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Bush Administration: Slash and Burn on The Way Out of Office?
As the end of the Bush administration nears, it's natural for many to look back on the past eight years and try to assess the sum impact. In the arena of public lands and natural resources, it's relatively easy to castigate the outgoing administration for its seemingly heavy hand on that landscape.
With that said, let's not overlook that most administrations manage to irritate some constituent group at some (or many) time during their tenure. Certainly the Clinton administration alienated many multiple-use proponents for the way it created the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, a 1.9-million-acre preserve President Clinton created with a few strokes of his pen...from a seat on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, not in Utah where the monument lies.
And yet, President Bush, who campaigned eight long years ago as a "uniter, not a divider," and promised "compassionate conservatism," is heading out the door seemingly employing a slash and burn exit strategy when it comes to public-lands management. And in the arid West, where the lands take an inordinate amount of time to heal and where there are questionable energy reserves, some of these decisions are perplexing in terms of being in the nation's best interests.
In recent weeks the administration, through the Interior and Energy departments and their underlings, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, has:
* Decided to place 360,000 U.S. Bureau of Land Management acres in Utah up for oil and gas leasing, no matter that an estimated 50,000 of those acres sidle up to either Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, or Dinosaur National Monument. And no, the BLM didn't consult with the Park Service before deciding which acres to lease, although there have been talks in recent days to resolve this mess.
* Announced rules for oil-shale production that purportedly could some day wind up producing 800 billion barrels of oil from the West, never mind that the recovery technology remains to be perfected, requires lots of energy and water, and, in Canada, has proven incredibly dirty and destructive to the landscape.
"In announcing its decision, the Bureau of Land Management was quick to note that all national parks, wilderness areas and wilderness study areas would remain off-limits to geothermal exploration," says Amy McNamara of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
"However, in Yellowstone’s unique case, the BLM didn’t extend protection far enough. The agency ignored reasonable requests from Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other groups to include a small 15-mile buffer around the park to protect this largest concentration of geothermal features in the world," she adds.
“These corridors, along with the Bush administration’s last-minute oil and gas leasing of land near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and the EPA proposal for reduction in air quality standards at these same parks, will irreparably harm the tremendous beauty of the red rock canyon country around Moab that attracts millions to southeast Utah each year,” said Phil Brueck, a member of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
“The government is making these decisions in the waning moments of their power with little thought to the wildlands they’ll ruin, the national parks and monuments they’ll damage, the expansive views they’ll degrade or the communities they’ll fracture," he adds. "It also troubles me that because these decisions are happening so fast and are mired in so much bureaucracy, that the American public isn't even aware of the thieves stealing their crown jewels!"
* Announced, in the wake of in-house opposition, a weakening of air-quality regulations that could lead to further degradation of air quality in Great Smoky Mountains and other national parks.
According to the Washington Post, The Environmental Protection Agency is finalizing new air-quality rules that would make it easier to build coal-fired power plants, oil refineries and other major polluters near national parks and wilderness areas, even though half of the EPA's 10 regional administrators formally dissented from the decision and four others criticized the move in writing.
And let's not overlook the administration's weakening of the Endangered Species Act requirements, or the federal court's recent ruling that the Interior Department granted off-shore drilling rights to Royal Dutch Shell without, ahem, closely following requirements set down by the National Environmental Policy Act.
Also impacting the public lands experience are the administration's push to allowed concealed weapons in national parks, its decided favoring of off-road vehicle enthusiasts and the extractive industries when it came time for the BLM to update six resource management plans in Utah, the decision to overlook science and public opinion on the Yellowstone snowmobile issue, and the administration's fiscal drain on not just the National Park Service but also the U.S. Forest Service.
If you want to stay on top of the administration's latest parting gifts, check this site regularly.
Here's what the Denver Post had to say about the president's exit strategy:
This last-minute rush to regulate is, we fear, a continuation of an unwelcome trend. The Bush White House complained mightily about having to deal with rules the Clinton administration passed in its waning hours.
Now the Bushies are doing the same thing. President-elect Barack Obama is going to have enough to deal with in addressing the country's troubled economy and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — undoing ill-conceived rules rammed through at the last moment should not be among the items on his to-do list.
Unfortunately, there are several recent Bush administration actions that fit in that category.
Now, presidents certainly can do what they want, and this president hasn't made any secret of his oilman roots or his catering to the extractive industries. Just the same, some think his parting gifts to the nation are a bit much. In fact, while President Reagan saw the Sagebrush Rebellion kindled under his watch and President George H.W. Bush saw the rise of the Wise Use Movement, some believe what President Bush is doing to the environment is, in a word, historic.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has kept a close tally on the Bush administration's public-lands actions. Indeed, PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch isn't terribly surprised by these parting shots at the environment. But he is concerned about the ramifications they'll deliver if not altered.
"To the extent that the Bush policies (both midnight regulations and the entire eight years of deregulation) have hastened or worsened climate changes, the effects are profound and lasting," says Mr. Ruch. "From another perspective, even where some of the changes are localized, the cumulative effect becomes significant and national. For example, the Endangered Species Act regs will allow highway, military and other federal projects to proceed with less regard for wildlife (listed or not) effects. These negative consequences may affect local animal and plant populations, but when multiplied by project after project, year after year it, too becomes, serious and national in scope."
At the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees, Bill Wade shares PEER's concerns.
"In my judgment, a number of (the Bush administration decisions) are very grave, in terms of their impacts to the resources and visitor enjoyment in national parks. Certainly the guns issue is one and the roll-back of the air quality standards is another," said Mr. Wade, who chairs the group's executive council. "The snowmobile issue is important because of its precedent-setting implications, in addition to the impacts in the world’s national parks."
At the National Park Conservation Association's Southwest Region Office in Salt Lake City, Program Manager Karen Hevel-Mingo is straightforward when she says that, "what’s happened under the Bush administration is fairly unprecedented."
And while President Bush once portrayed himself as a "uniter, not a divider," in fact during the past eight years his policies and actions have very clearly divided Americans on many things, including public lands management, she said.
"Things have been very polarized in this country. And I think when you have one side that has sort of refused to even look at that middle ground, and that’s your government, then I think it really does polarize your citizenry,” said Ms. Hevel-Mingo.
NPCA, understandably, is particularly disappointed with the administration's energy exploration plans for Utah.
“There are some places where it’s appropriate for energy development, there are some places where it just is not appropriate," said Ms. Hevel-Mingo. "For example, if you look at Utah, the BLM already has a lot of oil and gas leases that are out there and have never been put into production. So I don’t think opening up more lease parcels, some of which sit on the boundaries of a national park, are an appropriate place for energy development. We’ve set those places aside because they’re unique.”
Of course, the trick for the Obama administration is not to swing too far left and, in doing so, do a similar job of alienating Americans. What's needed, quite a few folks believe, is some moderation coming out of Washington, D.C.
"I agree with you about 'extremes' and 'moderately' may be applicable to the way we should manage some resources and some public lands, but we simply cannot 'moderately' manage the country’s national parks," points out Mr. Wade.
At PEER, Mr. Ruch is hopeful the political landscape is changing: "Over time, what is the political 'center' shifts. The younger generation is much more environmentally conscious than its predecessors. In addition, concerns about shortages of usable water, desertification, changing weather patterns, etc. are starting to occupy more of the public's mind. And, these issues are globalizing, moving beyond domestic dynamics. As a consequence, attitudes are changing past old fault lines on what constitutes proper 'management' of natural resources and the human footprint on the planet."
Of course, in light of the country's dire economic condition and the challenge presented by climate change, how many resources will the incoming administration be able to marshal to address public lands issues?
"As a practical matter," believes Mr. Ruch, "the Obama administration will likely place a lower priority on the Interior suite of concerns and more on climate change and the EPA suite. So, issues like mining reform may be shelved to win support of Western Democrats on issues like greenhouse gas regulations."
Now, whether the Obama administration will be able to blunt some of President Bush's outgoing orders is difficult to tell.
"As with the Bush administration, the Obama administration should change what it needs to in order to accomplish its objectives," said Mr. Ruch. "One key difference, is that the Obama administration may be acting with much higher congressional and public support than the current administration."