Trump is threatening endangered species

A bald eagle takes flight at the Museum of the Shenandaoh Valley in Winchester, Va. (Scott Mason/The Winchester Star via AP, File)

The Trump administration moved on Monday to weaken how it applies the 45-year-old Endangered Species Act, ordering changes that critics said will speed the loss of animals and plants at a time of record global extinctions .

The action, which expands the administration’s rewrite of U.S. environmental laws, is the latest that targets protections, including for water, air and public lands. Two states — California and Massachusetts, frequent foes of President Donald Trump’s environmental rollbacks — promised lawsuits to try to block the changes in the law. So did some conservation groups.

Pushing back against the criticism, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt and other administration officials contend the changes improve efficiency of oversight while continuing to protect rare species.

“The best way to uphold the Endangered Species Act is to do everything we can to ensure it remains effective in achieving its ultimate goal — recovery of our rarest species,” he said in a statement. “An effectively administered Act ensures more resources can go where they will do the most good: on-the-ground conservation.”

Under the enforcement changes, officials for the first time will be able to publicly attach a cost to saving an animal or plant. Blanket protections for creatures newly listed as threatened will be removed. Among several other changes, the action could allow the government to disregard the possible impact of climate change, which conservation groups call a major and growing threat to wildlife.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said the revisions “fit squarely within the president’s mandate of easing the regulatory burden on the American public, without sacrificing our species’ protection and recovery goals.”

The Endangered Species Act is credited with helping save the bald eagle, California condor and scores of other animals and plants from extinction since President Richard Nixon signed it into law in 1973. The act currently protects more than 1,600 species in the United States and its territories.

While the nearly half-century-old act has been overwhelmingly successful in saving animals and plants that are listed as endangered, battles over some of the listings have been yearslong and legendary. They have pitted northern spotted owls, snail darters and other creatures and their protectors against industries, local opponents and others in court and political fights. Republican lawmakers have pushed for years to change the law itself.

John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican who leads the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said Monday’s changes in enforcement were “a good start” but he would continue working to change the act.

Previous Trump administration actions have proposed changes to other bedrock environmental laws — the clean water and clean air acts. The efforts include repeal of an Obama-era act meant to fight climate change by getting dirtier-burning coal-fired power plants out of the country’s electrical grid, rolling back tough Obama administration mileage standards for cars and light trucks, and lifting federal protections for millions of miles of waterways and wetlands.

Monday’s changes “take a wrecking ball to one of our oldest and most effective environmental laws, the Endangered Species Act,” Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, said in a statement. “As we have seen time and time again, no environmental protection – no matter how effective or popular – is safe from this administration.”

One of Monday’s changes includes allowing the federal government to raise in the decision-making process the possible economic cost of listing a species. That’s even though Congress has stipulated that economic costs not be a factor in deciding whether to protect an animal. The prohibition was meant to ensure that the logging industry, for example, would not be able to push to block protections for a forest-dwelling animal on economic grounds.

Gary Frazer, an assistant director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, told reporters that the government would adhere to that stipulation by disclosing the costs to the public without it being a factor for the officials as they consider the protections.

Price tag or no, Frazer said, federal officials would keep selecting and rejecting creatures from the endangered species list as Congress required, “solely on the basis of the best available scientific information and without consideration for the economic impacts.”

“Nothing in here in my view is a radical change for how we have been consulting and listing species for the last decade or so,” Frazer added.

But Brett Hartl, a government affairs director for the Center for Biological Diversity conservation group, contended any such price tag would be inflated, and “an invitation for political interference” in the decision whether to save a species.

“You have to be really naive and cynical and disingenuous to pretend” otherwise, Hartl said. “That’s the reason that Congress way back … prohibited the Service from doing that,” he said. “It’s a science question: Is a species going extinct, yes or no?”

A United Nations report warned in May that more than 1 million plants and animals globally face extinction, some within decades, owing to human influence, climate change and other threats. The report called the rate of species loss a record.

In Washington state, Ray Entz, wildlife director for the Kalispel tribe, spoke of losing the struggle to save the last wild mountain caribou in the lower 48 states, despite the creature’s three decades on the Endangered Species List. With logging and other human activities and predators driving down the numbers of the south Selkirk caribou, Canadian officials captured and penned the last surviving members of the species over the winter for their protection.

“There were some tears shed,” Entz said, of the moment when tribal officials realized the animal had dwindled in the wild past the point of saving. “It was a tough pill to swallow.”

Despite the disappearance of the protected caribou species from the contiguous United States, Entz said, “We don’t want to see a weakening of the law.”

“There’s times where hope is something you don’t even want to talk about,” he said. But, “having the Endangered Species Act gives us the opportunity to participate in that recovery.”

In Idaho on Monday, meanwhile, officials reported that the state’s sage grouse population has dropped 52% since the federal government decided not to list the birds under the Endangered Species Act in the fall of 2015.

Wildfires, as well as oil and gas exploration and farming, have cut into the grouses’ habitat, so that as few as 200,000 are believed to remain out of as many as 16 million a century ago.
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Latest cost to feed Trump’s ego: $5.4 million

President Donald Trump speaks during an Independence Day celebration in front of the Lincoln Memorial, Thursday, July 4, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

President Donald Trump’s July Fourth extravaganza — featuring tanks, a military flyover, and a Trump speech at the Lincoln Memorial — cost an estimated $5.4 million, according to rough figures Thursday.

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt provided the latest share of costs, $2.45 million for his agency, in a letter to lawmakers, saying his agency pulled money from operating funds for national parks, recreation fees, and another source to help fund Trump’s Salute to America.

The event included donated fireworks, a military flyover, and Trump’s speech to a rained-on crowd at the Lincoln Memorial.

Trump announced Monday he would do it all again next year , calling the event “remarkable.”

Democratic lawmakers have condemned the extra expenditures for the Independence Day celebration, which came in addition to the traditional concert, fireworks and events held at near the U.S. Capitol.

Arizona Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee and one of several Democrats who had demanded a full cost accounting, said in response to Interior’s funding estimates that the public funds were spent to “celebrate President Trump.”

Bernhardt called the use of public funds justified, and cited past administrations’ spending for concerts, parades and other celebrations in and around the National Mall. Interior’s costs included crowd accommodations such as temporary fencing and portable toilets.

In addition, the Department of Defense says its costs came to $1.2 million. Despite repeated requests, the Pentagon as of Thursday refused to provide a precise breakdown.

The military’s efforts included positioning tanks on flat-bed trailers around the capital, meeting Trump’s desire for tanks while minimizing damage to district roads from the heavy armor.

Separately, Washington Mayor Muriel E. Bowser wrote Trump to say the district’s costs for Trump’s July Fourth event have drained a special fund used to provide security and protect the nation’s capital from terrorist threats.

The District of Columbia estimates it spent about $1.7 million — not including police expenses for related demonstrations.

Bowser wrote Trump that the fund will have a $6 million deficit by September, reminding the president that the account was never reimbursed for $7.3 million in expenses from Trump’s 2017 inauguration.

White House spokesman Judd Deere says officials will respond “in a timely manner.”

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Lolita Baldor contributed.

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Former coal lobbyist may be permanent EPA chief

Environmental Protection Agency administrator Andrew Wheeler (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, File)

Acting Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler’s past lobbying work for coal companies and other industries regulated by the agency is expected to draw scrutiny Wednesday when a Senate committee considers his nomination to the position.

Wheeler’s roughly six-month tenure as the agency’s acting administrator has been far more low-key than that of the man he replaced, Scott Pruitt. Pruitt’s fondness for the perks of power and for alleged favors — from round-the-clock bodyguards to lavish travel to special deals on mattresses from the Trump International Hotel — generated constant headlines and helped lead to Pruitt’s resignation as the agency’s administrator in July.

In line with Trump’s regulation-cutting ethos, the agency under Wheeler has moved forward on major rollbacks and pending rollbacks of Obama-era environmental measures: easing the mileage standards that cars and trucks will have to meet, relaxing measures on climate-changing carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and removing millions of miles of wetlands and waterways from federal protections, among other changes.

Republican Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee that will hear from Wheeler on Wednesday and question him, said earlier this month that Wheeler had done an “outstanding” job running the EPA.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and some energy trade groups are among the industries publicly supporting Wheeler’s nomination.

“Wheeler has proven to be a steady hand, and has demonstrated effective leadership while advancing regulatory reforms alongside continued strong environmental protections,” Chamber of Commerce executives said in a statement.

But environmental groups say his lobbying work immediately before, for industries regulated by the EPA, should disqualify him outright.

“A coal lobbyist is unfit to run the EPA, period,” said Matt Gravatt, associate legislative director at the Sierra Club.

Wheeler worked at the Washington law and lobbying firm Faegre Baker Daniels from 2009 until April 2018, according to his filing with the Office of Government Ethics.

His lobbying clients included coal magnate Bob Murray, who pushed hard on the Trump administration to grant a series of breaks for the sagging domestic coal industry. Wheeler accompanied Murray to a March 2017 meeting to pitch then-new Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Murray’s list of desired rule rollbacks and other breaks from the Trump administration for coal.

Murray had sought some of the EPA’s coal initiatives under Wheeler, which included signing a rule easing federal regulation of toxic coal ash, removing an Obama rule that pushed electricity providers to move away from dirtier-burning coal plants and targeting an Obama rule limiting emissions of toxic mercury from coal plants.

A watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, filed an ethics complaint Tuesday with the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General alleging that Wheeler’s oversight of those and other rollback proposals at EPA may have violated his government ethics pledge to abstain from regulatory decisions affecting his former lobbying client for at least two years.

“His failure to abide by ethics obligations and to avoid the reality or appearance of conflicts critically undermines the EPA’s integrity and weakens public confidence in our government,” CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement.

EPA spokesman John Konkus called the accusation “baseless” and “wrong.”

“Acting Administrator Wheeler works closely with career EPA ethics officials and follows their guidance. This is nothing more than a last-second political stunt by a group to try to attack President Trump’s nominee hours before his confirmation hearing and should be recognized as such,” Konkus said.

Conservation and environmental groups said Wheeler should also be pressed at Wednesday’s hearing on the environmental and public health effects of the EPA’s proposed regulatory easing.

“It’s imperative the senators ask the tough questions about his role in the decisions and the impact he’s going to have” on health and safety, said Collin O’Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

Conservation groups objected this week to the Republican-controlled Senate committee holding Wheeler’s nomination hearing during the government shutdown over Trump’s funding dispute with Congress.

The grandson of a coal miner, Wheeler worked for the EPA in the 1990s and later as a longtime staffer for Senate Republicans.

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Fact Check: More lies from America’s truth-challenged president

A helicopter drops water on a burning hillside during the Ranch Fire in Clearlake Oaks, Calif., Sunday, Aug. 5, 2018. (AP Photo/Josh Edelson)

President Donald Trump is claiming that California’s water policy is shortchanging firefighters of water to battle the state’s raging wildfires. That’s not so, according to wildfire and water experts.

A look at his tweets and the facts behind them:

TRUMP: “California wildfires are being magnified & made so much worse by the bad environmental laws which aren’t allowing massive amount of readily available water to be properly utilized. It is being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Must also tree clear to stop fire spreading!” — tweet Sunday.

THE FACTS: That’s not what state experts say.

“We have plenty of water” for battling the massive blazes burning in hills north of San Francisco, said Scott McLean, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The current spate of wildfires happens to be within range of large Northern California lakes and the state’s biggest river, McLean said.

Nor is having enough water a problem in battling California wildfires in general. Firefighting aircraft can dip in and out of cattle ponds or other small bodies of water to scoop up water for dropping and spraying on flames. When fires burn in an area that happens to be without ponds, lakes or rivers, state officials typically call in more planes to ferry in water, McLean said.

California’s battles over divvying up water in the arid state are unending, but a battle between firefighters and the Pacific Ocean hasn’t been one of them, according to Jay Lund, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Davis, and a longtime analyst of the state’s water wars.

Trump’s claim “is so physically impossible, you don’t even really want to respond,” Lund said.

For one thing, the wildfires are in the hills, far from the Pacific Ocean and from the man-made storage and distribution system that carries water from California’s wetter north to the drier, more populated south.

The state’s recently ended five-year drought killed millions of trees, leaving them as brittle fuel for wildfires. As Trump alluded to in his tweet, experts have urged state and federal forestry officials to move quickly in clearing swathes of dead forests because of their added fire danger. The dry, hot weather that climate change brings adds to the dried tinder and risk.

“It might have something to do with forest management and the drought. But it has nothing to do with water policy,” Lund said.

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TRUMP: “Governor Jerry Brown must allow the Free Flow of the vast amounts of water coming from the North and foolishly being diverted into the Pacific Ocean. Can be used for fires, farming and everything else. Think of California with plenty of Water – Nice! Fast Federal govt. approvals.” — tweet Monday.

THE FACTS: Trump is raising an old dispute in California, the country’s top farm state: the competition for water between agricultural and environmental groups, fishermen and others who want more water for wildlife and habitat. But the dispute has little to do with firefighting.

Republican lawmakers in California’s agriculture-rich Central Valley complain the state and federal governments allow too much of the state’s rainfall and snow melt to flow naturally through rivers and into the Pacific Ocean, instead of being diverted for irrigation.

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