Summer is usually a time to celebrate our national parks, but the last three months have brought terrible threats to some of our nation’s most special and significant places.
This summer walloped national parks with so much bad news, the headlines felt unrelenting. Due to the unfit leadership of administration officials, including Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, we’ve seen numerous new threats to parks, from air pollution to irresponsible development to reduced protections for wildlife.
Here is a recap of the 10 worst news stories affecting parks over last three months.
1. The repeal of the Clean Power Plan.
June 19, 2019
The Clean Power Plan, launched by President Barack Obama in 2015, established the first-ever national limits on carbon dioxide pollution as a major step toward combating the climate crisis. Despite public outcry and criticism from scientists, officials and environmental groups including NPCA, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a final replacement rule that will not require power plants to limit carbon dioxide emissions, threatening public health and the health of our parks. Based on the EPA’s own analysis, people will face more premature deaths, asthma attacks and respiratory illnesses as a result.
2. The mismanagement of National Park Service funds.
July 3, 2019
Secretary Bernhardt siphoned $2.5 million in Park Service fee revenue from needed maintenance projects and visitor services to pay for President Trump’s expensive July Fourth spectacle on the National Mall. This was the second time this year that Bernhardt diverted national park visitor fees for something other than their intended purpose. The Government Accountability Office recently determined that Bernhardt’s first instance of misappropriating these funds, to keep national parks open during the government shutdown last winter, was illegal.
3. Final plans that gut protections for two national monuments.
July 26 and August 23, 2019
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) moved forward on two final management plans that could potentially open what remains of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments to new threats and will leave cultural sites, adjacent parklands and scientifically significant lands vulnerable to the impacts of development. President Trump illegally slashed the size of Bears Ears by 1 million acres and Grand Staircase-Escalante by roughly 800,000 acres in 2017. Under the final plans, only a small percentage of the lands designated under the monuments’ original proclamations are protected. These plans threaten lands and artifacts that are both within the new boundaries and cut from the original boundaries.
4. Regulations that weaken the Endangered Species Act.
August 12, 2019
The Trump administration released final regulations gutting the Endangered Species Act, the bedrock law that has served for decades as the nation’s most effective tool in saving wildlife from extinction. The new plan makes it much more difficult to protect threatened species, delaying lifesaving action until a population is potentially impossible to save. The plan also makes it more difficult to protect species such as polar bears and corals that are harmed by the climate crisis, it allows staff to analyze economic factors when deciding if a species should be saved, and it makes it easier for companies to build roads, pipelines, mines and other industrial projects in habitat areas that are essential to imperiled species’ survival.
5. An expensive and counterproductive reorganization of Interior Department staff.
August 19, 2019
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The Interior Department consolidated 49 offices across eight bureaus into a reporting structure that creates 12 new regional offices. The unnecessary and costly administrative shakeup lacked clear reasoning or transparency and will force the relocation or resignation of several hundred experienced staff members, mainly in Washington, D.C. New “field special assistants” will be hired to support each of these new regions in a manner yet to be determined, and DOI political appointees and career staff may have the power to overrule Park Service regional directors with political priorities and decisions that could run counter to conservation. These shifts come at a time when several Interior agencies, including the Park Service, lack permanent directors to guide the transition.
6. Guidance advising states to ignore rules protecting parks from air pollution.
August 20, 2019
The EPA released final guidance on its Regional Haze Rule, a program that requires federal and state agencies to work together to restore clear skies to national parks and wilderness areas. However, the new guidance offers little direction to states, removes guidelines to adopt the best available pollution controls, and disregards science, discouraging states from using effective technical strategies such as computer modeling to develop pollution reduction plans.
7. A draft study that advances the proposed “road to ruin” through Gates of the Arctic.
August 24, 2019
The BLM released a draft environmental impact statement advancing a project to build a 220-mile mining road across a vast roadless tundra in Alaska. It would cut across the country’s second largest national park and disrupt the land the Western Arctic Caribou Herd uses to migrate. The sole purpose for the road is to provide private industrial access to a proposed mining district surrounded on three sides by the largest contiguous acreage of parklands in the entire National Park System.
8. The lease of 30,000 acres of land near Hovenweep National Monument for energy development.
September 11, 2019
Despite opposition from tribal, business, conservation and recreation industry leaders, the BLM sold thousands of acres of land for oil and gas development around Hovenweep National Monument, a park recognized for its dark night skies and rich cultural heritage. Energy infrastructure near the park would not only change the character of the region, it could harm attempts to preserve the area’s cultural legacy. Only a small percentage of the land around the monument has been surveyed for archaeological sites.
9. The repeal of the Clean Water Rule.
September 12, 2019
The administration dismantled the Clean Water Rule, eliminating protections for U.S. rivers, lakes and streams and paving the way for more pollution from mining, manufacturing and large farms. The 2015 rule, developed with bipartisan support, ended confusion over which waters were protected by the Clean Water Act. The repeal will affect the quality of the water that millions of Americans depend on for drinking, fishing and swimming.
10. New guidance monitoring Park Service employee comments on development projects.
September 19, 2019
Park Service Acting Deputy Director David Vela issued a memo in August, leaked to the public earlier this month, instructing field offices to notify headquarters in Washington, D.C., before submitting comments on energy development proposals and other projects affecting the health of national parks. The memo advised staff to be ready to submit draft comments for review on request. The new guidance would effectively hinder or censor staff members using their expertise to oppose or influence development near parks.
Bernhardt, Wheeler and other administration officials have consistently demonstrated a dismissive and destructive approach to managing the resources in their care. Their actions have put national parks and public lands and waters in jeopardy, disregarded sound science, undermined solutions to climate change, and evaded public input and accountability.
Fortunately, the harmful actions of Bernhardt, Wheeler and others will not go unchecked. NPCA has spent 100 years fighting for national parks, and we remain steadfast in our mission to protect them. None of these actions are a done deal, and we are continuing to work passionately to undo the damage — taking the fight to the courts, oversight agencies, states and other avenues — to ensure the highest level of protections for our nation’s parks and public lands.
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.