Eye on Washington Aug/Sep 2017

August, 2017



Typically this column covers conservation-linked legislation working its way through Congress to the President’s desk.  The fight to undermine America’s important conservation legacy is now being led by new agency heads who have fought for decades against the agencies they now lead. As the media is distracted by  the politics of personality, agency heads are successfully dismantling regulations through orders as well as advising Congress directly on what laws need to be passed in order to make changes permanent. The pace is fast and furious and will not get better this summer and autumn as we build toward the 2018 budget process. Here are some areas to stay updated on:

Getting to Know Interior Secretary Zinke

The former governor and Congressman from Montana literally rode to work on a (tax-payer owned) horse his first day of work  as President Trump’s appointee.  He won some accolade by invoking words of conservationists Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir in his introductory statement. Even conservation-minded Interior employees this reporter has spoken with who have met Zinke say he is generally a great guy personally.  But praise ends there by employees and many conservation organizations as his actions reveal his Reagan-era, Sagebrush Rebellion roots. 

Zinke has not filled the important roles of Directors of the National Park Service (NPS) or US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS.)  Acting NPS Director Mike Reynolds, who rose up through the ranks with an emphasis on natural resources management, was recently exonerated from trivial accusations by the Trump administration of lying about the low numbers of attendees at the Trump Inauguration. The event is held on the National Mall and is managed by the NPS. Meanwhile, Zinke is quietly opening the door to a greater— and crass—commercialization of our National Parks. Look for bold advertisements resembling professional sports stadiums more than publicly owned national treasures. 

What you can do: 
There is broad, bi-partisan support for public lands and the employees who protect them. Write to Sec. Zinke and ask him to fully fund our National Parks and Monuments and all our public lands in the 2018 budget. That is his duty as temporary steward of the resources entrusted to him.

Write to: 
Honorable Ryan Zinke, Secretary of the Interior Department of the Interior 
1849 C Street, N.W. 
Washington, D.C., 20240 

The USFWS is currently led by career biologist Jim Kurth, a man who might rather be back protecting whooping cranes as he once did rather than working on Trump’s anti-conservation agenda. Kurth’s boss, Sec. Zinke, has pushed the USFWS to delist the Yellowstone population of grizzly bears in spite of disagreement within the agency regarding the recovery of the iconic Yellowstone  species.  The motive? Possibly to make his neighboring state governor of Wyoming happy by making trophy-hunting of grizzlies legal. The delisting has been challenged in court and results of the challenge may be available by the date this is published. 

Western Governors vs. the EPA

The Western Governors’ Association (WGA) met in Zinke’s home state in July, and drafted an Initiative to Congress to “reform” the Endangered Species Act to the point it would lose its original intent and power.  Though the WGA encouraged increased funding for the agency, that increase was targeted for work focusing on delisting, rather than protections. “While the Initiative has closely examined the ESA, the effort goes well beyond consideration of the Act alone,” the WGA stated in its recommendations. “The Western Governors’ Association resolution is another cynical attack on the Endangered Species Act that will be used by congressional Republicans to justify gutting this landmark conservation law,” said Brett Hartl, government affairs director at the Center for Biological Diversity.  Fortunately California’s Governor Brown agrees, stating, “Republicans in Congress like Rob Bishop and John Barrasso aren’t interested in improving the Act—they want to see it disappear forever.” 

What you can do:
Congress is poised to act on the WGA’s recommendation—stop them! Write to your Congressional Delegation and Governor Brown and thank them for their support of better funding for the agencies and staff that protect our public resources including parks, refuges and threatened species. Tell them THIS western state, California, disagrees with the Western Governor’s Association’s recommendations. 

Clean Water and Wetlands

If the federal government is responsible under the Clean Water Act for protection of the “navigable waters” (a confusing phrase) of the United States, it seems logical that the government should protect smaller streams and wetlands that feed into those waters. The question of authority surrounding this issue has stumped the EPA, the agency responsible for enforcing the Clean Water Act, and has resulted in numerous lawsuits.

The Obama Administration attempted to clarify the definition with a new rule in 2015. However, that rule never took effect due to unresolved lawsuits, leaving an opening for the Trump Administration to take a more conservative, limited approach on the matter.

Administrator of the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is writing a new rule based on restrictive language written by former Justice Scalia: “In applying the definition to ‘ephemeral streams,’ ‘wet meadows,’ storm sewers and culverts…the Corps has stretched the term ‘waters of the United States’ beyond parody.”

The issue is whether a citizen or group has the right to sue the EPA for not using the Clean Water Act to protect wetlands or seasonal streams that are a source for rivers and/or lakes. As former Attorney General in oil-rich Oklahoma, Pruitt cut his teeth on similar lawsuits and is expected to essentially gut the Clean Water Act with his new rule.

Congressman Jared Huffman
1406 Longworth House Office Bldg 
Washington, D.C. 20515 
Phone: 202-225-5161

Senator Diane Feinstein 
331 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone:  202-224-3841

Senator Kamala Harris
112 Hart Senate Office Building
Washington, D.C. 20510
Phone: 202-224-3553

Governor Jerry Brown
c/o State Capitol, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814

Omnibus Budget Bill

Look for  upcoming news about how a deeply divided Congress will pass the 2018 budget. The Republicans generally do not want to shut down the government and the minority party, the Democrats, will use that to either crush the President and Republican sponsored budget or to make it more palatable through riders and amendments. Some in Washington predict the budget bill could be voluminous in earmarks both good and bad to buy support from members of Congress.

A Little Good News

While in Washington, D.C. this spring, I had the opportunity to sit and talk privately with several federal employees from the Department of State to the Department of the Interior. They reported that many—if not most—career employees are professionally committed to the basic standards of science and are quietly continuing their jobs, working with scientists in the U.S. and around the globe to fulfill commitments of the Paris Climate Accord and other treaties that recognize climate change and other scientific studies that inform national policy. Though it is difficult to work as part of a know-nothing administration, their commitment is to the people and to good policy based on good science. Be proud of them.



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