The Frontal Assault on Environmental Laws

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans    In Louisiana we’re losing coastal wetlands and acres of land every day.  A columnist in the Times-Picayune noted flatly, “…few states depend more on environmental regulations for survival than Louisiana.  We’ve only been able to slow the destruction of our remaining coastal wetlands thanks to regulations under the Clean Water Act.”  Talking to Rob Davidson, the Sheridan, Wyoming based executive director of Council for the Big Horn Range on Wade’s World, he repeatedly made the same point about NEPA, the National Environmental Policy Act.

Scot Pruitt may be gone as director of the Environmental Protection Agency, but that doesn’t mean all will be well in the world, and we are once again in safe hands.  His replacement was a former lobbyist.  The style may be different and the sleight of hand subtler, but the substance will be the same, and it’s a frontal assault.

The Interior Department in its efforts to open up more federal lands and forests is being duplicitous.  Their claim is that the law needs to be “modernized” because it was passed almost fifty years ago.  What they are really saying is that they want the law to be commercialized, not modernized.  They want to make it easier for road building to access areas now off the grid.  They want to turn the red-light green for any and all extraction industries.  As Davidson argued on the radio, extraction from coal companies and the oil and gas industry is the critical issue in Wyoming.  This is especially true not only about land, but utilization and protection of the scarcest commodity in the west:  water.

Davidson could count some coups in the early work of the Council for the Big Horn Range.  They had managed to block an effort by the Interior bean counters to close one of the US Forest Service offices looking after the four million acres of the Big Horn Mountains’ footprint.

When he talked about the dangers in road building and confronting the extraction industry, which is famously powerful in Cheyenne especially when the legislature is in session, the task seemed not simply difficult but daunting.  Their main tactical advantage was what I have always referred to as the “volunteer army,” and in this case when it involves retired Forest Service workers and oil pros like himself, who know the language and where some of the bodies are buried, that can be powerful.  Nonetheless, they are often a rearguard force at odds with a phalanx of lawyers and high-priced experts and consultants hired by industry to run them through endless hearings, and that’s just trying to get the matter up to the point that there might be a NEPA challenge and a potential environmental impact statement.

Add all of that to the fact that for endangered species and other land utilization schemes by commercial interests, the Interior Department in its “modernization” effort want to introduce economics as a factor to consider.  In plain language that means they want to say that if it cost too much to save the sage grouse for example, then let it go extinct or if they can argue sufficient economic benefit, then forests and wilderness benefits to all the public can then be scrapped.

Against these long odds, we need to not only keep any restraining law and its regulations in place, but we also need to do what we can to support groups like the Council of the Big Horn Range and people like Rob Davidson, whose bodies and organizations are in the road trying to block environmental devastation for the rest of us nearby or a world away.