Week 106: The Shutdown’s Mark on Joshua Tree National Park Will Last for Centuries

Plus, NOAA’s sick Twitter burn and the EPA’s corporate giveaways (which attorney general nominee William Barr seems cool with).

February 01, 2019

Welcome to our weekly Trump v. Earth column, in which onEarth reviews the environment-related shenanigans of President Trump and his allies.

Photo Illustration: Virginia Lee for onEarth (Joshua Tree National Park photo: m01229 via Flickr)

Trump’s 300-Year Legacy

President Trump said he would own the shutdown. Big mistake. Now, along with a humiliating political defeat, he owns a 300-year legacy of environmental destruction in Joshua Tree National Park.

That’s how long former park superintendent Curt Sauer says it will take for Joshua Tree to recover from the devastation of the shutdown. While park rangers were furloughed and visitors streamed into the park unsupervised, vandals and motorists transformed the landscape. Car traffic created roads on previously natural terrain. Graffiti covered many surfaces. Campers cut through chains and pitched their tents in off-limits areas. Visitors even damaged and defaced the Joshua trees themselves. In some cases, they cut down the trees to make space for cars to pass.

Joshua trees live an average of 150 years, but some are much older. These slow-growing trees can take decades to reach their average 30-foot height, and it will be ages before the damaged ones recover or are replaced by the next generation.

The felling of Joshua trees is a particularly poignant consequence of President Trump’s stop-at-nothing strategy to build a border wall. According to legend, the trees got their names from migrants: Mormons moving westward into a new and promising land thought the trees’ limbs stretched out to them, welcoming them to the territory. So they named the trees after the biblical figure Joshua, a leader in the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Now these symbols of hospitality have been cut down, sacrificed on the altar of Trump’s crusade against immigration.

But even before the shutdown began, the Mojave Desert, the larger home of Joshua Tree National Park, was under assault by the Trump administration. A national parks advocacy group sued the Interior Department last year, accusing the administration of approving construction of a pipeline through the desert without appropriate environmental review.

Winter Burn

When the weather gets cold anywhere in the United States, President Trump tweets that climate change is a hoax. Every. Single. Time. He’s like a child who insists on answering the question “What’s up?” with “Chicken butt,” no matter how many times you ask him to stop.

So this week, as the mercury dropped in the Midwest, President Trump released this predictable little gem.

Equally predictably, climate scientists criticized him and comedians skewered him. But an unexpected critic also got in on the act. The day after Trump’s latest climate change denial tweet, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—part of Trump’s own executive branch—tweeted matter-of-factly, “Winter storms don’t prove that global warming isn’t happening.”

NOAA didn’t “@” Trump in the tweet, but I think we all can guess whom this little bit of snark was directed at. Whoever is running the social media account over at NOAA, I hope someone bought you a nice, cold beer.

Teflon Don

Early last year, a Trump administration official got wind of a forthcoming study by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) showing that the government had significantly underestimated the dangers posed by a group of water contaminants associated with the manufacture of Teflon and other chemicals. So this official sounded the alarm.

Well, maybe not the alarm. Sounding the alarm would have meant warning policymakers and the public that a serious water crisis was developing. That’s what a responsible person would have done.

Instead, the official warned colleagues that the incoming study was going to make the administration’s rollback of public health protections look bad. “The public, media, and congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” wrote the official in an email to colleagues. “We (the Defense Department and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.” The report was delayed and delayed, finally seeing daylight last summer.

It should therefore surprise no one that, this week, Politico reports that the administration has decided not to regulate these chemicals, known as PFOA and PFOS, under the Safe Drinking Water Act. The chemicals are linked to kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid disease, fertility problems, hypertension, and a series of other disorders. This is the sort of risky nonregulation you get when you staff public health agencies with former employees of chemical lobbying groups and Koch Industries. Cue the public relations nightmare. And maybe also the cancer.

Stop Andrew Wheeler

The Know-Nothing AG

As part of the confirmation process for a new attorney general, nominee William Barr took written questions from senators on the Judiciary Committee this week. Answering questions in writing rather than in a live hearing gives the nominee time to consider the question, conducting research if necessary. (Attorneys are experienced at research.) Unless, of course, the nominee would prefer to wallow in ignorance, in which case the extra time afforded by the written process is mostly pointless.

That’s what happened this week when Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D–RI) asked Barr whether, as attorney general, he would investigate why corporate fines for worker-protection, finance, and environmental violations dropped 90 percent during the first year of the Trump administration (compared with Obama’s first year).

Barr’s response? He’s not familiar with those statistics.

How is that possible? Does he not know how to Google? It took me less than 10 seconds to figure out that Whitehouse had drawn his statistics from a Public Citizen report released in July. (See it here, at page 12.)

Barr’s refusal to take a senator’s question seriously, to spend a few minutes looking into a legitimate issue and develop and informed response, is contemptuous. Not in the legal sense, of course—I’m sure that Barr really isn’t familiar with the statistics. But contemptuous in the sense that he thinks he’s above congressional oversight.

He’ll fit right in as part of the Trump administration.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch or following it on Facebook or Twitter.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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