Week 78: Zinke Wants More Engines and Wi-Fi Towers in Our National Parks

Plus, Trump proposes to gut the Endangered Species Act—extinction is going to be yuge.

July 20, 2018

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

An Ounce of Prevention . . .

The Interior Department announced a plan on Thursday to severely weaken the Endangered Species Act. Under the proposal, the government would no longer take significant action to protect species that are threatened, waiting instead until the plant or animals becomes fully endangered to try to save it from extinction. The flaw in this logic shouldn’t need explanation, but let’s do it anyway. If your car is speeding toward a cliff edge, why would you wait until the last possible moment to apply the brakes?

That’s not the only ill-advised change. For decades, the government has not been permitted to consider economic costs when deciding whether to list a species as endangered. The Trump administration wants to change that, because admitting a species is endangered currently means having to to try to save it—by, say, altering development plans. So Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke would prefer to simply ignore the fact that a species is in trouble. Denying basic facts is, after all, the Trump administration’s specialty.

The proposal would also prevent the government from looking too far into the future when determining whether a species is endangered. The purpose of this shift is transparent: The largest long-term threat to many species is climate change, and the administration wants to pretend that climate change doesn’t exist. Again, denying basic facts is what the Trump administration does best.

Can You Hear Me Now, Secretary Zinke?

Secretary Zinke established the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee in March to help him figure out what is wrong with our public lands. As we previously discussed, Zinke seems to have already decided what’s wrong: There aren’t enough motorized vehicles or opportunities to spend money. Zinke’s committee was constructed entirely of industry representatives, many of whom either sell off-road vehicles or run concessions in the parks.

With this in mind, the interior secretary’s latest op-ed, published this week on the Fox News website just before the group’s first meeting, should not surprise you. “Wi-Fi access, internal transportation, campgrounds, boat ramps, concessions, and even restrooms are not available on many public lands,” Zinke writes. “Also, once somebody gets to a recreation area, common services like boat, ATV, and fishing pole rentals are often unavailable.”

There is a legitimate argument to be had about how and whether wireless access should be expanded in national parks and on other public lands for safety reasons. But that doesn’t appear to be what Zinke is concerned with—he’s talking about ending the role of public lands as havens for Americans who want to escape from engines and gasoline and smartphones and other technologies. The context of his comments, and the makeup of his arguably illegal committee, whose members stand to profit from Zinke’s decisions, make his intentions clear.

The lack of ATV rentals is not the problem with our public lands. The problem is neglect and underfunding.

State of Disaster

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finalized on Tuesday a rule rolling back standards for the disposal of coal ash, the toxic leftovers from the combustion of coal for electricity. The rule was the first to be signed by acting administrator Andrew Wheeler, who said, “These amendments provide states and utilities much-needed flexibility in the management of coal ash.”

What Wheeler didn’t mention is that states used to have plenty of flexibility in coal ash management, right before a pair of massive coal ash spills—due in large part to state regulatory failures—contaminated waterways in Tennessee and North Carolina. In 2008 the Tennessee Valley Authority spilled 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash slurry, covering 300 acres of land and sullying multiple waterways. Then, in 2014, a coal ash storage site owned by Duke Energy spilled 39,000 tons of waste into the Dan River, leading the company to plead guilty to criminal negligence and leaving the federal government to clean up the mess.

Coal ash contains a slew of dangerous substances, including mercury, cadmium, and arsenic. A study conducted in 2013 and 2014 found that children living near coal ash storage sites had increased incidence of ADHD, gastrointestinal problems, sleep issues, and other disorders. These spills raise significant health risks, especially for kids, so handing authority for coal ash regulation back to the states, which have already proved they can’t manage it, is inexplicable.

But let’s not let sick children distract us from the fact that Wheeler can help the coal power industry make money (again).

Stop Andrew Wheeler

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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