Interior Department Takes Steps to Make America Great Again
Amidst the angst-ridden media attention paid to President Donald Trump’s efforts to carry out his campaign promises to deemphasize the speculative dangers of climate change and focus federal efforts on the real problems people face today -- including energy and jobs -- the Interior Department (DOI) under new Secretary Ryan Zinke has quietly gone about implementing Trump’s vision.
DOI acted quickly to reduce federal interference with state wildlife management and energy development decisions and scale back the regulatory burden on energy production.
On his last day as director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), January 19th, Dan Ashe issued a directive to phase out the use of lead ammunition and fishing tackle on the 307 million acres of federal land controlled by the agency.
Professional wildlife managers within FWS and their partners in state wildlife agencies were taken aback by the order. The Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), which represents the 50 states’ fish and wildlife agencies, issued a press statement expressing “utter dismay” over the FWS action.
“The Association views this Order as a breach of trust and deeply disappointing given that it was a complete surprise and there was no current dialogue or input from state fish and wildlife agencies prior to issuance,” AFWA President Nick Wiley said in the statement
In an interview I conducted with John Jackson III, president of Conservation Force, Jackson said Ashe’s last-minute action was a “payoff” to radical environmentalists.
“This directive skipped the normal regulatory process, including scientific and public input, with good reason, because there is no sound conservation basis for the order,” said Jackson. “The lack of process was unconscionable and speaks for itself. This was clearly a payoff by the outgoing Obama administration to radical environmental allies.”
Ashe’s directive did not last long. As one of his first official acts as secretary of the Interior Department, on March 2, Zinke rescinded Ashe’s lead ban.
Also on the wildlife management front, using the Congressional Review Act, Congress rescinded an Obama-era takeover of wildlife management on public lands in Alaska. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter designated 157 million acres of Alaskan land through the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) as national parks, national wildlife refuges, national monuments, wild and scenic rivers, recreational areas, national forests, and conservation areas. As part of a compromise with the State of Alaska for seizing so much land, the federal government recognized Alaska’s authority to manage various natural resources, including fish and wildlife, on the vast majority of the lands covered by the law.
The Obama administration undermined that authority in late 2016, when FWS took over management of more than 78 million acres of land previously under the control of the State of Alaska under ANILCA.
The Republican-led Congress reversed the Obama takeover, and Zinke moved quickly to rescind the regulations.
DOI has also been active on the energy and infrastructure development front. Following executive orders from Trump to review and rescind unnecessary and unjustified limits on energy production on public lands, Zinke signed the “energy independence” directive on March 29.
The order ends DOI’s moratorium on issuing new coal leases, revokes its policies requiring environmental assessments and mitigation efforts in response to climate-change concerns, directs the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to “expeditiously” rescind its hydraulic fracturing regulations, ends duplicative, fracking fluid reporting requirements, and gives the agency 21 days to review its recent methane flaring rule to determine whether it is consistent with Trump’s energy independence orders.
Going further, Zinke gave all bureaus and offices 21 days to identify regulations potentially hamstringing the “development or utilization of domestically produced energy resources, with particular attention to oil, natural gas, coal and nuclear resources.”
Zinke’s directive requires a “reexamination of the mitigation policies and practices across the Department of the Interior... in order to better balance conservation strategies and policies with the equally legitimate need of creating jobs for hard-working American families.”
Not content to limit his attention to wildlife and energy issues, Zinke also looked at how DOI can improve water access and use in periodically drought-stricken California. President Barack Obama had blocked a California project intended to pump Mojave Desert groundwater through a pipeline to cities in Southern California. Estimates are the Cadiz Water project could reliably fill the water needs of more than 400,000 Californians annually while generating nearly 6,000 local jobs and $1 billion in economic growth.
Cadiz planned to use an existing federal railroad right-of-way for a new water pipeline to carry supplies from the project’s proposed wells to the Colorado River Aqueduct. In 1989, the Interior Department solicitor determined the 1875 railroad law allowed railroads to authorize other uses for their rights-of-way with without Interior Department approval.
In a 2015 memo, Obama’s BLM revoked that decision, meaning Cadiz would have to go through an expensive, multi-year federal environmental review to construct a pipeline on federal land.
Proving Obama was right “elections have consequences,” on March 29, Timothy Spisak, acting assistant director for the BLM’s Division of Energy, Minerals, and Realty Management, signed a memorandum reversing the Obama administration’s 2015 memo blocking the use of the railroad right-of-way for the water pipeline.
Zinke and Trump are of one mind on the critical role America’s public lands can play in ensuring job growth, continued economic progress, and energy security. They are acting in the public interest to reverse overweening federal interference with on-the-ground management decisions, driven by radical environmentalists within the previous Obama administration.
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a research fellow for energy and the environment at The Heartland Institute, a nonpartisan, nonprofit research center headquartered in Arlington Heights, Illinois.