June 21, 2011

For those of us who had hoped Barack Obama’s election would finally restore and strengthen protections for imperiled wildlife and natural ecosystems, the results to date have been a letdown. Many voters are extremely disappointed or even angry about his record on wildlife conservation, and I suspect President Obama underestimates the significance of this widespread and well-founded discontent among many who tended to be his strong supporters.

Candidate Obama consistently said that dealing with environmental problems—especially climate change, the number one threat to protecting the rich biological diversity that supports all life on Earth—would be one of his top priorities. Believing that, the House of Representatives acted quickly once President Obama was in office to approve comprehensive climate change legislation and send it to the Senate. The House bill curbed greenhouse gas emissions and set up a mechanism to help protect wildlife and biological diversity. But the President failed to put his political muscle into pushing the Senate to act. Then the long drawn-out battle over health care followed by his party’s loss of numerous House and Senate seats in 2010  doomed any chance of enacting climate change legislation for the foreseeable future – a missed opportunity that will result in considerable unnecessary environmental damage.

The opportunity for legislative action lost, one of the President’s strongest environmental appointments, energy policy “czar” Carol Browner, (former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Clinton) resigned after only two years in office. The White House’s decision not to push for climate change legislation likely further emboldened oil and gas industry champions in Congress determined to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. Their efforts were only narrowly averted in the 2011 budget bill. Given its weak performance to date, it is reasonable to wonder just how firmly the White House will continue to stand by Lisa Jackson, EPA’s strong administrator, and fight future efforts to limit EPA’s authority.

Oiled Pelican, (c) AP / Charlie RiedelUnfortunately, climate change is not the only issue affected by Obama’s  timid legislative approach. The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago dramatically underscored the need for stricter regulation of offshore oil drilling to protect our oceans and coasts and the people and wildlife that depend on them. But is the White House fighting for tougher new laws to assure that nothing like this event that triggered the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history will ever happen again? No. Obama did appoint a stellar commission that made thoughtful and important recommendations for stronger offshore drilling regulation, but he has yet to push for reform legislation – and each passing week whatever opportunity there is to win needed reforms grows smaller. Although a few stalwart environmental leaders have introduced reform bills, others in Congress have interpreted the administration’s congressional inaction as an opportunity to promote more unsafe drilling in more places. These places include Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, where  marine ecosystems are even more fragile and vulnerable to devastation from oil spills than in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not only has the President failed to push for desperately needed legislation, he [supported his Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who, with no consultation and no warning, adopted the Bush administration’s plan to remove federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies based on political boundaries rather than the science required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When conservationists sued and a federal court overturned his illegal action, Secretary Salazar actively encouraged Congress to enact legislation removing federal protection from Northern Rockies wolves, ignoring the court’s decision. And the White House did nothing to stop it.

For the first time in the nearly 40-year history of the ESA, Congress—with the complicity of the Obama administration—has intervened to remove all protection from a listed species. If, as many fear, this turns out to be a precedent for additional legislation blocking protection for endangered species, the damage to our ability to safeguard imperiled plants and animals essential to the web of life will be incalculable. In the past, conservationists have successfully defeated equally destructive attempts by anti-environmental administrations to weaken the ESA. Preventing an administration perceived to be in favor of environmental protection from undermining our nation’s most important law for conserving biological diversity is nearly impossible. It should be noted that the President has used his administrative authority to do some good things for conservation. For instance, the Obama administration designated more than 187,000 square miles as critical habitat for polar bears (listed as “threatened” under the ESA), the largest such designation in history.

For the first time in the nearly 40-year history of the ESA, Congress—with the complicity of the Obama administration—has intervened to remove all protection from a listed species. If, as many fear, this turns out to be a precedent for additional legislation blocking protection for endangered species, the damage to our ability to safeguard imperiled plants and animals essential to the web of life will be incalculable.

But this is an administration much too quick to turn and run when anti-conservationists bark. Their kowtowing to the Republican-controlled House and abandoning their own pro wilderness policy for federal lands, barely five months after establishing it, is just the latest example.  They still say they are sticking by their proposed America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which could put renewed emphasis on conserving more of our nation’s vanishing wildlands, but with the same  congressional opposition pushing against it, it is hard to see much hope that  this initiative will achieve anything significant.

Clearly the President’s overall conservation record to date is negative.  Whether he can yet earn a passing grade for this four-year term likely depends upon the final form of two significant Obama administration conservation regulatory proposals—a rewrite of the rules that govern the stewardship of our  193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, and new guidelines for energy development on public lands.
The current regulations for managing national forests, which were written by the Reagan administration, have protected wildlife reasonably well, but they need updating and strengthening.  President George W. Bush’s attempt at a rewrite produced rules that were distinctly pro-logging and overturned in federal court in a suit brought by Defenders. The new set of regulations recently proposed by the Obama administration offer strong statements of intent to conserve wildlife but leave implementation so much to the discretion of individual forest managers that political influence, particularly in an anti-environmental administration, could render stated conservation intentions meaningless. Defenders and other conservationists have made the serious shortcomings of these proposed new rules clear to the administration. Now we wait for their response.

We also wait to see how Obama will handle the development of the utility-scale solar energy projects the Interior Department is vigorously promoting on 22 million acres of western public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Conservationists, of course, applaud the development of solar projects to supplant dirty fossil fuel energy plants. But we are strongly encouraging the administration to issue standards that guide these massive solar s projects, each of which can sprawl across thousands of acres and consume enormous amounts of water, to locations where they will not cause significant harm to fragile desert wildlife and ecosystems. Locating the massive projects in this manner should also hasten their actual development by minimizing the threat of environmental lawsuits. Whether they follow such a course, or opt instead to take an overly permissive direction that sacrifices wildlife and habitat to energy development on public lands, remains to be seen.

Obama’s record to date gives us no reason for optimism on forest protections and energy development guidelines. His administration’s conservation record falls far short of what it promised, what was expected of it and – most importantly – what we need. Our major environmental problems, especially those caused by climate change and loss of species and habitat, are huge and growing and will cause future generations great anguish and difficulty if our political leaders fail to lead.  Unfortunately, President Obama’s instinct seems to be to avoid tough battles, relying on the argument that even as his record falls short, his administration is better on conservation than the previous one and better than any likely to succeed him should his re-election effort fall short.

Our major environmental problems, especially those caused by climate change and loss of species and habitat, are huge and growing and will cause future generations great anguish and difficulty if our political leaders fail to lead.

That argument simply isn’t acceptable. Avoiding serious action, or–to use one of the President’s own phrases–“continuing to kick the can down the road” to another administration, will only result in our most serious environmental problems continuing to grow faster than society’s capacity to solve them. The dangers are too great to give the President a pass on environmental leadership. Those of us who care about the fate of the planet and generations to come must demand real progress that promises to solve our very real problems. For conservation, the future has to be now.

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