The Environmental Impacts of Donald J. Trump’s Reign: Impacts on Lands

This article will be focusing on the changes and decisions made by the Trump administration throughout his 4-year reign, focusing on the subject of lands. This includes partnerships, plans, rules, standards and targets relating to lands in the United States.



Before delving into this topic, here is a brief explanation for the various terminology that will be discussed.

National Parks: Large swaths of land protecting resource-rich or historic features, that can only be created by Congress. All national parks in the United States are managed by the National Park Service. 422 national park sites make up the National Park System, spanning over 84 million acres in each state and territories, including parks in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Samoa, and Guam.

National Forests: These are forests usually located nearby national parks, often acting as a buffer zone. National forests are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, under the Department of Agriculture. All 154 national forests are managed under a ‘multi-use concept’ – meaning they provide Americans with a number of ecological services (i.e., recreation, grazing, minerals).

National Monuments: Protect a specific natural, cultural, or historic feature (i.e., Devils Tower National Monument, or Pullman National Monument). On occasion, a national monument will become a national park – like the Grand Canyon. Since 1906, 120 national monuments have been created, and are managed by a number of agencies, either jointly or individually.

National Wildlife Refuges: Work to safeguard wildlife populations and their habitats. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Services manages wildlife refuges to conserve the nation’s fish, wildlife, and plants. Created in 1903, when President Theodore Roosevelt established Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge, the Refuge System has grown to include more than 560 sites. With at least 1 wildlife refuge existing in each state and U.S. territory, they provide a wealth of recreation opportunities to Americans, such as hiking trails, canoeing and kayaking, hunting, and fishing.

Trump Administration & Federal Lands

In 2017, former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, coined the term “deconstruction of the administrative state,” to describe the systematic process of stripping the federal government of its powers/authority, thereby allowing industry to have a freer hand in development. This mindset has been at the forefront for the current administration since Donald Trump first took office – with a series of actions taken allowing businesses within the oil, gas, logging, and mining industries more freedoms in their activities. Former Department of Interior (DOI) employee, Jim Lyons commented,”There’s a quiet, almost convert, effort to dismantle the public lands management infrastructure. It’s very effective. I call it evil genius.”

Across the West and Alaska, there are hundreds of millions of acres of publicly owned lands, including National Forests, Bureau of Land Management lands, National Parks, and National Monuments. These lands include some of the United States’ most iconic landscapes; many of which host sensitive and diverse ecosystems, and are critical to both local and state economies.

As a percentage of each Western state, federally-owned land ranges from 29% of Montana to 79% of Nevada.

According to a 2019 study in the journal Science, the Trump administration is responsible for the largest reduction in protected lands in history. In this article I will be exploring how the Trump administration accomplished this.


Downsizing of National Monuments

Three months after his inauguration, President Donald Trump issued an executive order causing dramatic reductions in the size of 2 national monuments in Utah – Bears Ears National Monument and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This order shrunk the first by 85% and the second by 51%.

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument was originally designated by President Bill Clinton in 1996, protecting 1,880,461 acres of land. The National Monument now protects 1,003,863 acres of land (see Figure 3). As illustrated in Figure 3, the reduction removed significant portions of ecologically sensitive lands, due to their energy development potential – leaving fossil fuel-rich areas open to extraction. While this could be damaging enough on its own, the new boundaries are also fragmented, which can cause sizeable issues – especially for wildlife. Fragmentation refers to the division of an ecosystem into smaller, and more isolated sections.

Figure 3 – Grand Staircase-Escalante Boundaries & Development Yield

Once an ecosystem is fragmented, each portion exists independently, within a background ecological system – the matrix – which is generally used for human activities, like agriculture or real estate development. The remaining sections of the land get smaller, less biodiverse, and provide less options for habitat. Once the interior of that habitat is exposed to a number of conditions, changes can occur in light, humidity, and temperature levels – impacting the organisms that live there. This is known as the edge effect. This change can be severe enough that the habitat can no longer support them, forcing many species to choose to leave, and those that remain risk both inbreeding and leave themselves more vulnerable to invasive species and predators.

Alternatively, the Bears Ears National Monument was only established in 2016, just before President Obama left office. The monument originally protected about 1.35 million acres of land in southeast Utah from future development; with the changes made by the Trump administration, only 228,784 acres remain protected.

Figure 4 – Bears Ears National Monument Boundaries

In February 2020, the Trump administration finalized their plans to allow development on both the Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments. Over 2 years after the largest reversal of national monument protections in American history, the Trump administration finalized their plans for the 2 million acres of previously protected land in southern Utah. The federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) released its plans on opening up the lands, for use by energy developers and ranchers, despite continued doubts that the moves to downsize these monuments should have been made in the first place.

If the fragmentation of Grand Staircase-Escalante is worrisome, the enormous fragmentation occurring in Bears Ears is undoubtably negative for the region and its many species. Bears Ears National Monument:

  • Contributes to the conservation of fish, wildlife & plants
  • Is home to over 15 species of bats
  • Has a world-renowned elk population
  • Includes diverse soils & rich micro-environments allowing for diverse vegetation
  • Sustains dozens of bird, mammal, reptile & amphibian species

Overall, these reductions have been controversial, with persistent questions regarding its legality. Both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, as with all national monuments, were designated under the Antiquities Act, 1906. However, the law itself is unclear on who actually holds the power to abolish or shrink national monument boundaries, but legal experts say it has traditionally been Congress’ responsibility to modify the size of public lands.

A number of conservation and Indigenous groups immediately sued the administration in federal court, where their lawsuits challenging the move continue. After the plans’ release, Sharon Buccino of the NRDC stated, “These plans are atrocious, and entirely predictable. They are the latest in a series of insults to these magnificent lands by the Trump administration that began when Trump illegally dismantled Bears Ears and Grand Staircase at the behest of corporate interests two years ago.” The move has also been viewed as an “ongoing failure to meaningfully consult with tribes”, according to Honor Keeler of the Cherokee Nation.


Mining in Yellowstone National Park

In 2015, Canadian-based company Lucky Minerals Inc. proposed the development of a large-scale goldmine in Paradise Valley. This would have caused irreparable damage to the environmental integrity of the park, and the economic fabric of the region. As well, visitors gazing upon the now breathtaking Emigrant Peak of the Absaroka Mountains (see Figure 5), would be met with the view of an industrial mining operation instead.

Rivers Bend Lodge and Emigrant Peak - Picture of Reedfly Farm & Rivers Bend  Lodge, Emigrant - Tripadvisor
Figure 5 – Emigrant Peak

However, a disrupted view of the Yellowstone landscape is insignificant in comparison to the other impacts these operations could cause. At full scale, the proposed mine would threaten to send acid runoff into tributaries of the Yellowstone River, while approximately 100,000 tonnes of waste rock containing high levels of arsenic would be dumped near tributary headwaters. Even mineral exploration alone threatens to pollute these waters with heavy metals and acid runoff. Mining and mineral exploration would also likely impact important habitat for endangered grizzly bears, wolverines, lynx, elk, and other species (see Figure 7).

This proposal would also impact the local community, as it relies on much of this land to support sustainable recreation and the local tourist economy. By moving forward with gold mining and exploration, the short-term financial gain could cost the region their primary economic driver – an intact landscape that attracts millions of visitors each year, supports a diverse business community, and employs a highly skilled workforce.

Gateway Regions: The areas directly surrounding National Park Service (NPS) sites. Gateway economies include the cities and towns where visitors typically stay and spend money while visiting national park sites.

In June 2020, the National Park Service released data showing tourism at Yellowstone brings in hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. This data includes everything from the number of jobs created, to the amount of money spent within various businesses. In 2019, 4 million park visitors spent an estimated $507 million in gateway regions while visiting Yellowstone (see Figure 8). These expenditures supported a total of 7,000 jobs, $222 million in labour income, $372 million in value-added, and $642 million in economic output in local gateway economies surrounding the national park. “The positive economic impacts of Yellowstone are essential to economies of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho,” said Superintendent Cam Sholly in a press release. “It is important that we continue working with our state and local partners to balance the many benefits of tourism with our continued efforts to protect the world-class resources within the park.”

Figure 8 – Total Visitor Spending Yellowstone National Park

In April 2019, a Montana District Court quashed the permit that would have allowed Lucky Minerals Inc. to explore for gold in Emigrant Gulch, just north of Yellowstone National Park. This ruling blocked the exploratory drilling that was expected to begin on July 15, 1019, and is a significant victory in the efforts being made to protect the Park. This ruling invalidated Lucky Minerals’ exploration license, and established that it would violate the public’s environmental and public participation rights under Montana’s Constitution, to allow the project to carry on. The ruling resulted from a lawsuit brought by Park County Environmental Council and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, both represented by Earthjustice. Earthjustice attorney, Jenny Harbine, commented, “This ruling ensures that Lucky Minerals can’t harm clean water and native wildlife at the gateway into Yellowstone National Park under cover of a license that was never legally issued in the first place.”

The same court previously ruled that the Montana Department of Environmental Quality had illegally approved the drilling plan when it failed to consider the plans number of threats to water quality and wildlife integrity. Despite these findings, Lucky Minerals was still permitted to conduct exploratory drilling which would give way to these new threats before the Agency could conduct a new review of the project. The court explained that this left the public with “no meaningful change to participate in the agency decision” before the harmful impacts of drilling could occur. Then Secretary of the Interior, Ryan Zinke, made adjacent public lands around Yellowstone off limits to mining with a 20-year mineral withdrawal on October 8, 2018. The following year, on March 12, 2019, the President enacted a bipartisan public lands bill, making these protections permanent. According to Executive Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Caroline Byrd, “The Trump administration, the Obama administration, Congress, the Forest Service, the Park County Commission, thousands of citizens and more than 420 Montana businesses all agree, Yellowstone is more valuable than gold.”


Great American Outdoors Act

Figure 10 – Signing of the Great American Outdoors Act

In August 2020, President Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act (GAOA) – a bipartisan bill hailed as the biggest public lands and conservation legislation in a generation. The legislation permanently funds the Land & Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900M annually – taking a big bite out of the NPS’ $12B maintenance backlog, with $9.5B over 5 years.

The LWCF will be replenished each year with royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling. While the measures included in the bill have been priorities for Democrats for a long time, the bill was championed by Republican senators Cory Gardner and Steve Daines, of Colorado and Montana States – both of which contain massive swaths of public lands. In a statement, Gardner stated, “The GAOA will create well over 100,000 jobs nationwide and thousands of jobs in Colorado in our mountain towns and recreation communities that were hit hard by the pandemic.”

Unfortunately, only months after signing the bill, the DOI failed to meet its deadline to submit a list of projects to fund in the fiscal year 2021, with money earmarked for the GAOA. This missed deadline not only threatens the success of a number of conservation projects, but is also being viewed by many as an attempt by the administration to undermine the Act’s goals. “This demonstrates that the Trump administration was only ever interested in using the GAOA to influence the election, and isn’t actually interested in effective governance,” said New Mexico Democratic senator Martin Heinrich.  

The draft version of that list included $116M in funding for projects spread across BLM, NPS, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service – with an additional $23.6M directed toward the purchase of 6 new parcels of public land. By not submitting the final list, the DOI is setting some of these projects back, and putting others in danger. Organizations hoping to spend these funds are now left with only uncertainty – making them unable to set budgets, hire contractors, or conduct planning. In particular, the land acquisition deals are in jeopardy, as the sellers may now choose to sell to buyers capable of successfully executing deals.


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

In 2017 Congress voted to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development for the first time. The Refuge is roughly 19.6 million acres of wilderness in northeastern Alaska, and is home to a range of species including polar bears, migratory birds, and the Porcupine Caribou. This vast landscape was set aside in 1960 as the Arctic National Wildlife Range to “preserve the unique wildlife, wilderness, and recreational values” of the region. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, in 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) re-designated the ‘Range’ as part of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and provided 4 ‘purposes’ to guide the management of the entire area:

  1. To conserve animals & plants in their natural diversity;
  2. Ensure a place for hunting & gathering activities;
  3. Protect water quality & quantity; and
  4. Fulfill international wildlife treaty obligations.

In the past there have been attempts to access the oil reserves that lay beneath the Refuge, including through exploration activities in the 1980s, but industry has been prevented from moving forward with any major developments until the Trump administration. In 2017, the tax bill that President Trump used to promote oil and gas activities, opened up a portion of the area to potential drilling. The bill paved the way for a minimum of 2 lease sales in the ANWR by 2024, initiating an environmental assessment process that culminated in a decision allowing drilling in August 2020. The boundary for the land designated as 1002 Area Lands (see Figure 13) was approved.

As you can see in Figure 13, 1002 Area Lands not only include United States land, but a significant portion of Canadian lands as well – stretching into both Yukon and the Northwest Territories. In 1987, Canada and the U.S. signed a treaty to ensure the Porcupine caribou herd and its habitat is protected. The Treaty has once again become a focus of discussion between the Yukon and Northwest Territories, and Canadian and U.S. federal governments – along with a number of First Nation and Tribal Councils. The Yukon Minister of Environment, Pauline Frost, told reporters that the Treaty may provide Canada with legal grounds to fight the August 2020 decision. “It fails to consider impacts to food security in the North,” Frost said. “It’s clearly for financial gains and quick access. It doesn’t consider long-term, specific impacts. It doesn’t correlate with how we do business in Yukon, how we do business in Canada, in terms of effective land management.”

Figure 14 – Porcupine Caribou

In October 2020, the Royal Bank of Canada (RBC), the largest financial institution in Canada, became the first Canadian bank to refuse to finance any oil or gas development in the Arctic refuge. “Due to its particular ecological and social significance and vulnerability, RBC will not provide direct financing for any project or transaction that involves exploration or development in the ANWR,” reads RBC’s updated policy guidelines for sensitive sectors and activities posted in early October 2020. As well, an RBC spokesperson stated that the bank has never financed oil and gas development in the region, and that their policy change was a proactive decision to ensure that remains the case. The hope is that other Canadian and U.S. banks will follow this move, to highlight the financial risk in store for companies hoping to get involved in oil and gas development in the region. Severing the flow of cash earmarked for development in the area could deter companies from following though with their plans for the region. Significantly, Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation, commented that RBC’s commitment marks the first time a Canadian bank has taken meaningful strides to consult with impacted First Nations, and actually make a decision based on those consultations.

This is about leadership. What we need more of is courage, and we’re looking to the courage of financial institutions in Canada to stand in partnership with Indigenous people and stop ecocide.”

Dana Tizya-Tramm, Chief of Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation

Several groups, including the Gwich’in Steering Committee, the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Alaskan Wilderness League, have taken the Department of Interior to court over the way it handled the environmental assessment process. As well, the National Audubon Society, the Centre for Biological Diversity, and a number of other U.S. groups have launched a lawsuit against David Bernhardt, the Secretary of the DOI, who signed off on the record of decision. However, that isn’t all – in the fall of 2020, the attorney generals of 15 states sued the Trump administration’s move to open up the refuge to development. These suits challenge the legality of the DOI’s review, alleging they broke the law by disregarding the refuge’s original purposes, and failing to safeguard said purposes through the design of its oil and gas leasing program.


Logging, Timber & Wildfires

In December 2018, as a partial government shutdown loomed, President Trump quietly issued an executive order expanding logging on public lands, saying it would curb deadly wildfires. While numerous scientists and Western governors have urged federal officials to adopt a series of policies to tackle the issue, including cuts in greenhouse gases linked to climate change, President Trump has elected to focus on the expansion of timber sales in the U.S. The executive order instructs the secretaries of agriculture and interior to consider harvesting a total of 4.4 billion board feet of timber from forested lands managed by their agencies upon millions of acres, and put it up for sale. This order would translate into a 31% increase in forest service logging since 2017.

Figure 15 – Timber Operations

In addition to tree removal, Trump asked his secretaries to remove forest brush and debris that aids in fuelling fires from more than 4 million acres, and treat another 1.5 million acres to control destructive tree pests. This order, published in December 2018 on the Federal Register, does not specify a deadline to accomplish the President’s goal. Fire Ecologist from the University of Boulder, Jennifer Balch, commented, “We can’t log our way out of the fire problem – thinning all the forests is not possible,” she continued, “And even if it were, it won’t stop fires in the extreme weather that is happening more frequently, and will in the future.” As well, Balch noted that the executive order didn’t address certain types of vegetation that makes communities more vulnerable to fire, such as the chaparral that spread a fire in Malibu in November that destroyed hundreds of homes.

Figure 16 – Southern California Fires

Trump has repeatedly blamed the devastating wildfires in the west on poor forest management, rejecting the idea that climate change could be leading to a longer and more intense fire season in the country. However, a piece published in November 2018 in the Geophysical Research Letters, found that human-induced climate change now influences over 1/5 of the world’s fires. As well, President Trump has asked advisors how he could punish California for what he has deemed ‘poor forestry’. However, reports say that his advisors have iterated numerous times that he cannot take away funds that have already been earmarked for the disaster; and that taking this money from the state would only hurt its citizens, not the elected officials Trump aimed to punish.

Figure 17 – Donald Trump Tweet

The Tongass National Forest in Alaska hosts life-sustaining value for the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples, and is at the middle of a decades-long battle over logging. Since 2001, the Roadless Rule has protected the 16.7 million acre forest, a federal regulation banning timber harvesting in portions of National Forests. In July 2020, 11 southeast Alaskan Tribes asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for a new rule that would require a closer relationship with the Tribes for forest management.

Roadless Area Conservation Rule: 2001 rule prohibiting timber harvest and road construction with limited exceptions within designated areas. As well, the rule directs an administrative change to the timber suitability of the lands – deeming them unsuitable due to the application of the rule.

In October 2020, the USDA formally exempted the Tongass National Forest from the Roadless Rule, removing protections on 9.3 million acres of the world’s largest intact rainforest. The region hosts centuries-old Sitka spruce, hemlock and cedar. None of the 11 Alaskan tribes recommended a full repeal of the rule, and around 95% of public comments opposed complete exemption.


Conclusion

The Trump administration has made many changes to public lands within the time Donald Trump has been in office. Some of these changes have appeared to be positive, like the enactment of the GAOA, but have ultimately been negative and self-fulfilling. The current administration has dismantled decades of progress on conservation policy in the United States, and has done so for economic reasons. While the economy is integral to the country, the administration is tipping the scales by focusing too heavily on the economic elements. It is crucial that governments operate with an equal balance between the economic, environmental, and social aspects of any issue.

Figure 18 – Pillars of Sustainability

Keep tuned for the next post in the series coming soon on the Trump administration’s impacts on the environmental progress that had been made in America prior to his inauguration in January 2017.


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