The Russian investigation has only revealed the type of gross incompetence, hubris, and extreme naiveté many expected from a team of Washington outsiders bent on detonating the good, bad, and ugly institutions of governance so that they could rebuild from the ashes. Steve Bannon and the Alt-Right call this self-inflicted implosion and (would-be) recovery “The Fourth Turning.”
Stomach turning is more like it. The current politics are a sordid dog’s breakfast of a mess, but the Russian deal won’t add up to much until special counsel Robert Mueller files criminal charges—or not. Meanwhile, the real news marches on, often buried beneath the fold (or the scroll bar) by the twitter storm of headlines.
For Mountain magazine’s part, since we exist to serve you the reader, we’re instead focusing on a handful of issues that directly affect mountains and wild places. Over the coming year we’ll direct our contributing writers and photographers to tackle each of these topics in depth and in the field. But for now, five months into the new administration, a pocket guide is in order. Reference it when you aren’t tuning in to see if Jared Kushner set up a batline to Moscow.
Public Lands | Monuments are Forever
Or at least that’s been the case up to now. Originally conceived as a way for government to protect antiquities and natural treasures without all the red tape of a National Park designation, the only time a National Monument has ever been rescinded was when, in 1938, Franklin Delano Roosevelt tried to overturn the status of South Carolina’s Castle Pinckney National Monument. He didn’t have the power to do so and it eventually required an Act of Congress (in 1950) to remove the protections. No National Monument has been rescinded since. Now, 27 designated since 1996 are up for “review,” with the president’s party in control of congress.
The list includes the Katahdin Wood and Waters National Monument in Maine, the Craters of the Moon in Idaho, Giant Sequoia in California, and many more, including the first on the list slated for review, Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
Before the current debate, hardly anyone in the country had even heard of the place, and far fewer had laid eyes on it. But now, protecting it has become a cause de guerre for the outdoor industry ($887 billion to the U.S. economy), which recently pulled its twice annual convention, the Outdoor Retailer Show, from the Beehive State in protest.
The images on these pages—shot by Mountain’s Creative Director Dave Cox—will give you a feel for the place. Clearly it’s stunningly gorgeous, if you like that sort of thing. But Bears Ears isn’t just scenery. As the business folk and activists at the apparel brand Patagonia have pointed out as they’ve taken up the Bears Ears cause, the Monument is also home to more archeological sites than any other U.S. National Park or Monument; the best crack climbing in the world at Indian Creek; possibly the oldest rock art in North America in the petroglyphs at Sand Island; and unique species of dinosaur fossils. It’s also, according to Patagonia, one of the darkest spots on earth for stargazing.
All of which is to say, Bears Ears meets the standards of what a National Monument was intended to be. Still, in San Juan County, Utah, the designation was contentious. As our colleagues at High Country News have reported, six of seven Navajo chapters in the county supported designation, so too, many members of the Ute tribe. But whites in the county tended to be opposed. The rift appears to divide white Mormon residents from nonwhite non-Mormons.
As with any polemic, the propaganda flies from both sides. But much of what we hear from Trump and Utah Republican Senator Orrin Hatch is spin, hype, and fearmongering in the “government land grab” vein. National Monuments are typically far looser in their management than Wilderness areas or National Parks. But this was no land grab. As we tracked the designation last year it appeared that the Obama administration was careful to continue to allow historic usages like the gathering of sage and firewood, grazing, and horse, foot, and ATV travel. There is an active oil and gas industry in San Juan County, but most of that work is done far from the Monument’s boundaries. The vitriol, too, seems to be overblown by Senator Hatch: As Creative Director Dave Cox traveled the county with camera ready to capture skirmishing protesters, he found nothing but some half-hearted signage.
It’s telling that the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA) has spoken out against the Interior Department’s review of the millions of acres of public land designated as Monuments. David Wiens, the new Executive Director of IMBA, says the group supports Monument status because details like existing usages and access can be written into the plans. “Some of the Monuments IMBA has fought for, like the Berryessa and San Gabriel Monuments in California, have excellent singletrack,” says Wiens. “Bears Ears is more jeep roads, but it’s an amazing landscape to ride through and we want that access.”
So how worried should you be? From what we know, the president alone can’t rescind a National Monument in its entirety; it’s possible any such attempt by President Trump and Congress would end up in the courts, where the Trump administration hasn’t had much luck of late. But as recent headlines have made clear, the current administration isn’t afraid to scorch the earth when keeping election promises—and rescinding Monuments was one of them.
Why you should care: Without protection, Bears Ears’ antiquities are at risk of further theft and vandalism. Monument status will eventually fix that and maintain natural beauty without unduly burdening the residents of San Juan County with restrictions. Bears Ears, however, is but one of 27 National Monuments to be reviewed by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke. As he works his way through the list, we hope he’ll realize that the other existing Monuments are also natural treasures. And yes, Americans like those sort of things.
Science/EPA | They Blinded Him with Science
The cool thing about science is that, like well-verified journalism, it’s true whether you believe it or not. Objective facts are real, and with hard work they’re attainable.
Damn it. But what do you do when science doesn’t align with your worldview? If you’re an anti-vaccine type on the left, you let your kids infect the school with whooping cough. If you’re Scott Pruitt, tasked with running the science-based EPA, you defund the shit out of that prickly science stuff. The current budget cuts the EPA’s research wing by 50 percent.
As Dennis Hayes, CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and the originator of the first Earth Day recently wrote in the LA Times, this is the equivalent of “eating our seed corn.” Which is old hat for American politicians. Hayes points out that when Reagan cut the Solar Energy Research Institute’s budget by 80 percent, America’s solar industry never fully recovered. Well it did and it didn’t. The solar industry now employs 260,000 Americans, but we import 95 percent of the panels those workers install. Turns out Europe and Asia were happy to take up the slack.
Feel like déjà vu all over again? Under the latest White House budget, the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy is facing a 69 percent funding cut. (As a side note, that same budget whacks cancer, heart, and infectious disease research by $2.4 billion. And the CDC, fresh off the Ebola and Zika outbreaks, takes a $1.2 billion hit. Got to build that wall.)
In its environmental reporting, Mountain has always been a science based magazine, meaning we don’t give equal billing to extreme minority opinions when the overwhelming body of scientific research says things like winters in North America are getting shorter. It’s our belief that the current administration is waging a war on such science, at least in terms of public policy. Half of the EPA’s Board of Scientific Counselors was fired in early May. And government employed or funded scientists are so concerned that their work will be gagged, buried, or killed that they’ve taken to the streets en masse.
As for the non-research role of the EPA, cleaning up the mistakes of our unregulated past (“Stupid job killing regulations”) that litter the Mountain West, the funding of Superfund sites takes a 25 percent hit.
Why you should care: Clean air and clean water were once nonpartisan issues. (Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act into law.) Don’t live out West? Under the proposed cuts, Vermont’s Lake Champlain ecosystem restoration will be among the first to lose funding.
Wildlife | Between the Wall and the Drilling Rigs
Five months into the new administration, we aren’t yet clear on President’s Trump’s agenda regarding wildlife, but we can glean intent. For starters, Interior Secretary Zinke issued a directive to gauge how much oil is sitting under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and subsequently, figuring out how to legally get at it. Of course, we already know that there are at least 12 billion barrels beneath the polar bears and caribou. But despite the best efforts of Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski and those that came before her, environmentalists have fought and won many attempts to override those protections over the past decades. Expect those battles to reignite over the coming months while Republicans still control both houses of Congress.
Meanwhile, Trump’s proposed border wall (30 feet of concrete that could stretch for hundreds of miles—more if he can find a way to pay for it) is setting up an environmental crisis along our southern border. However long it actually ends up being, that same wall that may or may not deter illegal immigration (ladders!) will certainly fragment wildlife habitat and possibly lead to localized extinctions of apex predators like the Mexican gray wolf, ocelots, and jaguars. Which, if you know how vital apex predators are to their biomes, is to say the wall will lead to near total ecosystem collapse. As any conservation biologist will tell you, the best way to protect species is to protect their habitat so they can freely roam for food and to distribute their DNA. The last study of what such a wall will do was published in 2011. It singled out the Madrean Sky Island Archipelago that overlaps the New Mexico, Arizona, and Mexican borders as a primary concern. We’d expect lawsuits on behalf of wildlife, but under the REAL ID Act signed by President George W. Bush, homeland security concerns trump environmental regulations and the administration could simply waiver out of conducting any environmental assessments.
Keep an eye on: The continued delisting of wolves from endangered species protection is certain to come up for states that haven’t already won the right to kill wolves based not on science, but politics. Idaho has already killed 1,470 wolves with the goal of taking the population down to 150 animals by next year.
Why you should care: Protecting polar bears, wolves, trout, and ocelots doesn’t need any further justification, but that simple job of stewardship takes on more meaning in an age of global warming.
Climate | Trump’s Climate Wake
On June 1, as this issue went to press, President Trump held a press conference in the Rose Garden complete with light jazz music and a festive atmosphere. The big news you’re of course aware of by now? The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord.
On that day, Trump stood (metaphorically anyway) with 22 Republican Senators who supported the move—and very few others. As Mountain contributor Bill McKibben wrote on that day in an opinion piece for The New York Times, the withdrawal is “a bid to undercut our best hope for a workable future in a bizarre attempt to restore the past. A few fossil-fuel barons may be pleased (Vladimir Putin likely among them, since his reign rests on the unobstructed development of Russia’s hydrocarbons), but most of the country and the world see this for the disaster it is. Majorities in every single state, red and blue alike, want America to stay in the Accord.”
Just as our nation is a melting pot, environmental advocacy in America is a wild amalgamation of passion products. You can dedicate your time or resources to protecting trails, crags, rivers, predators, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and thanks to Protect Our Winters (POW!), the snow we ski on. But climate is the issue upon which all other environmental protections hinge.
The world recognizes this. That’s why 195 nations including our own—the biggest contributor of human released carbon to the atmosphere in the history of the planet—pledged to live by the goal of refusing to allow the planet to warm 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels. It was a low target that wouldn’t solve the problem, but the hope was that it would stir global competition into renewables and create the industries of the future.
Now, America, well at least President Trump, stands only with Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad (and technically Nicaragua though they didn’t pledge because they wanted tougher sanctions) in opposition to Paris. The company you keep.
The only positive in this dark news? Perhaps by design, withdrawal from the Paris Accord takes roughly four years, which means Americans will get a chance to vote for a president that will reinstate the U.S. to the accord—or not, if a healthy planet is not your concern. As for Trump’s claims that the Paris Accord is a job killer, again the argument is based on vindictive politics, not economic fact.
Keep an eye on: State governments are stepping up to ensure their economies don’t fall behind their increasingly global competitors.
Why you should care: The science is indisputable on this one. The ability of the planet to sustain life as we know it depends on action. The captain may be maniacal, but do not give up the ship.