Our nation’s foundational environmental laws are a little like air—something you don’t really notice until it’s gone, or is so diluted that it’s hard to breathe. Like air, we take these laws for granted, easily forgetting that not so long ago lead was allowed in water pipes and paint, and industries could spew just about any pollutant they wanted into our air and waterways. Fewer and fewer people remember a time when the Cuyahoga River—a veritable soup of industrial chemicals—caught fire. We forget (or never knew) that bald eagles, grizzly bears, and wolves were nearly driven to extinction in the contiguous Unites States. This phenomenon is referred to as shifting baseline syndrome: a gradual change in accepted norms for the condition of the natural environment due to lack of past information or lack of experience of past conditions.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act (ESA), and other keystone environmental laws and their implementing regulations have provided a safety net for the commons for over 40 years. Through these laws, we are able to engage in public processes for decisions that affect wildlands, air, water, wildlife, and climate. The fact that American rivers no longer burn and people can and do see eagles, wolves, bears, and other imperiled and once-imperiled species in the wild is due to the passage of these laws a generation ago and the advocacy by citizens and nonprofit organizations that ensures they are enforced and remain effective. Today, we take for granted that most—though still not all—of the air in this country is safe to breathe and water safe to drink.
Our tendency toward complacency is dangerous. At a time of crisis—with only a handful of years left to truly address the threats of climate change—environmental laws are under attack like never before. Because of the bipartisan popularity of such laws, the attacks have shifted from efforts to rescind the laws to undermining how they are implemented.
The New York Times recently reported that the Trump administration has already rolled back over 90 environmental rules and regulations, with more slated for the coming months. The somewhat wonky regulations that enable enforcement of the laws are being weakened. Public participation is being undermined. Access to the courts is being limited. These changes may seem insignificant, but have no doubt: They have real on-the-ground damaging impacts. This wholesale corrosion of conservation laws is akin to thinning the air so much that we can no longer breathe. The substance is still technically air, but it doesn’t provide the oxygen necessary for life.
One of these vital laws—the Endangered Species Act—protects not only individual imperiled animals, but also the habitat critical to the species survival and recovery. The protections of the ESA are often referred to as an emergency room for threatened and endangered animals: The medical treatment includes providing adequate habitat and safeguarding it from the very activities imperiling the animals, such as logging and fossil fuel development.
The administration, however, is seeking to limit what lands may be designated as “critical habitat”—eliminating designations of land not currently occupied and prohibiting consideration of effects on the climate. These regulatory changes would undermine the capacity of the law to apply the precautionary principle and protect lands that species need to survive in the short term, as well as recover to the point where the protections of the law are no longer necessary in the long term. The changes also remove the flexibility built into the law to address unexpected challenges that result from a combination of threats. These planned changes are on top of earlier regulatory alterations undermining the law that have already been pushed through by the administration. (The PAW and FIN Conservation Act, currently before Congress, seeks to reverse these damaging alterations. See page 4 of this issue.)
Many species are in serious trouble. From the recently documented precipitous drop in songbird populations (see AWI Quarterly, fall 2019), to the decline of red wolves and the possible winking out of fireflies, wildlife are facing myriad and increasing threats. The systems in place to defend against those threats are themselves threatened by a federal administration bent on prioritizing resource extraction at any cost.
Another law under attack by the administration—the National Environmental Policy Act—provides the public an opportunity to weigh in on federal agency decisions that may affect the environment. Put simply, NEPA requires government agencies to assess the environmental impacts of their decisions and consider available options, while allowing the public to voice concerns and ask questions during the decision-making process.
NEPA has enabled hundreds of millions of Americans to participate in this process. In many cases, without NEPA, the public would not have an opportunity to contribute to the conversation about potentially dirty and dangerous projects—from our own backyards to the nation’s last remaining truly wild places. NEPA is intended to inform and empower communities, while demanding government accountability and transparency.
The administration’s proposed changes to NEPA put corporate profits before communities’ concerns, limit the scope and timeframe of environmental impacts that agencies must consider, and allow companies to conduct their own reviews—diminishing the very transparency that NEPA is meant to uphold. Further, these proposed changes would eliminate consideration of effects on the climate.
As the impacts of climate change hit home here in the United States, we are likely to face increasing occurrence and severity of unnatural disasters. If the United States were to experience fires or other climate-change-induced disasters at the scale of those that have recently ravaged Australia, it would be these key environmental laws that would help us recover. We cannot afford to see them diluted. To ensure that we protect the habitat of rare and imperiled wildlife, we must address the root drivers of climate change and defend the laws designed to protect wildlife. All of us must take a stand against the systematic dismantling of laws that safeguard our environment. We can’t afford to have them vanish into thin air.