Ryan Zinke’s Watershed Plan Is 140 Years Too Late

18 Jan

Ryan Zinke has a fondness for military men. (Have you heard he admires Teddy Roosevelt? Did you know he was a Navy SEAL?)

The latest object of the interior secretary’s affection is John Wesley Powell. A Civil War veteran who lost his right arm at the Battle of Shiloh, Powell is best known as a geologist and geographer who led expeditions in the American Southwest, including the first documented float down Grand Canyon. Those travels inspired Powell, in an 1878 report, to recommend the West be settled in a fashion that would organize the desiccated territory by watershed. Doing so, he argued, would make for a more collaborative and ecologically sound way of managing resources, especially in a region where the most precious resource is water. “Years of drought and famine come and years of flood and famine come,” Powell once wrote, “and the climate is not changed with dance, libation, or prayer.”

One hundred forty years later, the secretary of America’s most sprawling bureaucracy has decided Powell was on to something. Zinke recently unveiled an intention to reorganize the Interior Department’s 70,000 employees and 12 agencies into 13 zones dictated not by state lines but by watershed and basin.

“Taking inspiration from Powell’s concept of watersheds,” Zinke said in a video, “we’re looking at reshaping our current bureau-based regional system of management and moving to a system based on ecosystems, watersheds, and science.” Consistent with his desire to remake Interior in the image of the military, Zinke’s idea is a mishmash of Powell’s ideas and the “joint management agency” concept utilized by the armed forces. Zinke is pitching the reorganization as a way to streamline the Interior Department’s myriad agencies by aligning their missions and goals by geography.

“Intellectually, the idea of organizing more in terms of the landscape in the West—that works,” says John Freemuth, executive director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “But the devil is in the details. The damage that could be done to relationships and how agencies do business, that doesn’t look like it’s been well thought out yet.”

From a resource management perspective, Zinke is wise to seek Powell’s guidance. Water is the defining resource in the West. Save for mountain ranges and the Pacific Northwest, nowhere west of the Texas Panhandle gets more than 20 inches of precipitation a year. Powell sought settlement patterns in which water, timber, and other resources would be managed in a collective fashion for the benefit of communities instead of companies—and profit.

“For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains…hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place,” Donald Worster, a Powell biographer, told NPR in 2003. “So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”

Alas, this Phoenix-free land of sensible management never emerged. The West today is one of the most heavily engineered landscapes on earth, where water is pumped over and through mountain ranges, and alfalfa is grown in deserts. Overseeing all of it is Zinke’s sprawling department, whose new reorganization efforts many say are misguided and futile.

The issue is one of execution. Reorganizations, as any corporate CEO will tell you, are time consuming, difficult, and expensive. At a time when Zinke is proposing trimming his workforce by 4,000 jobs and favors decreasing the Interior Department’s budget by $1.6 billion, he’s proposing an action that would likely require consultants and untold people-hours and would inevitably shift the focus away from on-the-ground management he claims to prioritize. “Park rangers aren’t going to be out there in the parks,” Freemuth says. “They’re going to be sitting down, figuring out how to reorganize the Park Service.”

Other hurdles await. One is that each Interior agency functions differently, at scales both massive and minute. The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve, so its employees operate under a very different framework than those at the Bureau of Land Management, which must balance conservation, drilling, grazing, and other land uses. Thus, neither agency has the same administrative processes as, say, the Bureau of Reclamation, yet under Zinke’s plan they’d all have to coalesce under respective watershed boundaries. Zinke’s desire to shrink Interior’s Washington footprint by moving more management positions West could also backfire, says Kate Kelly, public lands director at the Center for American Progress and a former senior adviser at the Interior Department, because funding and policy discussions overwhelmingly take place in D.C.

“You have to remember that the Interior Department has vast and diverse missions,” Kelly says, adding that it covers everything from offshore energy management to education programs on Native American lands. “It appears that, through this reorganization, he’s attempting to fit every agency into the same mold, which frankly doesn’t make sense.”

Reorganizing the BLM, in particular, could prove challenging. Both Kelly and Freemuth say western governors and land managers will likely face bureaucratic headaches if the BLM shifts from state-based to regional management.

There’s reason to believe these new boundaries won’t necessarily yield more sound environmental management, either. For instance, Zinke’s proposed regions 8 and 10, which cover much of the Northwest, are split by the Columbia River. This alignment divvies up a heavily managed watershed. And Region 7, the Colorado River basin, pumps water to regions 5, 6, 9, and 11. In the engineered West that Zinke is managing, basin-based zones are, in some instances, as arbitrary as state lines.

Zinke’s proposal also raises the question of why he is considering organizing his department by environment-inspired lines at all. “He seems to be prioritizing oil and gas over everything else…and now he wants to organize Interior by environmental boundaries?” Freemuth says. “There’s a disconnect in grand theory here.”

Perhaps it’s best to think of Zinke’s watershed-based West as a thought experiment. “Past is prologue,” Kelly says. “The Obama administration and previous administrations have proposed mergers and reorganizations, only to quickly run into the buzzsaw that is Congress.” Indeed, western legislators are already voicing skepticism. Democratic Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico told the Washington Post that the plan “looks more like a dismantling than a reorganization.”

So unless Zinke can whip up congressional support, Powell’s idea will likely remain one of the West’s great what-ifs.

Why Did the DOI Kill the North Cascades Grizzly Plan?

10 Jan

Getting to the lower 48’s second-largest swath of prime grizzly bear habitat takes less than an hour by car from Seattle. The North Cascades Ecosystem begins at Interstate 90 and stretches north into British Columbia, covering 9,800 square miles—600 more than grizzlies have around Yellowstone National Park. Yet the odds of seeing a grizzly here are essentially zero.

Hunters in the 19th century shot thousands of the bears, as they did throughout the United States, driving them to near-extinction. But recently there has been solid action to reintroduce grizzlies into the North Cascades. Last January, the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released a draft plan to build a population of 200 bears here over the next 25 to 100 years, a move that could diversify the gene pool in case something devastated the species in the Rockies. The federal government had already poured money into a public relations campaign to educate locals. More than 127,000 comments had been made and were being reviewed. Then—without reason or warning—the recovery process came to a halt near the end of December.

Karen Taylor-Goodrich, superintendent of North Cascades National Park, said the Department of the Interior (DOI) ordered her team to stop all work on the North Cascades grizzly environmental impact statement, the first of many steps toward reintroducing the bears. “We’re in year three of the process,” Taylor-Goodrich said, according to the Missoulian. She and her team were offered no explanation. The DOI, in fact, has yet to say why it has seemingly abandoned the North Cascades grizzly program—DOI spokesperson Heather Swift told Outside that Secretary Ryan Zinke did not make the call to end the program, and when Outside asked if Zinke was even aware of the decision, Swift did not respond.

The North Cascades region is a rugged place, with remote terrain. It is fairly road-free and loaded with plants, berries, fish, and game that the omnivorous grizzlies can dine on, which would help keep them away from cattle and orchards. Fish and Wildlife identified the area as a potential grizzly recovery zone in 1993, due in large part to its size. “There are not many places in the lower 48 that you can even think about recovering bears,” says Bill Gaines, a former Forest Service biologist who worked on the North Cascades recovery plan. “And then to have 10,000 square miles of public land, and something on the order of 40 percent be a national park or wilderness—that’s a pretty good chunk of wild country.”

Despite the habitat suitability, not a single grizzly is known to be currently living in the U.S. chunk of the range. An estimated six bears live in the Canadian section—far too few to push a meaningful population of breeding bears south. Without bringing in outside bears, biologists have concluded, local extinction of grizzlies is a major threat.

As has been the case in other recovery zones in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho, the public didn’t immediately jump on board. “It’s been a challenge,” says Jack Oelfke, who coordinates Park Service workers involved in the North Cascades grizzly recovery (Oelfke spoke with Outside about the program before the DOI decision, and the Park Service has since declined to officially comment). “There are lots of people in Washington who are pretty strong conservationists. But when you bring up grizzly bears, the prospect that their favorite hiking trail might now have grizzlies makes them pause.”

To help win the war of public opinion, Fish and Wildlife and the Park Service began a three-year public education bonanza, a method successfully deployed in Montana, where the Northern Continental Divide Ecosystem bear population has swelled beyond 900. Bear managers created educational websites and held public meetings—which drew hundreds of attendees—to answer questions from hikers, hunters, loggers, ranchers, and farmers about the bears.

To further lessen concerns, the feds and researchers I spoke with said any bears brought to the North Cascades likely would be designated an experimental population under the Endangered Species Act. This designation, which was used when wolves were returned to Yellowstone, allows wildlife officials more leeway to relocate or, in extreme instances, kill troublesome animals. It’s a move used primarily to gin up public support by assuring, for example, local apple farmers and loggers that they need not worry about their operations being shut down by a grizzly on their property.

The result of these efforts appears to be strong public support. The majority of public comments submitted, reviewers told me, were in favor of relocating bears to the North Cascades, and a 2016 poll suggested overwhelming support among Washington voters.

Critics, of course, remain, and have celebrated the stop-work order. Jim DeTro, a commissioner in neighboring Okanogan County, told the Capital Press, “Yes, ranchers in the Okanogan will be happy, but the opposition had bipartisan support. Even hikers and people on the green side said the North Cascades was no place for this.”

The DOI’s decision creates a murky future for grizzlies in the North Cascades. Taylor-Goodrich told a panel of grizzly experts last month that communication has stopped with Canadian partners, and Oelfke, the Park Service coordinator, told the Yakima Herald that no timetable has been issued for work to resume. NPS officials declined to comment, and Swift, the DOI’s spokesperson, said she couldn’t confirm whether the stop-work order had even been issued. Swift would only say that Zinke hadn’t personally made the decision. “It sounds like from press reports that it was stopped,” Swift wrote to Outside an email, “but if it was stopped it wasn’t because the Secretary directed them to.”

“[What is] frustrating is that the many years of science, public education, and significant taxpayer dollars that have gone into grizzly bear recovery in our region are apparently not being taken seriously by this administration,” Chase Gunnell, spokesperson for Conservation Northwest, said in a statement.

These decisions are shadowed by uncertainty of how climate change will affect grizzly bears. Critical food sources in the Rockies, such as cutworm moths and whitebark pine seeds, are particularly threatened by warming temperatures, and scientists are uncertain how grizzly populations will respond. It’s for this reason that North Cascades researchers stressed the importance of another population to the survival of the species.

Delaying action isn’t simply an inconvenience. Had the environmental impact study proceeded, a final document would have been released sometime this year, and a decision would probably have been made in mid- to late 2018. Even at this pace, implementation wouldn’t have begun for years. Meanwhile, the North Cascades grizzly population teeters on extinction as the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide populations are scheduled, and expected, to be removed from the endangered species list.

“Biologically, it’s never a good idea to have just one or two small, isolated populations,” Oelfke says. “If you’ve got at least one other population in the mix in the lower 48, that’s a long-term benefit to the species.”

It may have had wide support and been good for grizzlies. But for some reason the DOI didn’t think so. They just won’t say why.

While You Were on Holiday, Trump Screwed the Planet

5 Jan

In the spirit of “energy dominance,” President Donald Trump lavished gifts on the extractive industries over the holidays. The Trump administration finished 2017—a year that saw the shrinking of two national monuments and the general favoring of private industry over wild lands—with an anti-environmental bang.

For example, at the end of December, the Interior Department eased the offshore drilling safety rules put in place following the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which killed 11 people and released 3.2 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. That action could have impacts beyond the Gulf; on Thursday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to open up the majority of both the Atlantic and Pacific coastlines to oil and gas companies.

That wasn’t all. The Trump administration was busy over the holidays, so here’s what else you probably missed.

No More Fracking Water-Source Regulations

In 2015 the Bureau of Land Management issued tighter guidelines for fracking on federal and Native American lands. The goal was to prevent groundwater contamination, because the fracking process shoots a chemical-laden solution into the ground to crack fissures in the rock. Among other things, the guidelines required operators to receive BLM permission before fracking, provide information about their water source, disclose chemicals in their fracking mix, and test the cement-lined wells to ensure they wouldn’t crack during the process.

The BLM scrapped the rule on December 29, citing the president’s earlier executive order to remove burdens on the energy industry. Lawsuits by extraction-reliant western states and industry groups prevented the 2015 rule from ever being implemented, and in repealing the rule, BLM essentially sided with those plaintiffs by saying it lacked authority to impose such restrictions.

In general, regulators have struggled to keep up with the fracking boom over the past two decades. And by announcing this rule repeal, the BLM made clear that it feels state and tribal regulations are enough to prevent groundwater contamination, even though there’s evidence to the contrary. The BLM also calculated that rescinding the 2015 rule would save oil and gas operators almost $10,000 per well in compliance costs.

It’s Okay to Kill Migratory Birds—So Long as It’s an Accident

Energy development is hard on birds. Each year, approximately 175,000 of the animals collide with wind turbines, 750,000 perish in oil-waste pits, and some 25 million die on power lines. Since 1918, the Department of the Interior has used the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) to prosecute energy firms that don’t take precautions against wanton avian injury. Federal circuit courts have come to different conclusions on whether companies can be held liable for accidentally killing birds. Further legal clarity won’t be coming anytime soon, though, because the Trump administration has decided not to prosecute these types of cases.

Interior Department Deputy Solicitor Daniel Jorjani decided on December 22 that the MBTA doesn’t prohibit the accidental killing of migratory birds. He reasoned this by saying that “the phrase ‘incidental take’ does not appear in either the MBTA or regulations implementing the Act.” This means corporations will face prosecution only if it can be proved they killed the birds intentionally.

Jorjani has deep ties to the Koch brothers, and his opinion would have real consequences for oil and gas producers. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, for instance, BP pleaded guilty to violating the MBTA and paid $100 million to the North American Wetlands Conservation Fund. If a similar oil spill took place today, such a payout wouldn’t occur—BP didn’t release all that oil to intentionally kill birds, so the feds wouldn’t hold the corporation liable.

Mining the Boundary Waters

Jorjani’s pre-Christmas work extended to a controversial mining lease that borders Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. In December 2016, the Obama administration opted not to renew a Chilean mining company’s leases, which were necessary for a proposed underground copper-nickel mine. The Interior Department also imposed a moratorium on all new mines in the area while the U.S. Forest Service conducted a two-year study on the environmental impact of such projects. Jorjani, however, said the Interior Department lacked the authority to deny this lease, opening the door for further extraction near the Boundary Waters.

Twin Metals Minnesota, a subsidiary of Chilean mining titan Antofagasta, says the leases would provide 650 jobs and operate for 30 years, but others worry that the mine would squander the blossoming adventure-based economy around the Boundary Waters. Interior’s legal opinion doesn’t immediately green-light the mine, and the BLM and the Forest Service have pledged to continue the environmental impact study.

Mitt Romney: Environmentalists’ Next Great Ally?

5 Jan

Utah Senator Orrin Hatch has decided 42 years are enough. After orchestrating the reduction of two national monuments and a sweeping tax overhaul, Hatch announced Tuesday he would retire at the end of his term, in early 2019. There was speculation that Hatch would run again—President Donald Trump asked him to do so—but the influential senator reportedly followed the advice of his family (and 78 percent of Utah voters) and chose retirement.

Political analysts in Utah and Washington, D.C., believe Hatch’s seat will be filled by Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and 2012 GOP presidential candidate. Romney is incredibly popular in Utah: He earned nearly 73 percent of the vote there when he ran for president. And while Romney hasn’t made an official announcement, it seems a near certainty that he will throw in for senator. (Moments after Hatch said he’d resign, Romney changed his Twitter location to Utah.)

Unlike Hatch, Romney has not been chummy with Trump, who is deeply unpopular in Utah. There is wide speculation that Romney might even become a defiant force against the president. In a searing speech during the 2016 election, Romney called Trump “a phony, a fraud.” There’s good reason to believe, however, that this defiance won’t translate to the environment.

True, as governor of Massachusetts, Romney championed pollution control, fuel efficiency, and phasing out greenhouse gases. But that changed drastically when he became a presidential candidate. This is why, when thinking of his environmental record, it helps to look at two Romneys.

Governor Romney

Not even a month into his governorship, Romney squared off with coal plant workers who said he was threatening their livelihoods. It was February 2003, and Romney had just denied a coal plant’s request to extend a deadline to clean up its emissions. Picketers were concerned about their jobs, but Romney had a more visceral worry. “I will not create jobs or hold jobs that kill people,” he said. “And that plant, that plant kills people.”

A Republican championing a coal cleanup is pretty much unthinkable today—all of Massachusetts’ coal-fired plants were shuttered by summer 2017—but Romney was progressive on many fronts during his governorship. He created a holistic office that oversaw transportation, housing, energy, and environmental policy and appointed a longtime environmental lawyer, Doug Foy, to run it. Also in 2004, Romney released the Massachusetts Climate Protection Plan, which promoted hybrid cars to lower emissions to 1990 levels.

“This plan is going to reduce pollution. It’s going to cut energy demand. It’s also going to nurture job growth and boost our economy, because reducing greenhouse gases has multiple benefits,” he said at the time.

Most striking was Romney’s involvement in a regional cap-and-trade plan. Working with other states in the Northeast, Massachusetts officials spent two years formulating the plan, only to have Romney back out in the final stages. “Industry opposed it,” the New York Times wrote in 2012, “and some former Romney policy advisers say his political team feared that it would doom his chances for the presidency.”

As Governor Romney became candidate Romney, his transformation intensified.

Candidate Romney

Romney’s no vote on the cap-and-trade plan was indeed a talking point during his presidential campaign. “I do not believe in a cap-and-trade program,” he told a Pennsylvania audience during the primary. “By the way, they don’t call it ‘America warming,’ they call it ‘global warming,’ so the idea of America spending massive amounts, trillions of dollars to somehow stop global warming is not a great idea.”

To differentiate himself from President Barack Obama, Romney abandoned many of his previously held positions on the environment. After championing fuel efficiency in Massachusetts, he called Obama’s fuel-efficiency standards overbearing. He promised to end renewable-energy subsidies if elected president, even though he allocated $24 million to similar projects as governor. The onetime castigator of coal was suddenly in favor of the sector, arguing that Obama’s regulations “would prevent another coal plant from ever being built.”

Romney’s campaign rhetoric was consistent with current GOP talking points. He said more federal land should be opened up to drilling and states should handle the regulations. He felt the EPA shouldn’t police carbon dioxide emissions and thought drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was a good idea. His campaign energy plan proposed opening up more offshore areas to drilling, finishing construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, and reducing overall regulations on extraction industries. “Energy independence” was the new buzzword. There wasn’t much talk anymore of air quality.

Romney’s environmental dance seems to correlate with the changing ideology of his constituents. In Massachusetts, he was governor of a liberal state, which dragged his politics to the left. Come 2012, the Tea Party movement was in full swing, and national politics on both sides had galvanized toward extremes. So Romney followed.

If he wins in Utah, Romney would be a senator in one of the country’s most conservative states. So while his recent behavior suggests he might break from the mainstream GOP’s fealty to Trump, breaking away from conservative environmental policies seems much less likely.

Déjà Vu at Interior and the EPA

22 Dec

In some regards, James Watt was a few decades ahead of his time. He was an unabashedly pro-industry voice and a deeply polarizing leader set on loosening government control over public lands.

But the career of Ronald Reagan’s first secretary of the interior was also swift and controversial. Indian reservations, to this overseer of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were a “failure of socialism.” Watt’s exit was hastened by a 1983 assessment of his coal advisory board: “We have every kind of mixture you can have. I have a Black, I have a woman, two Jews, and a cripple. And I have talent.” After that statement, Watt was deemed a political liability, and he resigned a couple weeks later.

Watt’s brand of politics, as well as those of Anne Gorsuch Burford, Reagan’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, have reemerged in Washington, D.C. The casual racism and sexism today may come from the president’s own Twitter feed—not a rogue cabinet member—but Watt and Burford’s regulatory actions mirror those of their modern-day counterparts, Ryan Zinke and Scott Pruitt. Stacking government jobs with former extraction industry employees, selling public lands wholesale, seeming to undermine the very institution they’re appointed to run—it’s the same playbook. Zinke and Pruitt, however, are likely to build a more lasting legacy, historians say, because the behavior that cost their predecessors their jobs has been normalized.

Reagan cruised into the White House on a promise that he would hack at the environmental red tape passed during the decade before. “By the late ’70s, it was becoming clear the [Endangered Species Act] wasn’t just going to save some grizzlies,” says James Skillen, a historian at Calvin College who focuses on public land management. Add to the ESA the National Environmental Policy Act and the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, Skillen says, and “it was having some negative impacts on resource use on public land.” During the campaign, Reagan identified with the return-land-to-the-states Sagebrush Rebellion, and his blunt instruments of choice to enact these policies were Watt and Burford.

At the Interior Department, Watt kicked off his tenure promising that “we will mine more, drill more, and cut more timber.” Similarly, Zinke has said the department’s “goal is an America that is the strongest energy superpower this world has ever known.” As with their rhetoric, their policies are also coalescing. Watt offered up virtually the entire U.S. coastline to oil and gas leases—a practice that rankled Reagan’s California supporters. Zinke, for his part, will offer oil and gas firms a shot at nearly 77 million acres of leases in the Gulf of Mexico come March.

On dry land, Zinke intends to streamline permitting; Watt streamlined it a bit too much. Leases he engineered that offered up more than 1.2 billion tons of Powder River Basin coal were struck down in courts. Investigations by both the General Accounting Office and a House subcommittee found that Watt rushed to hold the sale while demand was low, thus deflating prices. Similar economics define the current oil market.

Déjà vu is even stronger at the EPA. Following interviews with dozens of current and former staffers, the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI) chronicled an agency rife with demoralization familiar to those around during Burford’s time. “The playbook was the same,” says Christopher Sellers, an environmental historian at Stony Brook University and an EDGI interviewer. “The combination of tactics, from trying to shrink the budget to throwing up a wall between political employees and career appointees, the suspicion of career appointees, the hostile work environment…there are so many parallels.”

In two years, Burford (the mother of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch) cut the EPA budget by 21 percent and staff by 26 percent. “The cuts are so massive that they could mean a basic retreat on all the environmental programs of the past ten years,” the Washington Post wrote in 1981. Pruitt, who as Oklahoma’s attorney general made a political career of suing the EPA, wants to cut the agency’s funding by more than 30 percent.

Watt and Burford, Skillen says, “had to focus on administrative changes, things within their power.” Trump’s cabinet has followed suit with lax enforcement, shuffling career appointees, and bringing aboard political appointees with ties to industry. According to one count, 16 Interior Department political appointees and 14 within the EPA were previously affiliated with the oil and gas industry or the Koch brothers’ network—much higher than during the Obama administration. At the EPA, at least 770 employees have left since Pruitt took over in March. The offices hardest hit: chemical safety, research and development, and enforcement and compliance. It’s what some would say amounts to regulatory capture.

“At a very basic level, it’s the privileging of economic profit and the viability of industries,” says Lindsey Dillon, an EDGI interviewer and sociologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who studies environmental justice. Stacking the EPA with pro-industry employees like this will have a detrimental effect on community health, Dillon warns, especially in already vulnerable communities.

Yet Washington’s tolerance for these actions means Zinke and Pruitt could continue unfettered down the path that doomed Reagan’s appointees. Consider the downfall of Burford. The Superfund toxic waste cleanup program was new at that time, and news emerged that Rita Lavelle, the head of Superfund, may have tipped off her polluting former employer that a federal lawsuit was coming its way. (Lavelle was eventually sentenced to six months in prison for lying to Congress.) Burford, at Reagan’s request, withheld Superfund documents from Congress. She was held in contempt and later resigned.

Sellers and Skillen both argue that a similar situation is unlikely today. The budget cutting, potential conflicts of interest, and blatant appeals to industry that seemed radical when Watt and Burford brought them to D.C. have since become an accepted norm. Industry-funded think tanks have been churning out policy blueprints for decades. The United States has also become a more polarized place.

Fracking brought oil and gas wealth to states such as Pruitt’s Oklahoma, which then became breeding grounds for an anti-environmentalism GOP movement. “As Watt, in particular, pushed against environmentalists,” Skillen says, “environmental groups’ membership rolls increased. Money increased dramatically, and their alignment with the Democratic Party strengthened.”

The division that Watt and Burford exacerbated—establishing the GOP base as pro-industry and the Democratic base as pro-conservation—may have cultivated a unique element of Zinke and Pruitt’s leadership: the discrediting and politicization of science. As the right fell in line behind the extraction industry and the left behind environmental measures, climate science served as the ultimate wedge. “Some of the things you see today are, in the context of climate change, a rejection of state science and an attempt to muddle science,” Dillon says. Interior planning documents rarely, if ever, mention climate change. Pruitt has routinely dismissed norms about climate change held by the scientific community. Scientists in both agencies are being shuffled to new offices or relieved of their duties. Advisory panels are being cleared of mainstream scientists.

Because Zinke and Pruitt align so closely with the goals of today’s GOP, and because Washington’s tolerance for scandal is an order of magnitude greater than it was during the 1980s, the two administrators with the greatest influence over public land will likely remain for the duration of Trump’s term in office.

Their fate, then, rests with public sentiment. Watt’s departure was hastened by vulgarity, but crudeness wasn’t the cause. Reagan grabbed some 60 percent of the vote in his “solid West” in 1980, but polls taken in 1981 showed westerners favoring the Democratic Party precisely because of Watt’s policies; two years later, Watt’s disapproval rating was higher in the West than nationwide. It’s a reminder that one thing hasn’t changed in Washington since the 1980s: popularity matters.

Tribal and Enviro Lawyers Take on Trump Over Bears Ears

5 Dec

The legal fight against President Donald Trump’s use of the Antiquities Act to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments is pretty straightforward. Take it from Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch. “There is nothing in the Antiquities Act that authorizes the President to modify a national monument once it’s been designated,” she says.

Suits challenging Trump’s proclamations, which cumulatively removed more than two million acres in Utah from protection on Monday, arrived swiftly. Late that day, Earthjustice—representing eight environmental organizations—teamed up with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance and the Natural Resources Defense Council to sue Trump for chopping Grand Staircase-Escalante up into three smaller monuments. On Tuesday, the five tribes represented in the Bears Ears Coalition—the Navajo, Hopi, Ute, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute—filed suit over Bears Ears getting hacked into two smaller monuments.

According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Trump was advised to shrink rather than revoke the monuments because there's a precedent for such a move. (Woodrow Wilson halved Mount Olympus National Monument in 1915.) There are, however, major differences between now and then. Wilson’s move was designed to free up timber for the World War I effort, and it was never met with legal opposition. And Congress passed a law in 1976 that’s surely familiar to Utah’s Sagebrush Rebellion-inspired delegation—the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which makes clear that the Antiquities Act, in Congress’ view at least, allows a president to designate national monuments and nothing else. 

In July, 121 law professors signed a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that laid out the Trump Administration’s “profound misunderstandings of both the nature of national monuments and the President’s legal authority under the Antiquities Act.” In the letter, the attorneys cited specific language in the Federal Land Policy and Management Act as proof. For instance, the law states that the executive branch may not “modify or revoke any withdrawal creating national monuments.” The legislative history, the lawyers wrote, shows that Congress “reserved the authority to modify and revoke withdrawals for national monuments created under the Antiquities Act.”

“This opens the door to sort of a game of monument ping-pong, where you have anti-monument presidents stripping places of protection, only to be followed by pro-monument presidents who restore and even increase them,” says Earthjustice attorney Heidi McIntosh. “That’s clearly not what Congress intended.”

Because legal arguments are rooted in the language of the Antiquities Act and Constitutional authority (the Supreme Court has repeatedly found that, under the Property Clause, Congress is the lone body that can set regulations on and dispose of public land), many of the finer points that constitute the basis of the Trump Administration’s argument may not stand up in court. Take, for instance, Zinke’s oft-repeated claim that Trump’s decision to shrink the monuments came in response to a misinterpretation of the Antiquities Act by previous presidents. “When the powers are abused to make a monument into a park, that is not within the powers of the president under the Antiquities Act to do,” Zinke told the Washington Post. Yet he’s arguing the very same act justifies Trump’s sweeping changes to existing monuments.

In his final national monuments review, formally released Tuesday but leaked months ago, Zinke said landscape-scale monuments violate the act’s requirement that a monument be the “smallest area compatible” with protection of the object. But his interpretation places the focus on what sits outside the national monuments. One would be hard-pressed to argue that the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante was incompatible with the goal of protecting its unique geology and fossil record.

This notion is also on display with Bears Ears. During a recent airplane tour of the area, Friends of Cedar Mesa Executive Director Josh Ewing pointed out dozens of canyons and mesas with a “high density of archaeological sites.” Most of them fell outside the boundaries of Trump's new, smaller Shásh Jaa' and Indian Creek national monuments. Ewing’s point was clear: the new monuments are incompatible with protecting the sacred sites designated in the original Bears Ears proclamation.

Native American Rights Fund attorney Natalie Landreth, who represents the Hopi, Zuni, and Ute Mountain Ute tribes in the Bears Ears case, says this amounts to more than just the revisions for which the Trump Administration claims there’s a precedent. “This is a full-scale revoke and replace,” she said in a conference call. “It creates two different monuments with two different names and two different boundaries. This is not, no matter what they want to call it, a boundary modification.”

Both lawsuits were filed in federal court in the District of Columbia. Others are likely to follow soon: parties like climbing advocacy group Access Fund and gear maker Patagonia have said they’ll also sue. Other monuments are likely on the chopping block, too. Zinke’s report calls for Cascade-Siskiyou, in Oregon, and Gold Butte, in Nevada, to be re-sized, and he told the Washington Post he was “fairly confident” Trump will follow his recommendations.

Trump Shrinks Bears Ears. Now What?

5 Dec

Hammond Canyon is a stunning green meadow flanked by white sandstone towers in what, just yesterday, was Bears Ears National Monument. The remote canyon, home of the Three Fingers Ruin, is an archaeological hotspot, but it does not fall within the new Indian Creek or Shash Jáa national monuments, which President Donald Trump created Monday with a disputed use of the Antiquities Act. White Canyon, Valley of the Gods, Grand Gulch, Cheesebox Canyon—pending litigation, these areas all lost protection when Trump sliced nearly 1.15 million acres off Bears Ears.

“You cherish Utah’s gleaming rivers and sweeping valleys. You take inspiration from its majestic peaks, and when you look upon its many winding canyons and glowing vistas, you marvel at the beauty of God’s creation,” Trump told a friendly audience at the Utah state capitol. “And that’s why I’m here today.”

The President then proceeded to sign executive orders opening up such vistas to mineral extraction. His proclamations chopped up Bears Ears, and replaced Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument with three smaller monuments—Grand Staircase, Escalante Canyon, and Kaiparowits. Combined, the boundaries preserve one million acres, down from 1.9 million that were protected by the original 1996 declaration. Oddly enough, in shrinking Bears Ears, protection of which was instigated by Native American leaders, Trump painted himself as a champion of American Indians.

“We’ve seen how this tragic overreach has prevented many Native Americans from having a voice on their sacred lands, where they practice their most important ancestral and religious traditions,” Trump said. The line elicited applause from the mostly-white audience.

A day prior to Trump’s announcement, I toured Bears Ears and met with Mark Maryboy, who kickstarted Utah Dine Bikeyah’s push to protect the Bears Ears region when he began surveying tribal elders about sacred sites in 2010. “Total ignorance,” he said of Trump’s approach to the national monument. “No respect for Native tribes, for Native American people across the country.” Jonathan Nez, the Navajo Nation vice president, put it even more simply in a Monday press conference after Trump’s announcement: “What happened today is a slap in the face.”

Maryboy and his Dine Bikeyah team began considering formal protection for the region about eight years ago. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke came to the decision to shrink Bears Ears after just 45 days. In shrinking the monument, Trump could negate unprecedented tribal collaboration, the first indigenous-led national monument designation, and an expression of tribal sovereignty.

In response, the five nations that supported it will respond in a fashion Utah’s tribes are quite familiar with: Lawsuits.


The creation of Bears Ears was an unprecedented act of diplomacy. When a legislative push failed in 2016, Utah Dine Bikeyah took its proposal to the elected leaders of the Navajo, Ute Mountain Ute, Hopi, Zuni, and Northern Ute tribes to advance the idea to then-President Barack Obama.

“You talk to somebody from another country, it’s complicated,” says Shaun Chapoose, an elected leader of the Northern Ute tribe and member of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. “It’s the same thing when you get this many tribes together. We have histories. Good relationships, not so good relationships. This collaboration should be celebrated.”

The tribes’ historical link to Bears Ears proved powerful enough to overcome those differences. Their ancestors lived there at least 3,000 years ago, and the desire to save an estimated 100,000 remains, artifacts, and other cultural sites united a diverse coalition of nations. When Obama designated the monument in December 2016, he included a requirement that a tribal advisory group help manage the monument. As a result, Bears Ears garnered support even among tribes that lacked a direct connection to this corner of Utah. Garon Coriz, a doctor from Richfield, Utah, and member of the Santo Domingo Pueblo tribe, grew up hunting in the Bears Ears region, and continues to climb and backpack there. “With Bears Ears ... there’s a whole cultural dimension to the landscape. It was acknowledged by the tribes, and fought for by the tribes.”

With his Monday proclamation, Trump has followed a consistent pattern in U.S. history: the federal government making a land-management promise to Indians, only to later renege. “I wasn’t surprised,” Chapoose told me in November, shortly after news broke that Trump would modify Bears Ears in some way. “The history of the relationship between the federal government and states and tribes has always been based off of lies, broken promises.”

The role of tribes in creating and managing the monument has been seemingly ignored by both Trump administration officials and Utah politicians. Orrin Hatch, the Utah senator who pushed the Trump Administration to change the monument boundaries, previously said, “The Indians, they don’t fully understand that a lot of the things that they currently take for granted on those lands.” This flies in direct opposition to Obama’s proclamation, which mentions traditional hunting, firewood harvesting, and herb gathering. (The only access curtailed was for future grazing and extraction.) Yet notions of a bureaucratic choke-hold on the land proliferated in Trump’s Monday address. 

In fact, the only regulation monument proponents sought was protection for the 100,000 ruins and artifacts in the area—which have been incessantly looted—and the ecosystem that sustained those who left the artifacts behind. “There were Anasazi ruins and artifacts all over the place,” says Mary Benally, a Utah Dine Bikeyah board member. “My family said to leave those alone—those are the people who have already been here. Leave it to them.”

Monument opponents have repeatedly been framed as disaffected locals overpowered by the federal government, but that ignores the Navajo residents who advocated for the protections. There’s precedent for this in San Juan County, which is approximately half Navajo. Tribal members, often led by Maryboy, a former county commissioner, have had to file suit over school-district measures, access to ambulances, and other county-provided services. Pervasive gerrymandering has ensured a majority-white commission for decades.

To combat Trump’s action, the tribes will do what they’ve been required to do in San Juan County for years. A series of lawsuits filed by tribes, outdoor retailers, and environmental groups in the coming days will argue in federal court that the Antiquities Act doesn’t allow a president to modify national monuments. The lawsuits won’t just seek to clarify the Antiquities Act; to those being represented, they will serve as a statement of tribal sovereignty and communities flexing greater political influence.

“No matter what happened today, history was made,” Chapoose said of Bears Ears. “Five sovereign nations worked together, and saved this land for the benefit of the American people. And that attitude of cooperation will save this monument.”

The Public-Land Bills We Can All Agree On

4 Dec

It would seem Republicans and Democrats are wholly divided on public land policy. During the 2016 campaign, the GOP platform called on Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation” to “convey certain federally controlled public lands to states,” while Democrats sought “policies and investments that will keep America’s public lands public” by prioritizing access and environmental safeguards.

But, believe it or not, some consensus exists. A pair of bills introduced this year—including one that would make it easier to transfer federal land to states—shows that Republicans and Democrats can actually agree on certain aspects of public land management.

The land transfer bill, dubbed the Advancing Conservation and Education Act, was introduced on November 6 in the House by Chris Stewart, a Utah Republican, and Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat. An identical measure in the Senate is backed by Democrat Martin Heinrich of New Mexico and Arizona Republican Jeff Flake. The bill would allow western states to ask the Department of the Interior to swap state-held trust lands surrounded by federal conservation plots for federal parcels that are easier to develop.

Here’s the issue: Western land is divvied up into a grid of state, tribal, federal, and private ownership. Occasionally state trust lands, which are designated to generate revenue for public schools, are surrounded by national parks, national monuments, or wilderness areas. Consider Arizona’s Petrified Forest National Park. Peppered throughout the park is trust land deeded to Arizona for the purpose of generating money for schools. Arizona has the legal authority to lease those parcels, but running cattle or setting up a pump jack on a 160-acre plot surrounded by stringent national park regulations would be impractical for any rancher or driller. It’s a lose-lose for the state and the feds: Arizona is unable to tap into those dollars, and the national park lacks consistent management within its borders.

“Exchange authority is needed to allow for land tenure adjustments and consolidation of remote state trust parcels in return for lands near urban areas,” the Sonoran Institute wrote in a 2011 report examining Arizona’s trust lands. “This will also allow for the preservation and protection of lands with significant conservation value.”

That authority is precisely what legislators are shooting for with this new bill. “It makes management of federal land more efficient, while providing additional revenue for state land trusts and schools,” Flake said in a statement. “These are two worthwhile goals that when combined represent a genuine opportunity for those in the West.”

Many observers consider the legislation a win-win. Conservation groups like the Wilderness Society and the Wildlife Society have endorsed it, as has the Western States Land Commissioners Association. “Through this bill, our public lands will be better protected and school kids will come out ahead,” Wilderness Society policy director Paul Spitler said in a statement.

In practice, the ACE Act would shore up fragmented management in the West. Take the Petrified Forest example: an ACE-enabled swap would permanently preserve the entirety of the park by transferring ownership of state parcels to the National Park Service. Meanwhile, Arizona could receive current Bureau of Land Management or Forest Service land that is closer to current grazing or mining allotments, thus clustering commercial use in a more efficient fashion.

While the ACE Act seeks to thread the conservation and extraction needle, a second bipartisan bill has a singular goal—streamlining recreational access on public lands. Dubbed the Recreation Not Red-Tape Act, the bill, introduced in July by Democratic Senator Ron Wyden and Republican Representative Rob Bishop (yes, “public-lands enemy number one” Rob Bishop), would promote outdoor recreation on numerous fronts. The bill instructs the BLM and the U.S. Forest Service to offer a joint permitting process, and tells the feds to team up with states to offer recreation passes that cover both federal and state properties.

Furthermore, the bill instructs the BLM and U.S. Forest Service to prioritize recreation by improving facilities in areas where recreation occurs only seasonally (think establishing ski-touring huts along trails popular only in the summer), and it would require other agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to consider how their decisions affect recreation opportunities. American Whitewater, the International Mountain Biking Association, the Outdoor Industry Association, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, and numerous other outdoor organizations support the act.

Given the diverse coalition of supporters for both bills, one would think they’d be fast-tracked for passage. But such bipartisan success has been near-impossible in recent years. Versions of both bills have surfaced in previous Congresses—the ACE land-transfer act first popped up in 2014, when it was introduced in the House by Bishop and Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio. It re-emerged in 2016 in both the House and Senate. Neither version received a vote. The same fate met Wyden’s recreation bill when he first introduced it 2016.

So there’s agreement to be had on public land management. Whether agreement can become law in this polarized Congress is another question altogether.

Trump’s Public Lands Policy Arcs Toward Extraction

3 Nov

On September 18, 1996, Orrin Hatch was livid. President Bill Clinton had just designated 1.88 million acres of southern Utah canyon country as the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Hatch had spent two decades as Utah’s senator resisting federal oversight of the public land in his state, and by his standards, Clinton’s use of the Antiquities Act was egregious.

“This is the mother of all land grabs,” Hatch said at the time. “The president may have some statutory authority to take this action, but he certainly does not have the moral authority.” On the Senate floor, he compared the designation with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Hatch was similarly incensed when another million-plus-acre monument, Bears Ears, was designated by another Democratic president, Barack Obama, in 2016. But the 83-year-old senator is approaching vindication. Last week, President Donald Trump told Hatch he plans to shrink both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante as part of a national-monuments review Trump had called for back in April. The executive order charged Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke with revisiting all 27 national monuments over 100,000 acres designated since 1996, parameters that targeted Grand Staircase and the large monuments that followed.

The decision was consistent with Trump’s embrace of unfettered fossil-fuel development and his distrust of environmental regulations and science. These values—which contradict numerous economic and scientific norms widely held today—hark back to the time when Hatch’s political career began.


From the mid-1800s until the 1960s, the open, federally owned spaces of the West were the domain of industry and agriculture. White settlement of the region was instigated by a series of Homestead Acts that promised free land to anybody who plowed, irrigated, logged, ran cattle on, or dug stuff out of it. Folks passed on the driest and most rugged terrain, like Grand Staircase-Escalante, so those parcels ended up in the hands of federal agencies like the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. Washington was still inclined to incentivize commercial activity there, so it offered leases to miners, loggers, and ranchers that were subsidized by taxpayers.  

The BLM, officially founded in 1946, was particularly oriented toward extractive use. When it was formalized, it was jokingly called the Bureau of Livestock and Mining. “The BLM was a fairly toothless organization during the early years of its existence,” says Adam Sowards, an environmental historian at the University of Idaho. “That was ensured by friendly Western politicians who didn’t want regulations to hamper livestock interests.”

A suite of environmental regulations quickly changed things. Beginning in 1964, legislation such as the Wilderness, National Environmental Policy, and Endangered Species acts lessened industry’s chokehold on public land. In October 1976, Congress passed the Federal Land Management and Policy Act that for the first time mandated public land—overgrazed BLM plots in particular—be managed to promote not just extraction and ranching, but also recreation and conservation.

A month later, Orrin Hatch was elected to the Senate.

From there, he dove headfirst into the Sagebrush Rebellion ethos of the 1970s and '80s, which arose in direct opposition to legislation like FLPMA. He sponsored legislation, in 1979, that called on the transfer of federal land to state ownership. (It went nowhere). Hatch’s view that federal oversight shouldn’t hamper industry clashed with Clinton’s Grand Staircase designation. A state analysis in 1997 determined the value of energy reserves in the monument at over $345 billion in 2016 dollars. To Hatch, the stroke of a president’s pen had scuttled that economic opportunity.


Twenty years later, Trump’s candidacy was predicated on anxiety-ridden nostalgia that emanates in some corners of the West. Before Hatch joined the Senate, public land was a place where an American could work hard and make some money, and the government largely stayed out of the way—except by providing those discounted leases. But 40 years of climate science, ecology, and reckoning with tribal relations has given us a more complex understanding of the landscapes people hold dear. As Trump’s election shows, some long for the old days when they didn’t have to consider endangered species, climate change, and water contamination.

“What’s culminating in part is 40 years of frustration from Western conservatives,” Sowards, of the University of Idaho, says. “They’ve lost a dominant voice in defining policies that govern public lands. The strategy to cut back the monuments, I think, is a broader symbol of being unhappy with the direction of environmental policies. The Wilderness Act, NEPA, FLPMA—all of these things seemed to create a new set of priorities.”

Hatch capitalized on that frustration to earn Trump’s loyalty. As the Deseret News reported, Hatch quickly became one of Trump’s most important advisors. Five days after Trump was inaugurated, Hatch offered up two suggestions in their first in-person meeting: Nominate Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and chop the monuments. When Trump first announced the monument review, in April, he did so with Utah dignitaries by his side.

"I also want to recognize Senator Orrin Hatch, who, believe me, he’s tough," Trump said that day. "He would call me and say, ‘You gotta do this.’ Is that right, Orrin? He doesn’t stop. He doesn’t give up."

Trump is scheduled to visit Utah in early December to deliver the official Bears Ears and Grand Staircase verdict. It appears that, after his Sagebrush Rebellion apprehension simmered for 40 years, Hatch has finally found another rebel—one who prioritizes the old-school, industry-first ethos of a century ago.   


In September, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke gave a speech at the conservative Heritage Foundation in which he laid out the Trump Administration’s energy priorities. “This administration and the president believe in American energy dominance,” he told the audience. “Our goal is an America that is the strongest energy superpower this world has ever known.”

One of the Trump’s former scientific advisors doesn’t see it that way. “‘Energy dominance’ means they don’t understand the real world,” says Daniel Kammen, who leads the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. “I can’t speak to their thinking, but it doesn’t stand up to even rudimentary market analysis.”

Kammen studies energy systems around the world, and says nations are prioritizing renewable energy, natural gas, and energy efficiency. Trump, meanwhile, is focusing almost exclusively on easing regulations for coal (for which there is little demand), oil, and gas.

What does modern energy dominance look like? Take China. “They’re investing an extra $360 billion in renewable energy,” Kammen says. “They’re the largest manufacturer of solar panels and battery powered vehicles, and they’re phasing out internal-combustion vehicles entirely.” Contrasting with Trump’s America-first approach is China’s plan to finance clean-energy projects across Asia. Since Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, China has sought to dictate energy policy among nations who adhere to the conclusions of climate scientists. Trump’s embrace of fossil fuels, on the other hand, is stoked by his cabinet’s disregard for climate change.

Trump’s cabinet has largely equated fossil fuel development to more jobs, particularly in rural areas like the West. In his speech to the Heritage Foundation, Zinke emphasized a smoother permitting process for energy projects on federal land. “With President Trump in office, we’re looking at how we can be a better business partner with industry, and we’re finding ways to get to ‘Yes’ without sacrificing our stewardship responsibilities,” he told the audience.

His backlog of frustrated miners and drillers may be nonexistent, though. In 2016, BLM had leased 27.2 million acres to oil and gas firms—53 percent of them sat idle. A global oil glut means drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unlikely to yield the $1 billion GOP lawmakers hope for.

The Administration's fossil-fuel ideology showed up again in a recent review of Department of the Interior policies that supposedly “potentially burden domestic energy.” The report outlines reasoning for decisions such as canceling an Obama-era moratorium on new coal leases, but it doesn’t discuss cultivation of the fastest-growing energy sectors—renewables. Boosting American wind and solar capacity is not mentioned, and the 43-page report features just one paragraph about climate change. A leaked draft of Interior’s five-year strategy mentions climate change not once.

The pro-energy mandate has spread to other agencies that oversee public land. The Forest Service, for instance, this week announced it plans to end Obama's ban on new uranium mining leases in the forests around Grand Canyon National Park. Kammen contrasts this stance with the way Kenya and Morocco use their public land to build clean-energy systems in conjunction with local universities. Those arrangements support research and development while creating jobs.

The Interior’s extraction bent was apparent when Zinke reviewed the national monuments. The report often cited “traditional use,” a term Zinke equated with mineral extraction and ranching. In the Grand Staircase assessment, he noted the “several billion tons of coal and large oil deposits” contained within the monument, and wrote that “the boundary should be revised.”

When Trump decided to act on that suggestion, he gave Hatch a call.

Finally, a PAC for Public Lands

26 Oct

For the past nine months, Matt Lee-Ashley has grown increasingly bewildered by President Donald Trump’s onslaught against climate agreements, water-quality protections, and other environmental safeguards. But his breaking point came when the Interior Department—Lee-Ashley’s former employer—suggested scaling back the national monuments

“It’s been a longstanding assumption that when a place is protected as a national park or wilderness area or national monument, a promise is made that future administrations and future Congresses will protect the place,” Lee-Ashley says. “But that promise is at risk right now.”

In response to the monuments review, Lee-Ashley, who is currently a senior director at the Center for American Progress, Adrian Saenz, a former staffer in the Obama White House, and Lucinda Guinn, the vice president for campaigns at Emily's List, have started the Democratic Conservation Alliance, a political action committee (PAC) that will fund candidates who prioritize conserving federal land. Since Trump’s election, a groundswell of support for public land protection has emerged. DCA hopes to monetize that support to drive change in Congress during what could be a pivotal midterm election next year. 

The Interior’s review of national monuments rankled Lee-Ashley, but it also served as a proof of concept: the process generated 2.8 million public comments, with the vast majority in favor of retaining the monuments as they are. “What we have on our side is people power,” says Lee-Ashley. “The goal here is to help connect regular citizens and voters who are out hiking and hunting and fishing to that political process.”

That political process happens to rely heavily on money. Extraction-industry PACs spent $16.6 million during the 2016 election cycle. Environmental and conservation groups contributed less than a tenth of that. Lobbying expenditures are similarly disparate. ExxonMobil spent nearly $12 million to influence legislation in 2016. Patagonia, arguably the most politically active outdoor recreation firm, spent just $90,000.  

Ponying up cash like that tends to pay off. Crude oil production in the U.S. is at levels not seen since the 1970s, natural gas production hit an all-time high in 2015, and a lot of those rigs are on public land. Meantime, most sweeping gains in conservation have come courtesy of protections created via the Antiquities Act, which allows a president to unilaterally create a national monument.

But public lands also generate huge amounts of revenue, and ire over Trump’s public land policies is beginning to dovetail with efforts to turn proof of that economic clout into political capital. Research from groups like Headwaters Economics shows that the oh-so-controversial national monuments help the economy of surrounding counties. And after Utah politicians called for federal land to be sold back to the state and for Bears Ears National Monument to be rescinded, the $45-million Outdoor Retailer, the flagship trade show of the outdoor recreation industry, bailed for Colorado. 

Politicians would do well to take note, which is where DCA hopes to come in. Since corporate lobbying and campaign finance among public land stakeholders is so lopsided on the national scale, the PAC’s leaders hope to make a difference through targeted campaigns at the grassroots level. Lee-Ashley says the board hasn’t yet picked races to target or candidates to fund, but it will exclusively assist Democrats in 2018. The Republican party has offered public-land advocates little to cheer: the GOP’s 2016 platform endorsed the transfer of federal land to states, and former Utah representative Jason Chaffetz introduced legislation that sought to sell off 3.3 million acres of “excess” public land.

But by targeting Democratic candidates alone, DCA has the potential to alienate some of the strongest advocates for conservation and federal-land access out there: hunters, many of whom are politically conservative. Chaffetz, after all, pulled his bill after being castigated by hunters. He even announced the reversal an Instagram post donning camo and hunter’s orange.

Lee-Ashley hopes that passion for public lands as an issue that might flip disaffected Republican voters. “There are conservation voters out there, and many are sportsmen,” he says. “We’re hopeful that voters from across the political spectrum will support the PAC.”