Eye On Washington: October 2020

Dan Sealy, NEC Legislative Analyst

Presidents Trump’s First Term: A Look Back

It is possible that the first term of President Donald J. Trump is the most destructive to conservation since President Ronald Reagan. President Reagan appointed anti-government lawyer, James Watt as Sec of the Interior.  Watt became infamous within the conservation world as a cabinet member who would do anything to weaken environmental laws. Many conservationists were relieved when he was forced to resign after making insensitive remarks about minorities and for using the Arlington House Memorial, administered by the National Park Service, for private parties at taxpayer’s expense. Fast-forward to summer of 2020 and President Trump held part of the Republican National Convention on the grounds of the White House, also administered in part by the Park Service, also at taxpayer’s expense.  Most occupants of the Oval Office have a history of both positive and negative actions.

Under President Reagan carbon monoxide emissions and particulate pollution were actually reduced. Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol to phase out ozone-layer-depleting, climate change-promoting chlorofluorocarbons. Reagan’s environmental legacy, however, is better embodied by his appointment of Anne Burford Gorsuch as Director of the EPA. Gorsuch did everything in her power to defund the agency. Now Trump appointed her son to the Supreme Court. Reagan appointed Sagebrush Rebellion lawyer James Watt as the Secretary of the Interior. Watt attempted to allow new oil drilling off the coast of California and in wilderness areas and opened 80 million acres of federal lands to energy exploration.  Congressman Udall (D-UT) joked that Watt’s idea of a wilderness area “is a parking lot without the yellow lines.” Watt blocked land protections and defunded the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) for over 20 years. The LWCF  enables the government to purchase critical lands for parks and wildlife refuges. 

President Carter doubled the size of the National Park Service but failed to implement a sustainable energy policy during the nation’s crippling Energy Crisis of the 1970’s. 

President Clinton reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone and created the Northwest Forest Plan to save the endangered Spotted Owl while allowing timber production on public lands. He created Grand Staircase of the Escalante National Monument in Utah. He also mistakenly allowed his Interior Secretary, Babbit, to divert money to the new National Biological Survey (NBS). Babbitt failed by taking much-needed biologists from other Interior agencies but never provided adequate funding and the NBS disappeared.

President George W. Bush created the 580 million square mile Papahānaumokuākea (or Northwestern Hawaiian Islands) Marine National Monument, the largest marine reserve in the world. Bush also  allowed Vice President Cheney to hold private meetings with oil and gas lobbyists to push a fossil fuel extraction program on public lands that left a legacy of gas wells and infrastructure easily seen as plane passengers fly over the nation’s landscape.

President Obama signed the Paris Climate Accord and in the last days of his presidency set aside 550 million acres by expanding existing National Monuments such as our local California Coastal National Monument and a record 29 new monuments such as Cascade-Siskiyou and Bears Ears. But Obama allowed the State Department to move forward with the Keystone XL Pipeline and was criticized for over-reliance on executive orders which can be easily reversed without congressional legislation.

Looking back each Presidency is a mixed bag of accomplishment, some better than others, but it is difficult to find much positive that has come from the past four years of the current administration other than the recent signing of the Great American Outdoors Act. Ironically that Act permanently funded the LWCF, reversing the damage of Sec. Watt. On the negative side, however, President Trump:

  • Immediately removed the United States from the Paris Accord calling the climate Crisis a “hoax.”
  • Directed the Sec. of the interior to begin a study to allow offshore oil and gas exploration along the entire coast of the US. 
  • Quickly signed executive orders to reduce the size of the new Bears Ears National monument and Grand Staircase of the Escalante. 
  • Gave a green light to the Keystone Pipeline and pushed a Cheney-like agenda for exploiting public lands for energy production. 
  • Stopped a successful 40-year ban on drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) as part of his Tax Act.
  • Created confusion in conservation leadership by using “acting” and deputy positions to implement major environmental regulations and administer public lands rather than abiding by the traditional vetting and approval of nominees through Congress. 
  • Attempted to plow a loophole into the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by allowing developers to avoid liability for killing birds unless proven they did so intentionally. US Fish and Wildlife Director, Skipwith, announced Sept. 2  that her agency would continue to pursue reversal of that decision by the end of this year. 
  • Announced, through Director Skipwith, the Trump administration is similarly committed to removing endangered species protections for gray wolves across most of the nation by the end of the year. The Fish and Wildlife Service is fighting the lawsuit that previously stopped that delisting. 
  • Is now moving to redefine “habitat” as it relates to protecting endangered species in spite of the fact habitat protection is key to species conservation.  

Most of the successes of the last four years have been through lawsuits and political action to halt bad law and policy put forth by this administration.  The successes in slowing or halting actions such as offshore energy exploration, drilling in ANWR, giving industry a pass on killing migratory birds, and removal of swaths from National Monuments have all been accomplished by conservationists taking this administration to court. Sadly, without new legislation and laws, those court victories can be temporary and uncertain.

Though it is always difficult to nail down the true motivation of actions, the actions of this administration clearly seem to favor extractive energy and mineral industries to support economic growth at the expense of conservation and environmental laws that sustain the health of the people and the planet.