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While we were not watching…

By Brenda Barrett April 1, 2020
Bureau of Land Management File Photograph

Understandably the country and the world’s attention has been riveted on the inexorable spread of the Coronavirus, but what else might be happening when our attention is distracted?

As is so often the case, the United States’ National Parks is one topic that has attracted public scrutiny.  As reported in a recent podcast (March 22, 2020) by the National Parks Traveler,  the current administration’s management of U.S. parks seems emblematic of the overall federal government response to this national emergency.

Even before the pandemic, the long-standing authority of park superintendents to decide when to open and close facilities had been rescinded. Park managers were forced to submit any closure requests up through a multilevel chain of command. Now, confronted by this crisis, Dr. John Freemuth, a former park ranger and Environment and Public Lands Chair at Boise State University, opined that the response of the NPS and other land managing agencies appears to be driven by a sloppy “ ad hoc, unfocused centralized policy” not reflective of conditions on the ground.

The administration’s widely touted announcement that all national Parks would now be free has only made things worse. All experts on the podcast agreed that giving superintendents the authority on how to manage parks was critical. More recently, the Department of Interior has backed off on some of the restrictions on closing facilities and even whole parks. However, the issue is still uncertain as this developing story (March 26, 2020) about the status Grand Canyon National Park illustrates.

Also – no surprise – while all this has been going on, the Wall Street Journal (March 25 2020) reported that the Environmental Protection Agency is proposing to waive compliance requirements and deadlines for a range of industries including oil refineries, water utilities, and sewer plants. A close reading of the article reveals that the waivers revolve around the current requirements for industries to switch to less polluting fuel oil, which is required in the summer season. Waivers according to the American Petroleum Institute will provide temporary relief to the industry as consumer demand for oil plummets. 

However, these are just a few of the current threats to the environment and public lands. Of even bigger concern are ongoing efforts to dismantle well established conservation programs. These include:

  • Reduction in the size of National Monuments — In 2017, the administration launched a review of 21 national monuments. The most publicized outcome of which has been the shrinking of Bears Ears National Monument. Within the borders of this monument alone, the potential losses of cultural and natural resources are tremendous. In addition, the landscapes of this monument and many others have ongoing cultural importance for many Indigenous peoples in the region. The issue of the reducing the monument boundaries is still in active litigation. 
  • Abolishing the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives – The administration has withdrawn funding for this innovative and successful conservation program in direct contradiction of instructions from Congress. The program was a comprehensive strategy to tackle big-picture issues affecting huge swaths of the US, such as climate change, flooding and species extinction. Most are now on indefinite hiatus or have been dissolved.    
  • Savage Budget cuts for all conservation programs- The most recent Administration’s budget includes a roughly $1.4 billion cut to the Department of Interior and far deeper cuts to the Department of Agriculture: combined the two agencies own and manage more than 700 million acres of public lands, mostly in the West.  

What to do?

  1. Just stop it.  One idea that is gaining traction is a call to  suspend ongoing comment periods and leave all regulations in place, halt oil and gas lease sales, and delay new policy proposals in the current emergency.  Another obvious step is for the Department of the Interior (DOI) to close  national parks for the protection of park employees and visitors. The Department of Interior cannot continue to operate under a “business as usual” mentality in regards to these other issues.

2. Support Organizations that Care. Let me suggest some of my favorite places to find like-minded people with powerful ideas. And while you at it, consider making a donation.

  • The National Parks Traveler  An editorially independent nonprofit media organization, its online site and newsletter are dedicated to covering primarily US National Park issues on a daily basis. A good source for up to the minute news on parks and protected areas.

  • The Coalition to Protect America’s National Parks    This small but, high profile organization that represents over 1,800 current, former and retired park staff and has an effective record of advocating for National Parks issues. In last three years they have tackled high profile issues from energy extraction impacts to protecting park visitors and staff. 
  •  Network for Large Landscape Conservation  A broad based coalition established to advance the practice of large landscape conservation across all sectors and geographies. Its strength is in the diversity of individuals and organizations that are actively engaged and who are creating a collective body of knowledge, experience, and commitment to advancing conservation at the landscape scale. 
  • Preservation Action  A small organization, but a big advocate for historic preservation issues. The source for the latest information on legislation and policy matters in the field of cultural resources.    
  • US ICOMOS  Maintaining our connections to global heritage is more important than ever. US/ICOMOS opens the door to international best practices through knowledge exchanges, scientific committees, symposiums, and the organization’s well-respected international exchange program for students and young professionals. 

3) Strategize for the Future. Let’s use this challenging time to take stock and respond to the dismantling of Federal programs and partnerships that support landscape work by developing a more unified platform and a bigger vision. We should craft an agenda that merges the approaches of nature and culture conservation not just for protected lands, but for all valued places. A strategy that engages public and private partners and incorporates our lived-in landscapes with the goal of achieving conservation at scale. We can dream, can’t we?

N.B. The Living Landscape Observer is not the only one to point out this unraveling environmental catastrophe. Writing in Outside Online  Wes Siler catalogs other actions such as selling oil and gas leases at rock bottom prices, shutting down federal advisory committees and allowing violations of the Migratory Bird Act.

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