Trump Policies Favor Economic Gains Over Environmental Health

President Trump has Obama's environmental legacy in his crosshairs


  • Adam Rosenlund

Since taking office, President Donald Trump has wasted no time waging a war on public land and environmental regulation precedents by paving the way for increased development and resource extraction through altering or overturning Obama-era legislation.

It started when information on climate change vanished from the White House website shortly after Trump's inauguration. Then, POTUS announced his intention to pull the United States out of the Paris Accords, which was followed by Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt—a Trump appointee and climate change denier—announcing the EPA would not renew contracts for dozens of scientists serving on the Board of Scientific Counselors. Plus, in April, The New York Times reported Pruitt planned to cut $2.4 million from the EPA budget and dismiss a quarter of its staff within the year.

To date, the Trump Administration has undercut Obama-era legislation by changing the rules on how grazing restrictions are determined (check out "BLM Proposes Looser Grazing Restrictions, Alarms Environmentalists"), endangering acreage dedicated to a number of national monuments, altering species protections years in the making, allowing previously embargoed resource extraction on public lands and abolishing the Clean Power Plan. These decisions will have far-reaching implications on both local and national policy.

Reducing National Monuments

On Sept. 17, The Washington Post leaked a private proposal written for Trump by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommending reductions and new management practices for 10 national monuments. The proposal sparked mixed reactions in the West, home to the four monuments tagged for reduction: Cascade Siskiyou on the Oregon/California border, Gold Butte in Nevada and Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. Although Zinke declared Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve safe, Idaho environmental groups are still prepared to go to court if Zinke's recommendations become reality.

"Nationally, we will be taking action to defend the monuments that have been targeted for reduction or revision," said Craig Gehrke, Idaho office regional director of The Wilderness Society. "We've thought from the beginning that this was a colossal waste of time and nothing more than payback for the Obama administration by the Trump administration."

A number of ranchers, hunters and officials from the energy and resource sectors, however, were thrilled. They have long argued that large tract designations by the last three presidents went against the spirit of the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which stipulates monuments should cover "the smallest area compatible with proper care and management." Many also feel public land expansion has unfairly stifled recreation and development by limiting activities like drilling, mining, logging, grazing, hunting and fishing.

Representative Mike Noel (R-Utah) was particularly outspoken against the large monuments in his home state, the New York Times reported.

"When you turn the management over to the tree-huggers, the bird- and bunny-lovers and the rock-lickers, you turn your heritage over," Noel told the Times.

In contrast, several local environmentalist groups—led by Boise-based Advocates for the West, which filed suit against Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the Department of Justice Oct. 12—are preparing legal challenges to the reductions. In their view, these large monuments are necessary to provide adequate protection for endangered species, unique geological features and Native American heritage sites. Environmentalists may ask Congress to make a final decision, questioning the extent to which a U.S. president can roll back the legacies of his predecessors.

"It's unclear how they're going to coordinate this action between the executive and the legislative branches here," Gehrke said. "Congress does have the ultimate authority over public land, so that may be one way to go. ...We're all kind of waiting to see what actually, officially gets proposed."

Altering Sage Grouse Protection Plans

  • Adam Rosenlund

Next up for restructuring are the 2014/2015 sage grouse conservation plans, which the Bureau of Land management declared under review on Oct. 5.

It took state and local officials, hunters, businessmen, conservationists and Native American tribal representatives about 10 years to agree on the plans, which include 98 agreements across 10 states. The result was an exhaustive compromise with the goal of keeping the Greater Sage Grouse, a bird native to the West, off the endangered species list.

The proposed changes reflect Zinke's recommendation that conservation and management should be controlled at the state rather than federal level, and may also roll back protections that have restricted mining, logging and other resource extraction in sage grouse habitat. Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho) lauded efforts to return control to the states in an Oct. 6 statement, claiming the original Idaho plan began with local input but was "rewritten on the banks of the Potomac."

"I commend Secretary Zinke for trying to right that wrong," Risch wrote.

However, advocates like Steve Holmer, vice president of policy for the American Bird Conservancy and director of the Bird Conservation Alliance, worry that passing control to the states may undercut years of compromise and negate hard-won protections.

"Instead of having a consistent management framework that gives us some certainty that the grouse will be conserved, you're going to have a mishmash," Holmer said. "In some places, you may have grouse being conserved and in other places you don't. These lands belong to all of the American people. These are public lands."

Opening Public Lands to Mining

The BLM announced on Oct. 5 it would open up 10 million acres of public lands to mining, canceling a previous request to withdraw that land from development and form a Sagebrush Focal Area to protect sage grouse in Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Wyoming. The acreage has been closed to new mining claims since 2015, when it was temporarily segregated pending more studies of how mining would impact the grouse population. That holding pattern ended Sept. 24, prompting the BLM to make a final decision on the focal area designation.

In a press release, the BLM stated protecting the land would be "unreasonable in light of the data [from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service] that showed that mining affected less than .1 percent of sage-grouse-occupied range." Acting BLM Director Mike Nedd called blocking industry from 10 million acres of public land "a complete overreach."

  • Ryan Johnson

Holmer disagreed with the BLM assessment, arguing that any protections to sage grouse, no matter how small, are worthwhile considering the bird's fragile population.

"We're very disappointed by this, it's a definite step in the wrong direction," Holmer said. "These focal areas are the most important of the important part of [sage grouse] habitat. We would actually argue that the science [in the National Technical Team Report] indicated the focal areas should have been the priority habitat—all 35 million acres, not the 10 million acres that was actually designated."

Holmer sees this latest decision as another blow to the Obama-era sage grouse protection plans, adding it to a laundry list of promises that seem to be "disintegrating" under Trump. He also worries that allowing increased mining and mineral exploration on public lands will create a slippery slope to more and more development over time, as resources become more accessible.

"It is because of the cumulative impact on the landscape that we have this problem with the sage grouse to being with," he said.

Repealing the Clean Power Plan

  • Ryan Johnson

In a bold move Oct. 10, Pruitt signed a measure on behalf of the EPA to repeal the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, a comprehensive initiative passed in 2015 that was intended to steer the U.S. away from coal and toward cleaner energy production options like wind and solar. The plan aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (to a degree 32 percent lower than 2005 output) and curb American contributions to climate change. While Pruitt's move has been billed as a boon to the power and coal industries, freeing them from what the EPA statement called "unnecessary regulatory burdens," many power companies—including local giant Idaho Power—will not be moving back toward coal.

According to Idaho Power Communications Specialist Brad Bowlin, Idaho Power makes decisions "to balance cost, risk and environmental concerns," not as a reaction to any particular legislation—and right now, the economics are on the side of clean energy.

"We anticipate the early retirement of some coal-fired units," Bowlin wrote. "...Those decisions were founded on economic considerations, primarily the low cost of natural gas and the capital costs required to operate and maintain the coal units. We don't anticipate that repealing the Clean Power Plan will alter the economics behind those decisions."

Bowlin said the impact of the Clean Power Plan has always been "minimal" for Idaho Power in any case, pointing out that it relies heavily on hydropower, natural gas and renewable-energy generators instead.

Barring an economic upheaval, Idaho Power will be going ahead with its plans to shut down the three coal plants it has a stake in, beginning in 2019 and continuing at a staggered rate through 2032, despite the Trump administration putting its stamp of approval on coal.