How to reverse Trump’s harmful legacy on conservation

President Biden is off to a good start, but there is much to be done. The Restoration Project has a blueprint.

 

Restoring nature is hard work. As career conservationists, we learned that firsthand in our efforts to restore alpine meadows on Mount Rainier, remove dams on the Elwha River in Olympic National Park, and reintroduce wolves in the Greater Yellowstone Area. These achievements required broad coalitions working toward a common goal. Restoration of good governance — laws, regulations, policies, a professional workforce and leadership in confronting climate change and establishing environmental justice — is also hard work. And it too will require an expanded coalition working toward a common goal.

We watched in dismay as the Trump administration systematically dismantled the last 50 years of conservation successes for our national parks and public lands and waters. Focused on grift and privatizing what belongs to all Americans, Donald Trump and his appointed officials took advantage of weak laws, a distracted public, hard-to-follow administrative actions, and their own deep animus against science and professional land managers to profoundly harm American conservation.

Comb Ridge in the Shash Jáa unit of Bears Ears National Monument, Utah, which was part of the Trump administration’s reduced monument.

We should all be shocked by how easy it was. In just four years, Trump opened 9 million acres to oil and gas development, made it easier to kill migratory birds without consequence and opened drilling next to Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico. His administration made it legal to shoot female grizzly bears with cubs in their dens, undermined scientific integrity and decimated the professional and scientific workforce. He reduced Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument to an inadequate remnant. That is far from a full list of the administration’s inventory of harms. 

The damage is profound, but now the work of restoration can begin. Ten months before the November 2020 election, the two of us convened and led a volunteer team of diverse environmental leaders with government, nonprofit, private-sector and academic experience. They were from both coasts and the heartland, the West and the Southeast, rural America and the nation’s large cities. Meeting virtually as The Restoration Project, we worked over several months to create a carefully researched and prioritized list of the top 100 actions necessary to restore the nation’s environment. The plan was delivered to the Biden-Harris transition team and is available to the public at https://rproject.world/.

For example, the plan recommends replacing a Trump-era regulation that sought to limit public input on most environmental impact statements. It urges the new administration to reverse the Department of Interior’s ill-conceived reorganization plan, which placed political appointees directly over national parks, wilderness areas and wildlife refuges. And it suggests restoring the policy that required industries to mitigate their impacts on public lands by funding habitat improvement in other similar locations.

We applaud the actions taken so far by the Biden-Harris team and encourage them to continue. But what can we do to ensure that a Trumpian systemic dismantling of our public wealth and heritage does not happen again? How can citizens who care deeply about our Western public lands — people who use those lands to hike, hunt, fish, camp, roam, bike, snowmobile and reflect —make conservation an indelible part of our shared national values?

How can citizens who care deeply about our Western public lands make conservation an indelible part of our shared national values?

We propose three crucial paths forward. The first is to publicly support The Restoration Project’s plan and urge the administration to act boldly on the most urgent tasks during its first 100 days. Many can be accomplished by executive order (as President Biden did by re-joining the Paris Climate Agreement and halting new oil and gas leases on public lands). The second will take longer: reversing those harms that will require using the administrative and technical tools of government — revising regulations, re-hiring scientists and professional managers, and enacting policies that recognize climate change.

The third path — the most arduous and essential — involves finding ways to ensure that public lands remain protected and that environmental stewardship becomes a shared American value. The conservation community must be expanded, and a new, broader and more diverse coalition created to work toward full and bipartisan support for conservation. Laws must be strengthened, regulations reformed, science and professionalism treated as essential, and public support continually reinforced and reinvigorated. There is a wellspring of untapped conservation concern in the rural communities of the West, and these communities can elect a new generation of citizen-politicians from all political parties who will defend the nation’s parks and public lands.

The coming together of interests engaged in nature conservation, sport hunting and fishing, historical preservation, environmental justice and civil rights, sustainable agriculture, public health, and science is long overdue. As these groups learn to collaborate and gain experience in working together as opposed to competing, they will find their collective “voice” to be powerful, influential and effective.

In acts of restoration — both of nature and our experiment in self-government — lies the future of America. It is hard work, and we best get to it. 

Jonathan Jarvis served 40 years with the National Park Service and was its 18th director. Dr. Gary Machlis served as science advisor to the director of the National Park Service and is professor of environmental sustainability at Clemson University. They are the co-authors of  The Future of Conservation in America: A Chart for Rough Water (University of Chicago Press). They serve as co-leaders of The Restoration Project. Email High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.

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