The stark words over a black background on the Patagonia website capture the feeling pretty clearly: "The President Stole Your Land."
This week brought the largest retreat on public land protection in the history of the United States. Presidential legacies are built around many factors. Conservation of our nation’s heritage is one of the most enduring ways to build a legacy. We’ll see what eviscerating two national monuments in Utah’s culturally rich redrock country does for this president (and Interior secretary).
Disturbing-and headline-grabbing-as the monument news was, I’d argue that the methodical dismantling of environmental protections by Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt are even worse. Not only is our nation’s leadership on climate in shambles, we’re seeing real protections slashed that ensure people’s ability to breathe clean air and drink clean water.
Late last week EPA junked Obama protections that ICL’s work helped create related to pollution from mining projects. As is well known, Superfund was enacted by Congress to clean up major industrial messes. Less known and never enforced is the fact that Superfund was also written to require industry to post up-front bonding for projects likely to create long-term messes. ICL’s years-long work led to an EPA commitment, nationwide, to create processes and requirements for something akin to a financial security deposit against leaving taxpayers on the hook for later cleanup. Our major victory included bonding plans for chemical manufacturing, petroleum and coal products manufacturing, electric power generation, and hardrock mining. Nationwide.
The mining provision was on deck first. EPA just killed it.
To state the obvious, elections matter. So does leadership.
Let’s go back to the recent national monument debacle. There is more to the story than just a presidential administration hostile to the environment.
In recent weeks I’ve had many, many people say to me how grateful they are that Idaho was able to secure a congressional wilderness designation for the Boulder-White Clouds rather than the national monument that was likely to occur if Congress failed to act. We could have seen the President in Idaho, gutting protections as in Utah.
You’ll recall that after nine failed attempts to move in Congress, ICL made a strategic pivot towards a national monument designation and built a national campaign to convince President Obama to act in the Boulder-White Clouds. Our broad-based campaign did two things: we really were poised to get a national monument and this top-down prospect was a catalyst for a renewed effort, led by Rep. Mike Simpson and aided by Sen. Jim Risch, to pass the bill in Congress. Simpson asked the White House for a six-month window in Congress before they moved on a monument. In a remarkable legislative journey, Simpson succeeded by sheer will, political skill, a diverse coalition, and leveraging the threat of a monument. Simpson proved what a leader can do.
I stood with Simpson and President Obama in the Oval Office as the bill was signed. Moments before, Interior Sec. Sally Jewell told me how pleased she was to see this evolve as it did. Congress was the right place to protect the Boulder-White Clouds, we agreed, and while the monument campaign made it possible, Simpson made it happen.
The just-gutted national monuments in Utah-Bears Ears and Escalante-were designations made by Presidents Obama and Clinton, in part, because long-standing efforts to work with the congressional delegation had failed. Most recently, much of the Bears Ears country had been in robust congressional negotiations between many stakeholders and Rep. Rob Bishop.
As Utah negotiations continued, pressure from a growing nationwide voice for a national monument also grew. While I wasn’t in those rooms as I was in Idaho, my view is that under this pressure, the Utah delegation, especially Rep. Rob Bishop, grew angry. As things grew hot, rather than lead, Utah’s elected leaders pitched a fit and locked down.
And a large national monument was the result.
Some argue that "our side" just lost in Utah. In a sense, sure, we did, but this work is for generations and it does not end now. Going back to that Patagonia website, know that a giant coalition is wide awake and fighting. Know that a conservation force never to be wholly spent is emboldened as never before and is growing. You are part of it, every day.
Your support today has never been more important. To be clear, the environment we love is facing not just threats but real harm. We are losing real policies and real protections for air you breathe, water you drink, and lands you love. But from these challenges we will grow. We will become smarter and more strategic. We will talk to more people. We will do this with your support.
Conservation-be it in our backyard or for our planet’s climate-is not a one-shot deal. It’s a generations-long journey. It’s a path we talk together, hand in hand, every day.