NASA charts the record temperatures of May 2014
A Rare Win
The summer of 2014 begins with a rare bit of encouraging news on the environment, coming from an unlikely source: that bastion of conservative casuistry, the U.S. Supreme Court. SCOTUS has largely affirmed that yes, the Clean Air Act is still a thing, it is still settled law, and yes, President Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency may implement the law by regulating greenhouse gas emissions (well, some emissions – the Court had to have a way to make it complicated). Seven of the nine justices ruled that the EPA has the power to force big polluters to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide by using new technology. Though a separate 5-4 vote placed limits on how the EPA can expand upon that power to cut emissions from other facilities, the agency and most environmentalists hailed a badly needed victory. Happy Days are here again!
Hunting Big Game
However, while the Clean Air Act is touted in the headlines of the moment, another ongoing environmental story has deeply disturbing implications for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Over the past weekend, just before SCOTUS’ ruling, PRI’s Living on Earth broadcast a rundown of less-well-known recent news. Environmental news publisher Peter Dykstra alerted listeners to the investigative journalism undertaken by Al Jazeera America. Among the fledgling cable news network’s many recent stories on the environment, he singled out the importance of a story by Jamie Tarabay, an Australian-born senior staff writer.
Let us hope many listeners were curious enough to read the story. Entitled “Big Oil and Big Guns: Not so strange bedfellows,” it discloses a massive injection of cash by the wealthiest parts of the oil and gas lobby into the coffers of the obsessive (and already well-financed and immensely influential) gun lobby. The rich get richer, indeed.
Oil and gas companies give hundreds of millions of dollars to political campaigns and lobbying groups to further their interests in Congress. In 2012 and 2013 oil and gas spent a combined $24 million on contributions to (mostly Republican) lawmakers in the Senate and the House. In 2013, OpenSecrets.org reported, the oil-and-gas industry spent almost $145 million on lobbying.
Oil and gas donations to advocacy groups relate to issues of oil and gas exploration on land and offshore, climate change, tax increases and approving the Keystone pipeline. But recent research by liberal groups suggests that millions of dollars have also been going to gun groups, such as the National Rifle Association (NRA) and Safari Club International (SCI), for purposes that seemingly contradict the platforms those groups purport to represent.
The NRA? For anyone who favors virtually any kind of limitation at all on what owners may do with their many guns, the NRA bears the mark of the beast. Now they are an ally of Big Oil, despite their much-vaunted love of hunting (something made more difficult when oil and gas expansion eliminates animals to hunt)?
According to the report [released in April by the Center for American Progress], investments in sportsmen’s associations enable energy companies to influence NRA and SCI lobbying efforts, particularly in areas such as privatizing public lands, expanding drilling activities in national forests and fighting “the nation’s most effective wildlife recovery law, the Endangered Species Act.”
But why these Strange bedfellows?
On some of these issues, the two groups share overlapping interests. SCI and the NRA have battled the inclusion of certain animals on the endangered species list because of the restrictions that would place on hunting those animals, as well as for the limitations it would place on the habitats where they still exist, which affects hunters’ ability to target other game.
Restrictions on any land exploration is something the oil and gas industry has long opposed, says Jessica Goad from the Center for Western Priorities, a left-leaning organization based in Denver. “We’ve seen that in their opposition to national monuments, national parks, they don’t like things being off-limits.”
There are people who oppose national parks?
But why would gun groups partner with oil and gas to privatize public land? If the oil companies win access, most of these lands might ultimately become areas of exploration for energy development and less likely places for hunting wildlife.
So at a time when the Obama administration is largely stymied on two of biggest items on the second term agenda – gun control and (some of his proposals for) the environment – the NRA finds new friends and moves from strength to strength.
The NRA, which also does not publicly disclose the details of its corporate contributions, is reported to have received donations from at least six oil and gas companies totaling $1.3 million to $5.6 million in 2012, according to CAP.
Wealth, power, and secrecy: the story sounds like an episode of House of Cards.
“The oil and gas industry brings big money to the table to help NRA and SCI stop gun safety efforts, and, in return, industry gets a powerful ally to battle against protections for public lands and wildlife in energy-producing regions” . . .
“For the most part, this all happens out of view of the groups’ members, in an inside-the-Beltway game of political donations, revolving doors and back-scratching. Teddy Roosevelt would be rolling over right now if he knew that the NRA and SCI were helping the oil and gas industry roll back protections for the wildlife habitat he fought so hard to protect.”
Out of the public view, were it not for the dogged research of non-profit organizations and journalists.
While elite and opaque interests use money to manipulate the political process inside the Beltway and beyond, there is a popular and very audible right-wing crusade against the environment, and again, the ESA in particular. Why? In 1973 Congress passed and Republican President Richard Nixon signed the law, as the ESA website puts it, because they “recognized that our rich natural heritage is of ‘esthetic, ecological, educational, recreational, and scientific value to our Nation and its people.’” Forty-one years ago, both parties seemed to care “that many of our nation’s native plants and animals were in danger of becoming extinct.”
So, what is the super-scary mission of this federal law?
The purpose of the ESA is to protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend. It is administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Commerce Department’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS). . .
Under the ESA, species may be listed as either endangered or threatened. “Endangered” means a species is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range. “Threatened” means a species is likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future. All species of plants and animals, except pest insects, are eligible for listing as endangered or threatened.
Too complicated? The website helpfully offers a brief, super-inclusive video:
America’s worst idea?
If ESA does not sound scary or outrageously statist to you, you’re not a Republican (or a radical libertarian or Tea Party member). Opposition to ESA is not just a product of Big Oil and the gun lobby, it is also a grassroots movement to prevent the creation of new national parks.
To get a sense of how and why many Americans have turned with a vengeance on the U.S. National Park system, once widely celebrated as “America’s Best Idea,” consider two examples reported in very different publications.
On the conservative website WatchDog Wire, a self-described “fire-breathing conservative journalist” detailed the backlash against a proposed national park in western Colorado. Since 2011 opinions have divided over the conversion of Colorado National monument into Rim Rock Canyons National Park, and if that sounds like a modest distinction (monument vs. park) or perhaps an innocuous topic of debate, folks in the area have certainly found agitation.
This spring a newly formed Friends of the Colorado National Monument began publishing on their website and Facebook page attacks on the planned new national park.
“The group seems to be riding the momentum of a growing distrust for government agencies in the West. They also have gained traction from recent revelations that show supporters of the national park may be basing their arguments on hopes, as opposed to facts and real experiences at other national monuments turned national parks.
Opposition is based on the feeling that national parks are subject to more rigorous environmental rules that block further development “and are controlled solely by federal entities and not local interests.”
Opponents of federal regulations and restrictions to commercial and private activity in western Colorado have, perhaps inadvertently, timed their campaign well, riding on a wave of mistrust for the Bureau of Land Management, National Parks Service, and government agencies in general. National parks, once thought to be the crowning jewels of the West, are gaining the reputation of restrictive, over-regulated behemoths unfriendly to development, especially in the energy sector.
While conservatives in Colorado battle against the National Park Leviathon, a similar battle rages on the opposite side of the continent, and is described in the pages of the New York Times. When a wealthy family in Maine sought to donate land for the creation of a Katahdin Woods and Waters National Park, their neighbors fiercely resisted. How to overcome opposition? By offering to open 40,000 acres of land and removing “no hunting” signs. Though willing to compromise in such a major way, the family insists that most of their land donation will be for a national park, and not merely a national monument or national forest.
“National parks are the gold standard for tourism, for conservation and for recreation,” Mr. St. Clair said as he drove through the woods and pointed out the land’s attributes: its expanse of forest, the granite outcroppings, the abundance of wildlife. And, he said, a full-fledged national park is the only “brand” that could accomplish one of their goals: to draw enough tourists to help revitalize the local economy.
But opposition runs deep. Beyond the years of resentment toward Ms. Quimby for closing her lands, there is a towering distrust here of the federal government. Many residents worry, contrary to Mr. St. Clair’s assurances, that the government would seize control of local decision making, take over even more land, ban hunting and snowmobiling, and ruin the forest products industry by restricting air emissions from the mills and limiting the timber supply.
“If a park comes in, it would shut the mills,” said Mark Marston, a selectman in East Millinocket and vice chairman of the Maine Woods Coalition, which opposes the park. “People in Millinocket don’t make what they used to, but at least they’re working, which is better than seasonal jobs at a park.”
And like many others, he doubted that these woods hold any special attraction for tourists. When visitors stay at his nearby camp, which has swimming and boating, he said, “They say to me: ‘But what is there to do? The bugs are bad and my cellphone doesn’t work.’ ”
You might guess that the political leadership in Maine would be more moderate than in parts of a western state. Think again:
Senator Susan Collins, a Republican who has long opposed a park, said that Mr. St. Clair’s approach was a “sea change” from his mother’s because he was listening to people. She still opposes a park for fear of harming the forest products industry but says she has “not shut the door.”
“Lucas has made real progress on the recreational issues,” she said, “but there’s still a long way to go on the economic issues and on the philosophical question of federal ownership of the land.”
Senator Angus King, an independent, described himself as “opposed and skeptical but listening.”
“There is more receptivity to the idea because of the tough economic circumstances in that area,” Mr. King said. To change his mind, he said, he would “need to be convinced that the benefits of economic development would outweigh the costs of losing control over a resource” to the federal government.
The history of American conservationism and environmentalism belies these assertions. National parks are not to be evaluated solely by narrow economic criteria or how neatly they illustrate the tenets of some scribbling by Ayn Rand.
What would Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir think of today’s GOP?
Yosemite National Park
As Americans bicker over domestic environmental policy, the global crisis of climate change continues gathering momentum. Reports have shown that “May was the globe’s warmest in 134 years of records, besting the previous high mark established in 2010.” Americans fail to confront the facts, partly because modern civilization has shielded us from the sensory perception of environmental change (pollution is largely out of sight, out of mind). The triviality of American environmental discourse becomes more intolerable with each new definitive demonstration that the planet is in danger.
With Republicans philosophically and/or financially committed to a crusade against all forms of legitimacy for the federal government, even preserving the national parks and wildlife system, the EPA and the laws that we already have – to say nothing of the bold new ventures we sorely need – requires a Democratic Party that rediscovers its spine, and its soul.