Interior’s Stealthy Plan to Hide Public Records

8 Jan

When a government agency wants to attract as little public attention as possible to a new policy, it announces it on a Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern, a time at which many reporters are eyeing the clock in anticipation of happy hour. If the policy is really controversial, the agency will announce it just before a holiday. And if the policy is really, really controversial, the agency won’t even make an announcement, it will simply post it in the Federal Register—ideally between Christmas and New Year’s.

That’s what the Department of Interior (DOI) did on December 28, when it submitted proposed changes to how it will manage public requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Such requests are one of the main tools journalists and advocacy groups use to learn details about government activities, and they can lead to kinds of revelations that ultimately forced Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke out last month. Though he once said he planned to run “the most transparent Interior” in our lifetime, it was hardly surprising at this point that Zinke, who scribbled an inscrutable final goodbye with a chunky red pen last week, would approve an attempt to undercut Americans’ access to information about the workings of the DOI.

The proposed changes would give the agency almost unlimited discretion to deny FOIA requests. In the Federal Registry notice, the DOI says that in “light of the unprecedented surge in FOIA requests and litigation,” it would now deny  “burdensome” or “vague” requests, or those that require “the bureau to locate, review, redact, or arrange for inspection of a vast quantity of material.”

What is a vast quantity of material? What is burdensome or vague? For the time being, it’s anyone’s guess. Because of the government shutdown, DOI hasn’t responded to requests from Outside or other media groups asking for clarification. “You can’t even submit a FOIA request while the government is shut down, but somehow they got this rule out,” says Jayson O’Neill, deputy director of the Western Values Project, a Montana-based conservation nonprofit. O’Neill believes this is the boldest step any government agency has ever taken to limit people’s access to public documents. “With this proposed change, that check on how our government works and the public’s ability to see how decisions are made will go away.”

To justify the rule change, DOI argues that from 2016 to 2018, requests to the department under the FOIA increased 30 percent, and that requests to the Office of the Secretary have increased 210 percent from 2015 levels. (The DOI did not respond to a request from Outside asking for more years to compare these figures with.)

The entire problem, though, might be one of DOI’s own making. Nada Culver, senior counsel with the Wilderness Society, says the department forces groups and media organizations to file requests by not handing over the kind of information previous administrations have readily shared. “Now they’re using [the surge in requests] as an excuse to further restrict disclosure,” she says. “I think part of the irony here is that it’s going to result in more requests, and more litigation.”

Another big factor, of course, is that Zinke has faced unprecedented 18 federal investigations—a fact that was sure to spur a lot of FOIA filings. Many of them have been fruitful. After the administration shrunk Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, requests led to the discovery that the DOI had tailored its reports to emphasize the benefits of extractive industries over tourism. Other requests revealed a possible conflict of interest violation that linked Zinke to a real estate deal with oil-services behemoth Halliburton. That news prompted the DOI’s internal watchdog to open an investigation. Now, there are rumors of a criminal inquiry.

Almost as concerning as the proposed rule changes is the person Zinke recently appointed to be the Interior’s Chief FOIA Officer. The job typically goes to a career employee, someone removed from politics. In November, though, Zinke quietly named former Koch brothers adviser Daniel Jorjani. One of the first groups to notice the switch, several weeks later, was the Center for Biological Diversity. “With a Koch crony in charge of records requests, the department will work in darkness,” the group’s government attorney, Meg Townsend, stated in a press release. “Public records that might shame Zinke or big polluters will be covered up.”

So far, that seems prescient. Jorjani authored the FOIA changes.

The fact of the matter is that if the changes goes through—lawsuits could hold them up—it will be impossible to measure the impact because we’ll never know what might have been uncovered if the DOI had continued to respect public requests for information. One can imagine how, under the new rules, journalists would never have learned about the potential Halliburton deal. And in that reality, maybe Zinke wouldn't have resigned. 

The public has until January 28 to comment on the change. But with just 189 comments received as of the morning of January 7, the DOI’s effort to push this out quietly seems to be working.

The Forest Service Is the Energy Industry’s New Pal

21 Dec

A federal appeals court in Virginia dealt a serious blow late last week to a pipeline looking to cross the Appalachian Trail. The judge, out of Virginia’s U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, wrote a withering decision to reject a permit to cross the scenic pathway, and accused the Forest Service, the agency that issued the permit, of forgetting to do its job. The judge even added a pithy Dr. Suess quote.

“We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit wrote in its decision. (You might remember that quote from Dr. Suess’ The Lorax.) The decision was scathing, and practically accused the Forest Service of working on the pipeline’s behalf. The case also opened a fascinating peephole into how the agencies we count on to protect wild lands are looking the other way when it comes to energy profits.

The Atlantic Coast Pipeline is a $7 billion project, led by Dominion Energy. It would bury a 605-mile line from around Clarksburg, West Virginia, over the AT and south toward Fayetteville, North Carolina, crossing two national forests along the way. As it breached the Appalachian mountains, it would climb steep ridgelines that would need to be blasted flat. Through the George Washington and Monongahela national forests, crews would also need to cut a 125-foot wide tunnel of forest, 50 feet of which would have to be kept clear for as long as the gas flowed. And on the AT, as hikers tried to lose themselves in Virginia’s wilderness, they would see the bare corridor of trees below and walk beside a stubby yellow marker that cautioned, “Warning, Gas Pipeline.”

For all those reasons, going back to 2015, the Forest Service seemed hesitant to sign off on the project. Then earlier this year it had a sudden change of heart. So what changed?

That’s what the judge wondered, too.

Back in 2016 the Forest Service appeared to think it was nearly impossible to lay the 42-inch diameter natural gas line safely over the mountains. “The Forest Service has seen slope failures on lesser slopes and would be able to provide examples,” the agency told owners in 2016.

Along with the safety of the project, the Forest Service worried about the contamination of local aquifers, destroying sensitive wetlands, and the animal habitat in the pipeline’s path. One of those was home to the northern long-eared bat, which is protected by the Endangered Species Act. The Atlantic Coast builders reasoned that the permanent gully of cleared trees could make for good bat feeding grounds. The Forest Service didn’t seem too amused with this theory: “A potential increase in foraging habitat (which is not really proven here) does not offset the long-term loss of good roosting habitat… .” In short, nice try. 

There was also the question of whether or not the Forest Service had the right to permit the pipeline to cross the AT. It’s a National Scenic Trail, which means it’s part of the National Park System. At certain points, the Forest Service does manage the trail, but it’s still technically NPS ground. And because pipelines are outlawed in national parks, to run one across NPS land should take an act of Congress.

In October 2016, the Forest Service told pipeline builders they’d need to submit ten alternative routes. The company only submitted two. And to dismiss concerns about slides, the owners pointed to another project, the Columbia Gas Transmission Pipeline, a 12,000-mile network that also cross the Appalachians in West Virginia.

No matter, though, because in the spring of 2017 the Forest Service said it didn’t need to see the alternative routes. Atlantic Coast Pipeline would have its permit to cross the AT through George Washington and Monongahela national forests.

What seemed to have changed, most obviously, was the administration soon to be occupying the White House. Two days after the 2016 election, Atlantic Coast’s vice president of construction reached out in an email to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Forest Service, saying: “Thank you very much for your offer to identify the appropriate point of contact within the new Administration. We think that would be very helpful … .”

Then the company paid the Forest Service a visit. An internal agency email chain, provided to Outside by the Southern Environmental Law Center, which brought the suit against the pipeline, shows how that played out.

On December 20, 2016, the Forest Service Associate Deputy Chief Glenn Casamassa wrote: “Last Wednesday the folks from Dominion and their counsel came in to visit me on ACP. They were interested in the syncing up process timelines. Most significant concern was related to route location and concerns around soil instability… .”

A doubtful supervisor at Monongahela National Forest wrote back, saying that all the slope analysis he’d seen didn’t look so good. “The intent is to demonstrate that we can actually permit a pipeline on these slopes and have a reasonable chance of keeping the pipeline on the mountain and keep the mountain on the mountain.” He added: “I'm not optimistic.”

The next day the pipeline builders emailed to the Forest Service its desired construction and permitting timeline. By the end of that day, the Forest Service’s Eastern Regional Director, Kathleen Atkinson, had chimed in on the email chain, seeming a bit confused by the sudden change.

“I know it doesn’t sync up with esa process,” Casamasas wrote Atkinson that afternoon. “We’ll have to set up some time next week to discuss further.”

And just like that a pipeline was born.

The Southern Environmental Law Center, along with several other nonprofits, sued to reject the permit. And after seeing this email chain and the Forest Service’s about face, a judge called the agency’s decision sudden and mysterious, made to “meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines.” During the case, there was also a coincidence almost too perfect. A portion of the Columbia Gas Transmission Pipeline, the example held up by Atlantic Coast as a great success, ruptured and exploded because of a landslide. You can almost see the griping Lorax look down from a hill above, shaking his head in smug disappointment.

The pipeline builders have appealed the court’s decision to reject the permit. A spokesman wrote to Outside saying, “We are confident we will prevail.”

A senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, DJ Gerken, tells Outside that winning this kind of appeal is very unlikely. “It doesn’t matter what an administration’s priorities are,” Gerken says. “There are still rules Forest Service has to follow.” 

Perhaps. But as long as the Forest Service is speaking up for the energy industry instead of trees, the pipeline will have it all that much easier.

A Hiker Is Missing in the Most Dangerous Part of Mexico

14 Nov

For more than a week now, an American hiker has been lost in northern Mexico’s deep Sierra Madre canyons, in the town of Urique, Chihuahua, where the Caballo Blanco Ultra is held each March. Police first thought that Patrick Braxton-Andrew, a 34-year-old Spanish teacher in North Carolina, went missing while alone on a hike. But as investigators in both countries learn more, they’re realizing the case might not be so simple.

Braxton-Andrew had flown to Chihuahua city on October 24. He planned to take the El Chepe train over the Sierra mountains to the coastal town of Los Mochis, Sinaloa, then meet his brother in the country’s capital for a Day of the Dead celebration. The train covers some of the most gorgeous high-elevation pine mountains on either side of the border, passing through 86 tunnels and over 37 bridges. At the train route’s zenith, it pauses at Divisadero, a small town that overlooks the Copper Canyon, which in parts is nearly twice as deep as the Grand Canyon. The Tarahumara natives—the famous long-distance runners of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run—sell handmade wares in stalls outside the train stop. Mexican visitors are everywhere snapping photos. For a place as remote as the Sierra mountains, it can feel a bit touristy.

Braxton-Andrew, above all, loved hidden places. He’d traveled through much of Southeast Asia and Central America searching them out. “That’s what he lives for,” his father, Gary, told Outside. So in the interest of exploring he rode a bus three hours down serpentine switchbacks to Urique, where he’d read online about a national park with deserted trails.

In Urique, Braxton-Andrew’s family said he met a group of fellow travelers, the only other foreigners in town besides himself. They explored the Copper Canyon National Park and the river together, but as the weekend came to an end, they went their separate ways. On October 28, the last anyone heard from Braxton-Andrew, he mentioned to his family one last hike.

Most U.S. and Mexican press accounts say he never returned, but his family now believes otherwise.

More than 100 police officers, a canine unit, and drones, have scoured the river at the bottom of the canyon, as well as nearby rancherias, including Guadalupe Coronado, El Naranjo, Chiltepin, and El Guayabo. Locals, including Tarahumara villages, have also helped in the search. But Andrew-Braxton’s brother, Kerry, told Outside that his brother had talked to friends and coworkers from a local internet cafe that afternoon. In one message, he seemed to describe the final hike, which would mean Andrew-Braxton had finished his trek that morning and returned to Urique.

There is also what he left in his hotel room: practically everything. He left his jackets and the nice camera he took everywhere worth Instagraming, both of which Kerry said he’d have taken on a longer walk. All that was missing from his pack were the clothes he’d been wearing, some money, and maybe a book. “He was most likely either going to dinner, or if he had a book, maybe there was somewhere around town he wanted to see where he might have gone to sit and read,” Kerry says. Police have also started looking less around the park, and asking more questions in town.

Urique lays at one of the Copper Canyon’s deepest points, and while its remoteness draws the occasional adventurer like Braxton-Andrew, these same remote qualities also make it ideal for outlaws. The region is known locally as the Golden Triangle, because it’s where Mexican cartels grow most of the drugs they traffic to the U.S. In 2015, warring gangs cut short the Caballo Blanco Ultra. A mob of armed, flack-jacketed men stormed a local police station and left with two officers in the back of their truck. The race’s organizers evacuated all foreign runners after gunshots and grenades were heard.

And the same week that Braxton-Andrew went missing the heads of six men believed to be in a local cartel were found outside a gas station in the town of Creel, where the El Chepe train passes through on its way to Divisadero.

The Sierra register some of the highest murder rates in Mexico. But Randy Gingrich, who runs a non-profit called Tierra Nativa that gives aid to Tarahumara in the region, says he could not recall the last time an American was harmed in the mountains of Chihuahua. That’s because even in a place as lawless as the Sierra there have always been certain rules. Cartels killing other cartels, or even targeting local Tarahumara who refuse to grow drugs, or give up their land, is common. A weekly occurrence even. But if the drug gangs did something to a tourist, it could mean the area is growing increasingly paranoid, which might bring greater violence to the region. “Now,” Gingrich says, “I am very concerned.”

Police say the locals are also obeying another unwritten rule of the Sierra: staying silent about any details. But Andrew-Braxton’s family is hopeful somebody knows what happened to him and will come forward. The family has talked with the foreign tourists he met up with in Urique, but are still trying to get in touch with a young man from the group who stayed behind. He was camping in the area, and he might have even moved on to Central America, where he said he’d be traveling next. “The bottom line is we want Patrick back,” his father, Gary, says. “That’s the most important thing to us. And we’re here for the long run.”

Patagonia Endorses Tester and Rosen

19 Oct

Last year, the founder of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, called the outdoor industry a bunch of “weenies,” scared of “their own shadow.”

“They’re not stepping up,” he complained to Outside contributing editor Abe Streep of their hesitancy to take on environmental causes. In that realm, Patagonia has certainly been a leader. Between selling puffy jackets, the company has donated Black Friday sales to conservation nonprofits and produced a documentary on the virtues of tearing down dams. It has toed the line between political activism and outright advocacy, but has generally stayed on the side of the former. On Friday, it took a hefty step over that line.

On the company’s website now is a reminder that democracy depends on people showing up to vote. Not so stunning. But if you live in Nevada or Montana and follow Patagonia’s social media feeds or subscribe to one of their newsletters, you will see what might be the first time a company has nudged its consumers to vote for specific candidates running for national office. 

(Courtesy Patagonia)

(Courtesy Patagonia)

Jon Tester is a Montana Democrat who calls himself the Senate’s only working farmer. He’s running a close reelection campaign against a Trump conservative named Matt Rosendale who, while running for Congress four years ago, said “there is no call in the Constitution for the federal government to own national forests or BLM land.” (He has since come out against transferring public land to states.) Jacky Rosen is a current U.S. Representative for Nevada, a clean-energy booster with a 97 percent approval rating from the League of Conservation Voters. Of course, it’s not surprising that Patagonia would back candidates like Tester and Rosen, but that it would back any at all.

“I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will tell us to stay out of politics and stick to making jackets,” Corley Kenna, a spokeswoman for Patagonia, told Outside. “But this is core to who we are. This is not inherently meant to be a political statement, it’s meant to be a statement about how to protect public spaces.”

With the momentum of the past two years, this almost seems an inevitable step for Patagonia. The company’s current CEO, Rose Marcario, has said she’d like to see the outdoor industry become a political force like the NRA. “We cannot give up an inch of protected land on our watch,” Marcario told Streep. “Not an inch.” That campaign kicked off most publicly when Patagonia forced a decision on the governor of Utah: either come out against President Trump’s plan to shrink Bears Ears National Monument, or Patagonia, REI, and the North Face would use their clout to move the Outdoor Retailer show and the $45 million it bestowed on the state’s economy each year.

Now the show’s home is Denver. And after Trump signed an executive order that cleaved Bears Ears by 1.35 million acres, Patagonia sued. Its homepage, in black and white, read bluntly, “The President Stole Your Land.” That led the House Natural Resources Committee, chaired by Utah Representative Rob Bishop, who harped loudest for the resize, to tweet a mockingly similar image that read, also in black and white, “Patagonia Is Lying to You.” Chouinard and Marcario had their confrontation, weenies be damned.

And that’s one of the more interesting questions to come from this: How will the rest of the industry react?

The Outdoor Industry Association is a mishmash of more than 1,200 gear, apparel, hunting, fishing, general outdoor retailers, nonprofits, and enthusiasts whose consumers don’t all fall so neatly into the dirtbag or progressive Boulder demographic. “In general, it’s not wise for companies to make public statements or visibly support political candidates,” Doug Schuler, a professor of business and public policy at Rice University, wrote to Outside. “This is because most companies have a wide range of stakeholders—employees, customers, investors, communities in which they operate—where those individuals may have very different opinions.”

That may be more true for the Walmarts of the world. But the outdoor industry is a bit different. For one, most conservative and liberal voters disapprove of the Trump administration’s public lands record, and nearly three-quarters disagree with his decision to shrink Bears Ears, according to a poll by the Center for Western Priorities. As much as anything can be these days, protecting public lands is still fairly bipartisan. And second, consumers are also demanding more of their brands. Even Walmart has looked to Patagonia for help greening up its supply chain. It may just be another form of marketing, but Chouinard has certainly never seen those two aims as being at odds.

Of course, with breaking new ground comes more risks than a few shoppers put off by taking political sides. Plenty of CEOs have backed presidential candidates. But those are individuals. A lot of companies also create political action committees where their money is hidden, or pay lobbyists. Patagonia does this through its Patagonia Action Works nonprofit, which last year paid a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group $230,000. But by advocating so blatantly for two U.S. politicians, Patagonia has wandered into the murky Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act.

This law essentially prohibits companies from making contributions to politicians running for national office (state races are a different matter). Patagonia isn’t donating money to Tester or Rosen’s campaign. But do the hours its employees spent on making and planning the graphics and newsletters, its Facebook or Twitter campaign, count as contributions?

Patagonia also had to be a careful in its wording. You’ll notice it didn’t say, “Vote for Tester and Rosen.” It only suggests that these are candidates who support public lands, implying that if you do, too, then vote for them. “It’s a little of a wild west situation,” says Dora Kingsley Vertenten, a professor at the University of Southern California’s school of public policy. No company she can think of has really done this. And the law, she says, last updated in 2002, hasn’t yet grappled with social media.

This all may be a new form of environmentally-conscious advertising. More than ever, companies do much more than just make things. They are the stories and actions behind them. And in that sense, Patagonia has tried to brand itself as Resistance Inc. Or it might just be the waking yawn of a giant.

Last year the OIA released a report that put the outdoor industry’s size at $887 billion. The government figured it a bit smaller, although still at 2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product. As Outside contributing editor Streep pointed out in his profile of Patagonia last year, REI alone has three times the membership of the NRA. Given that, the question then might be: Why hasn’t Patagonia, or any other outdoor brand, done this sooner?

We Might Lose Access to the Zion Narrows Forever

18 Oct

The Zion Narrows is the most popular hike in one of most popular parks in the country. Only 90 people are allowed through all 16 miles each day, and permits to walk the slot canyon that cuts between 2,000-foot cliffs are booked months in advance. So at the end of September, when a park ranger reported finding No Trespassing notices posted and a For Sale sign that read, “880 Acres. With Water. Resort potential,” hikers and lovers of Southern Utah’s red rock landscapes were understandably panicked.

The Narrows begins at Chamberlain Ranch, a few miles northeast of the Zion National Park boundaries. But as the route enters Simon Gulch, at the edge of the park, it passes through a mile of private property owned for 50 years by the same family—a family that, it would seem, suddenly wants to sell. “We didn’t have a heads-up from the landowner or a reason,” Cindy Purcell, the management assistant at Zion told the Las Vegas Review Journal after news of the closure spread.

After the signs went up, on September 25 the National Park Service stopped issuing permits for the full Narrows hike. And because the waiting list was already booked through early November, it meant anyone who’d scheduled a trip could also be turned away. Thankfully, the park service and the county reached a temporary deal with the owner, Scott Bulloch, so the trail is safe until the end of the year.

It could be easy to think of the Bulloch family as greedy, or opportunists who wanted to cash in on a national treasure. But that’s not what happened. The Bullochs, in fact, want to see their land pass into the federal government’s hands. “We feel that property should belong to the public,” Scott Bulloch told the Salt Lake Tribune. They just can’t get a fair deal for it.

For the past three years the Bullochs have been trying to do just that, working with the Trust for Public Land, a San Francisco-based conservation group focused on access. The Trust’s Southwest area director, Jim Petterson, told Outside the plan has always been to get the U.S. Forest Service to buy the 880 acres, or at the very least an easement to the Narrows, through its Forest Legacy Program, which is part of the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Congress allowed the LWCF to lapse earlier this month. And while the death of the country’s most important conservation program could certainly doom similar access projects in the future, it doesn’t seem to have been the deciding factor in this case. Rather, it was the rules that govern how much the feds can pay for land, that prevented a deal. When the appraisal the Trust commissioned was finished in June and submitted to the Forest Service shortly after—the results of which are secret—the Agency turned it down, presumably for being too expensive. “We want people to know we didn’t just walk away,” said Michael Richardson, the Forest Service’s Intermountain Region spokesman. “We want this access for the American people.”

So after years of negotiating, when the deal stalled out at the end of last month the Bullochs posted their signs.

You could chalk it up to a unique circumstance of governmental bureaucracy: the owners want to sell, plenty of hikers and voters want the land, and the Forest Service, it would seem, is hogtied by shortsighted rulemakers in Washington D.C. Except, as Petterson points out, these circumstances aren't so rare.

In most cases, these land deals depend on the LWCF, which uses oil and gas revenues to build parks, improve public lands, and buy back access from private owners. But now that the LWCF has lapsed, projects like this won’t get the funds they need. In Zion alone there are 3,000 acres of private inholdings, much of it settled before the area was designated a park. Some of that land is also key to accessing the area’s most iconic places, like the Orderville and Parunuweap canyons. The Narrows was also at risk five years ago when a developer wanted to build ranchettes near the Chamberlain Ranch trailhead. Before that could happen the Trust brokered a deal between the federal government, Utah, and another conservation group to pay $1.4 million to keep the Narrows open to hikers.

Peterson says they’ve already commissioned a new appraisal for the Bulloch’s property, and that because the deal was already in the works before the LWCF expired, it should be okay—from a funding standpoint. Of course, the Forest Service could still turn down the new estimate. If that happens, Petterson says, “The worst case scenario is that the landowner could sell on the open market and the next owner might decide to close off access to the Narrows.”

Congress Is Quietly Eroding the Endangered Species Act

11 Oct

In the past two decades, Republicans in Congress have offered up more than 378 bills—45 in 2018 alone—to seriously weaken the Endangered Species Act. Most of those plans died before they got past the House Committee on Natural Resources, which needs to sign off before the bills come to a vote. But last week, while front pages and Twitter feeds spilled over with news of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the committee voted along party lines and passed five bills that could devastate protections for endangered species.

The committee head, Utah Republican Rob Bishop, has said in no uncertain terms that he’d love nothing more than to completely invalidate the ESA. But serious attacks on the law have historically been defeated by both Republicans and Democrats because the act is overwhelmingly popular. About 74 percent of American conservatives and 90 percent of liberals support it. None of the five bills will get a vote before elections in November, and it’s worth remembering there’s a chance Congress will look a lot different after that. But with the committee’s stamp, the ESA is in more danger than it has ever been.

What Would the Bills Do?

The House committee called the bills bipartisan, but only one is sponsored by a Democrat. That came from Montana’s Collin Peterson, whose bill would delist gray wolves in Wyoming and the western Great Lakes region. Protections for wolves there have gone back and forth in federal courts for years, and Peterson’s bill would essentially override any judgment and open hunting on the animals for good.

Another bill deals with breeding permits for non-native endangered species and moving these animals over state lines. But it’s the last three that could have the most wide-ranging, long-lasting impacts. One would make the government factor in the economic cost of protecting plants or animals before listing them; another would make it harder for people to sue when they feel the ESA has been abused; and the last would give reports submitted by local and state governments the same weight as those offered by federal studies, which may seem harmless, except that these reports can contain little or no science

All three bills are framed as important modernizations to the 45-year-old act, but opponents like Arizona Representative Raúl Grijalva, the ranking Democrat on the committee, has said that together they make a “wish list” for the mining and oil industry. Taken together, they would generally make it more difficult for the government to list a species, give states more power to stop any listing, and seriously hamper conservationists’ rights to hold the government accountable.

What’s the Conflict Over the ESA?

To hear some Republicans talk about the ESA, you’d think it was massive failure, and they have their own arithmetic to prove it. Since President Nixon signed the act in 1973, it has protected more than 1,600 species. The bald eagle, the California condor, the grizzly bear, the humpback whale, and many insects and plants wouldn’t be around without it. But in all that time, only 51 species have recovered enough to delist.

“We cannot allow the fear of challenging the status quo to prevent us from taking a hard look at the ineffective policies put in place decades ago that have failed to meet the goals of the underlying statute,” said Louisiana Representative Mike Johnson, who sponsored one of the new bills.

The ESA certainly has its flaws. But the other end of this logic is that 1,600 species are still around that otherwise might not be. So, in regard to keeping animals like the symbol of our country around, conservationists argue that it’s done pretty well.

What Is Trump’s Bigger Plan for the ESA?

Trump’s America First energy plan relies on auctioning off tens of millions of acres to oil and gas companies. In some cases, like with the American burying beetle, the Trump administration and Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke are pushing to remove protections from animals on desirable land. But that sort of legal wrangling can take a while. So another tact they’ve taken is to change how agencies interpret the act.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have typically extended ESA protections to “any species which is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future”—essentially, species considered threatened. But in July, both agencies proposed to reinterpret “foreseeable future” in terms that make it much tougher to get these protections and offer them only on a case-by-case basis.

That, combined with the bills passed by the natural resources committee, could ensure that hundreds of species never get the protections of the ESA. And of course it would make it much easier for oil and gas companies to drill on land that might have been considered critical habitat.

Will the Bills Pass?

Probably not on their own. Republicans still hedge at crippling what is widely seen as one of the most important conservation laws in the world. They’ll more likely try to bury it in a bill that people are more inclined to support.

Bishop stunned many people earlier this summer when he teamed up with Grijalva to sponsor a bill that could save the Land and Water Conservation Fund. It garnered wide praise and raised a few eyebrows from those who view Bishop as a public-lands enemy. But here’s the thing: as legislation moves through the House, it gains fat, with representatives tacking on all sorts of stuff that has nothing to do with the original bill. Republicans tried to do that earlier this year when they added language to a spending bill that would have made it illegal to list the sage grouse for the next ten years. So one likely scenario is that Bishop and his allies play quid pro quo with the LWCF bill and add on some, or all, of the ESA changes.

“Chairman Bishop knows these ESA bills wouldn’t become law as standalone measures,” Adam Sarvana, Grijalva’s communications director, told Outside. “He seems to think a large end-of-year deal—which would have to include genuinely popular measures like LWCF reauthorization—is his best chance at moving his more controversial ideas forward.”

Of the hundreds of bills conservatives have proposed to weaken the ESA, few have ever made it through the committee, let alone Congress, because, overall, voters support the goals of the act. But what Bishop is banking on—aided by all the flashy chaos that has become the norm for this administration—is that, this time, you won’t be paying attention.

Lawsuit Challenges Trump’s Potomac Closures

27 Sep

Twenty-five miles northwest of the White House is a two-mile length of the Potomac River where the water relaxes before it crosses an earthen dam near the Seneca Break rapids. It’s the perfect spot for kids at a nearby summer camp to put in their canoes. It’s also a favorite training area for the U.S. Whitewater Team. Snowy egrets and blue herons land in the calm pool, and for locals it’s easy to paddle out and feel a world away from the D.C. chaos. Or at least it was.

Across the river is the Trump National Golf Club in Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the courses where the president has spent nearly a quarter of all his days in office playing golf. In the name of keeping the commander-in-chief safe, last year the U.S. Coast Guard began closing off this section of the Potomac any time Trump felt like hitting a round. Since then, kids on the water, even a group of kayaking wounded veterans, have been chased down by patrol boats and told to leave.

The closure is open-ended, with almost no forewarning. It was also done without letting the public know, which, according to a lawsuit filed last Thursday by the legal watchdog group Democracy Forward, is illegal.

“Last year it was just awful, and it was happening day after day,” says Barbara Brown, head of the Canoe Cruisers Association, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Brown has been paddling the Potomac since the Dwight D. Eisenhower administration. She’s lived around D.C. most her life, so she’s used to the security convoys that come with living near the nation’s capital. But in all that time she says the river has never been closed like this. Just two weeks ago, for instance, she says a group of kayakers were practicing whitewater safety tests when a Coast Guard boat rushed near. The dedicated phone number her association calls to check on closures had said nothing about a presidential visit, but the officials onboard the boat demanded they leave—immediately. With the water level nine feet up, they were in a dangerous spot to portage. They argued for a bit, Brown says, and “eventually, the patrol boats let everyone go into a nearby canal”—technically in the no-go area, but a safer spot to disembark.

In the past, an area could be shut down for presidential security temporarily, but usually only for a short visit, and the closure was published on the Federal Register. The Trump administration seemed to stick to those guideline for the Potomac until June 2017, when for some reason it quietly decided on a bank-to-bank closure. To do that legally the Coast Guard needed to announce the change and open the decision to public comment, according to Charisma Troiano, a spokeswoman for Democracy Forward. Beyond inconvenience, Troiano says Democracy Forward is worried that, left unchallenged, this kind of broad, quiet decision to close a public space could become more common. “We’ve seen many instances,” Troiano says, “where this administration is rolling back rules or creating new rules without going through the proper process.”

The Trump administration has generally tended toward shortening public comment periods, or completely ignoring them. But in this case, public comments were only opened after the decision to close the river had been made. And when comments were allowed, more than 600 people wrote in, almost all in opposition.

“While government officials need to be protected, completely closing the river is overkill,” wrote one commenter. “Canoes, kayaks, and SUPs are not likely to be used as attack platforms.”

“America, land of the free?” wrote another. “Doesn't sound like it with attempts to take away freedoms to paddle.”

Part of the irony here is that Trump, before he was elected, unwittingly helped create this security concern. Trump bought the 800-acre club in 2009 (where membership fees range between $10,000 and $300,000) and quickly chopped down 465 trees to open views of the river. “You couldn’t see anything,” Trump complained at the time. Of course, now that the river is visible from the golf course, so is the commander-in-chief on the green. Still, kayakers argue it seems unlikely that an assassin would pick the Potomac to make an attempt on Trump’s life. And last year the head of the Coast Guard seemed to agree. Talking with members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Former Coast Guard Admiral Paul F. Zukunft said he’d heard complaints about the bank-to-bank closure on the Potomac and wanted to work out a better situation. “We listened,” he said, “and we’re making that accommodation.”

But—perhaps especially in D.C.—talk is cheap, and nothing has been put in writing. So until that happens, any locals hoping to escape D.C. for a bit of relaxation on the Potomac must hope that the president isn’t doing the same across the river.

The Daring Rescue that Saved the Thai Soccer Team

10 Jul

All 12 members of the Thai soccer team and their coach have been rescued and are in good health at a local hospital. They spent 18 days in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave, nine of those without food. The rescue effort attracted diving experts from all over the world and even the attention of billionaire inventor Elon Musk, who dispatched his own engineering team that brought along a tiny submersible. But what saved the boys in the end was planning—and a whole lot of daring. 

The Wild Boars youth soccer team, all between 11 to 16 years old, had taken a field trip to the caves on June 23 and were trapped about two miles deep by flooding. The cave is typically closed from July to October during Thailand’s rainy season, and for rescue divers the possibility of being trapped in the cave during a violent downpour was one of the most omnipresent threats. (They also had to navigate cramped tunnels with zero visibility and the risk of running out of air.)

It was one of the most dangerous rescue efforts of its kind. Some sections of the cave narrow to just three feet wide and two feet tall, small enough to make it difficult for an adult to squeeze through, let alone an adult with full scuba gear and tank. New York Times reporter and former U.S. Navy diving officer John Ismay said cave diving of this type is so dangerous that the Navy does’t even feel it’s worth the risk to train recruits on. 

In a cave, gear can easily hang up on rocky outcrops. And since tanks connect to a regulator or mask with tubes, a diver could easily have his equipment jerked from his body. With practically zero visibility from the muck in the cave, it meant rescuers had to feel their way through two miles of winding tunnels. The conditions were difficult enough that former Thai Navy SEAL diver and rescue volunteer Saman Gunan ran out of air and died while dropping resupply tanks along the route on July 6. Beyond the peril of the cave itself, the boys didn’t know how to swim, and had never dived before. It meant rescuers also had to worry about how they’d get the potentially panicky kids out safely and without endangering themselves further. 

An international team of expert cave divers had all rushed to help, and for days they plotted how to extract the kids. Elon Musk even sent a crew of engineers and a “kid-size submarine.” The head of the rescue effort and former governor of the Chiang Rai province, where the cave is located, ended up thanking Musk for his help, but said the tiny submersible was “not practical for the mission.” 

Instead, rescuers strung a rope from the entrance of the cave to where the boys and their coach waited. The dive team was headed by two of the world’s leading cave divers, both British, and who were the first to initially make contact with the boys on July 2. After that, divers brought food and water to the boys, not knowing how long it would take to extricate everyone. Since rains were expected to return, and with the rising water in the cave, they needed to act quickly. On July 8, a team of 18 divers entered the cave. One at a time, each boy was accompanied by two divers and connected by a thin line. Rescuers fit the with full-face diving mask and the lead diver carried the boys’ oxygen tanks in front of them to squeeze through the narrow rock walls and to prevent them from ripping out their own air tubes. By Sunday, four of the boys were safely brought out of the cave. And by Monday all were safely out, including the coach.

The team was taken to the hospital, where two of the boys were said to have minor lung infections. But besides low white blood cell counts and some serious hunger pangs, they were all said to be in good health. By Monday evening, The Washington Post reported that the kids were laughing and joking.

The Terrible State of Our National Parks—in Photos

5 Jul

Operating our parks is expensive. They’re not moneymaking machines (despite Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke’s desire to make them so). They cost a lot to manage, and the current National Park Service maintenance backlog is at $11.6 billion, a figure that gets bandied about quite a bit and can seem pretty overwhelming. But half of that number is actually money needed to repair some 5,500 miles of roads in our park system. When you really drill down and only include repairs considered “critical” to running the parks—things like functioning bathrooms or campground and hiking trail maintenance—the figure is much more manageable, at $3.5 billion.

So, $3.5 billion? Sounds like chump change to the feds. Up until recently, the federal government was spending $60 billion a year to maintain outdated tech and computers that still ran on floppy disks—granted, some of that equipment operated our nukes. But consider the yearly report published by Senator John McCain’s office that rounds up dubious spending. In 2015, the report highlighted $294 billion the government gave to programs it was no longer authorized to fund, like researching the bomb-sniffing capabilities of elephants, nearly half a million dollars on a dog-bite prevention website, and—seriously—$387,000 for a National Institutes of Health grant to study the effects of Swedish massages on rabbits.

The government spends a lot of our tax money on things of questionable need. Our public lands, however, are only becoming more loved, more used, and in dire need of repair. Thanks to some photos provided by the National Parks Conservation Association, we got a peek at what the maintenance backlog really looks like.

national parks
(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Jan Kaplan)

This photo is from Grand Canyon National Park, where a pipeline broke and was spewing water à la Old Faithful. As of last September, Grand Canyon had $329 million in deferred maintenance costs.

national parks
(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/J Garder)

This is also from Grand Canyon, although a ranger told Outside all overlook trails are now operating.

national parks
(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association)

This is one of the many rope ladders in Olympic National Park, and as you can see, it’s not the safest climb. Olympic was one of the parks where Zinke wanted to double entrance fees to help pay down the backlog. It was a hugely unpopular plan, and he eventually rolled over on the idea. Olympic has about $121 million in deferred maintenance costs.

national parks
(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Elizabeth Ackley)

At the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, signs like this keep visitors far away from the pier where, as the stick figure indicates, you’re liable to fall through the crumbling cement walls and end up in the frigid water. The park has a total of $86 million in deferred costs.

national parks
(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Joan Frankev)

This is a crumbling walkway in Yellowstone National Park. There are a lot bigger issues to deal with there, like the increasingly untenable visitation. But it’s a sign of much larger problems when we can’t keep our most iconic park in top shape. Yellowstone has more than a half-billion-dollar backlog.

national parks
(Courtesy National Park Conservation Association/Cory McNulty)

Zion National Park’s trail to Emerald Pools was closed for seven years until last July, when a private grant of $1 million from the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Foundation supplied the funds to open the pathway, hopefully by the end of 2019. Zion’s backlog is $65 million.

The Thai Soccer Team Trapped in a Cave Was Found Alive

2 Jul

A team of international rescuers has found the 12 missing Thai boys and their soccer coach alive nine days after the group became trapped in a cave by floods. The team of 11- to 16-year-olds and their 25-year-old coach are said to be healthy, although the rescue isn't over yet.

The team was found about two miles deep into the Tham Luang Nang Non cavern, located in the Chiang Rai province in the country’s north. And while rescuers have drilled a hole in the side of the cave and have pumped out muddy water for days so divers can reach the boys, some passageways are still flooded. 

The governor of the Chiang Rai province, Narongsak Osottanakor, told the AFP that the plan now is to find a way to get the team medical help and to stabilize them by sending in a doctor who can dive. None of them are believed to be in critical condition, but they've been without food for nearly ten days now. “We will take care of them until they can move,” Osottanakor said.

The soccer team, called the Wild Boars, disappeared into the caves on June 23 for a group outing. A park officer notified rescuers after seeing the boys’ bicycles, soccer shoes, and backpacks near a cave entrance that was supposed to be off limits. During the rainy season from July to October, the four-mile long cave can be flooded with up to 16 feet of water. Caving and diving experts from the U.S., China, Australia, the United Kingdom, and Thailand’s own version of the Navy SEALS had all spent days trying to reach the team. But because it has rained almost nonstop since they went missing it was too dangerous. On Monday, the downpour let up briefly, and rescuers were able to pump out enough water to find them about 1,000 feet from an elevated sand bar inside the cave called Pattaya Beach. 

For nine days, a crowd of relatives and friends have held a nightly vigil near the entrance. On Monday night, when Governor Osottanakorn shared the news that rescuers had found the boys alive, the group erupted in applause. Weather permitting, rescuers hope to have the boys safely out of the cave by Tuesday. ”Our mission [is] not done yet," Osottanakorn told reporters. “We will work all night."