- The EPA with regard to Scott Pruitt and the movement to abolish the agency.
- The actions taken against the Endangered Species Act.
- The movement to sell off federally-owned public lands.
- What we can do as concerned citizens.
Scott Pruitt and Abolishing the EPA
First, I want to discuss one of President Trump’s nominees. Although nearly all of the people he has selected for a cabinet position are concerning, unqualified, and potentially-harmful for the United States (e.g. Steve Bannon, Betsy DeVos, Rex Tillerson, and others), I want to focus on Trump’s nominee to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is a federal agency dedicated to protecting both the environment and American citizens from significant environmental risks, such as pollution. (Source) The EPA works toward this goal by developing and implementing regulations and standards pertaining to human and environmental health. The EPA also funds scientists to carry out research on the environment and risks to it, so that the EPA can better understand what kinds of regulations to set and how to best enforce them. The EPA oversees and enforces such landmark acts as the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. The Cuyahoga River, for example, doesn’t catch on fire anymore due primarily to the work of the EPA. (Source)
President Trump has selected Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA, although it is important to note that Pruitt still needs to be confirmed by Congress. Pruitt is a completely unwarranted choice to lead the EPA as his ideals stand as the antithesis to the mission of the EPA. In fact, Pruitt has sued the EPA a total of 14 times (Source). These lawsuits all revolved around attempting to block or overturn regulations the EPA enforces to help protect the environment and human health. (Source) It is very concerning to imagine the anti-environmental-protection Pruitt leading the agency whose mission revolves around protecting the environment. How do you protect the environment if you don’t set regulations and standard for corporations to adhere to? Corporations are notorious for disregarding environmental well-being in order to maximize profits (Example 1, Example 2, Example 3), and there needs to be governmental oversight to ensure that corporations can’t simply pollute and destroy the environment when it suits them. Instead of previously being an advocate for environmental health through the use of regulations, Pruitt has simply repeatedly sued the EPA on behalf of corporations in an attempt to get rid of whatever regulations stand in the way of those corporations. These corporations would then donate large sums of money to Pruitt as a “thank you.” (Source) Pruitt obviously has a conflict of interest when it comes to leading the EPA, and he should not have ever been considered for the task.
There are two other concerns involving Pruitt in addition to his anti-EPA history. First, he is a supporter of states having more control in regulations and environmental standards. (Source) This might not sound bad at first, but giving states control could have serious repercussions. Pollution does not adhere to state boundaries, and air pollution and water pollution can easily cross state lines. If one state has relaxed regulations, any legal pollution could easily cross state lines and that other state would have no way of putting an end to whoever is creating the pollution, as that is out of their jurisdiction. Here’s a real-life example. The Illinois River is a tributary to the Arkansas River. The Illinois River begins in Arkansas and flows into Oklahoma before draining into the Arkansas River. Over the past several decades, chicken farms and city wastewater plants located upstream in Arkansas were responsible for dumping high amounts of phosphorus and nitrates into the Illinois River. (Source) When the Illinois River flowed into neighboring Oklahoma, the phosphorus-laden water caused massive algal blooms and lowered the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. This not only made the Illinois River unattractive for recreational use, but also stressed the aquatic life due to the oxygen-deprived water. Federal courts ruled that upstream states are responsible for the water quality in downstream states, and Arkansas began working to lower the phosphorus and nitrate levels in the Illinois River for Oklahoma. Had regulations been left to the states, Oklahoma would have had no way of forcing the corporations and cities in Arkansas to comply with phosphorus and nitrate level standards. When it comes to pollution and environmental health, there has to be federal oversight to ensure all problems will get addressed equally.
The last concern with Pruitt involves his stance on climate change. Initially, Pruitt was a climate change denier. He claimed in an opinion piece published in 2016 that the debate surrounding climate change was not yet settled by scientists. (Source) This is simply not true. Anthropogenic climate change is occurring, and 97%-98% of climatologists all agree that it is. (Source and Source) There simply is no debate. (If you have questions pertaining to climate change, I highly suggest checking out the following two sites which consider the common arguments against anthropogenic climate change, and what the actual science says: Resource 1 and Resource 2)
However, in a recent Congressional hearing, Pruitt changed his views and did admit that climate change was occurring. (Source) A step in the right direction, perhaps, but not good enough. Instead of admitting that humans are the root cause of the climate change, Pruitt said that “human activity contributes to [climate change] in some manner.” (Source) Once again, this is not true. Human activity doesn’t just contribute to the current climate change, it is the primary cause of it. When climate change is the greatest danger facing our livelihood and the well-being of the environment, how can we trust someone who doesn’t accept the reality to lead the EPA in the fight against climate change?
Of course, it might not even matter if Pruitt is confirmed to lead the EPA. Why? Because the Trump Administration and the Republican-led Congress is attempting to abolish the EPA completely. Republican Representative Matt Gaetz has recently drafted a bill that would dismantle and abolish the important agency. (Source) Gaetz claims that the regulations put in place by the EPA are stifling small businesses, but the EPA is incredibly important. Abolishing the EPA would be utterly detrimental for the environment, our country, and all of us living here. With the drafting of this bill, Representative Gaetz is essentially saying my health, your health, your children’s health, and the well-being of the environment are not as important as the potential for more money. This is not acceptable.
But Gaetz isn’t some lone Congressman introducing some bill that will never go anywhere. The abolition of the EPA is a goal the Trump Administration shares. During his campaign, Trump was very vocal about wanting to abolish the EPA. (Source) And recently Myron Ebell (the infamous climate change denier and leader of the EPA transition team for Trump) claimed that the Trump Administration will continue with this campaign goal, and that they will work to dismantle the EPA. (Source) Just like Representative Gaetz, this is the Trump Administration saying that they do not care about our health, but instead only care about business profits. No one should find this acceptable. And as I previously explained, leaving the mission of the EPA up to the states simply will not work due to intrinsic features of the environment and pollution.
|The Federally Threatened Lakeside Daisy, a species protected by the Endangered Species Act.|
The Disregard for Endangered Species
Next I want to discuss the apparent disregard for endangered species and the Endangered Species Act. The Endangered Species Act, passed in 1973, was intended to prevent species in the United States from going extinct. (Source) The Endangered Species Act determines what species are at risk, lists the at-risk species as endangered or threatened, and then begins the process of alleviating whatever pressures are resulting in the decline of the listed species along with bolstering the remaining population. Because of the Endangered Species Act, we still have animals such as the Whooping Crane, Black-Footed Ferret, and the Bald Eagle. Without the actions taken by the ESA, these species – and many more – would now be extinct.
The ESA, however, is being challenged. For example, the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee Rob Bishop recently commented that the Endangered Species Act “Has never been used for the rehabilitation of species. It’s been used for control of the land.” (Source) First, the ESA has been used for rehabilitation of species; that part of Bishop’s statement is just incorrect. (Take, for example, the Black-Footed Ferret: https://www.fws.gov/mountain-prairie/species/mammals/blackfootedferret/2013DraftRevisedRecoveryPlan.pdf) But second, and most importantly, Bishop’s comment highlights an apparent, and fundamental, misunderstanding of basic ecology and conservation. Animals require appropriate land to exist. The existence of a species is tied directly to its habitat. It makes no difference if you captive-breed a species if that species’ habitat has been destroyed or modified to an unusable extent. Yes, the ESA is used to control the land, because without setting aside and protecting appropriate habitats for the various listed species, those species will continue to decline before ultimately going extinct. This misunderstanding (or apathy) that Bishop has is concerning, as he is in favor of repealing the act. He is not alone, as other Republicans in powerful positions also dislike the act.
Outright repealing the ESA would be hard. Republican politicians, however, have launched attempts to strip protective powers of the ESA, which is a much more attainable goal, especially with a Republican-controlled Congress. One such attack on the ESA has been the proposal of a limit on how many species can be protected. This proposal makes no sense. Over 1,600 species are currently covered by the ESA, and this number continues to grow thanks to human influences. If a species is near extinction, it is near extinction. Having a limit on how many species can be covered by the ESA won’t help anything; it will simply make those endangered species which could not be covered by the law to go extinct.
Why go after the Endangered Species Act? The underlying reason is money. When a species becomes federally listed, appropriate areas of habitat become regulated to benefit that species. This protection often interferes with businesses dealing in natural resource extraction. Take, for example, the federally-threatened Northern Spotted Owl in the Pacific Northwest. (Source) The Northern Spotted Owl (a subspecies of Spotted Owl) requires extensive old-growth coniferous forests. These old-growth forests are also prime logging locations. The destruction of these old-growth forests for timber subsequently caused the Northern Spotted Owl population to crash, and they began teetering on the edge of extinction. The listing of this species under the ESA required remaining stands of these old-growth conifer forests to be protected, and this directly hindered the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest. The result was a fight between those wanting to protect this species and those wanting to continue logging with disregard for this species’ continued existence. This heated fight even led to the car-bombing of two environmentalists who were advocating for the protection of the Northern Spotted Owl by pro-logging assailants. (Source) As long as there are people who are driven by greed, there will be people opposed to protecting endangered species. It is consequently paramount that protection of these species continues. Right now it appears that these protections will lose out to the industry as a result of Republican politicians, and that is shameful.
Selling Federal Lands?
A push by Republican Congressmen that has been slowly gaining momentum recently involves federal lands. More specifically, it involves getting rid of them. Federal lands are lands controlled by the federal government, and they can be broken up into two main groups. First, there are lands managed by the Department of the Interior, and these include National Parks, National Monuments, and Bureau of Land Management Lands. Then there are lands managed by the Department of Agriculture, and these primarily include National Forests. Although these lands are managed by the federal government, they are what are known as “public lands.” As our government is founded on the principle of “for the people, by the people,” these public lands belong to all of us. They serve a variety of purposes, and most citizens use them recreationally. This summer, for example, I camped out in, explored, and enjoyed various public lands including Zion National Park, Dixie National Forest, and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument. These are our lands to use and enjoy, and they also protect many significant natural and historical areas and sites.
However, there are some Republican politicians who have been attempting to get rid of millions of acres of these public lands. This move came to a head recently, with the introduction of the H.R.621 bill. (Source) I had spent several hours writing up what the H.R.621 bill was, and why it set a bad precedent for future ceding of federal lands, but I woke up on Feb. 2 to great news. The Republican Representative from Utah who had created the bill, Jason Chaffetz, announced that he was withdrawing the bill! (Source) This withdrawal was the result of very vocal public backlash.
I will still briefly describe what the bill was, and some of the potential purposes behind it, as bills like these will continue to pop up. H.R. 621 would have instructed the Secretary of the Interior to sell 3.3 million acres of public land broken up throughout 10 states in the Western US. The 3.3 million acres in question were areas that, as Chaffetz had put it, “serve no purpose for taxpayers.” I, and many others, had two main problems with the bill. First, it is ridiculous to assert that those parcels of public land served no purpose to taxpayers, and I’ll expound on that in a moment. Second, if this bill had been passed, it would have set a dangerous precedent. Let’s hypothetically consider that those 3.3 million acres don’t do much for taxpayers. If this bill were to be passed, it would set a precedent that there are some federal lands which don’t “have a purpose,” and that the federal government should just cede those lands to the states in which they exist. The question then becomes “What is ‘purposeful’ land?” How do you determine whether a parcel of public land has a purpose in a way that is ultimately not arbitrary? All public land does have some sort of intrinsic purpose, even if it is simply conservation of habitat and opportunities for recreation. At what point do you consider a parcel worth getting rid of?
Now let’s consider another hypothetical. Let’s say Congress determines what purposeful land is, and it cedes any non-purposeful parcels to the states. Having the states control these parcels isn’t inherently bad, but it can be. States would have complete control over the management of these lands. They could, for example, choose to increase resource extraction on the parcel, or maybe even restrict recreational opportunities. Or, they could even sell the land to private businesses, which might be an attractive choice if the state was facing hard financial times. Now, the careful reader might argue that this line of reasoning falls victim to the slippery slope fallacy, but this line of reasoning isn’t without historical precedent. Take, for example, the state of Ohio. In 2015, Ohio leased several hundred acres of state-owned land in Egypt Valley Wildlife Area to a private mining company. (Source) This mining company was then given a permit to strip mine the leased land, which will utterly destroy the forests and grasslands located within parts of the Wildlife Area. Letting private companies either lease or completely buy state land isn’t unheard of, and giving more land to the states will only open up the ability for states to do this more often.
But the thing is, these public lands do serve a purpose, and they do benefit taxpayers. Public lands bring tourists to towns that are nearby. These tourists then spend money in these nearby towns, benefitting local businesses. And we aren’t just talking a few thousand tourists. In fact, National Parks alone drew over 300,000,000 visitors in 2015. (Source ) These tourists eat at local restaurants, they stay at local lodging, they stop at local stores, etc. All of these businesses employ local people in jobs that otherwise wouldn’t exist without outdoor recreation. A report by the Outdoor Industry Association found that outdoor recreation sustains 6,100,000 jobs and brings in $646 billion in economic stimulus each year. (Source) They also found that outdoor recreation generated approximately $40 billion in federal tax revenue per year. Outdoor recreation is a huge section of the economy, and the majority of it depends on federal public lands.
What’s frustrating is that the Republican politicians leading the anti-public-lands charge are from states which owe the majority of their tourism and economy to these public lands. Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, whom I previously mentioned, is one of them. Another is Utah Representative Rob Bishop (who I mentioned in the previous section involving the Endangered Species Act). Utah national parks and national monuments collectively attract 10,000,000 visitors a year, and these visitors bring in millions of dollars to the local economy. I was one of them this past summer. In fact, had it not been for the federal lands in Utah, I would have never gone to that state. Had I never visited, I would have never spent my personal money at local businesses. Federal public lands mean tourism, and tourism means money. In fact, one study found that rural counties in the Western United States with more federal land within the county had “faster population, employment, personal income, and per capita income growth” than nearby counties with less federal land present.
The economic benefits of federal public lands are obvious. So why are these Utah Representatives essentially trying to destroy the hand that feeds their state? It might have to do with the fact that Bishop and Chaffetz have had over $900 million in campaign funds donated to them from the oil, gas, mining, and real estate industries during their political tenure. (Source for Rob Bishop and Source for Jason Chaffetz ) These industries would greatly benefit from states gaining control of these federal public lands and subsequently having the states lease or sell their new land to the various companies in those industries. But as we’ve now seen with Chaffetz, vocal public opposition to these types of bills can get them withdrawn.
But we must continue being vocal about our opposition, as more bills like this will continue popping up. It’s not the first time a bill like H.R.621 has been created, and it’s not the first time Representatives Chaffetz and Bishop have pushed for the selling of federal lands. And I can guarantee it won’t be the last time, either.
What can we do?
"To announce there must be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the American public" - Theodore Roosevelt
These are very troubling times. Many people are angry, and I am one of them. I care about the environment and I care about my fellow humans. These two things are not mutually exclusive either; the health of the environment directly affects the health and well-being of you and I. In my opinion, the greatest problem with President Trump is his apparent inability to think in the long-term. He acts with only short-term goals in mind, and oftentimes these actions will have an overall negative effect on us, business, and the environment in the long-term, even if they might benefit some business and some people in the immediate short-term. This is not conducive for “making America great again.” This is harmful. This is detrimental. This is not normal. His actions will harm us for decades to come.
But, we must not fall to defeatism. We cannot give up. We cannot simply throw in the towel when President Trump or the Republican-controlled Congress announces another ill-conceived and destructive executive order or bill.
At the same time, we should not allow our anger to bubble over and create more problems. People don’t like to feel personally attacked. Attacking someone instead of talking about their ideas or actions does not actually accomplish anything. If you decide to perform ad hominem attacks on someone, that person is simply going shut down and retreat further into their opinions. That is not an effective way to hold a conversation with anyone. Sadly, I’ve been seeing a lot of this recently, and it’s only reaffirming the opinions of those who supported Trump and further contributing to the hyper-partisan atmosphere.
We have to approach these conversations in a more productive manner. Ask someone why they think what they think. Find common ground and common motives. Lay out your positions and why you hold them. Back those positions up with facts, but don’t just hit the other person over the head with fact after fact either. It should be a relatively calm (even if intense) conversation, not a screaming match. Having these types of conversations are much more productive than something like “Trump and Trump supporters are idiots for reasons XYZ.” That’s not helpful, and it just makes things worse for everyone.
We need to be vocal. We need to raise our concerns. We should be doing this in a variety of media and in a variety of ways. Bring attention to issues through social media. Go out and join a peaceful protest. Plan to attend an upcoming march, such as the March for Science on April 22. (March For Science) Call your representatives. This one is important, and it does work. It is important to note that emailing your representatives is NOT as effective as calling. Call, call again, and call some more.
The one beneficial change that President Trump has brought about is that people are finally engaged and active in politics. This is how it should be. It kills me when I hear people (especially my age) say “I don’t care about politics,” or “I don’t like politics.” You should care about politics, because it affects your life. And you don’t have to like it to care and be active. People don’t like politics. I don’t like having to write a post like this, but it’s important to talk about these issues. I would much rather be writing about salamanders or plants, but politics affects my life and the things I care about, so I’m going to raise my voice and say what I think and why I think it. I encourage you all to do the same.
Don’t be silent. Don’t be defeated. Don’t give up.
Be vocal. Be optimistic. And work hard to be the change you want to see. You might think you can’t do much when it comes to something as big as changing the government, but consider the famous quote by the Polish poet Stanisław Jerzy Lec:
“No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.”