Secretary Jewell to Congress: Protect Our Lands -- Or President Obama Will

There are many stories we will remember about the senseless government shutdown, but several of the most poignant involved our national parks, memorials, and other public lands. The weddings at the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and elsewhere that had to be cancelled. The states desperate to re-open their iconic national parks and welcome back tourists. The wildlife enthusiasts shut out from their favorite wildlife refuges.

Just as the government shutdowns in the 1990s did, this year's shutdown highlighted the extent to which Americans treasure our parks for the recreation they provide and the stories they tell about our society. Of course, our parks are also important economic drivers, with the closure of the national parks costing local communities at least $76 million per day.

The value Americans place on our parks stands in stark contrast to the lousy treatment they have received at the hands of Congress since Tea Party Republicans took over the House of Representatives in 2010. Since then -- and for the first time since World War II -- Congress has not protected a single new acre of land as a national park, refuge, or wilderness area. Instead, the budget to operate national parks has been slashed by 13 percent since 2010, the sequester cuts have forced seasonal closures at many parks, and the House Appropriations Committee approved a 2014 budget that completely eliminated funding for our premier conservation program, the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

That's why Interior Secretary Sally Jewell's landmark speech on conservation on October 31 was such a breath of fresh air. Instead of slashing funding for public lands, she said, Congress should pass a budget that properly invests in our parks, monuments, and refuges. And instead of closing these lands, Secretary Jewell wants our parks opened for a new generation of Americans, proposing an ambitious initiative to engage millions of young people to play, learn, serve, and work on our public lands.

2013-11-13-stornetta.jpg Point Arena-Stornetta, CA Department of Interior

Secretary Jewell also spoke about balancing energy development with conservation. An example of this is her department's efforts to meet President Obama's goal of approving 20,000 megawatts of appropriately-sited renewable energy on public lands by 2020 -- a key part of the president's Climate Action Plan.

Another part of achieving that balance involves recognizing that some places are just too special to develop. We couldn't agree more. Indeed, the climax of her speech was her challenge to Congress to respond to the wishes of local communities all across the country who want their lands protected. She said that if Congress won't step up, President Obama will protect these places using the executive authority he and past presidents from both parties have employed.

This commitment is already beginning to translate into action. Last week Secretary Jewell visited Stornetta -- a scenic slice of California coastline -- and attended a packed public meeting where she heard from locals who enthusiastically want the area permanently protected. We urge her to continue traveling to other communities -- like the ones near New Mexico's Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Idaho's Boulder-White Clouds -- that want to capture the economic benefits of having a landmark landscape in their backyard. And if Congress won't act to protect these treasures, she and President Obama should not hesitate to follow through on her stirring call to action. That will be good for local economies today as well as future generations.