These quiet policy changes will pave way for massive development on public land

Eric Holst

Many of Donald Trump’s most atrocious attacks on nature and wildlife have faced swift backlash from the American public – including his reversal of national monument designations, his original reversal of the trophy hunting ban, and his reopening of decades-long forged plans to protect the imperiled greater sage-grouse.

But the most recent actions have taken place quietly, drawing little attention from journalists, policymakers and the public.

On December 22, as much of the nation was winding down for the holidays, the Trump administration surreptitiously threw out the rulebook for minimizing impacts of oil and gas drilling on public land. Five days later, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revised rules for how oil and gas leases are prioritized in greater sage-grouse habitat.

The timing of these maneuvers couldn’t be worse: Rolling back mitigation policies right before Congress releases a new infrastructure bill will compound the damage inflicted on our environment.

Infrastructure bill may target Endangered Species Act

The infrastructure bill will likely overlook the need for green infrastructure  –  including natural infrastructure such as wetlands and, if anything, weaken environmental standards.

In a leaked draft of the plan, the White House is already signaling its intention to dramatically weaken the Endangered Species Act and other protections by lowering environmental permitting requirements for major new infrastructure projects.

In fact, Rep. Rob Bishop of Utah, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, has said specifically that he hopes the bill will include changes to the ESA, a bedrock environmental law that passed almost unanimously and has the support of 90 percent of voters.

This is in addition to five proposed House bills under consideration right now, each of which would weaken implementation of the ESA one way or another. Instead of a full repeal of the law, in other words, the ESA could see death by a thousand cuts through multiple congressional and administrative actions.

In addition, the administration wants to open up more public land for oil, gas and coal leasing. It recently announced a plan to also open up vast areas of American coastal waters to offshore drilling.

If these efforts succeed, Americans who enjoy our nation’s great outdoors and wildlife will feel the effects, as will our economy.

Millions of jobs, iconic wildlife at stake

These policies will increase industry’s access to public lands, reducing recreational opportunities and ultimately putting wildlife at greater risk of extinction.

Trump’s actions and the proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act will also have negative economic impacts on the $25-billion mitigation and $887-billion recreation sectors, which directly support nearly 8 million American jobs.

For the oil and gas sector, meanwhile, Trump’s actions set a new and harmful precedent that industries don’t have to clean up after themselves.

States offer a different roadmap

While Trump’s actions are clearly catering to industry demands, Western leaders such as Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper and Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead have continued to show bipartisan leadership on conservation efforts across the region.

These governors joined the chorus of voices now urging the administration to keep federal plans for the imperiled greater sage-grouse intact. They also joined other Western governors to organize a set of workshops to improve mechanisms for protecting endangered species.

Unlike the Trump administration, they understand that wildlife policies and implementation must continue to be based in sound science, not partisan politics. Or we risk bringing more at-risk wildlife closer to the brink of extinction while negatively affecting jobs and the wilderness all Americans hold dear.

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