Making, and Un-Making, Environmental Law: Earth Day’s Uncertain Dawn

By Karl Boyd Brooks, author of Before Earth Day; The Origins of American Environmental Law, 1945-1970

President Donald Trump is about as subtle as a claw hammer. Two weeks ago, he went to Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in Washington, D.C., to announce his disdain for nearly everything the agency had been doing during the Obama Administration. The presidential criticism amounted to a stunning rebuke of an agency that has, for over 45 years, earned solid marks from Americans for using law to safeguard their lives, communities, and future opportunities.

Presidents usually visit EPA to highlight some new initiative to take care of our environmental resources: the air, land, and water on which our lives, and our American prosperity and liberty, depend. President Trump went instead to lash the agency, demean its staff, and challenge the bipartisan legal legacy that has made Americans more prosperous and free by protecting their public health.  Picture the Trump/EPA moment as the President of the United States flashing his big, fat middle finger at the agency.

Those of us who have worked for EPA, and know first-hand about its people’s dedication and professionalism, found Trump’s symbolism telling:  there the president was — in the Rachel Carson Room, for gosh sakes — signing executive orders to speed up coal mining, roll back air quality protections, and undermine this nation’s signal effort to mitigate the grievous impacts of climate change. For good measure, President Trump paraded a handful of sheepish coal miners in front of his EPA ceremony to buttress his campaign pledge to “make coal great again.”

This month marks the 48th Earth Day. Throughout April, in events large and small, choreographed and spontaneous, Americans join their fellow passengers on Spaceship Earth to salute what Apollo 8’s astronauts, on Christmas Eve 1968, fondly called “our good earth.”  Now that the President of the United States has publicly trashed EPA, our premier environmental law enforcement agency, we should think a little harder about how our lives, our communities, and our legacy depend on environmental law.

EPA began in 1970. A very different kind of Republican president, Richard M. Nixon, created this new agency by welding pieces of other, older federal agencies into a single force combining environmental science, education, lawmaking, and enforcement. Of course, that was big news. And those were very different times than today. But we should widen our focus on EPA and 1970 a little to get the full story about the agency, to understand how radically disruptive and destructive President Trump’s environmental actions appear, and to appreciate how hard they will be to carry out. A little history about environmental law in America will put 1970 in perspective, situate EPA in a long and proud governmental tradition, and link today’s environmental challenges to those our grandparents faced after World War II.

A decade ago, I began writing Before Earth Day: The Origins of American Environmental Law. I wrote the book to answer a simple, but surprisingly elusive, question: where did American environmental law come from? I’d taught the subject at the University of Kansas (KU), to both undergrads and law students, for a number of years. I’d studied the American legal system and American environment systematically since beginning my history PhD work at KU in 1996.  And I’d spent much of my adult life working in and around law and the environment as a lawyer, elected legislator, and citizen activist in my home state of Idaho. And yet, despite some three decades of immersing myself in the challenges we create by living on this earth, I had no more clear idea about environmental law’s back-story than on the day I started law school in 1980.

Even if you’re not a lawyer, and even if you don’t put yourself in the “environmentalist” camp, you probably know a little about the famous federal laws that help keep us healthy and productive: the 1970 Clean Air Act, the 1972 Clean Water Act, and President Nixon’s 1970 pen-stroke that created the United Environmental Protection Agency. My book took a look at the “environmental decade” of the 1970s and found some important precursors to all those important laws. In fact, the more I looked into American environmental law’s “origin story,” the less I believed 1970 was the be-all end-all of the story. My book didn’t mean to diminish the hard-working, creative, and determined Americans who took up the fight against pollution and waste and injustice as the Seventies dawned. What Before Earth Day did is actually make those pioneers more traditional and less revolutionary, and their many accomplishments therefore more durable and defensible.

Law doesn’t just “happen.” Rules don’t appear spontaneously. Systems don’t come from nowhere. Environmental law, like environmentalism itself, emerged somewhat slowly after 1946. And like the ideas, imagery, and rhetoric of environmentalism, the principles and practices of environmental law have one foot planted in cautious tradition and one foot planted in bold reform. In fact, one reason why environmental law has stuck around so long is its very distinguished pedigree. Some of our most important environmental law principles date back to the early 20th century. Others emerged during the New Deal’s darkest days and the postwar era’s bright promise.

We should appreciate American environmental law for the careful, thoughtful, incremental advance it represents over the earliest American attitudes toward the natural world. At the origin of the American Republic, most laws encouraged people to own, use, and waste natural resources and systems. As late as 1900, few laws restrained factory-owners from pouring their waste into the air, water, and landscape. Even in the 1950s, government agencies – federal, state, and local – could plow a roadway through a wetland, or pour chemicals onto a forest, without telling neighbors, sharing the basis for their decision, or accepting constructive criticism. By 1970, though, even “Before Earth Day,” all those older ways of doing business (and damage) to the natural world had been replaced or substantially modified by the legal system we know today. President Trump may complain that dredging a wetland takes too long and emitting air pollutants has gotten too expensive. But that’s what environmental law has gained for us: breathing space, health benefits, and public participation.

President Trump and EPA Administrator Pruitt have announced drastic plans to shear off many key environmental law principles and to slash EPA’s capacity to make and enforce environmental law. What may restrain them as much as public outrage and business indifference (just check out how the energy industry has voted with its investment dollars against coal and for wind) is history and tradition. EPA may be only 47 years old, and it may have appeared when men tended their sideburns and women tottered on their platform shoes (not so different than today), but the underlying legal rules, principles, and precedents are far older. With roots that run so deep in American legal, cultural, and political soil, POTUS and Pruitt will find it harder than they imagine to tear up our environmental law system.

 

 

Karl Boyd Brooks is a Clinical Professor and Program Director, LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas-Austin and former associate professor of history and environmental studies, and courtesy professor of law, University of Kansas; and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator and acting Assistant Administrator

A President and Predators

by Frank Van Nuys, author of Varmints and Victims; Predator Control in the American West

9780700621316From the distraught and possibly jaundiced perspective of folks on the left wing of the political spectrum, “emboldened” has become a go-to word to describe opponents on the right. Conservatives. White nationalists. Anti-Semites. Racists. Xenophobes. Misogynists. All have been emboldened by the triumph of Donald Trump, not to mention liberated by the presumptive death of “political correctness.” For environmentalists, the new administration’s determination to steamroll “job-killing” regulations and Congress’s moves to eliminate nettlesome rules, deconstruct the Environmental Protection Agency, and gut the Endangered Species Act signify other alarming ramifications of that which the emboldened are capable.

Apparently, opponents of decades-long programs to reintroduce and facilitate the recovery of predators are feeling emboldened as well. The introduction of legislation in January to remove federal protection for wolves in four states – Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Wyoming – underscored a potentially significant shift in the perpetual conflict over management of predators. Occurring just days before Trump’s inauguration, the bill may have reflected a sense of confidence on the part of farmers, ranchers, trappers, hunters, and others critical of wolf recovery that a Republican administration held considerable promise for transferring the bulk of wolf management decision-making from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to the affected states. In broader terms, elements intent on rolling back the government’s oversight in wildlife management and environmental regulation should feel a sense of giddy anticipation at the arrival of a new era of relaxed federal controls and states’ rights.

gray-wolf_01_ngsversion_1484679603276_adapt_676_1The Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017 (H.R. 424 and S. 164) orders the Secretary of the Interior to reissue final rules issued in December 2011 for the Western Great Lakes, and in September 2012 for Wyoming, that had removed wolves from Endangered Species Act protection when not on federal properties subject to more focused protection regimes (such as national parks). Court challenges by wolf advocates had led to suspension of the delisting directives for those regions. Those advocates fear, and anti-wolf forces hope, that the administrative and legal stalemate can be broken and predator protections weakened, at least. By barring judicial review, the proposed legislation removes one of the key tactics utilized by wolf supporters since the first attempt to delist wolves in the Northern Rockies in 2002. That is nothing new, it turns out. Congress’s unilateral removal of protection for wolves in Idaho and Montana in April 2011, signed into law by President Barack Obama as part of a hard-fought compromise on enacting a budget and debt-relief package, also blocked judicial review.

Opponents of delisting claim wholesale destruction of wolf populations in the four states will certainly occur should the suspended rules be enacted, and they deplore the wolf hunting seasons that have taken place in Idaho and Montana, and, briefly, Wyoming, over the last several years. State game agencies maintain that it is in their interest to carefully monitor harvest levels to avoid relisting, and, frankly, population estimates in Idaho and Montana seem to bear that out. Idaho’s estimate of 786 wolves in 2015 represents an increase of close to 100 wolves over the 2012 estimate that I noted in Varmints and Victims. [https://idfg.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/idaho-wolf-monitoring-progress-report-2015.pdf ,p. 70] Montana’s estimated wolf population is still in the hundreds while roughly 4,000 range across the western Great Lakes region. Wolf backers may be suspicious of game agencies’ statistics, but there is no serious reason to doubt their general accuracy. Wolf management plans agreed to by federal and state officials require the states in the Northern Rockies to maintain a population of at least 150 wolves and at least 15 breeding pairs, and both Idaho and Montana exceed those minimums by significant amounts. To this point, natural increase and migration appear to have prevented crashing wolf populations despite hundreds lost to hunters and trappers each year. Unless Congress or the Trump administration decide to target those benchmarks, wolves are in no immediate danger of being annihilated when placed under state management.

Not surprisingly, when stories about the harm being done or contemplated by either emboldened “wolf haters” or defensive “wolf lovers” come across our social media feeds or appear in newspapers, we react according to our political and environmental predilections. I am as guilty of that as anyone. Yet, as someone who has been cheered by the slow and steady recovery of mountain lions, grizzly bears, and wolves in parts of the West, I remain cautious about jumping to conclusions about what impacts the proposed legislation will actually have. Judging from the relatively stable populations in the Northern Rockies since wolf hunting began a few years ago, even the most emboldened among the animal’s detractors in Wyoming and the Great Lakes states should not look forward to revival of a wolf-free environment. On the other side, friends of wolves can be skeptical but not necessarily panicked by the current drift of policy. It’s a long game, this tussle over predators. Stay vigilant, certainly, but it is unlikely, at least in this corner of the constant adjusting to life in the Alice-in-Wonderland fog of Trump’s America, that the apocalypse is nigh.

The Gray Wolf State Management Act of 2017 has recently been subjected to some informational hearing activity, and agricultural interests are pressing for expedited passage to provide additional protection to livestock entering calving season. Once the bill emerges from committee and becomes the subject of additional debate, amendment, and eventual passage, emboldened combatants on both sides will be ready to rumble. At least a constitutional legislative process still exists and wolves cannot be simply outlawed and their extermination decreed from on high sans some semblance of public input. Although a dubious proposition to the most jaded among the nation’s beleaguered citizenry, the United States still operates under the rule of law. The most enduring challenge for opponents of delisting and wolf hunting is indeed embedded in the intent of the Endangered Species Act itself, a fact all sides in the predator debates need to acknowledge. The goal of achieving recovery for a listed population, then delisting and allowing states to manage that population was designed to achieve measurable outcomes that would satisfy most, if not all, stakeholders. This is, according to media accounts, what the Fish and Wildlife Service would like to see happen. As much as it must pain millions of Americans who love wolves and hate the idea of losing even one to trapping or hunting, this proposed legislation does not represent a particularly radical departure from the always contentious process of making policy for predator management.

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Frank Van Nuys is professor of history at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology and author of Americanizing the West: Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship, 1890–1930.

“Battleground Alaska” featured in Alaska Dispatch News

9780700622153Alaska Dispatch News features Stephen Haycox’s Battleground Alaska: Fighting Federal Power in America’s Last Wilderness”–stating, “The book reflects both [Haycox’s] deep excavation of archives of past environmental wars and his encyclopedic knowledge of the entire span of Alaska political events.”