Monday, March 13, 2017 Blog

Soaring with eagles. Republicans don’t hate the environment. Aldo Leopold vs. Don Young vs. wolves. Victory for the ocean. It ain’t over! I-526 redux, again.

by Andy Hollis


We had a wonderful trip to Bull’s Island this Saturday, including a prolonged encounter with a bald eagle.

The recovery of bald eagles in America, from fewer than 450 breeding pairs in the 1960s to tens of thousands today is one of the great conservation success stories. (US Fish and Wildlife stopped counting eagles in 2007 when the bird was removed from the endangered species list.)  Like hundreds of other animals and plants, rivers and streams, forests and wetlands in America, the bald eagle thrives today in large part because of the laws, programs and agencies that were created in the 1970s.

It didn’t have to happen that way, and it wouldn’t have under our current president.  In case anyone is still uncertain about President Trump’s environmental intentions, this week’s news should bring those intentions into sharp focus.

The Administration, in conjunction with the most polarized Congress in recent history, is moving rapidly to defund, dismantle, purge or eviscerate virtually every environmental law, program and agency in the federal repertoire – the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Antiquities Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, to name some of the high profile examples.  For the sake of space and time, I’m not including articles on every one of these, but you can Google the ones I’ve omitted.

This first article, from Scientific American, explains the impact on drinking water of withdrawing the EPA rule protecting “ephemeral or intermittent” streams, (also known, roughly, as “headwaters” streams). From the article:

The EPA estimates that one in three Americans—about 117 million people—draw all or some of their water from public drinking water systems that depend at least partly on the streams which the Clean Water Rule would protect.

The article has an excellent map showing the percentage of water supplies that depends on these soon to be unprotected waters, so you can figure out what this means for your personal reservoir.

This next article from the Washington Post, by William H. Hooke, a senior policy fellow at the American Meteorological Society, makes my first point – that the work of the EPA and its fellow science agencies, implementing an array of federal laws over the past half of a century has produced stunning successes in the environmental arena.  (The photograph is telling.)

Rivers that once shone with the colors of the rainbow from industrial pollution, and occasionally spontaneously combusted, are vastly cleaner than they were, because of the Clean Water Act and the EPA.  Many are once again, to use the unartful language describing the goals of the Act, “fishable and swimmable.”  Cities that choked on toxic smog are now almost pristine.  Species that were on the verge of disappearing are back in force.

But, as most people know, we have much more to do to secure a healthy future for Americans and for the animals that occupy the continent with us.  If anything, the threats and challenges are greater and more complex than those we faced, and with the help of new federal laws and agencies, resolved, the in late 20th century.

Ostensibly underlying the Trump administration’s agenda of reigning in agencies and laws is the belief that protecting the environment is harmful to businesses.  Those would presumably be the same businesses that soared under the environmental regulations that have been in place for almost fifty years.

The argument just doesn’t hold water (clean or otherwise).  The real problem is that the Administration is populated with people who do not understand or believe in the importance of a healthy environment or the science surrounding it.

The most stunning example of this, at least in the last seven days, is EPA director Scott Pruitt’s statement that CO2 is not a significant greenhouse gas.  This article from the New York Times reports on that pronouncement.  From the article:

Mr. Pruitt’s statement contradicts decades of research and analysis by international scientific institutions and federal agencies, including the E.P.A. His remarks on Thursday, which were more categorical than similar testimony before the Senate, may also put him in conflict with laws and regulations that the E.P.A. is charged with enforcing.

You may think this is just the pendulum swinging away from environmental protection under a new Republican regime.  But that point of view would be historically incorrect.

One person who knows this is William Ruckelshaus, who was the first head of the EPA, under President Richard Nixon, and then was summoned back by Ronald Reagan to deal with the chaos created by President Reagan’s initial agency environmental appointments – Anne Gorsuch as head of the EPA, and James Watt as head of the Department of Interior.

In this editorial from the New York Times, Mr. Ruckelshaus explains the importance of effective environmental policies and regulations… for businesses as well as citizens.  In his words:

A strong and credible regulatory regime is essential to the smooth functioning of our economy. Unless people believe their health and the environment are being safeguarded, they will withdraw their permission for companies to do business. The chemical industry executives who came in to see me that day (while he was awaiting Senate confirmation) felt this loss of public support and were asking me to reassure Americans that the government would do its job to protect them…

To me, the E.P.A. represents one of the clearest examples of our political system listening and responding to the American people. The public will tolerate changes that allow the agency to meet its mandated goals more efficiently and effectively. They will not tolerate changes that threaten their health or the precious environment.

These are the lessons President Reagan learned in 1983. We would all do well to heed them.

It is worth recalling that the foundational laws of environmental protection – protecting clean air and restoring endangered species, along with the National Environmental Policy Act – were signed by President Richard Nixon.  President George H.W. Bush instituted the national policy of “no net loss of wetlands” nationwide and established the program that curbed acid rain.  The predecessor of the Clean Water Act was signed by President Dwight Eisenhower.  And I won’t even start on Teddy Roosevelt…

The point is that this administration is historically unique, among Republican or Democratic administrations, in its virulent animosity toward conservation.  We have entered a new era that, in this respect, has no precedent in U.S. political history.  Let’s hope it elicits a similarly unprecedented reaction.

The Administration seems to have inspired a free for all in Congress.  In this article from the Washington Post, Kathleen Parker denounces the efforts of Congressman Don Young, R. Alaska, to remove a rule that prohibits “baiting, trapping and denning” of bears and wolves in Alaska’s wildlife “refuges.”

Ms. Parker reports that Rep. Young “told of entering wolf dens and killing mothers and pups back when he worked as a bounty hunter of predators.”  One has to wonder whether this was supposed to build support for his proposal.

It reminds me of one of Aldo Leopold’s best known stories.  Leopold, like Young, was also a bounty hunter during his early years, but, unlike Young, he had the insight and compassion to recant, rather than brag about, his exploits.  From “Thinking Like a Mountain”:

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes – something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters’ paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

So enough about Washington!  We’ll leave Leopold with the final word.

Columbia was more of a mixed bag (so to speak) this week.  The good news is that the effort to prohibit local governments from banning single use plastic bags is dead for the year, thanks to a strong and persistent outpouring of public opposition.  (Democracy DOES work, in many cases.)

This article from the Post and Courier reports on the victory and quotes Katie Zimmerman, who has led the effort for the Conservation League.

Katie said, “Today’s vote reaffirms the commitment of the South Carolina House of Representatives to the principles of home rule and local solutions to local problems.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Eric Bedingfield said he was hopeful that someone in the Senate would introduce a similar bill to enable the General Assembly to tackle the legislation this year. “I’m very concerned that between now and the time we can take the issue up again that there may be more negative bans put in place around the state,” he said. “We’ll take another strike at the iron when it’s time.”

If there was ever a call to action for local governments concerned about plastic bag pollution, this is it!

Things have not gone quite as well with the bill to remove (now to shorten) the “automatic stay.” The stay basically hits the pause button when citizens or conservation groups appeal a permit (since moving forward with projects under appeal could render the appeal moot).

As Sammy Fretwell writes in the State, the Senate voted overwhelmingly to accelerate debate on the bill, which received a third reading last Thursday.  The House still has to approve the bill.  And then it will need to be signed by Governor Henry McMaster.  In the immortal words of “Bluto” Blutarsky (of Animal House fame), “It ain’t over until it’s over!”

Finally, speaking of things not being over, the Conservation League’s Jason Crowley responds to Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg’s op-ed on I-526, in his own Post and Courier op-ed.–won-t-work-as-advertised/article_7f16f9aa-05e1-11e7-8f4b-cbc3931ddf25.html

Jason says:

I offer the wisdom of just about every transportation expert who has studied the problem of traffic jams in cities since the 1960s: “You can’t build your way out of congestion.” 

…  There simply isn’t enough money to build the Mark Clark extension and pay for the more important transportation infrastructure solutions in the region. Our elected officials are making promises to come up with the money to try to please members of the South Carolina Infrastructure Bank, but so far have offered no specific funding sources.

…  So driven by their ambition to create this legacy project, Mayor Tecklenburg and others are blind to what so many Charleston leaders saw before them: The cost is too great and the benefit is too small.

I’ll let Jason have the last word locally.

Have a great week!


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