When President Joe Biden picked up the phone to congratulate certain Democrats on their victories in Tuesday’s midterm elections, he was wearing a baseball cap with the name of America’s newest protected landscape.
Last month, Biden traveled to central Colorado to create Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument, which encompasses Camp Hale, a World War II-era military training site, and the nearby Tenmile Range. The designation, his first national monument as president, brought more than 50,000 federal acres under a new set of protections that bar new mining, drilling and other development.
That Biden donned a Camp Hale hat to make congratulatory phone calls “shows that he (and the political team) understood that public lands are a winning issue,” said Aaron Weiss, deputy director at the Colorado-based conservation group Center for Western Priorities.
Asked about Tuesday’s biggest victories for public lands in the U.S., Weiss said, “Only slightly tongue-in-cheek: the hat.”
Americans overwhelmingly support public lands and waters and want to see them better protected, and this was evident at some polls this week.
“Voters care about public lands. Candidates who made the case for that were rewarded,” said Pete Maysmith, senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters. “Further action by the Biden administration and more members continuing to champion and speak up about public lands is good because we need to protect our public lands — it’s smart policy, and it’s smart politics.”
Although some anti-conservation candidates punched a ticket to Congress, Maysmith and Weiss said there was a silver lining: Those races weren’t blowouts for Republicans, showing public land conservation remains a priority for voters in conservative states.
Here’s a look at the biggest midterm wins and losses for America’s public lands:
Sen. Michael Bennet
Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) was among those who got a call from Biden on Tuesday.
Colorado’s senior senator lobbied the White House to establish Camp Hale-Continental Divide National Monument and campaigned on his record of working to fight climate change and safeguard lands and waters in Colorado. In one TV advertisement, he’s shown fly-fishing in the Arkansas River with guide Greg Felt, an unaffiliated voter who praises Bennet for “leading the fight to defend our way of life — protecting our public lands, promoting forest and watershed health, and supporting businesses like mine.”
In a race that was expected to be competitive, Bennet easily defeated Republican businessman Joe O’Dea.
Maysmith said Bennet had a conservation record to spotlight for voters and that Coloradans “clearly valued and appreciated that.”
Bennet is a lead sponsor of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation and Economy Act, or CORE Act. Introduced in 2019, the CORE Act combines several previous public land bills and aims to protect about 400,000 acres in the state. Biden used his executive power to protect some of those same landscapes, including Camp Hale, after the legislation failed to advance through a divided Senate.
O’Dea opposed the CORE Act and Biden’s monument designation, and he told The Washington Post that when it comes to regulating fossil fuels, he would “default to those people that know — oil and gas people.”
New Mexico’s 2nd Congressional District covers much of the southwestern part of the state, an area rich in oil and gas development. That didn’t prevent Gabe Vasquez, a seasoned climate and public lands advocate, from ousting incumbent GOP Rep. Yvette Herrell.
Vasquez, a first-generation American, previously served on the Las Cruces City Council and is a co-founder of Nuestra Tierra Conservation Project, a nonprofit based in Las Cruces that works to increase outdoor access for communities of color. He also previously worked as a staffer for Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.), where he played a sizable role in lobbying President Barack Obama to designate Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks National Monument, a nearly 500,000-acre protected site in southern New Mexico.
Vasquez campaigned on a commitment to fight climate change, boost renewable energy and safeguard public lands. Conversely, Herrell aligned herself with the fossil fuel industry, blasted Biden’s energy policies and denied the clear links between climate change and worsening wildfires.
Maysmith said Herrell’s energy platform was essentially a wish list of the oil industry.
“The voters of New Mexico-2, in that district, said that actually doesn’t line up with our values,” Maysmith said. “Gabe Vasquez made that argument very effectively.”
The at-large House race in Wyoming on Tuesday received little national attention because Harriet Hageman, the Republican nominee, was a shoo-in after defeating Rep. Liz Cheney in the August primary.
Nevertheless, her victory could have huge implications for public lands in Wyoming and across the country.
As HuffPost previously reported, Hageman is a natural resources attorney with a long anti-conservation record. She has repeatedly sued federal agencies over land use decisions and supports transferring control of federal lands to states. She’s been a constant thorn in the side of environmentalists, who once dubbed her the “Wicked Witch of the West.”
On the campaign trail, Hageman repeatedly slammed Cheney for no longer serving on the House Natural Resources Committee, which has jurisdiction over federal environmental agencies, energy development, public lands and wildlife. Hageman has her sights set on joining the committee, where she’d almost certainly go to bat for Wyoming’s extractive industries.
The former Trump administration official likes to portray himself as a public lands champion in the mold of President Theodore Roosevelt, but as secretary of the Department of the Interior, he helped advance a relentless pro-extraction, anti-conservation agenda. That included carving more than 2 million acres from a pair of national monuments in Utah — the largest rollback of federal land protection in U.S. history.
A former Navy SEAL who previously represented Montana as its at-large House member, Zinke defeated Democratic environmental attorney Monica Tranel to win the race for Montana’s new western district House seat. But the race was surprisingly competitive for someone with his credentials and name recognition in a district that Trump carried by 7 percentage points in 2020.
Among other things, Zinke campaigned on sweeping promises to restore $2-per-gallon gasoline and so-called “energy dominance.” Zinke earned hundreds of thousands of dollars consulting for ConocoPhillips and other fossil fuel interests after leaving the Trump administration.
Like Hageman, Zinke is likely to lobby for a post on the House Natural Resources Committee. He was a member of the committee during his first stint in Congress, from 2015 to 2017.
Rep. Lauren Boebert
The race for Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District remains neck-and-neck, so close, in fact, that it could trigger an automatic recount. Though incumbent Rep. Lauren Boebert (R) might ultimately edge out her Democratic rival, Adam Frisch, Weiss argues that her struggles spotlight how extreme and unpopular her views — including those on public lands — have become.
Along with fiercely opposing Biden’s recent monument designation in Colorado, Boebert has helped lead a disinformation campaign against the Biden administration’s goal of protecting 30% of America’s lands and waters by 2030, known informally as “30x30.”
“Her district relies on outdoor recreation and public lands as an economic driver, and when she wasn’t making a fool of herself with conspiracy theories, she was buddying up to insurrectionists and 30x30 opponents who hate the idea of protecting the environment,” Weiss said.