Exit Strategy

As his presidency comes to an end, George W. Bush takes a few parting shots.

By Scott Kirkwood

George W. Bush isn’t the first president to do it. Carter did it. Clinton did it. And Bush’s own father did it, too. In fact, last-minute rules offered up by a parting president are so common, the term “midnight regulations” has been floating around since the 1980s. The nation’s chief executive might insist eight years simply wasn’t enough time to complete all of his serious work, but many would argue that departing presidents generally wait until their final days in office to tackle measures that would have proven too controversial, too cumbersome, or required too much political capital. As this issue of National Parks went to press, the following proposals were the most troubling to park advocates.

Guns in Parks. Following months of political pressure, the Bush Administration was expected to finalize new regulations that would allow visitors to carry loaded, concealed firearms in national parks where state law permits it (parks in Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin would be the only exceptions). NPCA had opposed the move due to concerns over public safety, increased opportunities for wildlife poaching, and recognition that the longstanding regulation allowing unloaded weapons had been working just fine. Seven former Park Service directors informed Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne of their opposition in April, and NPCA’s members and activists generated thousands of comments against the move. In spite of the widespread opposition, the Interior department was expected to finalize the new regulations as early as December.

Endangered Species. In August, the Bush Administration proposed a dramatic change to the Endangered Species Act, which is administered by biologists within the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service. Under the new regulation, expected to be finalized as this issue went to press, agencies would no longer be required to consult with those expert biologists concerning moves with a potential impact on listed species or their critical habitat. The new rule puts decisionmaking in the hands of the federal agency managing the land in question, ostensibly for the sake of simplifying the process and minimizing the workload. As a result, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) might determine oil and gas leases are perfectly compatible within fragile habitat for a threatened species, and move forward with a new proposal without consulting with an outside agency, likely to be more knowledgeable and more objective. The national parks themselves are refuges for wildlife, of course, but park species that have access to adjacent land could lose serious protections. Although it might be hyperbole to equate the move to the fox guarding the henhouse, at the very best, it’s leaving the hens to fend for themselves. In September, NPCA and 100 other conservation groups delivered a letter to the department of the Interior opposing the rule change.

Air Pollution.  As reported in the Summer 2008 issue of National Parks, the Bush Administration has directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to initiate a rule-change that would make it easier to build new coal-fired power plants near national parks. Rather than measure the impact of the plants’ exhaust over the course of hours, pollution would be averaged over a year, completely ignoring spikes that could have a dramatic impact on park plants, park wildlife, and scenic vistas. Given the well-documented impacts of coal-fired power plants on Shenandoah, the Great Smokies, and many parks in the southwest, park Service employees opposed the move, as did nearly every EPA regional office. Last year, more than 23,000 NPCA members and supporters wrote to the EPA opposing the move, but the agency was expected to go forward with the rule in December, easing the way for the construction of dozens of coal-fired utilities within 186 miles of 10 national parks.

Mining in the Southwest. In response to the threat of new uranium leases within two miles of the Grand Canyon, the House Natural Resources Committee passed a resolution to withdraw more than one million acres of federal lands from mineral entry this summer, but the Interior Department refused to comply, leaving the door open for mining likely to contaminate the Colorado River watershed. The BLM is also planning to award new oil and gas leases on sites adjacent to Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Dinosaur National Monument.

Meanwhile, the Bush Administration is still working to remove Northern Rockies wolves from the endangered species list, and is tinkering with regulations that would exacerbate the impacts of mountaintop mining (see page 8) and snowmobile use in Yellowstone (see page 9). “Every president tries to finish up as much business as they can before the end of their term,” says Craig Obey, NPCA’s senior vice president for Government Affairs. “But we’re seeing a flurry of proposals that could do serious harm to the national parks, and in each of these cases, the Bush Administration is choosing industry over the public interest.”

Conservation groups including NPCA are expected to challenge several of the new regulations in court. And Congress and the incoming President may be able to delay or reverse other regulations, depending on the date they are expected to take effect or the price tag associated with their impact.

“Obama’s transition team appears very ambitious and they’re asking all the right questions, so I’m optimistic about their desire to make positive change,” says Obey. “But they will confront practical realities in terms of budget constraints and legal processes, so it’s not as if there’s any panacea—there’s plenty of hard work to be done.”

To make your voice heard on these issues and other critical matters, visit www.npca.org/takeaction.

This article appears in the Winter 2009 issue.

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