Trump's Interior candidates would play Russian roulette with West
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Climate change, public lands, and the stewardship of rare wildlife got little attention during presidential debates or on the campaign trail, with the end result that voters had little to go on when it came to the environmental (or anti-environmental) intentions of the two major-party candidates.

Now that President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pens op-ed on kindergartners learning tech Bharara, Yates tamp down expectations Mueller will bring criminal charges Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax security employee left after breach | Lawmakers float bill to reform warrantless surveillance | Intel leaders keeping collusion probe open MORE is assembling his transition team, the choice of a new secretary of Interior will represent the public's first real insight into what a Trump administration will portend for Western public lands, native wildlife, and whether the Obama administration's rather tentative steps to address climate change and carbon pollution will continue forward or be reversed.

The Big Oil contenders

The oil industry ruled the roost during the George W. Bush administration, and several of Trump's rumored candidates for secretary of the Interior are either oil executives or key cheerleaders for the fossil fuels industry.

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Among other roles, the Interior secretary is in charge of leasing publicly owned oil, gas and coal deposits underneath both public and private lands; given the massive ecological and economic disasters resulting from global climate change, environmental and social welfare groups have urged a "keep it in the ground" policy under which the public interest is best served by denying leases and permits to mine or pump out publicly owned fossil fuels.

This seems unlikely with the current batch of candidates.

Harold Hamm is an Oklahoma oil billionaire who pioneered the fracking boom in the Williston Basin of western North Dakota. Also being considered as a potential secretary of Energy, Hamm established Continental Resources, a major exploration and production company.

Also on the Interior short list is Forrest Lucas, the founder of Lucas Oil. In addition to his oil industry background, Lucas has the relevant side hobby of having established the anti-animal-rights group Protect the Harvest, which targets organizations like the Humane Society in an effort to prevent animal welfare from affecting profits for the agriculture industry.

Sarah Palin has consistently been a fossil-fuel cheerleader. The former governor of Alaska and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee famously used the the oil-industry dog whistle "drill, baby, drill" during the 2008 vice presidential debate.

Palin has long fought to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas drilling, which would destroy pristine wilderness and threaten the survival of rare muskox herds as well as the Porcupine caribou herd. These caribou rely on sensitive calving grounds on the Arctic Coastal Plain and make the longest land migration in North America through harsh conditions to winter in interior Alaska, where members of the Gwich'in tribe, one of the last tribes that still practices its traditional lifeways, rely on the herds for their sustenance.

Because the secretary of Interior is in charge of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the Arctic Refuge and other National Wildlife Refuges, a Palin appointment would put the fragile tundra of the Arctic Coastal Plain directly in the cross hairs of the oil industry.

There also several lesser-known oil industry boosters under consideration for secretary of Interior. Gov. Mary Fallin (R) of Oklahoma has had to declare a state of emergency for earthquakes in Oklahoma due to fracking, but maintains strong support for the oil industry. As governor, she cut taxes on oil production, leading the state’s education system into financial crisis. Fallin issued a proclamation making Oct. 15 "Oilfield Prayer Day," urging Oklahomans to pray for the oil industry.

Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead (R), a booster of both the oil and coal industries, hails from the state that is America's largest net exporter of carbon-based fuels, generating some 3 percent of the world's carbon output in this one state alone. Mead has also fought the Roadless Rule that protects America's remaining undeveloped National Forest lands, and he chaired a Western Governors' Association committee tasked with undermining the protections of the Endangered Species Act.

The Bundy gang's public lands seizure candidates

In January 2016, a group of armed militants led by Cliven Bundy's sons seized control of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon and held it for 40 days, demanding that federal lands be turned over to extractive industries to promote drilling, logging and livestock grazing at the expense of wildlife populations, public recreation and healthy lands.

In an interview with the outdoor magazine Field & Stream, then-candidate Trump was asked about the movement to hand over federal lands to the states. He replied, "I don't like the idea because I want to keep the lands great, and you don't know what the state is going to do. I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don't think it's something that should be sold."

But two of Trump's potential candidates for secretary of Interior, GOP Reps. Rob BishopRobert (Rob) William BishopOvernight Regulation: Senate panel approves driverless car bill | House bill to change joint-employer rule advances | Treasury to withdraw proposed estate tax rule | Feds delaying Obama methane leak rule Overnight Energy: Dems take on Trump's chemical safety pick GOP chairman probes Zinke’s charter plane use MORE (Utah) and Cynthia LummisCynthia LummisFemale lawmakers flee House for higher office, retirement Despite a battle won, 'War on Coal' far from over Dems on offense in gubernatorial races MORE  (Wyo.), have been among Congress's most extreme boosters of getting rid of federal public lands.

Both are members of a new congressional caucus called the Federal Land Action Group (FLAG), which asserted in its initial press release that "The federal government has been a lousy landlord for western states and we simply think the states can do it better" and directing the group to develop "congressional action needed to return these lands back to the rightful owners."

Placing either of these two in charge of the nation's public lands would send a strong signal that the Trump administration is on board with the public lands giveaway.

Both Bishop and Lummis have fought to undermine the protections of the Endangered Species Act, meaning that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be in for a hostile takeover under their direction. And both have worked to abolish the president's ability to designate National Monuments under the Antiquities Act, calling into question what kind of leadership they would provide when placed in charge of National Parks and Monuments.

The sportsmen

Donald Trump Jr., son of the president-elect, has been mentioned as a possible secretary of Interior. Unlike Lummis and Bishop, he has publicly promised to "keep public lands public," even while promising to ramp up energy development.

Trump Jr. has stated in interviews that he opposed the transfer of federal public lands to the states, but he has also advocated for a larger role for state governors — often boosters of extractive industries — in directing how these lands are managed.

Another candidate for secretary of Interior hails from the far-right fringe of the sportsmen's advocacy world. Don Peay is the founder of Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife, an anti-predator group that has expressed a desire to wipe out large native carnivores as a means to produce more trophy elk and deer.

Peay has an unusual perspective on "ownership" of game animals. Traditional wildlife management — and the legal system — apply the "public trust doctrine," in which native wildlife are managed in trust for the public by state and federal agencies. Peay would like to see a return to the feudal system in which landowners "own" any wildlife on their property, in much the same way as British dukes and earls owned the deer and fishes on their lands and waters, and restricted who was allowed to hunt and fish.

The wild cards

Arizona Gov. Janet Brewer (R) has been floated for secretary of Interior, even though she is far better-known for her stances on gun rights and targeting Hispanics for deportation. She's a climate change denier and championed uranium mining near the Grand Canyon.

In New Mexico, Governor Susana Martinez made a name for herself by eliminating or lowering standards for mining, air quality, water quality, and oil and gas development.

She also has been active as a climate denier, summarily firing the entire New Mexico Environmental Improvement Board in 2010 when it proposed two measures to buffer the impacts of the changing climate. Martinez's state Department of Game and Fish has sued the federal government over the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves, an indication of her antipathy towards predators and the Endangered Species Act.

The last candidate getting much mention for the Interior post is Robert Grady, a venture capitalist with Gryphon Investors who espouses market-driven alternatives to environmental regulation. He was involved with sulfur dioxide cap-and-trade legislation under the George H.W. Bush administration. His ascension to the helm at Interior might augur a shift from standards and limits on environmental destruction to market-driven incentives.

A Grady Department of Interior could include a dismantling of longstanding environmental protections in favor of pay-to-play programs the clear the way for large-scale environmental destruction on lands where development is potentially profitable, in exchange for "saving" areas in which industry has little interest.

The common threads

In looking at these candidates as a whole, some common threads emerge. The fossil fuel industry stands to increase its already-heavy influence under the Trump administration, though whether it will be able to essentially control our Western public lands as it did during the Bush and Cheney years remains to be seen.

There also appears to be a trend toward stripping away standards and regulations, even though the current suite of federal regulations doesn't provide adequate protection for important habitats and rare wildlife species.

Regardless of the selection, the nomination of a new secretary of the Interior will be the first major test of the Trump administration's environmental policy.

The Trump family has repeatedly referenced the conservation achievements of another wealthy president from New York, Theodore Roosevelt. If the Trump administration turns out to adopt Roosevelt's approach to conservation leadership, it might be the biggest plot twist of all, in a year of tumultuous politics.

Erik Molvar is a wildlife biologist and executive director of Western Watersheds Project, a nonprofit environmental group dedicated to protecting and restoring Western watersheds and wildlife.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.