has experienced” and will push for the park service to have enough money to meet its backlog of maintenance needs by the service’s 100th anniversary in 2016.

On mining, Obama last year opposed a House bill that would have reformed the 1872 Mining Law, saying the bill would have “placed a significant burden on the mining industry and could have a significant impact on jobs.” That disappointed enviros who have long called for an overhaul of the 1872 law, which lets companies mine public lands without paying royalties and doesn’t hold them responsible for mine cleanup. Obama says he does want to update the 1872 law to improve environmental protections and provide compensation for the use of federal land, but on the campaign trail he has stressed that he wants to support the mining industry and make sure reform doesn’t hurt it.

Asked earlier this year what he would do as president to address land issues in the West, Obama pledged to clean up abandoned mines and employ a more sound approach to energy development than the Bush administration, which he said “has chosen to lease and drill our public lands, regardless of what that does to our communities and natural resources.”

John McCain:


McCain has long opposed the Clinton administration’s roadless rule, arguing that decisions about public lands should be made by locals.  During his 2000 run for the presidency, before President Clinton had even finalized the rule, McCain was campaigning to repeal it: “The idea that Washington knows best and that local residents cannot be trusted to do what’s right in their own backyard is the epitome of federal arrogance.”

In 2007, when asked about the roadless rule by the League of Conservation Voters, McCain again made clear his opposition, but sounded a more moderate note: “Where a road may be needed it should not be automatically barred by a one-size-fits-all approach. Rather, such a decision should be subject to the rigors of the forest management planning process, that is equipped to take all appropriate factors into account, including the protection of habitat and preservation of pristine areas. … As a general rule, road construction should be limited to the minimum necessary to meet the goals and objectives of the forest plan, and maintain the natural integrity and sustainability of the forest.”

McCain opposed Clinton’s 1996 decision to create the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, and decried the creation of two national monuments in Arizona in 2000, saying he didn’t think Clinton had the right to make such a move “unilaterally” (though the Antiquities Act of 1906 does give the president executive authority to create new national monuments).

McCain has sponsored or cosponsored several pieces of legislation related to public lands over the years, including one earlier this year that would allow loaded firearms in national parks. In 1987, McCain successfully pushed through legislation to limit flights over the Grand Canyon, and to require studies of the proper minimum altitude that aircraft should maintain over other national parks. Ed Norton, former director of the Grand Canyon Executive Trust, once called McCain “the Grand Canyon’s best friend.” But the senator’s commitment to the Grand Canyon has recently been called into question because he has not spoken out against Bush administration plans to allow uranium mining within five miles of the national park.

On the issue of national parks more broadly, McCain says he supports the establishment of a National Park Centennial Fund, which would provide more resources for the operation and maintenance of the park system, with the aim of eliminating what McCain calls “the shameful backlog of vital maintenance and park protection projects” by the park system’s 100th anniversary in 2016. In his campaign statement on conservation, McCain also calls for strengthening federal programs like the Land and Water Conservation Fund.


On hard-rock mining, McCain says the current law needs to be reformed to require mining to be more environmentally responsible.  “Any law that was passed in 1872 is going to have to be updated,” he said. “Hello, times have changed. Duh.”  He doesn’t necessarily favor an increase in fees paid by mining companies for leasing mineral-rich public land (currently as little as $2.50 an acre), but says he wants to be sure that fees are fair to both miners and taxpayers. Reform of mining law “should not be used as a means of chasing responsible miners from the land or retarding the environmentally responsible development of mineral resources that are critical to our economy,” he said.