“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources.”
Teddy Roosevelt, Republican and 26th president of the United States.
Earlier this month, the Trump Administration enacted what the New York Times has called “the most sweeping set of changes in decades” to regulations governing America’s Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The changes weaken protections for endangered species while allowing companies to build roads, mines, or pipelines in crucial habitats.
In a press release, officials said that the modifications would improve the law by reducing regulatory burdens and simplifying application.
“The Act’s effectiveness rests on clear, consistent, and efficient implementation,” said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt, a former fossil fuel lobbyist. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”
The overhaul revises how the US Fish and Wildlife Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration consider whether species qualify for protection.
The new regulations also alter how the agencies determine which habitats deserve safeguarding.
“No Sleep Lost”
It is impossible to overlook the underlying objectives behind the revisions. Apart from the good-old-fashioned grafter’s glee, there is also President Donald Trump’s undeniable dream of how things should be.
Trump’s assault on America’s wildlife – and the environment at large – has been years in the making, after all. And Bernhardt has stood by him all the way.
In May, when Democrats asked the good interior secretary what he thought about the historic levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Bernhardt replied, “I haven’t lost any sleep over it.”
The former oil lobbyist’s dismantling of the ESA – and conservation, in general – began early on.
Bernhardt was a shareholder in Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, which he first joined as an associate in 1998. He became the firm’s chairman for the practice of natural resources law in 2009.
His clients at the time included Halliburton, Cobalt International Energy, Samson Resources, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
During his tenure as acting deputy of the US Interior Department, Bernhardt played a critical role in Trump’s “energy dominance” agenda.
When most of the Interior Department staff was on furlough during the shutdown, the agency continued approving leases and permits for oil and gas drilling.
Later on, Bernhardt played a key role in the rollback of protections for the sage grouse, whose refuge overlaps oil-rich land in the West.
For years, the ESA was an extraordinarily potent piece of legislation, and target for various US lawmakers allegedly under corporate America’s influence.
In the business part of Washington, there is a different idea of “refuge.” From there, corporate ambition surrounds the conservation effort –and, in an increasingly blunt way, besieges it.
While climate change and wildlife extinction is a severe reality everywhere else, it is apparently less real, less substantial in Washington.
Before the Trump administration’s revisions, the ESA had fangs, wings, and talons. Take those away and you reduce scientists, conservationists, and climate advocates to hand-wringing impotence.
And experts say that is exactly what the new rules do!
They make it easier to roll back federal protections for endangered or threatened species. They make it harder for citizens’ groups to petition to have new species protected under the law.
An Illegal Gift?
“This effort to gut protections for endangered and threatened species has the same two features of most Trump administration actions: it’s a gift to industry, and it’s illegal,” says Drew Caputo, Earthjustice vice president for litigation for lands, wildlife, and oceans.
The new rules establish costly impediments for legal advocates who want to use the courts to enforce the ESA. They likewise permit additional influence to state and local governments that industries control.
The open attack on the environment and the conservation movement does not end there.
Through a series of carefully worded policy statements, the Trump administration has exempted officials from protecting habitat threatened by climate change.
“It looks like they’re trying to say, if you are a sea-ice dependent species we’re not going to protect that sea ice habitat as critical habitat,” says Rebecca Riley, the legal director of the Nature Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Jamie Rappaport Clark, who led the Fish and Wildlife Service during the Clinton administration, agrees, saying the policy changes are “devastating.”
“There is nothing biologically positive about the rules,” says Clark. “We will argue that they are illegal.”
“Conservation as National Duty”
Human activity threatens one million species throughout the world, according to a United Nations report issued earlier this year.
Dwindling habitat, the exploitation of natural resources, climate change, and pollution are the main drivers of extinction.
These same forces threaten more than 40 percent of the planet’s amphibians, 33 percent of coral reefs, and over a third of all marine mammals.
Whatever else may be wrong with it, lying much closer to the heart of Trump’s tinkering with the ESA is the undoing of a spirit that better Americans had once embraced.
“We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources,” Roosevelt Warned.
“But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil, and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation,” the 26th President added.
Roosevelt made the statement in a speech titled “Conservation as National Duty,” which he delivered during the Conference of Governors in 1908.
Today, a little over a hundred years later, something akin to a movie villain’s contrivance is unfolding in the American capital.
Teddy Roosevelt isn’t around to stop it.
Will the American Eagle survive this all-out assault?