The Great Public Lands E-Bike Rush of 2019

13 Sep

During the administration of President George W. Bush, officials who oversaw public lands and the environment would frequently wait until 5 P.M. on Friday to announce rollbacks that would help businesses and industry at the expense of environmentalists and recreational users. The hope, presumably, was that no one would notice. For some of those years, a top official at the Interior Department was a man named David Bernhardt.

Bernhardt is now secretary of the interior, and he must still favor the tactic. Late in the day on August 29, the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, Bernhardt signed a secretarial order that could open an enormous swath of public lands to electronic bicycles, those motorized two-wheelers that have become common in cities but are a newer and more contentious presence on unpaved trails.

If Bernhardt hoped his order would go unnoticed, it didn’t work: The media reported on the change immediately, and it quickly stirred up controversy. Secretarial Order 3376 is broad, with potentially large ramifications for public lands and people who enjoy them, whether they’re in the saddle or not. Here’s what you need to know.

What 3376 Says

Interior’s land agencies—the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Bureau of Reclamation—have been told to no longer define e-bikes of all power types as off-road motorized vehicles. (As described in more detail below, all e-bikes contain motors. Different classes of e-bikes offer increasing amounts of power and speed to assist a rider. Some will provide assistance up to 28 miles an hour.)

“E-bikes shall be allowed where other types of bicycles are allowed,” the order states. It doesn’t place any restrictions on which e-bikes can be used on nonmotorized trails. It gives agencies 14 days to adopt the new policy. While news reports have focused on what the changes could mean for the Park Service, which controls more than 85 million acres, the BLM is perhaps more significant. The agency manages 248 million acres of the country, more than any other government body overseeing federal land.

The goal of all this, Bernhardt wrote, is “to increase recreational opportunities for all Americans, especially those with physical limitations.” The order also tries to simplify the rules surrounding e-bikes and “decreases regulatory burden”—always popular in Republican circles.

The order gives the agencies 30 days to produce a public policy about how e-bikes can be used. It’s currently unclear how each agency will respond—that is, how widely they will throw open the doors of the public lands they manage, given that there are regulations already on the books for each agency that might conflict with the order.

The National Park Service already issued its new policy on Friday, August 30. It allows e-bikes on park roads, paved or hardened trails, areas designated for off-road motor vehicle use, and administrative roads and trails where traditional bikes are allowed. The bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas, nor are they allowed in areas where traditional bikes can’t go. (Unlike other agencies, the Park Service has few singletrack trails where bikes currently are permitted.) Except on park roads, the policy also requires the rider of an e-bike to use the motor only to assist pedal propulsion and not to use it like a motorbike, with a throttle. It’s unclear how the service would be able to enforce that, however.

The Park Service has claimed that superintendents still have the discretion to restrict or impose conditions on e-bikes for protection of the park or public safety—keeping a trail open only to traditional bikes, for instance.

The upshot is still a bit murky. Will people be e-biking on a paved trail in Yosemite sometime soon? Probably so. Will people be e-biking up a narrow hiking track to a kiva on BLM land in Arizona? Maybe not. Such questions will be answered in the weeks and months ahead.

E-Bikes: A Primer

E-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. bike market. Their share of total bike sales in the U.S. is still small, but it tripled in the past three years, to six percent of the market—and it’s grown more than eightfold since 2014, even as sales of conventional road bikes have been dropping.

Another attraction to bike companies is the cost of e-bikes, which is high. For example, at Bangtail Bikes and XC Skis in Bozeman, Montana, a full-suspension e-mountain bike (eMTB) starts at around $4,500 and can sell for as much as $12,000. (It should be mentioned that a high-end, full-suspension mountain bike can cost nearly this much, too.)

For these and other reasons, the bike industry has been pushing hard, particularly at the state and federal level, for more off-pavement e-bike access. The People for Bikes Coalition, a bike-industry group based in Boulder, offers a playbook with talking points and suggested answers to questions from people who don’t know much about e-bikes or don’t like them. REI, which doubled its e-bike offerings in 2019, also donated $110,000 to the group’s efforts to expand e-bike access both on and off road, which includes getting states to enact e-bike laws that the industry finds favorable.

There are three classes of the machines: 

  • Class 1 e-bikes have a motor that provides assistance when the rider pedals—often called pedal-assist—but once you hit 20 miles per hour, you don’t get an additional boost.
  • Class 2 e-bikes have a throttle. The motor can propel the bike without pedaling at all, similar to a small motorbike. Motors are governed at 20 miles per hour.
  • Class 3 e-bikes are pedal-assist bikes that can go up to 28 miles an hour.

All classes are limited to 750 watts of assist power, equivalent to one horsepower.

“In our store, the Class 1 mountain bikes are the most popular models,” says Rob Funderburk, shop manager at Bangtail Bikes. They rent for $85 for 24 hours, and they allow a less-fit person to hang with a partner on the trails. “People usually come back with a huge grin on their face because they were able to keep up with the rest of their more enthusiastic family members,” Funderburk says. “It’s an equalizer.”

Another big user group, he says, is “people extending their cycling careers”—riders who’ve had to stop or slow down because of age, injury, or weight gain. E-bikes get them back out there.

What Do Environmentalists Think?

Many environmental and conservation groups were stunned and infuriated by the announcement. “It’s extremely sweeping. It basically says you have to allow e-bikes of all different classes. And you cannot treat them as motor vehicles,” says Kristen Brengel, senior vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association. “I am absolutely shocked he did a secretarial order on this,” Brengel says. “Not even considering conservation in this decision, it goes against the Organic Act of the Park Service,” she says, referring to the 1916 legislation that founded the service.

There are always challenges when something new appears on public lands, Brengel says. But in national parks, the overriding mandate is supposed to be conservation. She says that didn’t happen at all in this case.

What’s more, as far as Brengel could tell, Bernhardt didn’t appear to consult with any trail groups before making a decision that directly affects trails. “These are not only the volunteers, but the philanthropists,” she says. “I’m baffled. He completely just bypassed all of them and made the decision for all the agencies.”

Lovers of quiet nature and wildlife should also worry about the new order, some environmentalists say. “By changing the definition of what’s a nonmotorized vehicle, you open the door to all motorized vehicles,” says Brad Brooks, public lands campaign director for the Wilderness Society. It’s not far-fetched, Brooks believes, to foresee a day in which electric snowmobiles and electric motorcycles—both already on the market—would be allowed into nonmotorized areas, too. “There will be no such thing as quiet, nonmotorized backcountry recreation anymore. It’s gone.”

Another future byproduct of e-bikes, he predicts, will be less wilderness. “Anyone who has ever worked on a wilderness campaign knows that once a motorized use has been established in an area, you draw the boundary around it,” excluding it from the future designation as wilderness, he says. If Bernhardt’s order takes full effect, he says, “practically speaking, you’re pretty much eliminating the possibility of new wilderness areas on BLM land. For people who care about wilderness, they should be concerned about this.”

E-bikes could also increase hunting pressure by sending more hunters deeper into the less accessible country. “The dilemma here is that nobody wants to talk about restraint. Nobody wants to talk about limits,” says George Nickas, executive director of Montana-based Wilderness Watch. “We need to confine ourselves to the footprint we have and figure out how to lessen it, not continue to expand it.”

Bernhardt’s order struck Alison Flint, director of litigation and agency policy for the Wilderness Society, as both “rushed” and “backward.” The order declared a goal, she says, then ordered agencies to figure out how to get there, while acknowledging that longstanding policies stand in the way.

To Flint, the order suggests the same haste and disarray that often marks Trump administration attempts to unwind environmental rules. She predicts that corners will be cut on environmental reviews and “a big fight” down the road will be the eventual result.

The People for Bikes Coalition has been pushing Interior for increased e-bike access on public lands, but even they were caught off-guard by the scope of the announcement. “It’s not exactly what we asked for,” says Noa Banayan, federal affairs manager for the group, which represents nearly 100 bike makers, industry suppliers, and shops, including major companies like Trek and Giant. “This is pretty broad access,” Banayan says. Still, she adds, “We think it’s a really good first step.”

How Do Mountain Bikers Feel About This?

Some are upset, but not all. The mountain-biking community has been split on the rise of eMTBs.

This was reflected recently in a survey done by Flathead Area Mountain Bikers, a group of about 300 riders in northwest Montana. Noah Bodman, who sits on the group’s board, says, “My takeaway was that people are split, almost evenly, between ‘e-bikes should be allowed only on motorized trails,’ ‘e-bikes should be allowed on every trail,’ and ‘e-bikes are their own separate thing, requiring their own separate rules that need to be discussed.’”

Bodman says e-bike fans range from downhillers who want an easier ride up—so they can bomb down slopes—to older people who need an assist, to fit grinders who “just think e-bikes are fun.” Opponents are hard to pigeonhole, but include people who “hold an ill-defined grudge against them, because they feel like it’s cheating.”

For now, the coalition’s official position is that e-bikers in the Flathead area should follow all current rules, which means they should only be allowed on trails where motorized uses are allowed. But that could change, he says. One of the group’s big concerns is the same one shared by the head of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, the Boulder-based advocacy group: e-bikes and traditional mountain bikes should not be lumped together by regulators.

“It’s very important that traditional mountain bikes remain independent, that they don’t become one and the same,” says David Wiens, IMBA’s executive director. “We’ve been supportive of Class 1 e-mountain bikes on mountain bike trails as long as our access isn’t impeded or threatened.”

What About E-bikes on Forest Service Lands? 

Bernhardt’s order doesn’t apply to Forest Service property, because it’s part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And don’t expect a blanket change any time soon. The agency operates under regulations created during the Clinton administration that would have to be amended for e-bikes to be allowed as a national policy, says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. The process is “laborious,” Stahl says. “You can’t simply have secretary [Sonny] Purdue whip off an order.”

That said, e-bikes already are in use on a few national forests around the nation, including the bike park at Mammoth Mountain, California. Earlier this year, Tahoe National Forest opened nearly three dozen trails to Class 1 e-bikes, including a few well-known routes. A 2016 letter from the Forest Service’s national office reminds regional foresters that e-bikes should be managed as motorized vehicles, and be allowed in places designated for them. But Eli Ilano, the supervisor at Tahoe National Forest, told Outside that “the Forest Service doesn’t have any formal policy on e-bikes in our regulations or in our manuals or in law, just as many emerging technologies aren’t addressed.”

He likened the situation to the agency trying to figure out how to treat snowboarding when it first appeared at ski resorts on public lands. And since Ilano considered Class I e-bikes closer to mountain bikes than motorcycles, managers opened up some nonmotorized trails to them without notifying the public about putting motors on a nonmotorized trail.

Groups like the Wilderness Society disagree with this move. This week several groups wrote to Ilano, demanding that he withdraw the decision to allow e-bikes. The Wilderness Society says it is considering legal action.

The Art of Compromise

One Colorado county’s careful experience with e-bikes has showed officials there that the bikes don’t have to strike fear in other trail users, if they are managed thoughtfully.

A few years ago, Jefferson County, west of Denver, was starting to see e-bikes crop up in its parks. So in 2017, Jefferson County Open Space set up a study across the county’s 27 parks and 244 miles of urban and rural trails. They took surveys of visitors, asking them about their impressions of e-bikes as volunteers clandestinely rode them around the same park.

There were a lot of misconceptions about the lower-powered bikes, says Mary Ann Bonnell, visitor services manager and a ranger for Jefferson County Open Space, and the author of a study on the work. “In many cases, the e-bikes were not detected by the visitor,” says Bonnell. “One of their concerns was that they’re loud,” she says of visitors concerns, before they saw them. “Well, they’re not loud.”

Last year, the county conducted a pilot program in which they allowed Class 1 e-bikes on the trails. Encouraged by the result, this year they made the pilot program a full policy on the county’s nonpavement trail system. But, Bonnell says, “We heard loud and clear from our visitors that they did not want to see a throttle on bikes on natural surface trails”—that is, Class 2 bikes, which require no pedaling at all.

Today, she says, the county fields “far more complaints about off-leash dogs” than about e-bikes. “The idea that they cause more accidents—we are not seeing that with e-bikes in our medical response calls,” Bonnell says. The bike problems, when they happen, are about poor biking etiquette generally, she says. As one commenter put it in a survey, “If you’re an (expletive) on a regular bike, you’re gonna be an (expletive) on an e-bike.”

These sentiments ring true to Lloyd Erlandson, president of the Backcountry Horsemen of California. “My personal feelings is that this is gonna happen, and that it’s probably not all that bad,” Erlandson says of e-bikes. “But we need to learn how to work with it, and everybody needs to know the rules of the road.” A lot of bike riders simply don’t know how to ride properly around horses, Erlandson says. When they don’t, dangerous situations can result—for horses, equestrians, and cyclists. E-bikes could compound this, by bringing more riders, he says.

Bonnell points out that Jefferson County took the pulse of the local community before implementing its policy.

It is yet unclear what effect permitting bikes of different powers or abilities could have on user conflicts, however. Earlier this year, Colorado’s state parks system year went a step further than Jefferson County, allowing both Class 1 and Class 2 bikes on any trails open to mountain bikes. It’s too early to evaluate the program, says Fletcher Jacobs, state trails program manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife. But, he says, “Talking to folks anecdotally at this point, we haven’t seen any issues.”

Trump Wants to Speed Up Drilling in National Forests

11 Dec

Already in the midst of a massive push to extract more oil and gas from the nation’s waters and wide-open spaces, the Trump administration has set its sights on a new goal: to ramp up drilling in national forests.

In September, the U.S. Forest Service proposed “updating, clarifying, and streamlining” regulations that could broadly change how the agency handles oil and gas leasing across the 193 million acres of national forests and grasslands. “The intent of these potential changes would be to decrease permitting times by removing regulatory burdens that unnecessarily encumber energy production,” the Forest Service wrote. “These potential changes would promote domestic oil and gas production by allowing industry to begin production more quickly.”

Environmental groups are outraged. “What they want to do is clear and pave the way for faster permits for the oil and gas industry,” says Kristin Davis, staff attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center. That means ignoring the public and its concerns, says Davis’s colleague Sam Evans, senior attorney and leader of the group’s National Forests and Parks Program.

National forests are the “land of many uses,” as the old slogan goes. They are habitat, a place for recreation, and where clean drinking water originates for 180 million Americans. The Forest Service has a mandate to balance these uses wisely—not favor industry, critics say.

Oil and gas in national forests are managed in an interesting way. The Forest Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, oversees most federal forestland and what happens there. Yet the Bureau of Land Management, which is part of the Department of the Interior, administers the oil and gas deposits and hard-rock minerals beneath the forests. Each agency has its own expertise and its own responsibilities. Current rules spell out a complementary regulatory pas de deux, with each agency playing a part in deciding which forestlands may be appropriate for drilling or mining and how the activities ultimately occur.

Energy companies and environmentalists agree the process can be improved. But that’s where the agreement ends. The Forest Service’s September 13 proposal in the Federal Register portrays a cumbersome system that slows energy development. Its brief proposal makes more than a half-dozen references to aiding industry, through “quicker lease decisions” and “decrease[d] permitting times.” Environmental groups counter that the permitting process needs to be bolstered, not streamlined, with environmental review occurring at smarter stages during the process. Red tape and other hurdles aren’t the hang-up in the system, they argue, but instead it’s problems such as staffing: In 1995, firefighting costs were 16 percent of the Forest Service’s appropriated budget. In 2015, firefighting consumed half of the agency’s budget, with a 39 percent reduction in all non-fire personnel.

Critics are particularly worried by the proposal’s stated desire to “[align] the Forest Service process with the BLM so that operators have one simplified permitting system.” But the two agencies aren’t supposed to be aligned, attorney Davis says. Each has a distinct, crucial role to play, she says. “It’s complementary work, but it’s not duplicative.” When the government aligns the two processes, “What you are doing is gutting the environmental review process,” Davis continues. “If you’re going to scrap that and just do what BLM does, you’re getting rid of where the real work happens.” Such a change would eviscerate the Forest Service’s ability to control what happens on the land it is supposed to manage, she and other critics charge.

Aligning the processes also would remove the public from the process, attorney Evans argues. He and others point to the BLM’s aggressive moves to expedite energy development on lands the agency manages—by increasing the rate of lease sales and by reducing environmental review and curtailing public input.

The Forest Service downplayed such concerns. The law requires “timely and coordinated action on leasing applications and expeditious compliance with environmental and cultural resource laws. This is the alignment we seek,” a Forest Service spokesperson wrote to Outside. “Each agency has its own roles and responsibilities. These are set out by Congress in the statutes and cannot be changed by regulation.”

The Forest Service oversees 154 national forests, 20 grasslands, and one prairie; 44 of those properties have oil and gas interests or operations. The Forest Service has also proposed changes to the permitting process for mining operations in national forests.

The oil and gas proposal is a little-noticed front in the Trump administration’s broader goal to expand domestic energy production where possible, from expanding offshore drilling to rolling back methane rules and other environmental protections.

Notable in the proposal, says Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, “There’s not a single reference to what the risks associated with this [drilling] activity will be, not to mention accelerating it.” Last month, Culver co-authored a letter to the Forest Service, signed by four dozen regional and national environmental groups, protesting the proposed changes. The letter expressed frustration that the public was given only 30 days to comment on the proposed changes.

The Forest Service will draft new regulations and publish them for public review and comment sometime next year.

Another Severed Foot Was Found in the Pacific Northwest

30 Nov

Feet without their owners attached seem to be turning up all over the place.

On November 16, a person looking for returnable bottles found a foot clad in a gray Nike running shoe in a dumpster at a boat ramp at Rogers Landing Park, located on the Willamette River, about 20 miles southwest of downtown Portland, Oregon, the Yamhill County Sheriff’s Office wrote in a Facebook post

The foot was found in a large, clear plastic trash bag with other flotsam, which has led investigators to think the sneaker was perhaps tossed there by a Good Samaritan who had cleaned up one of the islands in the river, says detective Todd Steele. It’s possible the person picked up the shoe without even knowing a foot was inside, he says. 

The shoe and sock visually match those found on the shore of a nearby riverside park last July, he says. DNA work on the foot is now being done at a crime lab.

“It’s fairly clear at this point that we have a body somewhere, and that body is probably in the water,” Steele says. But the Willamette passes through several cities. “We have no idea where these feet went into the river,” he says, so the location the shoe was first picked up could be useful to police. (If you have any leads, contact Steele at 503-434-7349 or

Once you start looking for them, though, severed feet really do seem to be everywhere. Consider a few headlines from just the last year or so around North America:

  • In May 2017, in South Carolina, a shoe containing a human foot was found on a dock at the Charleston City Marina. 
  • In September 2017, hikers in a Missouri park discovered a foot in a red sneaker along the banks of the Mississippi River. (It was later matched up with a man whose wrecked car was found on the riverbank, about 40 miles from where the shoe was found.)
  • In November 2017, a plumber who was closing up a cottage on Georgian Bay, a large bay of Lake Huron in Ontario, Canada, found a human foot in a Reebok sneaker, about a yard from the shore.

Greater Vancouver, British Columbia, though, remains the epicenter of foot-finding. At last count, 14 dismembered feet have been uncovered since 2007, the most recently last May, when a foot in a hiking boot was discovered in a logjam on an island west of the city. That foot, and most of the others, have been identified.

Is there anything nefarious, ahem, afoot? 

Not likely. As a forensic pathologist explained to Outside nine years ago in our definitive look at the foot-loose phenomenon, our hands and feet are like kites, attached only by a few tendons. Underwater, they flap around and come off pretty easily when body tissues break down. “It doesn’t mean someone is running around with an ax, chopping feet off,” says Steele.

If there’s a trend, experts say, it’s the way sneakers are now made: light, foamy, buoyant. “It really didn’t come up until we had running shoes that floated so well,” coroner Barb McLintock told Canada’s National Post in 2016. “Before, they just stayed down there at the bottom of the ocean.” Experts working on the Vancouver-area foot cases have found no signs of any foul play. “In every case, there is an alternate, very reasonable explanation,” McLintock says. 

But as Outside pointed out years ago, we humans crave patterns. It’s how we make sense of the world. So forget Occam’s razor—the principle that the simple explanation is the most likely one. We’ll choose the unlikely and the macabre if it explains our experience. Even a killer on the loose is somehow more assuring than the fact that sometimes people die. And we find them.

Lisa Murkowski Didn’t Like This Ad. We Fact-Checked It.

27 Nov

This fall, Aspen Skiing Co. kicked off a campaign called Give a Fl*ke. Aspen, which has been progressive about fighting climate change, bought advertisements in five magazines, including Outside’s November issue. The ad included a prepaid postcard addressed to one of three moderate Republican U.S. senators from snowy states—Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski, Maine’s Susan Collins, Utah’s Rob Portman—that readers can send to them. The postcards remind the senators how important snow, and skiing, are to their states and how a rapidly changing climate is affecting them. Some of the postcards call out the legislators for their votes—or lack of votes—to fight climate change. And they demand that the senators take more action. In all, 1 million postcards were printed.

After the ad appeared, Outside received a letter to the editor from Senator Murkowski. In it, the senator took umbrage with the ad’s targeting of her, saying it was undeserved.

Who’s right? We fact-checked both Senator Murkowski’s letter and the campaign’s reasons for including her.

Dear Editor:

As one who was born and raised in Alaska, and an avid downhill skier and fan of winter, FACT CHECK: Since we’re fact-checking everything, yes, the senator indeed has been a big skier. In fact, she tore two ligaments and cartilage in her left knee back in 2009 when she ragdolled more than 300 feel down Girdwood’s Mount Alyeska. I was surprised to learn about the “Give a Flake” ad campaign running in these pages to challenge my work on climate change.

Climate change is real. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are a key driver of the changes we are seeing, both in my home state and around the world. And that is why we must all work together to find common-sense solutions. Murkowski hasn’t been shy about her belief that climate change poses serious dangers—particularly for Alaska, as the far north warms faster than any other region on earth. Just a few weeks ago, at Stanford University’s Global Energy Forum, Murkowski said climate change needs to be addressed, no matter what political party is in charge, according to E&E News.

Within the Senate, I’ve authored a broad, bipartisan energy bill that focuses on efficiency, storage, and renewables. True. The bill, eventually called the Energy Policy Modernization Act, was rolled into the Energy and Natural Resources Act of 2017. It has yet to pass.

I’ve worked across the aisle to enact legislation that promotes clean, renewable hydropower and increases funding for innovation. And I recently introduced a new bill to promote advanced nuclear power, which is our largest source of carbon-free electricity. True.

We’re also leading by example in Alaska. We lead the world in microgrids. Alaska indeed is a leader in development and operation of microgrids, or electricity distribution systems (such as in remote communities) that aren’t necessarily plugged into a larger system. In 2015, more than 70 of Alaska’s microgrids accounted for about 12 percent of the world’s renewably powered microgrids, using anything from wind power to solar to small hydro projects, according to the Alaska Center for Energy and Power based at the University of Alaska–Fairbanks.

Cordova has transitioned away from costly diesel fuel, and renewables now account for 80 percent of its power. Hydropower, wind turbines, batteries, and flywheels generate nearly 99 percent of Kodiak’s electricity. And small, remote villages like Igiugig are implementing new technologies like in-river systems to cut their energy costs and emissions. These statements are true for Cordova, Kodiak, and also for Igiugig. But it’s also true that Kodiak has only about 6,000 residents, plus fish processing plants, and Cordova has just 2,100 residents. Igiugig’s population is only about 60. Over the years, Murkowski has voted to make the military invest in alternative fuels and voted to support the establishment of “Clean Energy Victory Bonds” that would raise as much as $50 billion to finance clean energy projects.

I care about our environment. I love winter, snow, and skiing. If you also “give a flake,” don’t just send a postcard. Send your Senators your best ideas and then help us build consensus for them.

—Lisa Murkowski

Finding the truth, though, is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle. While any single piece can be accurate enough, it doesn’t necessarily convey the full picture. Aspen says it focused its campaign in part on Murkowski because of what she has or hasn’t done on issues of much bigger importance. So we checked out some of those claims, too. As Auden Schendler, vice president of sustainability at Aspen, wrote to Outside:

Senator Murkowski deserves tremendous credit for standing out, almost alone among members of her party, in accepting climate science and pursing legislation to address the problem. This is a brave and politically difficult stance in a state dominated by fossil fuel interests.

But the Senator’s voting record has undone any benefit from her work. By supporting Scott Pruitt for EPA, she helped undo the last decade’s worth of American climate policy. Murkowski did vote to confirm Pruitt for the post. Known before taking the job for his skeptical views about climate change, Pruitt oversaw perhaps the biggest rollback of regulations in the history of the Environmental Protection Agency, including several Obama-era regulations about cars and power plants that were designed to mitigate climate change. Pruitt also pushed President Donald Trump to withdraw from the Paris climate treaty. These have been enormous setbacks for the climate.

She was the swing vote in favor of repealing the BLM methane rule This requires a little clarification: Murkowski indeed voted last year to overturn an Obama-era regulation that required oil and gas producers on public lands to prevent the escape of methane, a greenhouse gas that’s about 30 times more potent in its ability to trap heat than carbon dioxide. Murkowski claimed the rule was expensive and unneeded and would cost jobs. In the end, Senate Republicans fell short on their attempt to rescind the vote. (Earlier this year, though, the Trump administration relaxed the regulation.) that would limit wasteful emissions of this super greenhouse gas.

Combine that with opening the Arctic Refuge for drilling, and all the little energy efficiency bills, small local hydro systems, and far distant future nuclear plants Murkowski’s support for the GOP tax bill one year ago was secured by adding a piece of pork that she and some other Alaskans had long prized: opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling, allowing Alaska to extend its economy’s deep reliance on oil and to keep pushing oil out to the broader world. won’t save Alaskans from runaway warming.

Recently, the world’s top climate scientists reported that we will likely fail to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees (Centigrade), and that there is “no documented historic precedent” for the scale of action required to achieve that goal. Warming beyond 1.5 C will cripple Alaska’s economy; already, annual temperatures have increased more than twice as fast as global average, native villages are eroding into the sea, and bridges, roads, and buildings crumble as permafrost melts. “Cripple” could be debated, but dozens of towns and cities statewide may need to relocate. Melting permafrost is already playing havoc with roads and bridges. Harvestable fish are being affected by warming waters.

The time for token measures that are nice but inadequate is long past. The time for bold action is now, even at great political risk, because no Senator should bear responsibility for the demise of her state. Plausible, bipartisan legislation includes ending subsidies for fossil fuels; voting against anti-climate appointments like Pruitt’s; passing state renewable energy standards; and backing national bipartisan climate policy like fee and dividend.

The era of political consequences for climate delay has begun. The outdoor industry is a huge economic engine in Alaska. Its constituents vote. And the industry looks forward to working together with the Senator on the big things that matter to us all.

Here is one more bit of context about Murkowski and the environment: In 2015, the Obama administration put in place the Clean Power Plan, a policy to combat climate change by regulating carbon emissions from power plants, which are a major source of greenhouse gases. Murkowski lobbied for and succeeded in getting Alaska exempted from the plan. Yet afterward she continued to fight the Clean Power Plan, calling its rules “burdensome.”

Aspen’s Schendler said in a call to Outside that the campaign’s goal is not simply to scold politicians but to urge them to further action. Climate advocates see in Murkowski a smart, reasonable, influential politician—she chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee—who understands the threat and who may listen. “With Murkowski, we thought that we could move her,” Schendler said.

In short, both sides are accurate: While Murkowski appears to understand climate change and its impacts and has taken some steps to combat it, to date she has taken steps related only to innovation and energy savings, and she has been unwilling to make hydrocarbons more expensive or take other steps that would significantly address the problem.

It is entirely appropriate to call out Murkowski for her lack of major action, says Charles Wohlforth, a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News and the author of a book about climate change in Arctic Alaska. But the hope for ambitious action from Murkowski may go wanting, he said. “She is a Republican from one of the reddest parts of the country,” he said. “The entire basis of her state’s economy is fossil fuels.” In that environment, even conceding the fact of climate change and doing smaller things is nearly “courageous,” Wohlforth said. “If she were to go whole hog on climate change and suggest a carbon tax,” he guessed, “that would be political suicide for her.”

And a postcard campaign? Wohlforth doesn’t believe that will sway Murkowski at all. “I think the only thing that would matter to her is if she got a zillion preprinted postcards from Alaska. National pressure means nothing to her.” Alaskan politics are intensely local, he said. “She’s very much an Alaskan politician.”

Ryan Zinke’s Interior Is a Mess

26 Oct

Last week was a no good, very bad week for the Department of the Interior and its Stetson’d chief, Ryan Zinke. 

It started with news outlets reporting that Interior’s acting inspector general, Mary Kendall, would be replaced by Suzanne Tufts, from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Tufts has no relevant investigative experience and seems to only be notable for shutting down inquiries into the redecoration of HUD Secretary Ben Carson’s office.

After a full two days of radio silence, the DOI refuted the reporting. “100 percent false information,” an Interior spokeswoman told the Washington Post. The timing of the apparent miscommunication seemed especially odd, as a concurrent report by Kendall concluded that Zinke and others had not followed the department’s travel policies in several instances. When the smoke cleared, Kendall was still the acting inspector general.  

So what does the bumpy week at Interior tell us? Can the events be chalked up to disorganization? Or is something more worrisome afoot?

Perhaps a little of both, government watchdogs say.

“You don’t have to pay close attention to say that what happened last week is so outside the realm of what usually happens,” says Elizabeth Hempowicz, director of public policy for the nonpartisan watchdog Project on Government Oversight.

What went on for those two days? “I very much think they were trying to clean up a mess,” says Kate Kelly, director of public lands for the left-leaning Center for American Progress, who worked in high-level communications in the DOI during the Obama administration.

While it’s impossible to assign motive to last week’s upheaval, the fact that it happened—and in the same week that Kendall issued a report critical of Zinke—may have sent a chilling message to the inspector general, says Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The inspector general is a position that’s supposed to operate with complete independence, she says. “Something like this should not happen, at all.”

Among other things, that report found that Zinke had violated some of the department’s travel rules, or else that staff had excepted him from some rules. In another case, relatives who held a fundraiser for Zinke were allowed to accompany him on an official boat trip to California’s Channel Islands, but the relatives were called “stakeholders” so that they wouldn’t have to pay for the trip. The report also found that the department paid $25,000 for a security detail to accompany Zinke and his wife on their vacation to Turkey. Zinke told the inspector general that he did not request the protection. Watchdogs found that a thin excuse, however; upon hearing of the security detail, he never canceled his plans. “It doesn’t show good judgment in terms of exercising appropriate oversight of government expenditures,” says Canter.

Last week’s events bring up another issue.

Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt last week lamented to the Post of the top inspector general position, “the job has been vacant... for almost a decade. That’s not good, because that’s not the way we run the country.” But that’s not true. In fact, the events of last week point to an emerging pattern of the Trump administration not filling vacant top positions—jobs so senior that they require Senate approval, claims the organization Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). 

Nearly two years into the Trump administration, the DOI, for instance, has nearly as many of these vacant positions that must be appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate (eight), as it has filled (nine). And there is currently no nominee for seven of those eight jobs, points out Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director.

Instead, the administration is staffing these jobs with “acting” chiefs, who can be selected by the administration and who therefore don’t need Senate approval. Such fill-in roles are supposed to be temporary. That’s not happening, watchdogs say. “It is becoming clear that, except when unavoidable, such as Supreme Court vacancies, the Trump Administration is bypassing the bother of Senate confirmation,” PEER wrote this week in an op-ed.

The result of this tactic is that actions by the executive branch are less accountable to both Congress and the public, the group claims.

At Interior, for example, Karen Budd-Falen, a property-rights attorney for the Bundy family and other Sagebrush Rebels, was recently named deputy solicitor for Fish, Wildlife, and Parks—a position that does not require Senate confirmation. She was long rumored to be a Trump nominee to lead the Bureau of Land Management, but given her views, it was unclear whether she could have been confirmed.

Budd-Falen will work for acting Solicitor Dan Jorjani. Solicitor is another president-appointed post, but as acting solicitor, Jorjani avoids the confirmation process. PEER noted that Jorjani issued the legal opinion earlier this year that dramatically weakened enforcement of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The change was criticized by a bipartisan group of officials from both parties.

Congress enacted a law in 1998 to keep an administration from dodging its ability to “advise and consent” on people placed in high positions. Under that act, actions taken by an official who’s later deemed to be in that job inappropriately can be disputed. “Consequently,” PEER wrote, “these acts of executive hubris may become an Achilles heel.”

As for the top man at Interior, the disarray doesn’t seem to have threatened Zinke’s security. That could change quickly, if any of several outstanding investigations involving him turn up still more problems. One investigation involves his business affairs in Montana. 

Still, there’s little serious talk of Zinke feeling pressure to leave or quit. “He’s got the president’s support. He’s got industry backing him up. He’s had a free ride from the committee in terms of oversight. He’s got a very protective cocoon around him,” says Representative Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona and the ranking minority member on the House Natural Resources Committee, which oversees affairs related to the nation’s public lands and waters.

But some things could change come November 6. If Democrats take the House, they would again take the reins of Grijalva’s committee, and with it the ability to exercise subpoena and investigative power. Of course, the administration wouldn’t change at the midterms. But, says Grijalva, “the rules of engagement change.”

Zinke and Trump Are Ignoring the Public

25 Oct

This December, the federal government will hold a sale of oil and gas leases across Utah. The sale, yet to be finalized, may include hundreds of thousands of acres and several areas that conservationists would like to see protected as wilderness. Yet when it was announced last summer, the Bureau of Land Management gave the public just 15 days to comment. And when the final list comes out later this month, the public will receive only ten days to weigh in.

If you don’t think that sounds like much time, you’re not alone.

Even as Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has made noise about returning more decision-making power over federal lands to local people and away from D.C., the Trump administration and Zinke's Interior Department have taken numerous steps to limit public input. “What we’re seeing is the virtual elimination of public participation requirements across the public lands systems,” says Bobby McEnaney, director of the Dirty Energy Project at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Changes by the administration range from a reduction in time for the public to review upcoming energy sales on federal lands to a proposal to charge Americans who protest on the D.C. Mall.

The changes have left many worried that the federal lands agencies no longer serve average Americans. “‘Public,’ for this administration, seems to be mainly, or exclusively, oil and gas and extractive industries,” says Matthew McKinney, director of the Center for Natural Resources and Environmental Policy at the University of Montana.

One of the most notable changes happened in January, when BLM leadership issued a memo to all field offices nationwide about how to conduct quarterly oil and gas lease sales. During the Obama administration, when a lease sale was announced, BLM offices held a 30-day comment period, then another 30-day protest period once it finalized a list of parcels for lease. BLM’s January 31 memo eliminated the first mandatory 30-day requirement, giving state offices discretion to set the time period. The memo also reduced the protest period to just ten days.

The goal, the memo said, was to “simplify and streamline the leasing process to alleviate unnecessary impediments and burdens” in the expedited offering of lands for lease, as required by federal law. But the real effect, critics say, has been to muzzle the public’s ability to scrutinize what’s happening on its lands.

Many BLM offices have chosen to hold initial comment periods but have halved them to 15 days. They’ve also taken to calling them “scoping” periods and provide little information about the proposed sales—sometimes nothing more than GPS coordinates, says Sarah Stellberg, staff attorney for Boise-based Advocates for the West. This leaves the public scrambling to find out what’s on the ground and whether drilling will cause problems, she says.

The shortened time frame means that anyone—citizens, environmentalists, or municipalities—with concerns or questions about energy development on BLM lands has to act fast. “I just worked on this controversial drilling project, and we had 700 pages of material to review,” says Dennis Willis, a resident of Carbon County, Utah, and a board member of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, which works to protect the eponymous canyon. “And the review period was 15 days long.” Willis’s group is a tiny nonprofit with no paid staff, so it didn’t notice that the project’s information had been posted electronically on a BLM site until the shortened review period had already begun, he says, with evident frustration.

Driving this muzzling of the public is a desire to increase energy development, says Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society and director of its BLM Action Center. “Anything that could slow it down or modification of locations…is just presumed to be a burden,” she says.

Some argue that rules allowing enhanced participation and protest have been “weaponized” by environmentalists. But Culver says such avenues are vital for public input. “To me, that’s democracy.”

In September, opponents struck a small blow against the administration when a federal judge temporarily stopped the BLM from implementing the shortened comment periods on future oil and gas lease sales in the habitat of the greater sage grouse. The bird, which is imperiled in the interior West, often shares sagebrush habitat with popular areas to drill. The ruling would apply to hundreds of thousands of acres in December lease sales alone, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, which is one party in a broader court case. While the preliminary injunction was limited to sage grouse habitat, the judge’s action gives hope to opponents that the BLM’s memo could be vulnerable more generally.

Erosions of public input about decisions on public lands aren’t new. They also occurred under the Obama administration, says Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). But Ruch and other watchdogs say the trend has been accelerating in the Trump administration.

Zinke and the Trump administration have stifled public participation in other ways, critics charge. Sometimes, lands agencies are not releasing the requisite public information, Ruch says. Controversial proposals to establish cellphone service in national parks, for instance, require the National Park Service to post a notice in publications such as the Federal Register and include coverage maps. “Generally, they’re not doing it,” Ruch says. “We had to sue Grand Teton [National Park] to find out about their plans for 11 towers.” The Interior Department’s inspector general is investigating the matter.

There’s also evidence that DOI officials dismissed millions of public comments. More than 99 percent of people who commented on President Trump’s national monuments review—out of some 2.8 million comments—asked for the monuments to be left alone. Yet unredacted comments obtained by the media earlier this year showed that, in its review of the national monuments, the DOI and the Trump administration ignored this feedback and shrunk the monuments anyway.

The GOP-controlled Congress also has been taking steps to restrict public input over what happens on public lands and environmental issues. In June, Representative Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, introduced a bill that would charge a fee to a person or group that protests an oil and gas lease sale. “Currently, no fee is required, and some groups have taken advantage of the ability to file protests for free by flooding the permitting agencies with frivolous protests that have severely delayed the federal permitting process and hurt our economy in Wyoming,” Cheney said in introducing the Removing Barriers to Energy Independence Act. Cheney called the fee “nominal.” But a protest filed by several environmental groups last year would have cost $1,510 had the bill been in place, according to news site WyoFile.

Last summer, Senator John Barrasso, another Wyoming Republican, introduced an amendment to the Endangered Species Act, which Republicans badly want to change. Barrasso said his changes would “increase state and local input and improve transparency in the listing process.” But Barrasso’s bill also would limit the public’s voice in several ways, according to PEER. It would shorten to 90 days a comment period for removing federal protections of threatened and endangered species. It also would further limit what documents are available to the public under the federal Freedom of Information Act, as well as limit court challenges.

Finally, there’s the Streamlining Permitting Efficiencies in Energy Development (SPEED) Act. The act “would simplify the process of responsibly permitting the least controversial drilling operations on federal lands,” according to Congressman John Curtis, the Utah Republican who introduced it last spring.

But as Willis of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition testified in Washington, D.C., earlier this year regarding the bills from Curtis and Cheney, “These bills are a pure gift to the oil and gas industry.” Willis, a former longtime BLM employee in the oil and gas leasing program, told members of Congress, “The existing process, while not as fast as some would like, is effective at engaging communities, forging cooperation and results in a western landscape we can all thrive in.”

Secretary Zinke and the Great Public Lands Wholesale

14 Sep

The United States is now likely the world’s largest oil producer. Even so, the Trump administration continues its sprint to lease the nation’s public lands to energy companies.

From September through the end of the year, the Bureau of Land Management will offer leases for oil and gas drilling on nearly 3 million acres of public lands, according to government statistics compiled by the Wilderness Society and Center for Western Priorities. That would mean, according to the Center for Biological Diversity, that for the entire year the administration will have offered for lease almost 4 million acres in the Lower 48 alone.

That’s a nearly four-fold increase over 2016, the last year of the Obama administration. And that doesn’t include lease sales in Alaska and in public waters such as the Gulf of Mexico, where Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke has vigorously pushed leasing as part of the administration’s policy of energy dominance.

To that end, Zinke has directed BLM offices, which oversee the public’s oil and gas deposits, to hold lease sales every quarter. Master leasing plans, or broader planning for the landscape, have been scuttled. Opportunities for the public to comment have been shortened, or dispensed with altogether. The energy industry has cheered these changes, saying the old ways were sclerotic and discouraged sensible development.

For the Interior Department this kind of wholesale leasing seems to be what they most loudly tout. Earlier this month it issued a press release crowing about third-quarter lease sales in New Mexico that brought in nearly $1 billion. “Critics of the Administration’s American Energy Dominance policy often falsely claim there is little to no interest in Federal oil and gas leases,” Zinke said in the release. “Today, they are eating their words and once again President Trump’s policies are bearing fruit for the American people. The people of New Mexico will see about a half a billion dollars of this right back into their roads, schools, and public services.”

But this headlong rush to lease is bearing mixed fruit, in more ways than one.

Even as the New Mexico lease sale broke records, in Nevada, no one bid on roughly 300,000 acres offered for sale this week. That exemplifies the BLM’s haphazard and frantic leasing, say critics such as Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society.

The agency is offering up parcels for auction just to obey Zinke’s directive—without thought to whether it is wise, and regardless of consequence, says Culver. “We’re seeing millions and millions of acres put up for sale, and they aren’t being screened.” In Montana, one parcel lay beneath a river, the Wilderness Society found.

But often the issues are more serious. Earlier this month, the BLM leased to energy companies land just outside Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. And this week, 134,000 acres were leased in a much larger offering in Utah, with much of that land going for the federal minimum of $2 per acre. The Salt Lake Tribune dubbed the auction a “bust.” Even so, environmentalists are upset because some of the leases are near Canyonlands National Park’s Horseshoe Canyon, the paper reported, and others are near Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.

In this week’s sale, and another coming in December, the BLM has proposed leases totaling about 535,000 acres around Utah. Areas include the Book Cliffs; the culturally sensitive lands east of Bears Ears National Monument; near national parks (Hovenweep National Monument), and in wild, undeveloped backcountry around the White River.

“We’re risking this heritage so that the Secretary of the Interior can have a messaging moment,” says Culver. “And his moment will pass, and we will be left with the wreckage.”

In Colorado, the BLM is planning to offer 236,000 acres for lease, and the proposed sale concerns the state’s governor, John Hickenlooper, who pointed out recently that more than 108,000 acres of the sale is in “priority and general habitat” for the greater sage-grouse. The grouse is a chicken-like bird whose numbers are in steep decline throughout the interior West. Despite its free fall, the Interior Department trashed a plan, years in the making, aimed at protecting the bird. The administration’s new plan makes it easier for companies to lease and drill in those good-habitat areas. For example, in Montana, environmental groups say nearly 75 percent of parcels proposed for a December sale lie in important sage grouse habitat.

Leasing public lands is hardly new or without controversy, of course. Though the Obama administration offered a declining number of acres throughout its eight years, even it was no slouch when it came to allowing drilling on public lands. Obama’s “all of the above” energy strategy resulted in leasing more than 1 million acres of public lands annually across the Lower 48—and sometimes much more—almost every year of his presidency.

But under Secretary Zinke, the Trump administration is blowing away those figures, and seem dead set on offering up public lands as quickly as possible, for cheaper than dirt.

The GOP Has Turned Its Back on Conservation

11 Sep

It’s hard to believe in 2018—when every day brings news of a fresh attempt by the Trump administration to roll back environmental protections—that the Republican Party has a deep tradition of environmental stewardship. Ulysses S. Grant created Yellowstone National Park. Benjamin Harrison created the first national forest reserves, the precursor to our national forests. In the 20th century, Richard Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order and signed into law a dozen big environmental laws, including the Endangered Species Act. President George H.W. Bush moved aggressively, and despite howls by industry, to stem acid rain.

(Courtesy Harvard University Press)

That legacy now seems very long ago. Why, and how, did the Grand Old Party turn its back on the environment over the past 40 years? Those questions form the subject of an upcoming book, The Republican Reversal: Conservatives and the Environment from Nixon to Trump, out October 15 and available for preorder now. Outside spoke to the book’s authors: James Morton Turner, an associate professor of environmental studies at Wellesley College, and Andrew C. Isenberg, the Hall Distinguished Professor of American History at the University of Kansas.

OUTSIDE: What made the Republican reversal worth studying?
ANDREW ISENBERG: Two things drove our interest. We were looking at a Republican Party in the 21st century that was really opposed to most of the environmental laws that were on the books, and those were laws that Republicans had helped to create in the 1970s. And so we started with a very basic question: How did that happen?

The other thing that really interested us is that a lot of stories about how environmental laws and the environmental movement came to be have come from environmentalists. We’ve heard again and again about Rachel Carson and Earth Day. What Jay and I both recognized is that the passage of big environmental laws was not the end of the story. For the past couple of decades, there’s been the back-and-forth between people who wanted to roll back those laws and people who have been defending them.

What surprised you most while researching this book?
JAMES TURNER: One moment was just how important the Reagan administration’s leadership was on addressing the stratospheric ozone hole and regulations on chlorofluorocarbon emissions. In the 1980s, you had the Reagan administration pushing for an international agreement based on the work of atmospheric scientists, which led to an international treaty and substantive regulations to tackle an urgent environmental issue. It was one of the most important international environmental treaties that’s ever been put together, and one of the most successful.

ISENBERG: What surprised me was the extent to which Democrats signed on to the effort, beginning with James Watt and the first Reagan administration, to ramp up fossil-fuel production within the United States. We’ve now reached the point where we’re producing a whole lot more fossil-fuel energy in the United States than 40, 50 years ago. And that philosophy—that energy should be cheap and we should produce a lot of it—in a lot of ways, that was a bipartisan initiative. That shows how powerful the conservative revolution was in the Republican Party in the 1980s. It didn’t just remake the party—it also influenced the way a lot of Democrats thought about policy as well.

I mean, if you think about Barack Obama in his first administration, his energy policy was, as he stated, “all of the above,” which was exactly the same thing Sarah Palin was saying.

People under 50 years old might be surprised to learn that Republicans once had a strong legacy of protecting the environment that lasted into the 1970s and beyond.
ISENBERG: To understand what happened, you have to understand the rise of conservatism and how the Republican Party has really been transformed in the past 40 years or so. When Ronald Reagan came along, there were a lot of moderates within the Republican Party. That was the faction that had helped pass those environmental laws.

The rise of conservatism has been so all-consuming that, for a lot of younger people, it’s hard to even think of the Republican Party as having once supported those laws. In this book, we tried to put together what historians know about the environmental movement and what historians know about the rise of conservatism. Those are two ways of looking at the past 50 years that very few people have tried to put in conversation with each other.

Drew Isenberg and Jay Turner (Lucy Maude; Richard Howard)

One of the surprises for me was the interest in environmental issues by politicians such as Barry Goldwater, whose name is now shorthand for an ultraconservative who loathes big government. As a U.S. senator, he co-sponsored the Senate bill that became the Clean Air Act of 1970.
TURNER: For people today, it’s hard to imagine just how urgent the issues around clean air and clean water were in the 1960s and 1970s, to the point where someone like Goldwater would consider that we needed government involvement and regulation. I think one part of this story for us was understanding why it was that Republicans saw this urgent need for laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. A big part of that was just how unrestrained pollution was—just how extensive the smog was, how dirty the rivers were.

And, you know, that contributed to the moment of crisis that brought this bipartisan support together for these environmental laws.

You write, though, that this sense of urgency and unity of purpose began to fray. What happened?
ISENBERG: I think that fraying began during the energy crises of the 1970s. A lot of that enthusiasm about doing something for the environment began to wane when people had to actually, in a very sudden way, pay much higher prices for energy, in addition to lots of other economic problems at the same time.

Conservative Republicans seized on the crises, and on the economy of the 1970s, to leverage themselves to power starting in the 1980s. One of the things they did was ramp up the cheap production of fossil fuels. There was bipartisan consensus around that for a lot of years. Politicians were in support of clean air and clean water, but they were also in support of cheap energy.

The reason climate change has become such a divisive issue, I think, is that it puts those two things in conflict with each other. You can’t have both cheap energy, if you’ll be getting that from fossil fuels like oil and coal, and address climate change. Republicans want to have it both ways. They want to position themselves as environmentalists who are supporting clean air and clean water, in a kind of old-timey, 1970s way, but they also want to push for cheap fossil-fuel energy. That’s one of the reasons they don’t want to concede that climate change is a real problem.

You write that the Trump administration represents both a continuation of a pattern and a break with the tradition of environmental protection. What’s different?
ISENBERG: The challenge of addressing climate change requires international cooperation. And what makes the Trump administration different is that he came into office with this “America first” populism and is not at all amenable to that kind of international cooperation.

TURNER: Three things stand out. One is this disproportionate attention the Trump administration is giving to climate change and energy policy.

Second would be the success with which the Trump administration has really avoided discussing science and has focused much more on values like American exceptionalism, the importance of work, and the importance of local communities.

The third big change is just how important administrative action has become to environmental policy. It’s not Congress that’s driving the agenda, as it was in earlier decades. We’re at a point where an administration can come in and roll back regulations or break treaties and profoundly affect the direction of our environmental policy. We’ve seen this with Trump pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord or reversing the Clean Power Plan. So we see much more dramatic swings as we go from administration to administration than we did in previous decades.

In the book, you mention another historian’s idea of “green drift”—the notion that despite different administrations with different philosophies, over time the nation has tended toward generally better environmental protection. Is that still true today?
TURNER: That notion of green drift is in jeopardy now in a way that it never has been before, and for two reasons. One is that the executive branch has become so much more powerful, and our environmental policies are so much more dependent upon presidential action.

The other key piece is the judicial branch, which has been the backstop that has protected laws like the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. With the Trump administration changing the composition of the Supreme Court, and of appeals courts across the country, we’re going to be in a very different judicial environment for decades to come. That really should make us question whether what we have seen historically, with these laws being upheld, is going to be the case going forward.

Surveys show that Americans of all political stripes care about the environment. Do you see a path back to a more environmentally friendly platform for the GOP? What would that look like?
ISENBERG: I think a good historian only predicts the past. But I would say that if the Republican Party is going to have a different position on the environment, Republicans who are running in primaries need to be concerned about a challenge from the Republican center. Right now, very few of them are.

TURNER: There are Republicans who are concerned about, say, climate change. Just this past July 2018, Representative Carlos Curbelo from Florida introduced a carbon tax. Nobody expects that to go anywhere, because the House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed a resolution against a carbon tax in July as well.

But Curbelo is not the only Republican who’s talking about needing to move forward on environmental issues. There are other Republicans who realize that there’s a younger generation coming of age that is concerned about climate change. This anti-environmental strategy may be working for the Republicans now, but if they want to have relevancy with younger voters, the environment and climate are issues that the rising generation care about.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Big Brother–Style Tech Is Helping Hikers Avoid Crowds

20 Aug

When you head out for a hike this summer in many areas in the mountains just east of Seattle, a government-sanctioned program will be watching your Flickr photos and Instagram posts, noting where you’ve been and what you’ve been up to. While this sounds like creepy Big Brother invading your privacy, the researchers aren’t actually interested in you personally.

Instead, they’re training the tools of Big Data on social media in hopes that the information they gather can improve your future visits to public lands.

The program in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest is the first of its kind in the country. Mount Baker-Snoqualmie, which lies on the west side of Washington’s Cascade Range between the Canadian border and Mount Rainier, is one of the most popular national forests in the nation, with an estimated 2.2 million visits in 2015. That’s likely increasing, thanks largely to Seattle, the fastest-growing big city in the nation. More than 940,000 Seattle-area residents said they hiked in 2017, a number that has doubled over about a decade, according to the Seattle Times.

The result, on peak weekends, is a very busy frontcountry. It’s not uncommon to find 200 or more cars at popular trails along the Interstate 90 corridor just outside Seattle. “People are willing to park as much as two miles down the road from the trailhead,” says Mike Schlafmann, public services staff officer for the forest. “There’s high demand for what appears to be a very specific type of experience. One of our challenges is knowing where people are going and why they are going there.”

Managers already have some useful tools to estimate the use of public lands, such as the National Visitor Use Monitoring Program, which measures use on a broad, often forest-wide scale every five years. But that doesn’t tell managers precisely when hikers and snowshoers were in a particular spot or exactly where they went. In that context, consider maintenance: A forest might have 100 trails to maintain but limited dollars for trail work. “They want to spend that money where it’ll provide the best experience for users,” Schlafmann says. If managers can pinpoint the most-used trails, they can prioritize, say, which bridge to fix first.

And here is where the great outdoors meets tech.

Many people these days post pictures to social media of themselves enjoying public lands. Several years ago, researcher Spencer Wood, now a staff scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Creative Conservation, wondered if all those posts could be used to estimate, cheaply and accurately, how many people visit an area. Wood’s initial study in 2013 found that, yes, it could be done.

A few years later, a graduate student named Carrie Sessions built upon this same idea when she looked at photographs taken in 38 national parks in the western United States and posted to Flickr—or, more precisely, her work examined the data attached to those photos, such as time stamps and geotags that reveal location information. (Sessions chose national parks because they often count visitors at entry gates, and that gave researchers a way to check the accuracy of their experiment.) Her work found a predictable relationship between the number of photos posted each month at a national park and the number of actual visitors. The information used was already publicly available, which made it both unobtrusive and relatively inexpensive. This data would later serve as Sessions’ master’s degree thesis at the University of Washington. It later became a study in 2016 co-authored by Wood.

In 2015, using social media posts, Wood used a similar approach and found that visitors to lakes in some Midwest states were willing to travel 56 minutes farther for every one-meter increase in water clarity in those lakes. Other researchers have found that pictures of wildflowers posted to Twitter from national parks can be used to accurately gauge flower phenology. This kind of information could reveal changes in bloom times caused by the warming climate. In essence, it’s crowdsourcing but without having to ask the crowd for for help.

Using social media in the outdoors in this way is still a pretty new idea, Wood acknowledged, and he and others are still grappling with how to do it best and most accurately. In other work, Wood and his colleagues found that analysis of Twitter posts provided better estimates of the popularity of urban parks in New York City and the Twin Cities than data from other social media platforms. “But the reverse is true on our local national forests,” he says.

In Washington, the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest started working with Wood and his colleagues in 2015. Since then, researchers have counted more than a quarter-million visitors and gathered data from tens of thousands of social media posts from 32 spots within the forest. By using that data and trip reports from the popular Washington Trails Association website, the scientists are creating visitor models that show how many people are using specific trails and when.

An early problem the team ran into was that, unlike at national parks, there are no entry gates at Mount Baker-Snoqualmie trailheads that keep an accurate count of visitors so researchers can check their work. Wood and his team got creative. They’ve counted people using everything from on-the-ground researchers with clipboards to electronic car counters laid across roads to “basically game cameras at trailheads,” Schlafmann says.

This summer, for a second time, in some areas they also deployed a rudimentary text-messaging chatbot. A sign at some trailheads prompts visitors to text how many cars they count. If a hiker replies, the program asks another question. If the hiker answers, the program asks another. The goal is to get as much info about the experience as visitors willingly provide. Similar work to count people, and their locations, using social media is now underway on public lands in New Mexico.

How will all of this make your outdoors experience better?

Imagine this in the not-distant future: You want to go for a day hike on a Saturday morning. You open an app on your phone. Before you even leave the house, your phone tells you—based on real-time estimates—whether your chosen trailhead is already jammed with cars. But the app isn’t done. Knowing the kind of hike you’re looking for, it then recommends similar destinations that it knows are much less crowded.

Choose one, then click. A button takes you to a Meetup group of people carpooling to the trailhead. Or, if you live in a major city, up pops info about when the next public bus leaves for your destination.

Making the outdoors easier and more pleasant to access is more important than ever—not only around Seattle but also on public lands outside cities like Denver and Salt Lake City, fast-growing metropolitan areas with nature nearby. In the end, by helping people escape the crowds and have more enjoyable recreational experiences, the technology might even get more people to ignore their phones for a while.

How to Save a Grizzly Bear from Hunters. Maybe.

17 Aug

Kelly Mayor grew up in Wyoming in a family of hunters. “My dad and brother hunt,” Mayor says. “My husband is a hunter. His family are hunters. We usually have game meat in our freezer.” Typically, the 56-year-old aesthetician has no problem with hunting.

“But I do have a problem with trophy hunting,” Mayor says—that is, the killing of a large animal for no other reason than sport and bragging rights.

So when Mayor heard earlier this year that the state of Wyoming would hold its first grizzly bear hunt in more than four decades, the news didn’t sit right with her. She soon heard about a campaign that urged grizzly hunting opponents to apply for a hunting tag that they would never use. She applied, one of more than 7,000 people who did. And she won.

Mayor’s winning draw gave her tag number two out of ten to hunt in what the Wyoming Game and Fish Department has called “core areas” outside of Yellowstone National Park, which is home to the vast majority of 700 grizzlies in and around the park. Late this summer or early this fall, Mayor will get a ten-day window to head into the woods, with no other bear hunters around. Instead of a gun, however, Mayor will “shoot ’em with a camera,” as the protest campaign urges.

Famed wildlife photographer Tom Mangelsen also joined the protest and won tag number eight to hunt a grizzly in what the state calls core “suitable habitat” areas. In all, the state will allow for up to 22 bears to be taken, although most of those will not come from the core area near Yellowstone, but from a broader zone around the park that the state deems as less suitable habitat for bears and where it says they come into more conflict with humans. The season will run from September 15 to November 15. (It starts two weeks earlier in the less suitable habitat.)

In the core grizzly hunting area, the hunt there ends as soon as one bear is shot. When his turn comes, Mangelsen says he’ll be out there with his long lens. “The hope would be that we would save a bear or two, and maybe even three or four,” he says, believing that others, still unknown, might have tags and may have similar plans not to hunt. Only he and Mayor have made their plans public so far, and for that Mangelsen says he has received a death threat.

The federal government removed greater Yellowstone’s grizzlies from the endangered species list in 2017, saying the population had sufficiently recovered. Idaho and Wyoming soon made plans to start a grizzly hunt. (Montana is still considering a hunt but decided against starting it this year.) Renny MacKay, a spokesperson for the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, says the state is holding a hunt because the population has recovered, that it is possible to hold a hunt without hurting their numbers, and, lastly, because hunters want one. But obviously not everyone in the community does.

Killing a bear isn’t just killing one bear, Mangelsen says. He mentions a much-photographed grizzly in the Grand Teton area called Bear 399—“the most famous bear who ever lived,” in Mangelsen’s words—who has had 17 or 18 offspring.

Wyoming isn’t the only place where activists have experimented with this type of protest. British Columbia, which until recently held a grizzly hunt, wrestled with its own controversy over shooting the bears, and among opponents there was a movement to “swamp the lottery,” says Kyle Artelle, a biologist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Victoria. Some ecotourism lodges offered to host bear-viewing trips for those who won a tag and didn’t want to hunt with it, Artelle says.

But blocking one bear from dying isn’t a useful protest, argues Sy Gilliland, vice president of the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association. If the quota of bears killed isn’t reached this year, the state will simply increase the number of bears that can be taken in following years, he says. Indeed, that’s what happened in British Columbia, Artelle says, where hunting quotas in the long term were set by the success rate of hunts in previous years. “We don’t understand why some organizations are willing to have this bear run at a level that is way larger than its carrying capacity, to the detriment of its species.”

The protest, according to Gilliland, is “just grandstanding, without any benefit for the wildlife.”

Aside from temporarily protecting individual bears, the Wyoming protest might prove more effective in other ways. One is by drawing attention to the issue. “It’s probably already effective down there, based on the fact that it’s all over the press,” Artelle says. (It didn’t hurt that Jane Goodall signed up for the lottery.)

In turn, protesters hope the public attention translates into public outrage. One factor that finally turned the tide in British Columbia against grizzly hunting was public opposition to a trophy hunt, “which is qualitatively different than a hunt for subsistence,” or meat, Artelle says. Surveys of the B.C. public eventually showed opposition running in the 90 percent range against grizzly hunting, he says. “That’s just unheard of. We don’t agree on anything up here in B.C.” Then, late last year, the province completely banned the hunting of grizzlies.

Ironically, what Mangelsen believes would galvanize public opinion against the grizzly hunt in the United States wouldn’t be done by a protester at all: the shooting of Bear 399. “Remember Cecil the Lion?” he says. “Cecil’s killing would be child’s play compared to the number of people who would be outraged.”

The protesters hope their efforts will also help jump-start a conversation that’s larger than grizzly bears and more about how the state manages its animals. “At first [our effort] was perceived as sabotage. It’s not sabotage,” says Lisa Richardson, a 28-year resident of Jackson, Wyoming, who is a member of the grizzly protest campaign. Hunting licenses often provide the majority of funding for wildlife programs, which gives hunters a disproportionate voice, she says. But that doesn’t capture all the people who value wildlife for different reasons than killing them. Hunting is on the decline, even as wildlife tourism continues double-digit increases, Richardson says. And yet, nonhunters have never really been welcome into wildlife management conversations, she says.

“We want our wildlife on the landscape,” Richardson says.

It’s unclear how much traction this argument will get in Wyoming. Both the outfitters’ association and the state game and fish agency point out that nearly $50 million was spent on grizzly recovery over the past few decades. That money came from sportsmen’s licenses and taxes on outdoor gear. Today, people can photograph grizzlies “while not contributing to the state’s efforts,” says MacKay of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.

“That’s bullshit,” Mangelsen counters. Tourists pump much more than that into Wyoming each year when they come to see wildlife, he says. Wildlife watching is a $365 million industry in Wyoming, according to 2016 figures from the University of Wyoming. That amount makes it nearly equivalent to all spending by both hunters and fishermen in the state each year.

It is yet possible that much of these efforts could be moot. At the end of the month, a federal judge will hold a hearing in a Montana courtroom as part of an ongoing lawsuit brought by environmental groups. For all the hopes for the grizzly protest, it is a judge who may have the final word on the animals’ fate.