Week 46: Trump Shrinks Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante—and Gains Lawsuits

Trump primes for drilling under a national treasure, Murkowski makes inroads in the Tongass, and there’s no stopping the oil trains.

December 08, 2017

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

Landscape photo: Bob Wick/BLM

We Can’t Bear It

President Trump signed two presidential proclamations on Monday that aim to shrink a pair of national monuments. The administration plans to reduce the size of Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and that of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half.

As ever with President Trump, his reasoning includes big lies, little lies, and some important truths left unsaid. Let’s start with the little lies.

In the speech announcing his decision, the president completely mischaracterized how a national monument designation affects land management. He claimed that hunting and grazing have been unreasonably restricted and that the designation prevents responsible economic development. He’s wrong on both counts. The management plans for the two monuments explicitly allow hunting and fishing, and U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s own report found that the monument designation did not change the grazing patterns in Grand Staircase-Escalante.

Trump went on to claim—with a straight face!—that the national monument designations have deprived tribal groups from practicing their traditions. Nonsense. The designations mandate that tribal uses can continue unaffected. The Interior Department is obligated to protect cultural artifacts inside the monuments. Furthermore, tribal groups complained during Zinke’s review that the secretary didn’t speak to them about his recommendations for the monuments, and five tribes are suing the administration. (By the way, so is Patagonia and 11 conservation groups.)

Now the big lie: Trump first joked that he was told the move would be uncontroversial, waited for the laugh, then pivoted to insist he in fact did think it was controversy-free. But legal scholars for decades have found that presidents don’t have the authority to significantly change the monument designations of their predecessors. Franklin Roosevelt’s attorney general, Homer Cummings, reported in 1938 that there is nothing in U.S. law to even suggest that the president has the power to abolish national monuments. During the George W. Bush administration, independent legal scholars concluded that presidents could not make major changes to monuments because it would run contrary to the purpose of the designation—permanent protection. Just last year, the Congressional Research Service expressed serious doubt that a president could undo or materially change a monument.

But let’s set aside President Trump’s misstatements and overreaches. Here’s the real point: This isn’t about local control of the land, as Trump and his cronies have argued. President Trump probably couldn’t care less about federalism or our majestic landscape. He cares about the fact that underneath those beautiful Bears Ears lie coal, uranium, and natural gas. How do I know this? The manner by which Trump proposes to shrink our national monuments is designed to maximize the extraction of fossil fuels and uranium.

This isn’t about stewardship or local control—it’s just another Trump giveaway to industry.

The Road to Deforestation

In the last days of the Clinton administration, the U.S. Forest Service released arguably the most significant conservation measure of the past two decades: the roadless rule. It prohibited nearly all road building, logging, and fossil fuel and mineral extraction in 58 million acres of the nation’s most pristine forest areas. It set off years of litigation, as the timber industry fought with all its might to get back into the wild forests in 39 states, from South Carolina to Alaska. But the rule has largely withstood challenges. In September, a federal judge threw out the state of Alaska’s third attempt to rescind the rule.

Stymied in the courts, the timber industry has turned to its friends in Congress to make inroads into the protected forests. Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who seems to spend much of her time in Congress attempting to exploit her state’s wildlands for temporary economic benefit, this week introduced a provision in a Senate spending bill to exempt Alaska from the roadless rule.

Exempting Alaska would gut the roadless rule. The state’s Tongass National Forest accounts for nearly 30 percent of the protected acreage. And if Congress grants Alaska an exemption, it’s certain that senators from other extractive states will seek their own exceptions to the rule.

Murkowski and her allies argue that the exemption would spur economic development in southeastern Alaska, but that’s false—it would only spur development in the timber industry itself. The area’s existing economy depends in large part on fishing and tourism, and rescinding the roadless rule would badly hamper them.

The nearly 17-year fight over the roadless rule is a classic example of what makes conservation so difficult. Every victory is temporary. Every scrap of legislation or regulation that protects the environment must be continually fought for in the courts, in congress, and in every succeeding administration. Lose one of those battles, and the chainsaws start buzzing.

Biased Against the Facts

Linda Capuano, President Trump’s nominee to lead the Energy Information Administration, is a blank slate on climate change. In her Senate testimony this week, Capuano was asked about global warming and responded that it would be “inappropriate for me to take a position on such a highly debated topic.” She explained that the EIA is supposed to provide “unbiased data” and that taking a public stand on the issue would give the appearance of bias to her agency’s work.

This is an interesting misuse of the word bias. Bias is “an inclination of temperament or outlookespecially: a personal and sometimes unreasoned judgment: prejudice.” Accepting climate change science is not an “inclination,” nor is it unreasoned. It requires only the dispassionate analysis of data. Calling a reasoned belief in climate change “bias” collapses the distinctions between fact and opinion, science and politics. Calling someone biased for believing in climate change is like calling a physicist biased for believing in the Higgs boson—it used to be a hotly debated topic, but now it’s a proven fact. And our public officials shouldn’t hesitate to acknowledge proven facts.

Give Me a Brake

The U.S. Department of Transportation reversed an Obama-era rule that would require trains carrying oil and other highly flammable liquids to upgrade their braking systems by 2023. The rule was controversial only among people in the rail industry, who complained that enhanced braking systems would cost them up to $10,000 per train.

They also claimed that the brakes weren’t necessary, but that argument is ludicrous. There have been a series of horrific accidents in recent years, in which oil-bearing trains derailed and exploded. Dozens of people have died in the accidents, and more than a million gallons of oil have been spilled, sometimes into sensitive ecosystems. In some of those crashes, like the 2013 crash near Casselton, North Dakota, the evidence shows that brakes with a shorter stopping distance would likely have prevented the disaster.

The only thing wrong with the brake rule was that it gave train operators too long to phase in the enhanced brakes, which are already widely available. Now they may never have to adopt them. Let’s all remember this irresponsible move the next time a derailed oil train blows up or spills.

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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