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Tok, Alaska [Diego Delso]
Some people see America’s land as an economic resource ripe for exploitation. This view is an extension of the Manifest Destiny concept that propelled early settlers westward: the diverse natural landscape that stretches sea-to-sea is a mother lode of natural resources that beckons to be used to generate personal wealth.
Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
Others, influenced by the transcendentalism of the early 20th century and the emergence of environmental sciences in the late 20th century, see the American landscape as a trust to be preserved, not exploited, and passed on unchanged to future generations.
Striking a reasonable balance between these positions has never been easy politically. Most presidents have tried to have the cake, but eat a bit of it, too.
President Richard Nixon in the Oval Office.
Past Republican presidents have been environmental champions. Richard Nixon signed the Endangered Species Act in 1973. Approximately 1,650 endangered species (including birds, insects, fish, reptiles, mammals, crustaceans, flowers, grasses and trees) are now protected from extinction under this law.
Theodore Roosevelt, 1910.
Theodore Roosevelt signed the Antiquities Act in 1906. This law allows the president to create national monuments from federal lands to protect significant natural, cultural or scientific features.
Monument lands cannot be used for new fossil fuel extractions. This law has been the primary vehicle for preserving lands sacred to Native Americans. It has been used more than a hundred times since its passage.
Devil’s Tower, WY, America’s first national monument. [hakkun]
President Trump has made two recent decisions which demonstrate that a government run by and beholden to industry groups will jettison environmental protections in the name of securing industry profits. Rules changes to both the Endangered Species Act and the Antiquities Act threaten to bring long-lasting environmental damage.
Painting of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, California, by William Keith. 1908.
The grass-roots environmental movement began here, in the Hetch Hetchy Valley of California, in the early 1900s. This valley is located in the northwestern part of Yosemite National Park, about 167 miles east of San Francisco. The valley, drained by the Tuolumne River, was the home of a tribe of Native American hunter-gatherers for six thousand years. Its name comes from a Native American word that means “edible grasses.”
Proposed dam site, Hetch Hetchy Valley.
The city of San Francisco proposed building a dam across the Tuolumne River in the early 1900s to create a reservoir that could supply the growing city with water. The water would flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley, turning it into a lake-like reservoir. Because the valley lay in Yosemite National Park, Congress was called upon to decide whether to allow construction of the dam or preserve the valley.
Photos of the Hetch Hetchy Valley, before and after the dam construction.
The dam construction proposal became a national issue and Congress was flooded with citizen and group petitions on both sides of the question. The debate exposed the same rift in philosophical views of the environment that we see today: should the natural environment be used to benefit society or should the environment be protected from human interference?
President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist, John Muir, on Glacier Point, Yosemite Valley, California, 1903.
San Francisco citizens argued that the dam would create a water reservoir that would enhance the health of its growing community. Preservationists, led by the famous naturalist, John Muir, argued that nature should be preserved and enjoyed for its natural beauty, and not be exploited for its resources.
Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, 2014. [Blake Carroll]
In the end, Congress approved the construction of the dam across the Tuolumne River and the Hetch Hetchy Valley was flooded. The reservoir system was completed in 1934 and water began to flow from the river to San Francisco. While the preservationists failed to save the Hetch Hetchy Valley, the contentious public debate over the dam project gave birth to the American environmental movement.
Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. [John Fowler]
Political tensions remain between those who wish to exploit America’s natural resources for economic gain and the preservationists, who feel a duty to protect the natural environment for future generations. The Trump administration’s recent assaults on two bedrock conservation laws signal the dominance of economic considerations. Recent gains in environmental protections are under threat.
Indian Creek in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah.
President Trump ordered the Department of the Interior to review 27 national monuments established under the Antiquities Act. President Trump said he believes his predecessors overstepped their authority and he wishes to roll back these monument designations.
Cedar Mesa Monument in Bears Ears National Monument, Utah.
Following the Interior Department’s review, President Trump reduced the land area of two of Utah’s largest national monuments: Bears Ears was shrunk by 85% ; and Grand Staircase-Escalante was reduced by 50%. Land released from protected status will be cleared of brush and trees and made available for roads, utility lines and fossil fuel extraction.
Environmentalists warn that these changes will place Native American archaeological and cultural sites and fragile natural wonders at great risk.
Chinle Badlands, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.
Leaked Interior Department documents show that the department evaluated these national monuments using carefully selected evidence to obtain a pre-determined outcome. Data showing increases in tourism brought about by the monument designations and increases in archeological finds on the lands were rejected. The department instead placed heavy emphasis on the potential economic value of logging, ranching and energy development that could proceed at the monument sites if they were delisted or if their size were reduced.
Willow Creek, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. [John Fowler]
Native American groups with historical ties to monument lands have not been consulted. Other monument reductions are expected during the remainder of President Trump’s term in office.
Metate Arch in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. [John Fowler]
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Grizzly bear, wearing monitoring collar, with cub.
The Trump administration has also announced new rules for enforcement of the Endangered Species Act, the law intended to prevent the extinction of vulnerable plants and animals and increase their numbers by safeguarding their natural habitats.
The Act requires federal agencies to ensure that actions which they authorize, fund or implement will not jeopardize any protected species or its habitat. The rules change the way in which those determinations are made.
Pair of whooping cranes, Indiana.
The Endangered Species Act is credited with saving 227 species from extinction, including the bald eagle, the grizzly bear, the American crocodile, the whooping crane, the gray wolf, the shortnose sturgeon, the peregrine falcon, the humpback whale, the Tennessee purple coneflower and the Florida manatee.
Peregrine Falcon, California.[Becky Matsubara]
Under the old rules, determinations about species protections were to be made based solely on science, without regard to possible economic impacts such as potential revenues. The old rules also required a long-term view, which meant that climate change would be a part of the species protection decision-making process.
Polar bear and cub. [AWeith]
Under the new Trump administration rules, long-term climate change will no longer play a role in decisions to protect threatened species. Short-term analysis will prevail. This change poses an immediate threat to polar bears and seals that are losing sea ice; whooping cranes whose migration patterns are shifting due to climate change; and beluga whales, who are modifying their diving patterns in search of food.
The former industry lobbyists and executives who now dominate the Trump administration are rewarding their old employers with these environmental rules changes. Court challenges to these Trump administration actions are pending but it is difficult to predict their chances of obtaining a reversal of these administrative rules changes. Reversing the monument reductions will prove especially difficult because the Antiquities Act vests so much designation discretion in the president.
While many of President Trump’s decisions can be reversed once he is no longer in office, others, such as these environmental roll-backs, create a legacy of lasting damage that cannot be undone.
We will live with the consequences, but we will do so in a more fragile, less biodiverse world.
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