National Parks Threatened

Yellowstone Falls

Activists and conservation organizations continue to push back against the Trump Administration’s efforts to undermine environmental protections and dismantle the nation’s National Parks and public lands.

Earthjustice recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Sierra Club and Friends of the Earth in an effort to force the Department of the Interior to be more transparent. It’s the non-profit public interest organization’s 105th lawsuit challenging President Donald Trump’s environmental policy decisions.

The lawsuit, filed in the federal court in the Northern District of California, alleges that the Department of the Interior has violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). It seeks to force the agency to reveal suspected new agency guidelines on transparency put in place under Secretary Ryan Zinke.

“The lawsuit comes amid a deeply problematic culture of secrecy that has taken root in the Department of the Interior, keeping the American public in the dark about major decisions, important records, and meetings with industry that affect the lands and resources the agency holds in trust for the American people,” a press release from Earthjustice states.

“We’re suing because we want to know what Ryan Zinke is hiding,” said Yvonne Yuting Chi, an attorney in Earth justice’s Rocky Mountains office. “We noticed a troubling new culture of secrecy at the Interior Department in the review of national monuments last summer, and when we widened our scope, we found it applied to major land and resource decisions being made in bureaus across the agency. But our public lands and resources belong to the American people, and we deserve to know how major decisions are being made about them.”

The non-profits involved in the legal action contend that Zinke is deliberately undermining protections on the federal lands he is sworn to protect, and he isn’t the only one in Trump’s inner circle with designs on public lands.

The Montana-based watchdog group Wilderness Watch reports that it is currently tracking nearly 30 anti-wilderness bills “currently making their way through the Congressional morass.”

Utah Senator Mike Lee, a longtime opponent of National Parks, recently put forward three proposals that would essentially unmake the West’s National Parks, by transferring the lands to state ownership,  opening that land to a wide range of development, including roads, airstrips, housing and industrial uses through a new “Homestead Act,” and greatly limit the ability of future presidents to designate future National Parks and Monuments.

Lee, who has described federal lands as a “stranglehold on the West,” announced his plans in a series of Tweets.

“A new Homestead Act could expand the law to allow states, local governments, and individuals to petition the government for affordable housing, or education, or health care, or research,” Lee wrote. “Just imagine what opening this land up would do for young entrepreneurs, or to attract existing businesses to create new jobs. How many schools, churches, hospitals, medical research centers, innovation hubs, and affordable homes could we build even on just a fraction of this land?”

Lee concluded his multi-Tweet monologue with his long-term goal: “Finally, our long-term goal must be the transfer of federal lands to the states,” the Utah Republican wrote, explaining that, in his view, Western states “would be better off” if they were more like Missouri or Illinois, states with almost no public lands.

Conservation groups are expressing concerns that Western states would be unable to administer the land if it was transferred to state control and that hundreds of thousand of acres of public land would be sold for development to mitigate the cost.

There are other concerns. Lee’s plan fails to take into account complicated issues like Tribal lands, conservation easements, wildlife corridors, interagency issues like resource management, military closures, and even hazards like volcanoes—Yellowstone, Lassen, Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount St. Helen are all on federal land—and other major geological hazards currently monitored by federal agencies on federal land, and often one of the reasons an area was set aside as federal land in the first place.

Utah Senator Mile Lee advocates for an end to federal lands, including the West’s national parks. He is proposing a new homestead act to sell off open space and limits on the president’s power to create new monuments.

During President Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, Interior Secretary James G. Watt sought unsuccessfully to unmake the newly created Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA). If Lee is able to accomplish his goal, he would succeed where Watt failed. It’s unclear what would happen to our local park without its national park service partner, but even California, the sixth biggest economy in the world, would face a challenge administering the state’s millions of acres of federal land without the resources of agencies like the U.S. Forest and National Parks services, which Lee seeks to abolish.

Lee represents a loud but small minority. The vast majority of Americans across the political spectrum support protections for National Parks and public lands, but the constant attack on parks and public resources continues to generate alarm—and lawsuits.

For areas like the SMMNRA that are dependant on federal funding for programs, infrastructure, maintenance, and monitoring, and which depend on park visitors for tax revenue and income, the threat to the nation’s National Park Service is a serious issue.

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