Energy & Environment

Trump’s moves will degrade our land, water and national identity

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Recently, President Trump signed two executive orders that could ultimately result in the most devastating assaults on our lands and waters we’ve seen in a long time. 

The first executive order called for a “review” of the validity of dozens of national monument designations, including one President Obama created late last year that was proposed by five local tribes: Bears Ears, an area in southeastern Utah containing majestic twin mesas and nearly 100,000 Native American archeological sites.

The second order seeks to open protected offshore waters to oil drilling, possibly including the Arctic Ocean, which President Obama withdrew from new federal oil and gas leasing.

{mosads}Likewise, at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, anti-conservationists in Congress see the current political moment as a rare opportunity to run the table against sensible and balanced conservation. On the first day of business in January, for example, House Republicans passed a bill that would, among other provisions, make it easier to give away federal lands to cash-hungry states that would welcome the chance to sell or lease those acres to drilling or mining interests.


Members of the Alaska delegation introduced legislation in the Senate to allow drilling in the ecologically-fragile coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in their state, reviving a hotly debated — and eventually defeated — proposal in Washington a dozen years ago. 

This zeal to unravel bedrock conservation laws goes beyond anything we’ve seen in recent memory. It suggests a hellbent, ideological drive to undo a careful, decades-old, bipartisan consensus to protect our most cherished public resources, even as we enable responsible development. 

For instance, by calling for the reopening of Arctic Ocean waters to drilling — part of his America First Energy policy — President Trump seems oblivious to the perils of operating in this region and the high probability of spills there. These challenges prompted President Obama to permanently withdraw more than 125 million acres in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas from future oil and gas leasing. 

It’s also why the industry isn’t clamoring to get back into those waters. In fact, oil companies have given up nearly all of the Chukchi Sea leases and most of their Beaufort Sea leases.

Shell, which experienced a number of disastrous misfires in 2012 and 2015 — including the grounding and a near-grounding of its drill rig and drill ship — has abandoned leases in those seas. A Goldman Sachs analyst summed it up recently when he concluded that, “There is almost no [economic] rationale for Arctic exploration.” 

Similarly, President Trump’s intention of “reviewing” monuments underscores the administration’s efforts to undo protections for our shared public lands and waters. Some may take comfort that the 111-year-old Antiquities Act would prevent a president from revoking national monuments. 

The Antiquities Act is a popular bipartisan law. Congress gave the president authority to protect federal lands that have natural, historical or cultural significance.

President Trump’s executive order could usher in damaging development or weaken the federal government’s capacity to stop the kind of vandalism of sacred places that prompted the five Native American tribes to ask for making Bears Ears a national monument. 

Opponents of reasonable conservation almost invariably wave the flags of “energy independence” and “economic prosperity”, but they present a false choice. There’s more than enough room right now in the U.S. to get the energy Americans need and protect the iconic lands and waters they love.

President Trump and congressional opponents of sensible conservation would do well to recognize there is a large and vocal constituency for protecting our natural heritage. Those champions include local businesses, nearby residents and hunting, fishing and outdoor enthusiasts, as well as Native Americans who benefit firsthand from many of these sites.

Even Americans who live thousands of miles away value these places as central to our national identity — a natural legacy be passed healthy and intact to future generations.

That’s why, President Trump and like-minded congressional leaders’ bid to undermine our precious lands and waters could also endanger something they hold dear: the very political ground they stand on.


Jamie Williams is president of The Wilderness Society, an American non-profit land conservation organization that is dedicated to protecting natural areas and federal public lands.

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

Tags Antiquities Act Arctic Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Arctic Refuge drilling controversy Barack Obama Chukchi Sea Donald Trump Environmental policy of the Donald Trump administration Geography of Alaska national monuments The Wilderness Society United States wilderness

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