NPCA outlines 5 of the most dangerous elements in the Trump administration’s infrastructure proposal and examples of how they could affect national parks.
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On February 12, the Trump administration released a sweeping proposal that would weaken environmental protections to fast-track a variety of infrastructure development projects, including roads, mines and natural gas pipelines. The 53-page document has dozens of provisions that could be detrimental for national parks. This “quick and dirty” approach to development dismantles long-standing federal laws and prioritizes industry and state interests at the expense of clean air, clean water, expert analysis and public involvement — an irresponsible approach that undermines America’s most important and historic assets.
Here are five ways this proposal fails Americans and could directly harm national park sites around the country.
1. Divesting federal lands
The Trump infrastructure proposal recommends transferring ownership of some federal lands to state, local and private entities. These companies and municipalities would be ill-equipped to handle the enormous and complicated requirements for managing nationally significant sites. Transferring ownership of these lands would potentially open protected areas to commercial development.
The George Washington Memorial Parkway, managed by the National Park Service, is an example of federal land specifically targeted by the administration for divestment. This historic road was built after the Civil War to serve as a symbolic link between Washington, D.C., and George Washington’s home in Mount Vernon, Virginia, connecting the North and the South and providing magnificent views of the city. It is unlikely, however, that the state of Virginia or any private company would assume the significant costs of maintaining the parkway without attempting to develop the land in a way that generates revenue. Such a change could mean hotels and mini-marts that alter and block the scenic views and affect the parkway’s surprising wealth of biodiversity.
2. Gutting the law that governs public involvement and environmental reviews of federal projects
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) is the essential law guiding responsible development and public engagement in our nation’s project planning. It ensures communities are informed about significant health and environmental impacts from any proposed federal development project, requires that federal agencies measure the environmental impacts of any proposed actions, and allows the public to comment on these plans. The Trump infrastructure proposal would undermine NEPA to expedite development, minimizing the involvement of stakeholders, federal agencies and the public at the expense of nature, wildlife and community health.
The Everglades and Florida Bay are a perfect example of a complex ecosystem that requires careful infrastructure planning to avoid harming their unique lands and waters. The Tamiami Trail is a scenic byway that connects Tampa to Miami and for years served as a dam, preventing critical stores of fresh water from flowing into the park. Congress authorized restoration work on the road in 1989, and NEPA analysis showed that the most environmentally sensitive way to improve the road — by building a bridge to raise the byway over the water — was far more beneficial but also more expensive than other alternatives, such as simply building a culvert. Ultimately, the NEPA analysis justified spending more money in the short term on the Tamiami Trail project so that the government would restore and protect the far more valuable resource in the long term: Everglades National Park.
3. Weakening the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts
The Trump infrastructure proposal would significantly curtail the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to enforce two of its most important laws, the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts.
For example, the proposal recommends removing a provision of the Clean Air Act that legally requires the EPA to comment or intervene in cases of potential harm. This would remove an essential safety net for public health and open the potential for a poorly built highway or tunnel that could doom whole communities to decades of dangerous air quality.
The EPA’s oversight under the Clean Water Act has been essential for in NPCA’s work, including, for example, our campaign near Lake Clark National Park and Preserve in Alaska, where advocates have been fighting for years to prevent a development project known as the Pebble Mine, originally proposed as the largest open-pit gold and copper mine in North America. This mine, if built, would have covered an area larger than the size of Manhattan and produced 10 billion tons of toxic residue, directly threatening Lake Clark’s waters and the nearby salmon fishery in Bristol Bay. In 2014, the EPA determined, “The science is clear that mining the Pebble deposit would cause irreversible damage to one of the world’s last intact salmon ecosystems.” This determination halted the mine permitting process. Under the Trump infrastructure proposal, the agency would no longer have the authority to stop the mine, despite the clear damage it poses to the watershed and the park.
4. Limiting judicial review
In American democracy, the judicial branch provides critical oversight over Congress and the presidential administration in cases of conflict and injustice. The Trump infrastructure proposal, however, seeks to limit this fundamental role the courts play in challenging legislative and executive authority and offering an appeals process. The proposal would limit the timeframes for judicial appeals, restrict courts from intervening in certain kinds of cases, and prevent courts from enforcing the best available science during reviews.
The ability to challenge irresponsible development projects through the legal system is an essential tool for conservation — and as long as there are bad ideas, the courts provide an important way to fight them. For example, one potential segment of a proposed new interstate highway would run from Nogales, Mexico, to Canada along the west side of Saguaro National Park in Arizona. This segment, if built, would pose a barrier for wildlife, essentially turning the area into an island and impacting the park in numerous ways. The proposed route cuts the park off from protected wildlands to the east, a source of desert bighorn sheep that have recently returned to the park after being absent for 60 years. It would prevent the sheep from migrating in and out of the park to eat and mate. This project would pose an enormous threat to the health of park resources – wildlife, wilderness, night skies, clean air and more — and would degrade the visitor experience. Without the ability to challenge the way the road is sited using the best available science and to advocate for a more reasonable route along an existing highway, this damaging project has a much greater chance of becoming a reality.
5. Minimizing Park Service involvement in project development
One of the ways the Trump infrastructure proposal seeks to expedite development projects is by designating one federal agency as the lead agency to make decisions. This arrangement means that development projects are no longer fully cooperative, and federal partners would have only limited obligations to seek out National Park Service expertise, even in cases where this expertise would be vital to understanding the effects of a project on an ecosystem, historic site or other resource; the partner agency would then not be required to consider that expertise in permitting reviews.
Many national park sites are co-managed with other federal agencies, and transportation projects by their nature require multiple agencies to share responsibility in planning. In any project that can affect a national park site, no agency is better prepared to offer best practices than the Park Service. In the 1970s, the Park Service prevented an invasive high-level bridge from permanently marring the views and historic character of Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine in Maryland, instead working with the Department of Transportation to build a tunnel allowing commuters to cross the Baltimore Harbor without ruining the very place where Francis Scott Key was inspired to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
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Roads, bridges, tunnels and other essential development projects do not need to come at the expense of nature, wildlife, history and public health. A recent poll commissioned by the Center for American Progress and Defenders of Wildlife found that nearly all likely voters (94 percent), including 92 percent of Trump voters, believe that “we can build and modernize America’s infrastructure while also maintaining environmental protections for air, water, wildlife and natural places.”
I believe this, too. To suggest otherwise presents Americans with a false choice. This proposal is a disaster, not a starting point. We must not allow the administration to use our nation’s infrastructure needs as a thinly veiled excuse to dismantle bedrock laws and protections that benefit us all.
About the author
Ani Kame’enui Deputy Vice President, Government Affairs
Ani Kame’enui is the Deputy Vice President for the Government Affairs team and responsible for managing NPCA's policy portfolio across a range of park issues. She comes to NPCA with a background in geology, water resources engineering, and a love for natural resource science and policy.