By Tommy Hough
Last week, Senator Kamala Harris introduced two public lands conservation bills into the U.S. Senate: the Northwest California Wilderness Recreation and Working Forests Act, and the San Gabriel Mountains Foothills and Rivers Protection Act.
I'll get into the details of both bills in a follow-up post, but in both cases the Senate legislation is essentially duplicate versions of earlier House bills. That's fine – that's how these things work. This is a small speck of good news and a move Democratic policymakers across the country should begin to emulate.
Over the last several years, the GOP-dominated Congress, now aided and abetted by the most anti-environmental presidency in our nation's history, has presided over a wholesale reversal of America's conservation heritage, dating back to the era of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir (if not Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson).
The rollbacks have been big and small, with varying consequences, but they've been entirely to the benefit of oil, gas and mining outlets in the west – further cementing the hostility the GOP has towards conservation policy, and the lucrative sway fossil fuel extractors continue to hold over our nation, the democratic process, and our planet's health.
Two generations ago, Richard Nixon signed into law the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Clean Water Act and Endagered Species Act. Of course, no one's going to confuse Richard Nixon with an environmentalist, but these bills were sent to Nixon's desk by a Democratic Congress – and he signed them because they were good politics. In fact, they were bipartisan affairs. In 1970, the public wanted and demanded these policies after decades of environmental degradation.
In fact, the first administrator of the EPA was a long-time Republican and outstanding environmental steward named William Ruckelshaus, whose first order of business was to ban DDT. But today, instead of embracing our best and brightest, Republican lawmakers (enabled by destructive right-wing media) defy science and reality in the service of corporate masters and benefactors, and use media and money to "confuse" the issue.
So let us ensure there is no confusion on this point: The GOP has collaborated and worked in tandem with fossil fuel and resource extraction industries since the 1980s to enable the current rollback of long-standing, functional environmental policies, even as growing mountains of evidence demonstrate the damage the extraction and use of fossil fuels has on our planet.
Energy and fossil fuel industries have been actively pushing these rollbacks, even as they claim to embrace renewable options for the sake of good public relations. To be fair, Democrats dance with many of these same players too, but not to the extent of the GOP, and certainly not to the point where active, effective policy is being rolled back as it is now. The damage and fallout comes in a variety of forms.
In 2014, during Obama's second term, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) weakened by persistent budget cuts to their law enforcement arm – and exacerbated by a lack of political will in Washington and within their own agency – was humiliated by scofflaw Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who became the darling of nutjob conspiracy theorists and weapons fetishists when his refusal to pay decades-old grazing fees on land that belongs to all Americans prompted an armed standoff with federal agents.
This clumsy inability to bring Bundy to justice, or even appropriately serve him with papers, not only indirectly led to a mass shooting in Las Vegas in 2014, but a domestic terrorism incident the following year as Bundy's family and followers carried out the armed seizure of the Malheur National Wildlife Preserve in Eastern Oregon on New Year's Day 2016. Aided by regional GOP lawmakers, the seizure was an attempt to ignite a sagebrush rebellion, and resulted in a monthlong seige and the death of one of the culprits, as well as environmental damage to the site.
Interestingly, the Malheur was one of the first National Wildlife Refuges established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, and remains one of the area's biggest employers – hardly the Big Government-style "land grab" Bundy's supporters claimed they were remedying.
By early 2017, things had gone from bad to horrible with the election of Donald Trump. I'd warned throughout Obama's second term that the only thing keeping us from the abyss of an already runaway GOP was the pen of Barack Obama. As the Trump administration took office, we found out how accurate that was. Curiously, Trump's megalomania and incompetence has prevented some of the darkest aspects of GOP environmental skullduggery from moving forward, but he is still tolerated by the GOP elite as a useful idiot who will sign whatever is put in front of him.
Despite some weak pledges to the contrary during the 2016 campaign, Trump wasted no time taking a wrecking ball to Obama-era environmental policies once he took office. His administration has undone requirements for more fuel-efficient vehicles, scrapped industry-negotiated regulations to reduce toxins from coal-fired power plants, enabled coal plants to dump mercury and other toxins into our rivers and waterways, and is even cheering the melting of the polar ice cap (the better to ship oil across the North Pole).
And despite Democrats' success in the midterm elections, over the last several weeks the Trump administration has enabled drilling access for the oil and gas industry on 9 million acres of threatened sage grouse habitat in the intermountain west, mining on 1.3 million acres of the Mojave Desert here in California, and perhaps most tragic of all, the violation of 1.5 million acres of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, which had been protected for preservation since the Eisenhower administration in 1960 until Congress shamelessly subverted this last great American wilderness last year. Just this week, bulldozers will begin plowing through the National Butterfly Center in Texas in order to enable construction of Trump's absurd border wall.
Then there was the undoing of the EPA's mission under Scott Pruitt (and now Andrew Wheeler), in which the agency actually issued an official video praising the benefits of coal, while voices of "dissent," otherwise known as capable scientists, were expelled from the agency. Over the last two years, hundreds of government professionals with decades of experience applying evidence to policy have been driven from the ranks of the EPA in an orchestrated brain drain never seen in our nation's history. We used to recruit the best and the brightest. Now we just want you to follow orders.
At the Interior Department, the gutting of regulatory and management agencies followed a similar path, and continues with a promotion of science-defying ignorance. Even in the first week of the Trump administration, the president made his Saddam Hussein-style banana republic dictatorial tendencies clear as the National Park Service – the Interior Department's showcase agency – came under pressure to "verify" Trump's bizarre claim about the number of attendees who had been in the National Mall for his inaguration.
Undeterred from looking like the fool he is, Trump pushed Interior, now under the leadership of phony cowboy and nakedly corrupt Ryan Zinke, to move forward with the unprecedented undoing of the boundaries of 27 National Monuments – an assault on the very heart of American conservation and the idealized western value of untrammeled open space and room to roam.
The radicalized Interior Department has thus far settled on two National Monuments the GOP and fossil fuel interests have long despised: Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, which was originally declared a monument by President Clinton in 1996, and Bears Ears National Monument, also in Utah, which was designated by President Obama during his final months in office.
Now, the Interior Department is enabling the sale and leasing of that land to fossil fuel extraction interests. This is public land that had been protected as part of the American heritage of National Monuments, and now stolen from a 112-year tradition of conservation. Consider for a moment the precedent that has now been set by an administration that has no connection to the outdoors, no connection to the west, and is only interested in what its oligarch funders instruct them to do.
The Russian model of doing business has been adopted by the executive branch of the United States and their elected minions in Congress. I've always said we'll be lucky if all Trump does is rob us blind, but as we've seen over the last two years, it's much worse than that. It's worse than we imagined.
So the midterm elections are over, but the work is not finished. In fact, the work hasn't even begun. We have much to do to simply return the scales to where they were before Trump took office on Jan. 20, 2017. Taking the House of Representatives was a needed beachhead – but the forces of cronyism, Big Energy, Big Oil, and anti-environmentalism still have a firm grip on the Senate, the White House, and to a lesser but more permanent extent, the Supreme Court. Will some of that change in 2020? Not if we allow ourselves to be divided and diminished.
Our work is not finished. There are no laurels. There is only policy that must be introduced and nurtured until we have a human being in the White House again who is capable of thinking beyond himself, who respects process, values democratic order vs. self-aggrandizing chaos, cares about our institutions and the missions of our agencies, and puts capable people in place to lead successfully – not deliberately fail out of incompetence as a predetermined demonstration against "big government."
Our work is not finished until we have a legislative branch that answes to all Americans, not Russian oligarchs, Trump cronies, destructive right-wing media, or money disguised as "speech" under the Supreme Court's cataclysmic 2010 Citizens United ruling.
This is why the introduction of conservation policy – the very essence of legislative humility – into the current chamber of horrors beneath the Capitol dome is needed. Conservation and preservation on its face isn't designed for short-term gain, but longevity that exceeds the lives of those here today.
Conservation policy acknowledges limits on man's ambitions into the wild, that there are some places where mankind is "only a visitor," and that there are some reaches of our land which are not part of civilization, and will never be tamed. Our government not only has a role in ensuring that, but a proud heritage and tradition of doing so, from the National Park Service to the Wilderness Act to the Roadless Rule. Leaders can move the needle.
Senator Harris' two bills, however small they may appear, are brave and necessary. If conservation policy passes as defiance, so be it, but these bills do a great deal to ensure greater protection for our wild ecosystems, and enable more effective, holistic access for a citizenry increasingly in need of quiet, space, and solace – and an opportunity for young and old to re-connect with our vanishing natural world.
We need more from the incoming House of Representatives than investigations. We need more from our wise members of the Senate. We need more from the boots on the ground of Americans everywhere. We are not content with our remaining wildlands and habitat becoming the fenced-off domain of oil and gas exploitation, of mining, of violent and destructive "recreation," and of clearcuts reaching into the horizon.
We are Americans, and preserving our natural heritage is an extension of our patriotism – claim it. It will always be up to us to ensure our public lands are treated with care and dignity for the benefit of all, but at this moment, on our watch, they remain endangered unlike any other time in our nation's history. The preservation of our country's natural heritage and special places is the task before us.
San Gabriel Mountains Wilderness photo by Tommy Hough
Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument photo by Bob Wick
Public lands graphic courtesy of The Wilderness Society
A San Diego broadcast and media personality, Tommy Hough is a wilderness and conservation advocate, communications professional, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He ran as the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.