Zinke grants industry wish list while shutting out the public

Zinke grants industry wish list while shutting out the public
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The Department of the Interior, under Secretary Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Trump Cabinet officials head west | Zinke says California fires are not 'a debate about climate change' | Perry tours North Dakota coal mine | EPA chief meets industry leaders in Iowa to discuss ethanol mandate Sen. Sanders blasts Zinke: Wildfires 'have everything to do with climate change' Zinke on California fires: 'This is not a debate about climate change' MORE, wants to stop the public from “interfering” with its ongoing efforts to hand control of America’s public lands over to commercial and industrial interests. According to a report finalized in September and leaked to the Washington Post last week, the department plans to eviscerate the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), and explore other ways of clamping down on public involvement. 

NEPA has long been a target of extractive industries seeking to exploit public resources for private profit because it requires federal agencies like the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to study the environmental effects of their proposals before taking action. If BLM opens public lands to oil and gas leasing, for instance, NEPA requires the agency to consider how exploration and drilling will affect wildlife habitat, endangered species, water quality, air quality, and aesthetics.

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Under NEPA, federal agencies must consider a full range of alternatives, including environmentally preferable ones. The agencies must also provide opportunities for public input, and then meaningfully respond to any input they receive. In short, NEPA requires a “look before you leap” approach to management. But extractive industries seeking to exploit America’s public lands would rather have the agencies “leap” recklessly toward highly profitable — and highly destructive — industrial development.

 

It looks like they may get their way. The Interior Department’s leaked recommendations for “streamlining” NEPA read like an industry wish list. The recommendations would permit — and in some cases require — BLM to rubber-stamp actions like oil and gas leasing, livestock grazing, logging, mining, and large-scale deforestation, all without considering environmental consequences or public opinion.

For example, the recommendations would effectively eliminate environmental analysis of “vegetation treatments” — a euphemistic term for large-scale deforestation projects, typically in the sensitive sagebrush habitats and pinyon-juniper woodlands of the arid West. 

BLM has been clearing pinyon and juniper from Western landscapes since the 1950s. The agency will often drag an anchor chain from a U.S. Navy battleship across the land, uprooting all native vegetation and leaving behind thousands of acres of bare ground. Initially, these deforestation projects sought to increase the land available to domestic livestock. More recently they have been re-branded as habitat restoration. However, there is no evidence that these so-called “treatments” improve wildlife habitat, and most of the available scientific literature shows that they do more harm than good.

Nevertheless, the Interior Department wants to exempt “vegetation treatments” from NEPA, eliminating any environmental analysis, and any opportunity for public comment regarding these devastating projects. The department likewise seeks to log public forests, spray pesticides across public rangelands, and slaughter wild horses without any kind of formal deliberation or public oversight. All of these projects — and more — would be fast-tracked through the approval process and implemented without analysis.

In addition to gutting NEPA, Zinke’s plans to cut the public out of public lands include weakening the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Equal Access to Justice Act (EAJA). FOIA is critical to government transparency. It enables the public to see the paperwork behind a project and thus better understand the decisionmaking process. Interior’s recommendations would amend FOIA to “limit the number of … requests from any one group” and require “more stringent justification for fee waivers.” Regional and community-based watchdog groups, many of which can’t afford to buy access to public records, depend on FOIA’s fee waiver provisions.

EAJA, meanwhile, allows plaintiffs to recover the costs of litigation in cases where the government is found to have broken the law. Under Zinke’s plan, EAJA would be amended to allow the government to recover costs and fees from public-interest litigants. This will leave major industries like oil, gas, and timber as the only parties wealthy enough to challenge unfavorable decisions. The rest of us will be left without recourse when our public lands are despoiled by short-sighted, industry-driven plans. 

Together, the proposed changes to FOIA and EAJA would render public oversight of land management decisions prohibitively expensive, while hiding important planning information — including records of any deals with industry — from public view. 

A clear majority of Americans, including a majority of rural Westerners who live among public lands, favor conservation over exploitation. Instead of blindly stripping away environmental protections and reducing transparency, the Interior Department should consider why the public keeps “interfering” with attempts to exploit public resources. And it should remember that public lands belong to all Americans, not just those with deep pockets or political allies.

Scott Lake is the Idaho director of Western Watersheds Project, an environmental conservation organization working to protect and restore western watersheds and wildlife.