Eye On Washington: September 2020

Dan Sealy, Legislative Analyst, Northcoast Environmental Center 

Ten Months and Done

After 30 years with the National Park Service (NPS) but only ten months as its director, David Vela hung up his ranger hat for good and retired. Secretary of the Interior Bernhardt took no time to replace Mr. Vela with former Bush Administration appointee and Ducks Unlimited lobbyist, Margaret Everson. 

The lawsuit by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) naming Mr. Vela as one of a string of acting appointees serving as pseudo- heads of agencies, may have been a factor in Mr. Vela’s retirement. (PEER immediately changed the name on the lawsuit to Everson). Or the administration’s decision not to close National Parks during the pandemic, or the use of chemical agents, i.e., tear gas, on a peaceful protest on Park Service grounds adjacent to the White House in the wake of the death of George Floyd. Or perhaps it was the use of National Parks as a backdrop for the President’s political rallies, such as Mount Rushmore over the July 4th holiday and the President’s just-announced plan to include the hallowed ground of Gettysburg National Battlefield in his list of places to accept his party’s nomination soon. It must have felt more like 10 years than 10 months. Regardless, he is gone. Ms. Everson has a law degree and, as is typical of lobbyists, has donated to a wide variety of candidates’ campaigns, both Democratic and Republican. Not ever being a duck hunter, her stint with Ducks Unlimited was more about waterfowl habitat protection which she carried on to her work as an appointee with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service. If the Trump administration decides not to waste time on an acrimonious public confirmation hearing before Congress, and leaves Ms. Everson as an acting Deputy Director but with full Director responsibilities, this administration would go a full term without a legal, confirmed Director leading our National Parks. Quite a sad statement of priorities at a time when those parks are under assault from energy companies wanting to exploit resources and a climate crisis putting our park ecosystems at a tipping point. 

Good News Funding

President Trump signed the Great Outdoors Protection Act in August which permanently reauthorizes and funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF.)  The LWCF  “… invests earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing to help strengthen communities, preserve our history and protect our national endowment of lands and waters.” The LWCF program can be divided into the “State Side” which provides grants to state and local governments, and the “Federal Side” which is used to acquire lands, waters, and interests therein necessary to achieve the natural, cultural, wildlife, and recreation management objectives of federal land management agencies.”  (NPS website) Over the years much of the fund has been siphoned off for other governmental uses rather than conservation and recreation. The bipartisan effort to pass this legislation was influenced partly by the desire of the Republican Party to hold on to the Senate majority by giving the bill’s author, the embattled Senator Gardner (R-CO), a win. Symbolically Sen. Gardner was at President Trump’s right hand as the President signed the Act and Senate Majority Leader McConnell (R-KY) spoke uncharacteristically like a true environmentalist when he gave his statement in support of the bill on the floor of the US Senate. The fact that the bill included an emphasis on using the funds for infrastructure repairs vs. acquisition of new lands was necessary to assure bipartisan support. (For more see article in this and previous issues by NEC Environmental Policy intern, Kenneth Mort.)

When Does National Defense Equal Environmental Protection?

Members of the Northcoast Environmental Center have participated for over seven years with the Northwest California Wilderness Coalition, working to add wilderness and wild river designations in Northwest California. That work resulted in a bill that also included increased recreational opportunities and fire management. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, that their effort had been rolled up into an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA.) Congressman Huffman (D-CA) moved the local bill along and it was combined with other proposals in California, Colorado and Washington State to add 1.3 million acres of wilderness and over 1,000 miles of wild and scenic rivers. Though the NDAA passed in the US House by a large, bipartisan margin, the amendment was not part of the NDAA in the Senate. The legislation, therefore, has two big hurdles left: survival of a House/Senate conference committee to reconcile the two versions. If the amendment survives that hurdle, it must be signed by a President who has expressed opposition to parts of the NDAA as it currently stands. The NEC is actively working with a consortium of local, state and national groups to push the amendment over the finish line and there may be news soon about the success or failure of that effort. If the amendment fails, the groups will be ready to restart after the elections determine who will be leading Congress and the Administration. 

The next two months will be full of budget deals, legal challenges, coronavirus impacts, economic volatility and election posturing. This is unchartered waters which will require attention, determination and patience to gain real results for environmental protection.