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A bipartisan need for conservation

(This essay was provided to the League for reprint by Theodore Roosevelt IV,  great-grandson of President Teddy Roosevelt. The essay was written in the first quarter of 2020 and appeared in The Explorers Log, Volume 52.1, Winter 2020. Cover image: Lincoln Else.) 

By Theodore Roosevelt IV

Eighteen years ago, serendipity took me to the banks of the Kongakut River in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, close to the Canadian border. Getting there was not easy.

I joined a friend in Fairbanks, intending to charter a small plane to fly over the Brooks Range to join other friends on the Kongakut. Well, intense storms waylaid us to — and nearly stranded us in — Prudhoe Bay. I was set up for contrast: the work of human hands versus Nature’s.

Prudhoe Bay is essentially an industrial site. Oil fields cover more than 200,000 acres with over 1000 wells, pumping stations, roads, drilling pads, transit lines, processing plants and the origin of the huge Alyeska Pipeline. The visual impact of the site on what had been an unsullied wilderness was profoundly disturbing. Thankfully, through improvisation and local good will, my friend and I were able to acquire a small plane and escape to our intended destination. We landed on the gravel banks of the Kongakut River with the eerie midnight sun as guide. Our friends welcomed us warmly — with cold beer.

Sunset over the Brooks Range on the Kongakut River. (Dave Shreffler)

Around 2:00 at night, tucked gratefully away from the cold in a sleeping bag and tent, a strange symphony roused me — staccato click, clicks, deep grunts and gentle mewing. Puzzled, I got up and opened my tent. Flowing around our three tents were countless caribou cows with their calves like salmon swimming upstream around big boulders. When I stepped out of my tent the cows were not unduly alarmed, they just gave my tent a wider berth. Each cow made a strategic decision as she crossed the Kongakut River: cross where it was wide and braided or narrow and deep with swift water. If they chose the latter option, their calf was likely to be swept away and possibly drown. With that observation came the realization that the harsh environment exacted a steep toll on the caribou. How much greater would it be if we opened the coastal plain to drilling and replicated a version of Prudhoe Bay?

The Porcupine caribou herd during the migration out of the Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the coastal plain of which serves as the herd’s calving grounds. (Peter Mather)

Among the losses: this great migration under the midnight sun, yes; one of the last truly wild places, yes; also, a unique human culture, the indigenous Gwich’in would lose their way of life. Is this the choice we want to make: the ephemeral sourcing of energy over an eternal landscape? Sadly, the Trump administration has now opened the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge to drilling. It is an obscene decision; one for which we have been laying tracks for a long time.

We are coming full cycle in a decades-long series of economic disruptions and cultural dislocations for which coastal elites are partly responsible, and which they ignored to their peril. A lack of understanding and willingness to address the costs of globalization, technology and poor education for too many Americans has resulted in a political backlash that led to this administration. What has been unresolved and neglected now needs to be faced and addressed more adequately and with more respect for differing views and ways of life. Conservation must become — in short — truly bipartisan. Or, it will fail. That means that we must be willing to consider solutions generated from those living closest to the resource. Rural communities continue to support President Trump, despite the toll taken on them by the ongoing trade wars. As they tell me, they see his policies as a temporary disruption versus liberal policies which they fear will erase them from the landscape.

Much of our rhetoric around climate change rings an ill-considered death knell for rural ways of life. The opposition to pastoralists is one of the most misguided climate change prescriptions, even as scientists increasingly find that it is the plains that hold the greatest possibility for carbon sequestration. The problem in terms of improving the health of that ecosystem? Removing people and herds from it are a dead end. Those lands require well managed grazing by herbivores, which are also instrumental in helping reduce the tinder load on national forests. In short, environmentalists ceded solidarity with rural working people to Trump. We failed to remember there are also people in these places — with histories and families and cultures and ways of life as valuable to them and our nation as any other.

Under the umbrella of rural economic restoration and cultural protection from environmentalists, Trump’s land use policies are now at full destructive throttle:

  • The administration supports a Canadian company’s efforts to develop a gold mine on the headwaters of Bristol Bay. This is the last large wild-salmon fishery left in the world, employing a far larger number of people than would be created by the development of the gold mine which would destroy this fishery.
  • The administration supports a Chilean company which wants to develop a mine on the edge of the Boundary Waters Wilderness utilizing a horribly destructive mining technology that threatens a pristine water resource.
  • The administration is flouting the Antiquities Act by reducing the boundaries of the Grand Staircase Escalante and Bear’s Ears national monuments by 85%. No other administration has undermined the designations made by other presidents. The administration is embarked on a strategy to maximize the production of energy from the nation’s public lands with a failure to balance ecological costs.
  • The administration should use its political capital to insist Congress increase funding for our national parks. The maintenance backlog which has grown over decades of neglect to $12 billion could be eliminated in a handful of years rather than allowed to continue for decades more. More money needs to be invested in monitoring and measuring the impact of increased visitation and climate change on our national parks. Housing for Park Service employees should meet HUD standards. Asking Park Service employees to live in substandard housing is unfair to them and a poor reflection on us as a nation.
  • An early harbinger of the administration’s view about conservation was its decision in 2017 to gut the 100-year-old Migratory Bird Treaty Act effectively by eliminating its prohibition of the killing or taking of birds in an “incidental” take from industrial activities. Under the new rule the Act’s protections would only apply to activities that purposefully kill birds. Any “incidental,” even if clearly inevitable, is now immune from enforcement under the law. For decades both Democratic and Republican administrations interpreted the Act to include “incidental” takings.
  • Recently, the President announced he would revise the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to remove barriers to development. NEPA is one of most consequential environmental laws passed in the last half century and has been essential in keeping the right balance between development and conservation. Tilting the balance wholly in favor of development is morally wrong and shows a total absence of foresight in understanding the costs in terms clean water and air.
Bristol Bay continues to produce the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and one of the most prolific king salmon runs left on earth. (Screen-grab: Save Bristol Bay, Trout Unlimited, Fly Out Media)

The Department of the Interior has ceased to honor its stated commitments and is offering oil and gas leases in the heart of wildlife corridors and cold-water fish refuges. It also must honor those collaborative solutions already reached for managing wildlife, such as the sage grouse, instead of undermining efforts that represent true bipartisan cooperation among Western governors, rural stakeholders and environmentalists — the accomplishments that need to be built upon and rewarded.

Not since the opposition to Galileo’s and Copernicus’ views that the earth circled the sun have we seen a government so opposed to science. This administration is with great deliberation trying to suppress good science in the EPA, Departments of the Interior, Agriculture and Defense. Unfortunately, many of the administration’s cabinet officials don’t understand that censoring or suppressing science will have a material negative impact on future economic growth.

The most obvious example of this is the administration’s opposition to the science of climate change. Even the scientists on the Environmental Protection Agency Advisory Board, appointed by the administration, disagree with several of the most far reaching decisions taken by the administration to weaken existing environmental regulations, including curbing vehicle tailpipe emissions and restricting the use of scientific data to draft health regulations. The longer we delay in the response to climate, the higher the cost.

Nature and humankind will not be saved solely by the preservation of public lands in Alaska and the West, but they are a vital part of a mosaic of ecosystems that must remain resilient and intact in the face of climate dislocations and upheavals. Place by specific place, with good will, local knowledge and input, and human application, we need to ensure optimum health in our land and water systems as well as for the rural communities dependent on them. We cannot afford to draw down natural capital; we must be building it up. That often means investment in the communities dependent on these resources, who are best positioned to defend and restore them.

This administration has the least interest in conservation or the environment of any prior administration. I am not certain that Trump can change, but we can. We can open the door to better conversations with one another and with Congress. We are not a people who sacrifice what endures for what is ephemeral. We can stand with ranchers and the health of the high plains; we can stand with the Gwich’in people as they follow the world’s longest migration; we can stand with what we love and what has always inspired us: the great sweeping places that once built greatness in us.

Mr. Roosevelt is Board Chair of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, Secretary of The Climate Reality Project, a member of the Governing Council of the Wilderness Society, and a Trustee for the American Museum of Natural History. He is also the great grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt.