Where Conservation Meets National Politics, NEC Legislative Interns Keep Us Up-To-Date

by Caroline Griffith

With the 2020 Presidential and Congressional elections swirling in the foreground, important conservation legislation and policies are on the table, being written, revised, ripped up and abandoned behind the scenes. There is a lot to keep track of and here at the NEC we are fortunate to currently have a trio of Environmental Policy Legislative Interns who are following important conservation legislation and keeping us up to date.

The Environmental Policy Internship, which has been in place since 2013, is a collaboration between the NEC and HSU which gives students a “virtual Washington, D.C. experience.” Under the supervision of NEC Legislative Analyst, Dan Sealy, the interns learn how policy is crafted and how it moves through the halls of Washington on its way to becoming law, including tracking relevant controversies surrounding policies. Through this process, they learn about the hurdles to getting legislation passed and just how long it can take for a bill to become a law. They also learn the different tactics that are used by opponents to keep certain pieces of legislation from moving forward. The internship is self-directed and unpaid, but participants receive academic credit. 

2020 NEC Environmental Policy Interns in the NEC office. From left_ Kenny Mort, Aspen Stepanek and Vanessa Odom. Photo by Dan Sealy

Vanessa Odom, an intern from Chicago, has been following the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act of 2019 (S. 1499, H.R. 2795), “a bill to establish National Wildlife Corridors to provide for the protection and restoration of certain native fish, wildlife, and plant species, and for other purposes.” 

According to Odom, “Linking habitats to prevent the formation of isolates is crucial in slowing the pace of numerous species’ extinction. Not only do migratory terrestrial animals such as deer, elk, bears, and most notably the pronghorn antelope benefit from safe passage, but providing and perfecting human-constructed infrastructure such as highways and bridges will help save human lives as well.” The main controversies around this piece of legislation are fiscal and property rights related, as it requires “federal agencies to conduct planning to identify and protect wildlife corridors on federal lands, and implementation of strategies will require federal dollars to increase federal property. Conservative members of Congress tend to oppose actions that may require federal funding or imposition on private land,” says Odom.

Legislative intern, Aspen Stepanek, from Santa Rosa, has been following S. 1304, the COAST Anti-Drilling Act, and S. 1318, the West Coast Ocean Protection Act, introduced in response to a Trump administration executive order (13795) that seeks to open up more than 98% of the Outer-Continental Shelf (OCS) for oil and gas exploration. According to Stepanek, if passed the two bills would halt the administration’s attempt to lease any more offshore tracts for oil and gas exploration. S. 1304 prohibits the U.S. Department of Interior from issuing leases for the exploration, development, or production of oil or gas in the North, Mid-, or South Atlantic Ocean or the Straits of Florida, or the Eastern Gulf of Mexico. S. 1318 would permanently ban offshore drilling on the West Coast. According to Stepanek, “Currently there is no motion to proceed with offshore oil drilling, but (lacking Congressional legislation to block the drilling) it is only a matter of time before the issue is brought up again. If president Trump is re-elected in November it is highly likely that these bills will not be passed and that he will keep pushing for oil and gas lease sales along the OCS. If Joe Biden is elected there is likely to be a better chance for this legislation to be passed, but it is still uncertain.” 

Kenny Mort, an intern from Orange County, has been following Senate Bill 3422, The Great American Outdoors Act, which in his words, “would potentially be the most significant piece of conservation legislation passed in the United States in the last fifty years.” This bill would create a trust fund, composed of 50% of revenues from the development of oil, gas, coal, or alternative or renewable energy on federal lands and waters, up to $1.9 billion. It would also provide $900 million in permanent annual funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF).

Mort reports that “the current administration has flip flopped their position when it comes to the LWCF. In its recent budget proposals, the administration has proposed significantly reducing LWCF funding, even up to 97%. However, in early March, President Trump stated in a tweet that he would sign into law a bill that restores the country’s national parks and provides permanent funding for the LWCF. The presidential endorsement has provided lots of momentum for this bill (which) already garnered bipartisan support.” Momentum for this bill has continued, and it has been read twice in committee and is on the Senate legislative calendar.

As NEC Legislative Analyst and Legislative Intern supervisor, Dan Sealy, says, “Knowledge of the relationship between politics and conservation is useful knowledge whether your career takes you to a fire watch tower in the wilderness or the halls of Congress.” Those interested in applying for next semester’s program can send a short introductory email explaining their interest and background in resource conservation to Dan Sealy at rangerdans@msn.com