Week 123: Off-Roading Over Endangered Species Really Revs Trump’s Engine

Plus, the president’s crazy logic on federal coal leasing and climate modeling.

May 31, 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

Riding Roughshod Over Endangered Species

The Trump administration kicked off Memorial Day weekend with the announcement that off-road vehicles will be allowed back near southern Utah’s Factory Butte, ending a 13-year ban that protected two cactus species from extinction.

The decision is controversial, to say the least. In 2005 the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance successfully petitioned the Bush administration—no great friend to endangered species—to close off 5,300 acres of federal land to protect the Wright fishhook and the Winkler pincushion. Both species of cactus grow only in small ranges in Utah, flourishing around the base of the spectacularly beautiful Factory Butte. The Wright fishhook is in a particularly thorny situation, having spent 40 years on the endangered species list.

The Bureau of Land Management now says it has taken sufficient measures to protect the cacti from off-road vehicles, but you’d forgive the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance for being skeptical. First, even when off-road vehicles are driven with care, they are harmful to desert environments. A 2018 study in Saudi Arabia, for example, documented the negative effects the motorized toys had on both native vegetation and soil health. Second, there will always be people who refuse to follow the rules. A quick web search turns up countless examples of fences being cut to allow off-road vehicles to pass into off-limits areas. It has happened all over the country—Florida, Arizona, and yes, Utah.

Fence-cutting is so common that even as Michael Swenson, a lobbyist for off-road vehicles, celebrated the BLM’s decision, he found himself foreshadowing the inevitable problem: “We do need to abide by the management plan and the rules. I don’t condone cutting fences.”

You can fix a fence, but you can’t bring an extinct species back to life. That’s why the Bush administration closed Factory Butte to off-road vehicles in 2006, and no material fact has changed in the intervening 13 years to warrant reversing that policy. Utah has a fair amount of space in which to ride an off-road vehicle. Is it really necessary to do it so close to the last refuge of two struggling species?

Leave None of It in the Ground?

The Obama administration imposed an indefinite moratorium on leasing federal land for coal mining, beginning in 2016, because the leasing program could not be squared with the country’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions. Then, under Trump, the now-departed interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, made lifting the moratorium one of his first official actions in 2017. But, as with so many of of this administration’s rollbacks, Zinke forgot to dot his is and cross his ts. Actually, that’s an understatement. He failed to conduct an environmental assessment, which is a pretty big deal, so a federal judge ordered the Interior Department back to the drawing board.

The administration has now published that assessment, which exhibits typical Trumpian levels of analytical rigor—which is to say, it’s garbage. The Interior Department’s central argument is that lifting the indefinite moratorium on leasing federal land for coal extraction would have no impact on long-term carbon emissions, since a moratorium is a temporary measure. Eventually, according to this argument, we would extract all the coal from the land anyway, so all the administration is doing by lifting the moratorium is accelerating that process.

This logic is preposterous. That’s not how resource extraction works. We use a resource for a time until something better, or cheaper, or both, comes along, and then we leave behind whatever we didn’t get to. That’s what’s currently happening to coal. Coal has innumerable shortcomings as an energy source. Mining it is filthy and dangerous. Burning it causes deadly air pollution and wreaks havoc on the climate. Under no circumstances would we continue using coal until every last molecule is dynamited from the earth.

The Obama moratorium on new coal leases creates time and market space for renewables to move into our energy mix. Its effect shouldn’t be underestimated. More than 40 percent of the coal mined in the United States comes from federal land, and coal from federal land accounts for a truly astonishing 10 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. So yes, lifting the moratorium would most definitely have an impact.

Living for Today

Do you ever wonder what the world will be like after you’re gone? Will there be jetpacks and flying cars? Will cash still exist? Will Facebook somehow implant itself into people’s brains? Donald Trump probably doesn’t have any of these thoughts—he just assumes the world will stop existing once he’s not part of it.

At least, that’s what I assume, given his administration’s recent decision to stop modeling the effects of climate change beyond the year 2040. But it’s really just another Trumpian assault on science. Arbitrarily limiting the time frame for climate modeling is clearly an attempt to bury the most significant projections climatologists have made thus far, like sea level rise subsuming coastal and island communities.

“What we have here is a pretty blatant attempt to politicize the science—to push the science in a direction that’s consistent with their politics,” Philip B. Duffy, the president of the Woods Hole Research Center, told the New York Times.

But I think it’s better to view this move as an assault on children. While we are already feeling climate change’s effects, the impacts will snowball in future years, as more carbon is trapped in the atmosphere and as melting at the poles accelerates. The year 2040 might seem quite far away to a man who will turn 73 in a couple of weeks, but for perspective, many babies born this year will be graduating from college in 2040. By cutting off climate forecasts, Trump is telling younger generations that he doesn’t care about the world they’re going to be living in.

Save Our National Monuments

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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