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Despite the willful denunciation of proven climate science by the White House and some members of Congress, there is a hopeful awakening in the United States: Young activists are stepping forward to demand a Green New Deal that guarantees climate action, justice and economic security for all.

A Green New Deal would not be a single law, but rather a collection of policies that embody many of the actions needed to expand clean energy, grow job opportunities, reduce climate pollution, improve air and water quality, and enhance the resilience of communities.

In any plan to help us transition from an economy built on fossil fuels to one driven by clean energy, our public lands should feature prominently.

We need a climate plan for public lands that will manage a phase-down of fossil-fuel leasing and production in line with current climate science. At the same time, we must support those communities most affected by pollution and boom-and-bust energy cycles as they transition to the energy of the future.

Climate change is the largest and most-misunderstood problem humanity will ever face. There is no previous situation to compare it to, no successful historical model to reference—and that just makes the issue even riper for the critics who claim it simply doesn’t exist.

During the 24th international climate conference, newly released information confirmed that we are facing a slow-motion global catastrophe. According to a battery of scientific reports from thousands of the world’s foremost experts, we are closer than expected to warming levels that would result in severe, perhaps irrevocable, changes in natural systems.

Winters are shorter; summers hotter and drier; our fishing streams run warmer; and ski slopes stay bare. Coral reefs are dying, and glaciers are disappearing from Glacier National Park. Life forms on this planet—from pollinators to polar bears—are struggling to create another generation. Closer to home, some human communities are burning to the ground while others are deluged in floods.

We already have the knowledge to avert the worst of these effects, but we lack the collective will to do so. Politicians in the Trump era are normalizing negligence every time they dismiss scientific consensus by uttering, “I don’t believe it.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s tenure is a microcosm of this denial: He spent 21 months in blind pursuit of “energy dominance,” a doctrine that enshrines oil, gas and coal production as the highest use of America’s public lands, regardless of the climate pollution they cause.

Fossil-energy extraction is the preferred tenant on America’s public lands. For less than the price of a cup of coffee, developers can purchase and lock up America’s favorite outdoor recreation areas and wildlife habitat for years so that oil developers and mining companies have sole access.

That dirty secret means that public lands are a major source of the nation’s climate-emissions problem. In fact, if our public lands were their own country, its emissions would rank fifth in the world, according to data released by the Trump administration.

We should utilize our already-degraded lands to drive geothermal, wind and solar energy, working in cooperation with local communities while safeguarding our wildlife and wilderness-quality lands. Our elected leaders must eliminate the subsidies and regulatory loopholes that prop up ailing coal, oil and gas producers and permit needless methane waste and other pollution.

We must protect our public lands in large, connected blocks that span the continent to help wildlife species and entire ecosystems adapt to a warming world.

And we should support a just transition to a clean, sustainable economy that puts people to work in jobs that conserve and restore our public lands, including building trails, restoring wetlands and other wildlife habitat and improving facilities at our parks and monuments.

Let’s reimagine the role we want our public lands to play at this pivotal time in history. We all have a say in how our greatest natural legacy is handed down to the next generation.

More than a century ago, early visionaries had the forethought to create America’s vast system of public lands. Now, more than ever, we need the same courageous thinking to address the most pressing challenge of our time.

Jamie Williams is president of The Wilderness Society, which was founded in 1935 and now has more than 1 million members and supporters. This piece originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

In 2008, Paradise was spared.

That June, a fire broke out in one of the canyons southwest of the Butte County town and quickly roared east, up and over the ridge. Thousands scrambled to evacuate, clogging the single road to safety. A sudden wind shift allowed firefighters to cordon off the flames, but the experience left residents intimately aware of the risks of living in Paradise.

State lawmakers have been aware of the risk, too. In color-coded fire-hazard maps maintained by Cal Fire, Paradise is a bright red island in a churning sea of pink, orange, and yellow—all denoting various levels of danger.

“It is not a great feeling … to have highlighted an area for its vulnerability, and then having this come to fruition,” said Dave Sapsis, a Cal Fire researcher who helped designate the state agency’s “Fire Hazard Severity Zones.”

As California grapples with an increasing possibility that the once-in-a-century wildfires that have torched Paradise and Malibu are becoming once-a-year occurrences, larger swaths of the state’s population may find themselves living in the crimson regions of those maps. This presents lawmakers with a dilemma: Should they impose costly and politically unpalatable regulations on homeowners, and rip up existing infrastructure—or simply accept the risk?

“We’ve got to take intelligent precautions in how we design our cities,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a press conference with U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke last week. “The zoning and the planning has to take into account the threat of fires, (and) the building of appropriate shelters, so that people can always find a way to escape—and then of course, (there are) all the things we’re doing to mitigate climate change. All of it. It’s a big agenda. But what we’re paying this week is a very small fraction of what is needed over the years and decades.”

With wildfires growing ever more ferocious—a product of a changing climate, forests increasingly packed with dead and dry kindling, and the encroachment of development into state’s wilderness—it can be hard to tell which parts of California should be considered safe anymore. Coffey Park, the suburban subdivision of Santa Rosa that burned in last year’s firestorms, was designated a low-fire-risk area by Cal Fire.

The agency is now in the process of updating its hazard maps, with an expected draft publication date of next summer.

For state Sen. Mike McGuire, whose district includes Santa Rosa, this year’s fires raise a number of “difficult yet necessary” questions about where and how communities are placed—and then replaced.

“What type of rules and regulations will there be if homes will be allowed to be rebuilt?” he said. “For example, defensible space, landscape restrictions, no longer allowing developments to be built with one way in and just one way out. … If there have been multiple fires over multiple years, are we truly going to rebuild?

“Being very candid with you, the discussion has just begun—but this is a discussion that we are going to have to have, because this is the new reality,” he said.

Sen. Scott Wiener of San Francisco has championed giving the state more power to override local planning decisions to meet statewide housing goals.

“Job one is to help the people whose lives have been so dramatically altered by this disaster, but we also need to look at the long-term picture of this new normal,” Wiener said. “Historically, we have allowed local communities almost complete autonomy in making housing-related decisions, whether that decision is not to allow new housing, whether that decision is to ban apartment buildings, or whether that decision is to allow a lot of housing in very fire-prone areas.”

Wiener says he is not suggesting that development be banned outright anywhere, but that the state should impose standards that “reflect our needs as a state and reflect risks.”

Between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 45 percent of all new housing units built in California were constructed in what experts refer to as the wildland-urban interface—where the state’s cul-de-sac’d suburban subdivisions and rural communities meet its flammable forests and shrub fields. The encroachment of homes into undeveloped areas creates a much larger and challenging front for firefighters to defend.

“You get this very different fire dynamic once it gets into a heavily populated area,” said Anu Kramer, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who co-authored the research upon which the estimate is based. “You have cars on fire, propane tanks exploding, and burning houses radiating a lot of heat, which can contribute to neighboring houses igniting. That’s very different from trees and shrubs burning in a forest.”


Strict rules for new homes, but not the old

California already has among the strictest fire-minded regulations on construction. Since 2008, any building constructed in areas designated at very high fire risk must be built with specific roofs, vents and other materials designed to resist fire and keep out flying embers. Homeowners are also required to maintain a perimeter of brush-free defensible space around their houses.

Legislation passed this year extends those restrictions, without exception, to development on local as well as state land. Cal Fire also operates a consulting arm for local governments hoping to make more fire-appropriate land-use decisions.

But some of those regulations were written with a certain type of community in mind, said Kramer: “Vacation homes in Tahoe with wood roofs and pine trees over the house. … A lot of the regulations are geared towards that quintessential idea.”

The charred homes of more urban enclaves such as Malibu and Santa Rosa were not destroyed by “a giant tsunami wave of flame,” said Chris Dicus, a Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo professor and president of the Association for Fire Ecology. Instead, they burn “from the inside out after embers get inside the house through vents and windows or under doors.” Those embers may have traveled from the front of the original fire miles away.

While many existing regulations require new construction be “hardened” to embers, they don’t apply to existing homes. That leaves many of California’s at-risk communities stuck with old, fire-prone homes, and inadequate or constrained infrastructure.

“We’re currently paying for the sins of the past, where subdivisions and other developments were built without fire in mind,” said Dicus.

Some changes are relatively easy to make even after construction: installing ember-resistant vents, weather-sealing garage doors, and clearing flammable items like lawn chairs off the property’s perimeter can keep embers from starting new spot fires. Other changes are pricier: regular brush clearing, double-paned windows to reduce radiant heat inside a home, replacing wood roofs with metal, and installing fire shutters.

You have a lot of homeowners who “maybe can’t afford to upgrade and retrofit” their homes, said Molly Mowery, president of Wildfire Planning International. “We know now what keeps us safer, but you can’t just change that overnight.”


Homeowner help: Subsidies, rebates and discounts?

One possible solution, said Sen. Wiener: the state could help current homeowners make those changes.

“What we don’t want to do is force people out of their homes because they can’t afford—for lack of a better phrase—a ‘wildfire retrofit,’” he said. He added that he would consider “subsidy and rebate programs … but I don’t want to pretend like I know what all the answers are.”

Absent new government assistance, insurers could encourage homeowners to be more fire-conscious. In the same way that health insurance providers might offer their policyholders discounted gym memberships, home insurers could cut a deal for those who install ember-resistant vents.

But only one major insurer in California currently offers discounts to encourage fire-safe behavior. According to a recent RAND Corporation report, that’s because most providers argue that state regulators don’t let them charge homeowners living in high-fire-risk areas a high enough premium to justify a discount. The state Insurance Department counters that such rate hikes wouldn’t be justified based on the evidence.

The study also found that most homeowners in high-risk areas are just purchasing less coverage and opting for plans with higher deductibles, leaving them more exposed.

And then there are changes that homeowners alone cannot make.

Calli-Jane DeAnda, executive director of the Butte County Fire Safe Council, spent last year promoting the region’s evacuation plan, so she knew what to do as soon as reports came in that fire was moving toward Paradise.

“I had turned on the town’s AM 1500 radio station, and they were notifying residents that an evacuation center had been set up and that certain zones needed to be evacuating,” she said. “So I felt kind of calm … like, ‘Oh, this is how the plan was supposed to go.’”

But that plan soon met a bottleneck on Skyway, the main route out of Paradise.

DeAnda said she got on the road at around 8:20 a.m.—along with hundreds of her neighbors. She wasn’t out of the foothills and away from the spot fires popping up along the side of the road for an hour and a half. It’s a drive that would typically take her 25 minutes.

Nearly a dozen of the bodies identified in the devastation left by the Camp Fire were found in their cars, stuck in the crush of evacuation traffic.

Paradise had an evacuation plan. But the plan, and the town’s cramped, 19th-century layout, were not prepared for a fire of such intensity or speed. And in that respect, Paradise is not alone: The hills above Berkeley and Oakland, where 25 people died in a fire in 1991, also featured narrow, winding roads that made escape more difficult.

“I worry about another deadly fire in the East Bay,” said Kramer, the researcher. “It burned before, and it’s going to burn again. And when it does, it’s going to be really bad.”


To rebuild … or say ‘enough is enough’?

In the aftermath of fire, local governments often face an impossible task of balancing the need to rebuild as quickly as possible—to get those who have lost everything back into their homes—with the need to prepare for the worst.

After three fires raged through the foothills of Butte County in 2008, including the one that prompted the first evacuation of Paradise, the county Board of Supervisors made the building code more flexible for homeowners to rebuild: Homeowners could have their permit applications expedited, and use lumber located on their own property for construction. This summer, the board renewed and expanded the exemption.

The building code carve-out represents a necessary compromise between smart planning and the needs of homeowner, many of whom could not afford to build a new house up to the current code, said DeAnda. Without the exemption, she said, many homeowners would have likely replaced their burnt homes with modular houses or trailers, which she said often present a bigger fire risk.

DeAnda, who spends most of her time raising awareness about fire safety across the country, lives in one such “ancient mobile home” in Concow, just east of Paradise. “It’s going up in 8 minutes if it catches on fire,” she said.

“There is a lot of emphasis, and understandably so, on prioritizing getting back to normal,” said Dr. Miranda Mockrin, a research scientist at the U.S. Forest Service who has studied how communities respond to wildfire. She said most local governments avoid using building restrictions and regulations, instead favoring less-coercive, voluntary fire safety programs and educational outreach.

But rebuilding is a slow process. If communities want to require more fire-conscious development, “there is time,” she said.

For Chris Coursey, the mayor of Santa Rosa, which lost some 3,000 homes last year, there was never a question about whether to allow the incinerated communities of Coffey Park and Fountain Grove to rebuild.

“Under state law, people have the right to rebuild a legal home that they lose in a disaster. We don’t have the ability to tell them that they can’t rebuild” he said.

Nor would he want to, he added.

“If you live in California, you’re going to face an earthquake or a fire or a flood or a mudslide at some point—there’s no way to mitigate all of that risk,” he said.

Santa Rosa officials, he added, are trying to drive more development into the city’s downtown, away from its more-vulnerable edges. Since last year, nearly 60 homes have been reconstructed. They’ve been built up to the new, municipal fire codes, and many homeowners have elected to use more fire-resistant materials. But Coursey said only so much can be done to prepare for catastrophe.

“I think we’re more fire-aware; I think we’re more fire-ready,” he said. “But if that wind and that combination of low humidity and high temperature and high winds happened again, I think we’re vulnerable.”

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

What if I told you that a multibillion-dollar company had decided to trademark the name of one of America’s most prized national parks? And that the company then sued the United States to defend its purported trademark? And that to top it all off, that company has been invited into the inner circle of government by a now-indicted member of Congress, meeting in private with a Cabinet secretary and also sitting on a government advisory panel?

You’d probably reply that it all sounds outrageous, and that, if it’s true, it’s a genuinely shocking example of a corrupt presidential administration. Unfortunately, it’s true.

This story begins in 2015, when Delaware North, a New York-based hospitality and concessions business, lost the contract to run Yosemite National Park’s hotels, restaurants and gift shops. The company had held the contract for more than two decades, during which time it quietly trademarked names and images associated with iconic landmarks inside Yosemite, including the Ahwahnee Hotel, a national historic landmark; the likeness of Half Dome; and even the phrase “Yosemite National Park.”

Scott Gediman, the spokesman for Yosemite National Park, wasn’t happy with the name grab, telling The New York Times, “We feel strongly that the names belong to the American people.”

Rather than refocusing its expansive concessions business after losing the Yosemite contract, the company decided to take the U.S. government—and, by extension, the American public—to federal claims court, demanding $50 million for its surreptitiously acquired trademarks. The National Park Service, of course, maintains the trademarks aren’t valid. Even if they were, they would be worth no more than $3.5 million. A review of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database indicates that Delaware North is unique among concessionaires in holding trademarks to America’s parks.

The litigation between the National Park Service and Delaware North remains far from resolved, but, in the meantime, the National Park Service was forced to rename historic landmarks inside the national park. Now the Calvin Coolidge-era Ahwahnee Hotel is the Majestic Yosemite Hotel; the Wawona Hotel is Big Trees Lodge; and Curry Village is Half Dome Village.

Despite Delaware North’s questionable business practices and the company’s ongoing legal fight with the U.S. government, it is no pariah in President Donald Trump’s Washington. The Trump administration has welcomed Delaware North with open arms, granting the company’s executives an audience at the highest levels of government. When Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced his “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, included in the list of 15 members was Jerry Jacobs Jr., the billionaire co-CEO of Delaware North.

Jacobs joins a group of business executives and industry lobbyists tasked with expanding so-called public-private partnerships in national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other American publicly owned lands. Setting aside the important question of whether we should be privatizing park functions, it’s hard to defend an individual who has so blatantly abused the public’s trust.

Delaware North’s presence on the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee is not an isolated incident. Last month, CNN reported that Secretary Zinke held a private meeting with three executives from Delaware North, including Jacobs Jr., along with New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins. Collins, who federal prosecutors have charged with insider trading, counts Delaware North as his largest campaign contributor during his congressional career.

Likely realizing the unfortunate optics of the Zinke-Delaware North meeting, the Interior Department went to great lengths to conceal the names of the participants on the secretary’s official schedules. But when briefing materials of the meeting were released through a Freedom of Information Act request, the true purpose of the meeting was there in black and white. It was “for company executives to provide an overview from Delaware North regarding how the Park Service works with concessionaires.”

A company this greedy, whose founders are cashing in by fleecing American taxpayers and our prized public lands, should not be welcomed in the halls of power. But we have come to expect this kind of behavior from members of President Trump’s cabinet, Secretary Zinke included.

In less than two years on the job, Zinke has thrown open the doors to campaign donors, family business friends and the executives of the very corporations he is supposed to be regulating. All the while, he has consistently ignored input from the American public, as well as from pretty much anyone who isn’t a potential donor. Now under the cloud of more than a dozen investigations, Secretary Zinke might have become so besmirched that even President Trump finds him too much to stomach.

Greg Zimmerman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a public-lands policy organization based in Denver.

Published in Community Voices

The punch-counterpunch sparring between the Trump administration and the state of California over rollbacks of federal environmental regulations is often described as a war of words, with neither the president nor Gov. Jerry Brown giving an inch.

Some of the disputes are largely symbolic—foot-stamping gestures from Washington, D.C., designed to resonate with the president’s core supporters rather than to hold up in court.

But the latest skirmish is serious: The federal Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to unravel fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks not only threatens California’s autonomy in setting its own emissions limits; it also could derail the state’s ability to reach its future greenhouse-gas-reduction goals.

“This is a politically motivated effort to weaken clean-vehicle standards with no documentation, evidence or law to back up that decision,” said Mary Nichols, chairwoman of the state Air Resources Board, in a statement. “This is not a technical assessment; it is a move to demolish the nation’s clean-car program. The EPA’s action, if implemented, will worsen people’s health with degraded air quality and undermine regulatory certainty for automakers.”

The gauntlet was thrown down by EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, a darling of the Trump administration for his zeal in dismantling Obama-era environmental regulations. Even though Pruitt is the target of multiple investigations for alleged ethical transgressions and has found his job security in question, the effect of his current decisions may resonate far beyond his or his boss’ terms in office.

“There have been some troubling developments,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School. “But I think a lot of this is ultimately not going to happen.”


Putting the Brakes on Fuel Efficiency

Sivas said an attack on the fuel-efficiency standard is one of the critical fights for California, which must drastically reduce emissions from the state’s enormous transportation sector to stay on track in cutting carbon.

At issue are miles-per-gallon standards set near the end of the Obama administration. They require an average 45.4 miles per gallon by 2022 and more than 50 miles per gallon by 2025. Standards differ by vehicle type and are stricter for cars than for SUVs and light trucks.

Chet France, the former EPA senior executive who directed the office that crafted the regulations, says the fuel-standard rule is solid. France, who retired in 2012, said the benchmarks were the product of rigorous technical research and vetting with federal agencies, the California air board and car manufacturers.

The rule was reviewed again during the last days of the Obama administration and determined to be reasonable.

“The mid-term review was thorough and found that advances in auto-industry technology meant that meeting the standards was easier and cheaper than the EPA had predicted,” France said. “It concluded that the standards were attainable, and, if anything, they could have gone further.”

Pruitt called the current regulations inappropriate, saying they “set the standards too high.” He said his agency and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration would revisit them, but he has not yet announced any proposed changes.

In explaining its rationale, the EPA is expected to dust off a decades-old analysis that suggests lighter, more fuel-efficient cars are not substantial enough to withstand crashes and thus pose a danger to drivers. Federal and state crash tests disprove that, but Sivas said she anticipates similar arguments.

The state is pushing back hard. Brown, during a recent visit to Washington, told reporters that the rollback is “not going to happen, and the attempts to do this are going to be bogged down in litigation long after we have a new president.”

On Tuesday, May 1, California filed its 32nd lawsuit against the Trump administration, asserting that in preparing to change the emission standards, the EPA is violating the Clean Air Act and failing to follow its own regulations. In announcing the suit, which 17 other states have joined, Brown conjured images of floods and wildfires ravaging the state as greenhouse gases warm the planet.

“This is real stuff,” he said. “I intend to fight this as hard as I can.”

In addition to rolling back mileage requirements, Pruitt has signaled that he may revoke California’s legal authority to establish its own emissions standards, independent of federal benchmarks. A dozen other states have adopted California’s standards; together, that coalition represents more than a third of the national auto market.

“California is not the arbiter of these issues,” Pruitt said in television interview in March. While the state may set its own limits on greenhouse-gas emissions, he said, it “shouldn’t and can’t dictate to the rest of the country.”

California’s right to request a waiver from federal clean-air laws is well established and, legal experts say, the burden would be high for the administration to convince a court that there is a compelling reason to change the longstanding policy.

Pruitt told lawmakers in Washington, D.C., last week that his agency was engaged in talks with California officials regarding proposed changes.

California Air Resources Board spokesman Stanley Young said the state has had three meetings with the EPA since December, adding: “Nothing substantive was discussed, so I wouldn’t characterize them as negotiations.”

He said the board had not seen a final proposal, and no future meetings were scheduled.

On Friday, Nichols tweeted to Pruitt: “Call me.”


Opening the Coast to Drilling

Perhaps the most consequential of the administration’s many moves to expand domestic-energy production is the Interior Department’s five-year plan to offer lease sales in federal waters off the outer continental shelf, including parcels where drilling has been banned for decades. That includes the California coast.

The plan, announced by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, envisions drilling in the Arctic, off the Hawaiian coast and in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, as well as expanding existing exploration into the eastern Gulf of Mexico. The leasing is scheduled to begin in 2019 off the north coast of Alaska, and then move to the lower 48 states, the agency said.

Zinke said the leasing plans would expand the country’s energy independence. “This is the beginning of an opening up,” he said, promising that the months-long public-comment period before enactment would include all stakeholders. “The states will have a voice.”

Whose voice will be heeded may be another matter. Florida’s governor has already negotiated directly with President Donald Trump to exempt his state from leasing. Even though Brown had a conversation with administration officials relaying California’s wish to be included in a similar exemption, no announcement has been made that would prevent drilling in federal waters off the coast.

But this is one issue where the state may get its way, thanks to current market forces and a stubborn regulatory blockade.

The oil and gas industries have shown little interest in exploring off the California coast, and the State Lands Commission has resolved to make it much more difficult and expensive for companies to get crude oil to land and into pipelines.

The commission’s policy to prevent construction of onshore infrastructure does nothing to stop drilling but could limit the volume of oil shipped at a time when the low price per barrel is already discouraging new exploration.

Given those financial and logistical headaches, companies may take a pass.

“A state like California is going to put its full force and resources on the line,” said Timothy O’Connor, a California-based attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund. “There’s still an element of local and state control, and we are going to defend our values to their very core. That’s certainly one of them.”


Rolling Back Air Rules

California has notched two victories over the Trump administration’s efforts to undo a methane regulation instituted during Obama’s term.

The Waste Prevention Rule was to have gone into effect in January 2017, regulating emissions of natural gas leaking from more than 100,000 oil and gas wells on public lands across the country.

The federal Interior Department delayed enactment of the rule and was sued by California and New Mexico. The states prevailed. The agency then suspended part of the new rule and the two states sued again, winning in court once more.

The victory has significant impact in California, home to vast, aging oil fields and energy infrastructure. Methane’s potent heat-trapping capacity makes it many times more damaging to the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. The state Air Resources Board recently limited methane coming from both new and existing oil and gas sources.

Another win came in a suit the state joined after the EPA postponed implementation of yet another Obama-era rule aimed at combating smog. The “Ozone Rule” reduced allowable concentrations of ozone, a main component of smog.

Pruitt ordered the EPA to extend the deadline to comply with the new standards by at least a year. Two days after California and 15 other states filed suit, Pruitt reversed his decision.

The state also won a suit calling for federal transportation officials to monitor greenhouse-gas emissions along national highways, but the government is considering repealing the regulations.

In another pending case, California and other states are suing the EPA to identify areas of the country with the most polluted air. In April, Trump weighed in, directing the EPA to relax restrictions on state governments and businesses that have been key to cutting smog.

In a memo, the president instructed Pruitt to expedite a review of state smog-reduction plans and streamline the process for businesses to get air-quality-related permits. In addition, Trump ordered a review of other air-quality regulations related to public health to determine whether they “should be revised or rescinded.”

The agency said the directive was aimed at trimming costs and maximizing efficiency.


Dropping Protection for Water

In an effort to more precisely define which bodies of water are covered under federal law, the Obama administration adopted a rule in 2015 that effectively expanded the number of protected waterways, including springs and floodplains that appear for only part of the year.

The idea was to safeguard both water quality and water quantity, and to put an end to the time-consuming practice of determining status on a case-by-case basis. The U.S. Supreme Court had already weighed in, but the high court’s definitions of the “waters of the United States” failed to provide adequate clarification.

The Obama administration’s definition-stretching rules were strenuously opposed by developers, who said they swept up much of the undeveloped land in California, including wetlands.

Soon after Trump came into office, the EPA launched a review of the rule, and then got rid of it.

In February, California sued the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which signs off on development permits in protected wetlands.

The legal case is still pending, but Sivas said the Trump administration is doing an end-run by requiring the Army Corps to run all permit requests through Washington, rather than making those determinations in regional offices.

By centralizing the decision-making, Sivas said, political appointees can circumvent scientific and legal analysis performed by field offices and determine the outcome based on other factors.

“My guess is they are going to say (to developers), ‘You don’t need a permit,’” she said.

CALmatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Environment

You may never have heard of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but it is a place of global importance. At the very southwestern tip of the mainland, it is vital to the survival of virtually the world’s entire population of emperor geese and Pacific black brant, as well as other bird species from multiple continents. It’s also important habitat for caribou, brown bears and marine mammals.

But if the Trump administration gets its way, the roar of diesel engines will soon drift across this landscape as bulldozers scour a new road across the fragile tundra.

Development here would set a terrible precedent for all the places across America that Congress has designated as wilderness areas—the highest level of protection for public lands. If a road is built through Izembek, what would prevent acts of future destruction in our Joshua Tree National Park, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park?

In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an agreement to transfer about 500 acres of high-value habitat within Izembek and its designated wilderness to the King Cove Corp., which has long sought to build a road connecting the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Zinke’s move dovetails with the Trump administration’s goal of selling off and giving away federal lands for development.

The for-profit King Cove Corp. was established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which allowed such corporations to select lands to be managed for the benefit of shareholders. The corporation has advocated for the road for decades because of its potential to boost commercial fishing and seafood processing. Last year, independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker sent a letter to the Trump administration describing a purpose of the road as the “movement of goods and people between King Cove and Cold Bay.”

In recent years, however, the purported purpose of the road has changed: Proponents started selling it as a “lifesaving” measure for ambulances to drive the more than 40 miles from King Cove to the jet-capable runway in Cold Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that, even in good weather, such a trip would take 90 minutes to two hours.

There are alternatives, but the King Cove Corp. and its supporters have rejected every single one of them. The corporation was given a taxpayer-funded, multi-million-dollar hovercraft that could successfully transport ambulances across the bay—less than 27 miles—in just minutes, but it chose to give it away to the nearby community of Akutan, which used it for a couple of years to transport mail and seafood workers. The corporation also was not interested in a proposal to start a marine ferry, something that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined would be more than 99 percent dependable.

King Cove will accept only a road, even though it would destroy wilderness on an isthmus containing a biologically rich lagoon. This was the first area in America to be recognized as a “wetlands of international importance” by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for conserving wetlands.

The road would set a precedent that threatens all wilderness areas and undermines bedrock environmental and conservation laws, including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Worst of all, the residents of King Cove would not be made any safer; the gravel road would be unreliable, given the fierce storms of winter.

In a 2013 letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Pete Mjos, a longtime physician with the federal Indian Health Service and medical director for the Eastern Aleutian Tribes, wrote, “With all due respect to my many friends and former patients in King Cove, I submit that the proposed road is the Great Irony—that construction of this road to ostensibly save lives, and for health and safety, in reality poses grave dangers, and is a very real threat to life itself.”

This January, nine environmental and conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Zinke’s land exchange with the King Cove Corp., arguing that it violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

These groups will not be silent as the Trump administration attempts to destroy wilderness and sell off our public lands for development. I hope all Americans support our efforts to preserve places like Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for future generations, and for all those species whose survival depends on wild places remaining wild.

Jamie Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is president of The Wilderness Society, which works to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness.

Published in Community Voices

Nearly a half-century ago, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act by a vote of 92-0 in the Senate, and 355-4 in the House. Republican President Richard Nixon said the legislation “provides the federal government with needed authority to protect an irreplaceable part of our national heritage, threatened wildlife. … Nothing is more priceless and worthier of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

As the Trump administration continues to roll back America’s commitment to conservation, we should fear that it will succeed in turning the federal government away from its responsibility to protect species from extinction. The administration recently denied petitions to list 25 wildlife species as endangered.

As Kathleen Hartnett-White, who is a Senate-vote away from becoming the administration’s chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, put it, the Endangered Species Act is “economically harmful” and a “formidable obstacle to development.” So perhaps it should not have come as a surprise when Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced he would reopen areas of sage-grouse habitat to mining, as well as oil and gas leasing. Zinke, along with the U.S. Forest Service, also plans to revisit the state-federal sage grouse conservation plans that successfully led the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to decide not to list the grouse as threatened or endangered.

Some critics are encouraging a rewrite of the law itself, arguing that the ESA has failed, because relatively few of the already listed species have been brought to “recovery.” Many states also want more control over determining when a species should be listed, or removed, from the list, and in identifying “critical habitat” for the survival of a listed species.

The Endangered Species Act has prevented some important and iconic species from going extinct, including bald eagles, the Yellowstone grizzly and gray whales. The primary impediment to recovery has always been a lack of resources. A recent study found that most listed species with recovery plans received less than 90 percent of the amount of money needed for their recovery, and that overall funding for the act has declined since 2010. Only sufficient funding from Congress—not changes in the law itself—can fix this problem.

Critics also complain that “consultations”—the required reviews of projects that may harm listed species or their habitat—are costly and time-consuming, and that they increase uncertainty in project planning. In December, the Trump administration announced plans to change the rules governing endangered-species consultations and critical-habitat designations. Yet a recent review of all Fish and Wildlife Service consultations from January 2008 through April 2015 found that no project was stopped or extensively altered due to reviews. On average, approvals took only 14 business days. The 10 percent of consultations that required further review took 61 days. In virtually all cases, the agency acted within the time limits set by the law.

Although determining whether a species is in danger of extinction is based solely on biological grounds—as it should be—economic factors are already considered in identifying habitat that is critical for the survival of a species. In 2015, Wyoming Republican Gov. Matt Mead, as chair of the Western Governors’ Association, launched a review of how the Endangered Species Act was working. One outcome was a Western Governors’ policy statement supporting “all reasonable management efforts to conserve species and preclude the need to list a species under the ESA.”

The 2015 Fish and Wildlife Service decision not to list the greater sage grouse as threatened or endangered illustrates the benefit of this approach. That decision, based on state and federal land-management plans, initiatives by public-land users, and voluntary efforts by private landowners across the remaining 11-state range of the grouse, was a victory for conservation. It proved the wisdom of the authors of the act, who understood that the key to conserving imperiled species was protecting the ecosystem on which a species depended.

As Democratic Washington Gov. Jay Inslee put it: “What is a bird without a tree to nest in? What is an Endangered Species Act without any enforcement mechanism to ensure their habitat is protected? It is nothing.”

Yet the act seems to work best when it encourages voluntary measures to protect habitat. The flexibility built into it has permitted innovative conservation measures that benefit the species, the public-land users and the private landowners who implement those measures. In many instances, federal funding and technical assistance is available to help defray landowner costs and encourage collaborative conservation efforts.

As the rate of extinctions and the loss of biodiversity accelerates, the act is essential for keeping vulnerable species alive. Unfortunately, if President Trump’s administration and Republican leaders in Congress have their way, the Endangered Species Act itself could be extinguished.

Jim Lyons is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is a lecturer at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C.

Published in Community Voices