Building Back Better Means Protecting Our Lands and Waters

The Build Back Better Act is shaping up to be one of the most significant pieces of climate legislation in recent history. Beyond its investments in clean energy and a big, bold Civilian Climate Corps, BBB includes vital protections for public lands and waters, from safeguarding sacred indigenous lands to defending the wildlife and ecosystems that call the Arctic home to repairing the damages caused to landscapes across the West by toxic mining.  Negotiations for the package are far from over, but it is essential that the final bill include these vital land protections.

When the House Committee on Natural Resources approved its $25.6 billion portion of the reconciliation package, it included historic investments in public lands and waters. These provisions shield public lands from future fossil fuel drilling, protect wildlife, hold mining companies accountable for the damage they do and restore waters that have been polluted by industry.

One key proposal would dedicate $2.5 billion to clean up abandoned hardrock mines. Moreover, the House Natural Resources Committee included provisions that would hold mining companies accountable by updating the 19th-century law that governs hardrock mining to establish a hardrock mineral royalty and a reclamation fee, and increasing claim maintenance fees. These proposed provisions are critically important because, unlike other extractive industries, under the 1872 law, hardrock mining companies pay no royalties or reclamation fees at all, leaving state, local and tribal governments holding the bill for 500,000 abandoned mines — including at least 23,000 in Colorado — and the environmental damage, polluted waters, and threats to wildlife they cause.

The Build Back Better Act would also prevent the transfer of land in the Tonto National Forest that is considered sacred by the San Carlos Apache Tribe into the hands of Resolution Copper, a joint venture of two of the largest mining companies in the world. For centuries, this sacred Apache site, known as Oak Flat, has played a role in Apache culture as a place for religious worship, hosting traditional coming-of-age ceremonies and harvesting medicinal plants. Without these protections, Oak Flat’s sacred landscape and generations of tradition would be destroyed, replaced by a copper mine, extraction, and environmental degradation.

Another proposal would right a deep wrong included in the 2017 Republican tax bill: selling off the Arctic Refuge for oil and gas development. The reconciliation proposal would cancel current drilling leases and prohibit future drilling in the Arctic Refuge, an area the Gwich’in people call the “sacred place where life begins.” This would be a high-profile victory for President Joe Biden’s call to tackle the climate crisis and help move the United States away from a fossil fuel-based economy and toward clean energy.

Finally, BBB includes $250 million to reclaim and restore areas within the Salton Sea. Since the 1970s, the Salton Sea has been the site of a growing ecological disaster that threatens the communities and wildlife that call the area home. The projects supported by BBB will improve air and water quality, along with wildlife habitats, ensuring a safer, healthier and more sustainable future for the Salton Sea.

The Build Back Better Act could be a transformational investment for public lands and waters across the country. The lands we call home, the air we breathe, and the water that sustains us are too important to cut. The scale of the overlapping crises we face is massive, and we need solutions that are up to the task. We cannot afford to miss this opportunity when our climate future is at stake.


John W.S. Dunmore is a member of Sierra Club’s Federal Lands Protection Program, where he covers public land issues to ensure a decent quality of life for all.

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