February 2021 Newsbrief

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How the Biden-Harris and Cox-Henderson administrations could impact Utah national parks, monuments

 

On Inauguration Day of the United State’s 46th president, the country was tensely awaiting the ushering in of a new administration, and with it, a new environmental plan.

For what the United Nations have coined as “the last decade to save the planet” or the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Biden has unveiled plans to combat climate change and improve conservation efforts.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, inaugurated two weeks ago, has not spoken at length on his policy toward conservation or climate change, but has said he aims to ensure public lands are “managed responsibly and that the interests of all stakeholders are considered fairly,” according to his campaign website.

With Utah in a unique position to receive both a new governor and a new president this month, conservation groups and other advocates have high hopes for the future of the state’s public lands.

Utah’s national parks are set to receive funding from the Great American Outdoors Act passed last summer by the legislature and the Trump administration, though the exact date of fund disbursement is still unknown. These funds will be used for deferred maintenance, and according to advocates, can help the parks attain their sustainability goals.

Cox, in his proposed 2021 budget announced last week, said the visitor center at Cedar Breaks National Monument would move forward with funds from Zion Forever and the National Park Service.

In the budget, Cox proposed $125 million for open space, trails and parks, including $100 million for outdoor recreation, $7.3 million for the LeRay McAllister Critical Lands Conservation Fund and $17.7 million to expand and improve recreation opportunities at Utah’s state parks.

The National Park Service itself has been without a Senate-confirmed director for four years, and advocates are anxious to have the seat filled in a timely manner. The lack of leadership “creat[ed] instability and damage that could take years to reverse,” President of the National Parks Conservation Association Theresa Pierno said in a statement.

 

First Native American woman set to become Secretary of Interior

In terms of leadership, the Biden administration has nominated Democratic Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico to be the new Secretary of the Interior, the first Native American to fill the position pending Senate confirmation.

“We look forward to the swift Senate confirmation of Congresswoman Haaland, and to working with the Biden administration to undo damage and find new opportunities to make our parks stronger, expand them to tell more of our diverse, shared American story and improve access for all,” Pierno said in a statement.

Other groups such as the Conservation Lands Foundation, applauded the experience Haaland brings to the department and looks forward to years of not only land but heritage conservation.

“Congresswoman Deb Haaland brings a lived experience like no other to lead the Department of the Interior in ways that will harness the power of nature to ameliorate the impacts of climate change, improve access to the Great Outdoors for all Americans, honor the sovereignty of tribal nations, support rural economies, and safeguard wildlife and wild places for future Americans to enjoy,” Executive Director Brian Sybert said.

Tribes, like the Navajo Nation, congratulated the Pueblo of Laguna-enrolled congresswoman on her nomination, looking toward a future of governmental collaboration.

“The consideration, and hopeful confirmation, of Rep. Haaland to this role is a sign of change and hope that tribal nations will be represented well in Washington,” the Speaker Seth Damon of the Navajo Nation Council said in December.

Policy changes, hope for bipartisanism

Advocates like Cory MacNulty, Southwest Region Associate Director of the National Parks Conservation, is looking forward to “shifting from defending the lands to proactively looking at opportunities to work with local communities for long term protection.”

The Trump administration approved more than 100 rollbacks on protective policies and land sales of protected public lands such as Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which was cut nearly in half for oil and gas drilling.

“I’m very hopeful the Biden administration, along with prioritizing science, will also restore opportunities for public engagement in federal land,” MacNulty said. “We are looking forward to appointees at the top of the Department of Interior who will prioritize the land over development.”

According to a 2019 study by the National Parks Conservation Association, 96% of all national parks are experiencing significant haze, along with all the side effects.

Tammie Bostick, Executive Director of Utah Clean Cities, said she hoped the new administrations will focus on sustainability goals while collaborating with local communities.

“The future of our National Parks and public lands most certainly will be positively moved toward attainable sustainability goals by the Biden administration across our nation and in our state,” Bostick said.

In regards to Cox, Bostick said, “We expect him to drive increased funding and support for alternative fuels and infrastructure for Utah and our gateway communities near and around our national parks.”

Other issues such as overvisitation, haze, sustainability, and a moratorium on land sales are also on the minds of advocates, who said they hope solutions discussed before the Trump administration will be discussed again.

“There’s a lot of people hopeful we’ll get rapid change, but the list is long,” MacNulty said, noting the association is looking at the “long game.”

Most of all, advocates are urging to remove politics from public lands for the good of the people and the land.

Reported by The Spectrum

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Zion National Park receives $33 million for electric shuttle buses

After years of fighting for funding, Zion National Park is set to receive $33 million from the U.S. Department of Transportation to replace aging shuttles, the park announced on Tuesday. Reported by The Spectrum

The new fleet will consist of 26 battery-electric buses and 27 charging stations and will arrive at Zion within the next few years.

“The existing fleet has served us well for 21 years but has started to deteriorate with age and use,” park Superintendent Jeff Bradybaugh said in a statement, saying the new buses “will help to further improve the visitor experience.”

 

Funding will consist of money from USDOT’s Nationally Significant Lands and Tribal Program with contributions from the National Park Service, Iron and Washington Counties and the Zion National Park Forever Project.

In 2019, the park applied for the Nationally Significant Lands and Tribal Program grant asking for $35 million but was denied.

For three years, the park was denied funds with little to no explanation as to why.

The current buses are over 20 years old, and well over half all of park entrance fees go to maintaining the system, totaling over $5 million per year, according to the park’s charity, Zion Forever.

After an investigative series by The Spectrum on Zion’s shuttles, park officials said another application was in the works for this fiscal year. In August, the park planned to apply for over $45 million to cover the entire cost of replacement.

The park will continue to work with Utah Clean Cities, which has designed the EV Zion program, as well as the Utah delegation.

“Clean electric buses will better distribute visitors around the park which will improve the visitor experience while simultaneously protecting the park’s unique natural resources.” U.S. Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, said in a statement. “This has been years in the making and I am proud to have worked with local leaders to make this a reality.”

Utah Clean Cities Tammie Bostick “couldn’t be happier” about the announcement.

“The long-overdue monetary infusion for Zion National Park’s shuttle program is woefully overdue and much deserved,” she said. “This is the fleet of the future.”

Zion regularly receives more than 4 million visitors per year, making it the fourth-most visited U.S. National Park. It gets credited for contributing more than $343 million per year to the regional economy.

Zion Forever Director Mark Preiss was happy with the announcement and credited The Spectrum for bringing awareness to the project’s needs.

“Zion was a model 21 years ago, and Zion is again a catalyst for the next generation’s experience,” he said. “It reaffirms that rural vision and the stature that Zion has, nationally and internationally.”

Park officials said the “engineering and service connections” have been completed for the first phase of charging stations, set to be installed this year.

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