A Midterm Lay of the Land: Conservation


The 2018 election is now behind us, with a new Congress, new governors and new state legislators about to grapple with America’s biggest challenges.

Every two years, Frontier Group analysts take a step back to review the “lay of the land” on their issue areas. This is the fifth in a series of posts over the next several weeks reviewing the threats and opportunities facing the American people, our communities, and our environment.

Our country’s treasured lands, oceans and species are vulnerable to the growing impact of human activity. Without more responsible, forward-thinking management and respect for these places and species, we risk losing the things we love and value most about them.

Soon after the Trump administration took office in 2017, it launched an assault on our lands, oceans and vulnerable species. By July 2018, the administration had worked to undo over 70 environmental protections and publicly touted its belief that the role of environmental regulations is to “enhance economic growth.”

Since January 2017, the current administration has opened the door for oil and gas development in over 40 national parks, shrunk two national monuments and put as many as 40 others under review for possible rollbacks. The attacks don’t end with our public lands. Rollbacks have been proposed for regulations protecting almost 300 species covered by the Endangered Species Act, and other proposals would curb this landmark legislation’s power to protect all threatened species.

But if 2017 was the year the Trump administration put our lands and oceans in the line of fire, then 2018 was the year that the public stood up to protect them. From packed public hearings to the flood of public comments against destructive proposals such as offshore drilling in US waters, Americans of all stripes have made it a priority to protect our treasured lands and ecosystems.

In Trump’s first five months on the job, environmental groups brought more than 50 lawsuits against the administration’s actions, including lawsuits to protect Florida’s endangered Bonneted bat and prevent fracking in Ohio’s only national forest. Elected officials across the political spectrum have also jumped into the fray. Numerous cities and counties – at least 54 in California alone – have passed resolutions against offshore drilling and nearly every governor along the East and West coasts, along with hundreds of legislators, has made their voice heard against offshore drilling.

Protecting public lands from mining and drilling

While the Trump administration, true to its "energy first" philosophy, is planning to allow oil and gas drilling near national parks and along most of the Atlantic coast, the public and representatives from across party lines have publicly condemned the exploitation of our natural treasures and advocated for their preservation. Even the Supreme Court has been engaged in the debate, blocking the mining industry from mining for uranium near the Grand Canyon.

This election cycle, citizens put several ambitious conservation measures on the ballot. In several western states, these initiatives directly challenged the fossil fuel industry – not always successfully. In Alaska, a citizen-initiated ballot measure would have protected fish and their habitats, but fell to a well-financed campaign by extractive industries. In both Colorado and Montana, citizen-led initiatives to limit oil and gas development also made the ballot, but failed on election day. There were wins, though. From Rhode Island to Georgia and California, the public clearly voiced its support for land and water conservation by passing significant measures to fund environmental projects.

Standing up for our oceans

On the Atlantic coast, more than 300 municipalities, 2,000 elected officials and thousands of businesses and families have formally opposed drilling. There is also broad opposition to drilling in the Arctic. Nationwide, nearly 700,000 public comments opposing drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge have been submitted, and in Alaska, residents have been active in public hearings. In South Carolina, an electoral upset saw a Democrat win election to Congress in a traditionally red district by running on an anti-drilling platform. At the state level, Delaware and North Carolina introduced legislation that would throw a wrench in the administration’s drilling plans, and this November, Florida joined states like New Jersey and California in banning offshore drilling in its state waters.

Plastic pollution has also emerged as a critical threat to our oceans that has roused public action. Giant garbage patches comprised of plastics and other trash make up roughly 40 percent of the world’s ocean surfaces, and at our current rate, plastics will outweigh the ocean’s fish by 2050. It’s an overwhelming problem, but the slew of plastic bag and straw bans and phase-outs, while admittedly a drop in the bucket, are a step in the right direction and show that people are ready for change. Even President Trump signed legislation, which enjoyed rare bipartisan support in Congress, to clean up ocean plastics.

On to 2019

Looking ahead to 2019, the danger to our precious lands and waters is still very real. But as Congress reconvenes, there are bright spots on the horizon. For one, the election of more environmentally-conscious leaders could also spell more trouble for the administration’s drilling plans.

Along with sweeping opposition to offshore drilling and the growing list of state actions – which stood at 94 as of this May – defending environmental protection, there is hope that the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which helps protect our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges, will be granted permanent reauthorization. The Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is mainly financed by earnings from offshore oil and gas, has broad-based support that has generated substantial Congressional backing for the Fund.

This is the year to capitalize on the momentum that has been building among the public and decision-makers across the country to push back against further rollbacks of core environmental safeguards and advocate for stronger, lasting protections for our land and water. And there is no time to lose, because once lost, our natural treasures may never be the same again.

Photo: Devil’s Garden, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, at sunset. Credit: Jeffery Sullivan via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0.