Environment, Government, Public Health

Bad times in US for protected lands, species

September 4, 2019 |4:48 min read

Unrelenting push for rollbacks on environment

Oxbow Bend Sunrise (Grand Teton National Park). Photo by Ken Lane via Flickr / Creative Commons.

Since being elected in 2016, the current president has been accused of mercurial behavior on many fronts. However, when it comes to the environment, he has been unrelenting in his consistency to roll back the policies and regulations of presidents who came before him, especially presidents Clinton and Obama. (See “84 Environmental Rules Being Rolled Back Under Trump,” in The New York Times.)

Mexican spotted owlet, in Zion National Park. Mexican spotted owls belong to a threatened species in the U.S. and Mexico. NPS photo via Zion NPS Flickr.

Proposals in recent weeks have been especially alarming due to potential long-term consequences. The president announced weakening of protections for endangered species and against release of methane into the environment. He then threatened further assault on national parks and protected lands in pandering to loggers, miners, developers and others, who want to exploit these vital and vulnerable spaces for private commercial uses. Next, it is likely that he will seek to undo Obama’s rules for fuel-efficient vehicles. Each of these reversals could have long-term, negative effects on the environment and human health. In the case of methane, for example, higher mortality from methane exposure could be among the negative consequences.

Administration policies are not driven by evidence. On the contrary, these policies are driven by partisanship, greed and rejection of evidence that shows how exploitation by industries can damage the environment forever, undermining the values under which this country was formed. Administration policies also could harm the significant economic benefits of tourism, fish habitats and activities associated with national parks and proximity to them. Recent New York Times articles showed that drilling and other encroachments on the lands’ habitats could destroy their equilibrium forever. The Times’ editorial board said that for “sheer hostility to environmental values, Donald Trump has no equal.” Among the victims of the president’s most recent policies will be the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

El Capitan, Yosemite National Park. Photo by Robbie Shade via Flickr / Creative Commons.

I wish that, before creating these policies, the president could be made to take a tour of the national parks. Spending time in the western wilderness propelled Theodore Roosevelt, our conservationist-minded 26th president from 1901 – 1909, to establish 230 million acres of public lands, by creating the U.S. Forest Service, naming 150 national forests and greatly expanding our nascent national park system, now one of the country’s greatest assets. From A (Acadia) to Z (Zion), these parks are among the most valuable real estate in the U.S. when it comes to natural beauty; opportunities for a cross-section of people to understand our country’s origins and connect with the land; room for solitude, and flourishing of the environment. National rivers, scenic trails, seashores, even lakeshores and more also are maintained by the National Park Service. The National Wildlife Refuge System is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All these natural places attract millions of tourists each year to local towns, where they spend money on outdoor gear, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds and groceries.

National parks we visited on our post-graduation road trip are circled in blue. Three more personal favorites are circled in green. Image courtesy of Wikimedia.

The summer after I graduated from college, a group of us took a coming-of-age journey as we pooled our meager resources and piled into a VW van to explore southwestern and western national parks. What we saw (see blue-circled parks on map above) has stayed with me through the decades: the sheer grandeur of the Grand Canyon, so humbling to the small scale of humans; the steep mountains of Yosemite; beautiful rock formations of Zion and Bryce; waking up to bison and snow in June, as we camped in the magnificent Grand Tetons; the rugged coast of California to the Cascades in Oregon; the Olympic peninsula in Washington; the Badlands in South Dakota — all before heading back to Michigan.

Grand Canyon, Mather Point. NPS photo by W.Tyson Joye / public domain.

We learned about the geologic history of our country, hiked for hours each day, camped in the heat, rain and snow, and nearly ran out of money when some members of the group thought they could beat the tables in Las Vegas (never been back there). I returned with an appreciation for the majesty of this country that has never left me. What I have learned over time is that while those huge surfaces are daunting in size, they are more fragile than they appear and susceptible to harm caused by human intervention.

Of all the parks I’ve seen, my favorite is Acadia National Park (circled in green on map above), in Maine, which my husband I visited several times. (Saguaro, in Arizona, and Shenandoah, in Virginia, also are personal favorites.) There is almost nothing as exciting as watching the sun set on Cadillac Mountain as people cheer each night. What they’re cheering for really is the regularity and predictability of nature, which is being threatened by our misuse of the planet. I want future generations to have the kind of experience I had in my 20s. If today’s policies persist, millions of people could lose access, as millions of acres of parks and protected lands are opened for commercial use. That’s as valuable a part of the country’s heritage as anything we own.

Sunset from Cadillac Mountain (Acadia National Park). Photo by Silver Starre via Flickr / Creative Commons.

The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.