In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic and an election year, President Donald Trump and his administration are rolling back environmental regulations in an effort to deliver on some of his major campaign promises.
This week, the Trump administration announced it’s moving forward with its plan to roll back environmental protections for the largest national forest in the U.S.
The Tongass National Forest in Alaska, which spans 17-million acres, has long been protected from development thanks to the 2001 Roadless Rule — which prohibits logging and road construction in vast wildlife areas.
Republicans including Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, have lobbied Trump for the exemption for years. On Friday, the Department of Agriculture released its final environmental impact statement for opening up the Tongass to logging and other development. The statement claims the protections have “limited economic opportunities in some areas.”
This follows the White House finalizing its rollback of the National Environmental Policy Act on July 15, which demands federal agencies examine the impact of construction projects on the local environment and provide alternative development solutions. Trump spoke that same day about his record accelerating environmental reviews since “day one” of his presidency.
“Before I took office, reviews for highways ballooned to an average of nearly 750 pages in length. And they were the good ones; they were the short ones,” the president said at an event in Atlanta. “All of that ends today. We’re doing something very dramatic.”
On June 4, Trump issued an executive order to expedite infrastructure investments and “other actions” that will “strengthen the economy and return Americans to work.” The order calls for expediting government decision making and halting environmental review processes.
Here are some other environmental rollbacks you may have missed:
The Southern border wall
To fulfill perhaps the biggest promise of his presidency, the Trump administration has continued building the wall by waiving environmental laws. Trump pledged to have built 450 miles of border wall by the end of this year. Last week, he visited Yuma, Arizona, to celebrate 216 miles of completed construction.
On May 15, Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf announced that he would allow the circumventing of 26 regulations, including the Endangered Species Act, to fast-track construction of 69 miles of the southern border wall in Texas’s Webb and Zapata counties.
The head of DHS has had the power to waive laws or legal requirements in order to expedite border wall construction since the passage of the Real ID Act in 2005.
“It’s with the strike of the pen; all the laws don’t apply,” said Laiken Jordahl, borderlands campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity, an organization that has challenged Wolf’s waiver and the constitutionality of border wall construction in Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the case brought by the Center for Biological Diversity, among others, challenging six waiver decisions made by DHS in 2018 and 2019.
Without the waiver authority, the government would have to engage in a lengthy process to consult with conservation scientists and tribal nations to weigh the costs of construction, its impact on local species, air and water quality, and communities in the region. Applying laws like the 50-year-old National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act would slow down construction, Jordahl said. On its own, applying NEPA would be a multi-year process because the harm from wall construction is so severe, he added.
Jordahl claims all wall construction during the Trump administration has been non-compliant with environmental and cultural resource protection laws which is not far off from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s own assessment. A CBP spokesperson told NewsHour that of the 216 miles of wall built during the Trump administration, approximately four miles were constructed without a waiver in the El Paso, Texas, sector.
In southern Texas, the biggest impact of wall construction would be that communities along the Rio Grande would be walled off from their water source and recreational land, Jordahl said. Beyond southern Texas, the Center for Biological Diversity found in a 2017 study that construction of the border wall threatens 93 endangered species in the borderlands.
Zapata County officials have challenged the authority of Homeland Security and are attempting to halt construction along a four-acre bird sanctuary.
“These are the kind of places that get thrown under the bus so a president can deliver on his campaign promise,” Jordahl said. “The pandemic, in every way, has just allowed DHS to further silence and diminish the voice of the border communities throughout all of this.”
He called the waiver authority that allows for the expedited construction a “textbook example of environmental racism.”
The populations of Webb and Zapata counties are nearly 96 percent and 95 percent Hispanic or Latino, respectively.
In April, Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, along with 66 U.S. representatives and 22 senators, sent a letter to Wolf, Attorney General William Barr and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, requesting that Trump halt wall construction during the pandemic.
“This administration is merely attempting to fulfill campaign promises – all while wasting taxpayer money, removing environmental safeguards, and risking wildlife habitats,” Cuellar said in a May 15th statement, following the most recent environmental waiver issued by Wolf. “Rather than focusing on our nation’s current health pandemic and helping the millions of working families and small businesses that are struggling to make ends meet, the Trump Administration continues their wasteful attempts at building an expensive, ineffective border wall.”
New England waters and Alaskan bears
As the November election draws closer, Trump has moved quickly to cement his legacy of rolling back environmental regulations and expanding hunting and fishing on public lands.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt in April announced the single largest expansion of hunting and fishing opportunities by the Fish and Wildlife Service in U.S. history, opening up more than 2.3 million acres at 97 national wildlife refuges and nine national fish hatcheries.
“America’s hunters and anglers now have something significant to look forward to in the fall as we plan to open and expand hunting and fishing opportunities across more acreage nationwide than the entire state of Delaware,” Bernhardt said in a statement in April.
In May, the Trump administration rolled back an Obama-era policy that prohibited certain hunting techniques in Alaska’s nature preserves, including killing swimming caribou using motorboats and using artificial light to lure and shoot hibernating black bear cubs. On July 9, such practices will be allowed to resume.
Alaska’s Republican Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan praised the administration’s rollback. The Tanana Chiefs Conference, a tribal consortium of 42 Native tribes throughout interior Alaska, also supported Trump’s repeal.
“The previous rule was implemented without adequate tribal consultation, in disregard to rural Alaska’s dependence on wild food resources,” said Victor Joseph, chief and chairman of the Tanana Chiefs Conference. “The previous limitations enacted in 2015 threatened our way of life and our centuries-long sustainable management practices.”
Eddie Grasser, director of wildlife conservation for Alaska’s Department of Fish and Game, said the hunting techniques will not be used as widely as some may think.
“Sixty-five to 75 percent of our communities are not road connected. The only way to get in and out is by plane and so people living in those remote areas of the state are highly dependent upon harvesting wildlife,” said Glasser, who was born and raised in Alaska. “That’s their economic endeavor. For a lot of them, they don’t have a job. In a lot of cases there are no jobs available. They’re still living off the land.”
However, tourism is a vital part of Alaska’s employment picture. According to the state’s Resource Development Council, roughly 10 percent of jobs in the state are in the tourism industry.
While the guided hunting industry generated roughly $87 million in Alaska in 2015, wildlife watching — where tourists come to photograph and observe animals — generated $2.1 billion in 2011, according to the latest data available from the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2016, Alaska’s Bureau of Land Management recorded 111,885 wildlife-watching visitors compared to 30,934 hunters.
Critics of the rule reversal say brown bear populations have dwindled in Alaska as a result of these hunting practices that will soon resume.
“The tens of thousands of wildlife watchers who trek into the state each year put far more money into the state’s coffers than a handful of trophy hunters seeking to kill the animals do,” said Sara Amundson, president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund. “Alaska state officials should prefer their wildlife alive rather than dead.”
In the same spirit of cutting red tape, Trump issued a proclamation June 5 to reopen the Northeast Canyons and the Seamounts Marine Region, off the coast of New England, to commercial fishing. In 2016, the Obama administration established the only marine sanctuary in the Atlantic Ocean, protecting 5,000 miles of fragile deep sea environments 130 miles off the shores of Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
At a roundtable in Bangor, Maine, Trump touted how the move would be good for Maine’s economy.
“As we work to fully reopen and revitalize our nation’s economy I am doing everything in my power to support American workers, including those in Maine’s amazing seafood industry,” Trump said.
Five days after Trump’s visit to Maine, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., introduced an amendment to the Great American Outdoors Act to prohibit Trump from reopening the marine monument.
Other lawmakers, including freshman Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents a rural Maine congressional district Trump won in 2016, said the move will not benefit Maine.
“Folks in Massachusetts might benefit from opening up Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument, but it doesn’t actually help most Maine fishermen. The vast majority of Maine’s lobster fleet harvests lobster within three miles of shore, far from the monument,” Golden said.
What’s more, just four vessels in 2014 and 2015 relied on the marine monument for more than 25 percent of their annual revenue, while the majority of ships generated less than 5 percent of their revenue from the area.
Legal challenges have already started rolling in. Organizations like the Conservation Law Foundation claim the president violated the Antiquities Act without proper legal authority or appropriate scientific justification.
“This lawless act upends over a century of practice by presidents of both parties and puts all national monuments on the block for the highest political bidder,” said the foundation’s president, Brad Campbell.
Roughly three years after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, BP pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor count for violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. As a result, the oil and gas company agreed to pay $100 million in fines after their rig released 130 million gallons of crude oil into the gulf, causing the death of hundreds of thousands of birds.
But in 2017, the Trump administration put forth a different legal interpretation of the 1918 treaty, reducing enforcement actions brought against the industry and ultimately legalizing unintentional migratory bird deaths. More recently, the Fish and Wildlife Service moved forward to codify that definition, making it harder for future administrations to overturn.
Mike Parr, president of the American Bird Conservancy, said the laxing of federal protections comes as bird populations continue to decline.
“It was incentivizing good technical solutions, which were being found,” Parr said. “There’s a number of these different types of technological advancements which have been incentivized by the fact that the service could theoretically bring legal action against people if they don’t do something. And most of them aren’t expensive.”
Parr noted that legal liability led to the creation of bird-friendly communication towers. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, more than six million birds collide annually with communication towers. Higher concentrations of birds congregate toward towers with steady burning lights when compared to flashing lights. In 2015, the Federal Aviation Administration released guidelines to avoid steady harmful light on pilot communication towers near airports.
On June 5, Fish and Wildlife published an environmental analysis of Trump’s plan. It states, “migratory birds will likely experience increasing negative impacts over time as compared to current conditions; these impacts may be significant.”
The government study notes it’s likely to benefit big industry and major developers. Rich Nolan, president and CEO of the National Mining Association, applauded Trump’s rollback.
“The protection of migratory birds is important,” Nolan said, “and the statute should be applied as intended: to protect against intentional killing of birds, not to criminalize a broad range of commercial activities causing a significant chilling effect on industry and commerce nationwide, including mining.”
But environmentalists have criticized the move. Jamie Rappaport Clark, president and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife, said Trump is leaving the fate of more than 1,000 bird species in the hands of the oil and gas industry.
“While most of the country is responding to the systemic racism that persists in our nation and focused on a pandemic sweeping the globe, the Trump administration continues its relentless campaign to undermine environmental protections,” Clark said. “On top of calling on all federal agencies to use emergency powers to dispense with compliance with framework laws like the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, the Trump administration is pushing forward a callous regulation to strip protections for migratory birds.”
And now that migratory birds have lost some of their federal protection, several states are offering their own plans to protect them.
In Virginia, construction on the South Island of the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel will result in loss of habitat for 25,000 migratory birds that use it for nesting. In February, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, announced the state will develop a bird management plan, prepare an artificial island adjacent to the construction for displaced birds, as well as recreate the original habitat when construction is complete.
“This plan demonstrates that infrastructure and development can and must be compatible with wildlife conservation,” said Northam. “It also shows that Virginia is stepping up when federal policies change environmental protections.”
But throughout his presidency, Trump has made it clear that he views environmental regulations as red-tape — unnecessary barriers to the advancement of his economic agenda and campaign promises. Amid an economic downturn brought on by a pandemic and an election just over four months away, the president will be looking for wins to show his base he’s still working for them, and rolling back or ignoring environmental regulations is one way he can do that.