Greens fear last push by Bush
‘Midnight regulations’ could harm Greater Yellowstone,
By Cory Hatch Jackson Hole, Wyo.
November 26, 2008
After eight years of government that unabashedly placed development over conservation and recreation over environment, watchdog groups say the Bush administration’s last-gasp efforts likely mean more of the same for the northern Rocky Mountains.
With 54 days left in office, Bush appointees are scrambling to enact policy changes, management plans and regulations on everything from factory farms to workplace safety to abortion.
While this flurry of presidential maneuvering is far from unprecedented – Clinton was accused of similar actions in favor of conservation – environmental groups say Bush’s last-minute changes could have an inordinate impact on public lands in Greater Yellowstone.
These changes include efforts to delist the gray wolf, attempts to relax gun laws in national parks and changes to weaken the Endangered Species Act, just to name a few.
While some of these initiatives were submitted before the Nov. 1 deadline imposed by White House Office of Management and Budget chief Joshua Bolten, many won’t make the cut, according to Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.
“A lot of the rules are coming so late that the Obama administration will be able to freeze them,” he said. One example is an attempt by the mountain-biker-in-chief to allow more bike trails in national parks with less public comment than is required today.
“That one is really late,” Ruch said. “It’ll be one that cannot be finalized before Inauguration Day.”
Others will fall under the purview of the Congressional Review Act, a law passed in 1996 that allows Congress to review every new federal regulation issued by government agencies. Congress can overturn these regulations with a majority vote in both the House and the Senate.
Ruch said one good candidate for the Congressional Review Act is a regulation that would allow power plants and other big polluters to affect the air in Class I airsheds such as national parks and wilderness areas.
But lawmakers might avoid hot-button issues such as guns in parks for fear of political consequences from voters or pro-gun lobbies.
The proposal is to allow people who hold concealed-weapon permits to have that privilege in national parks, if the state where that park is located allows concealed weapons in its state parks.
But said he doesn’t think Congress will “touch guns in parks with a 10-foot pole.”
And, even though Congress and the incoming Obama administration have the means to stop many of the so-called midnight regulations, Ruch said the majority will likely remain in effect.
“A lot of things like natural resource management may end up on the cutting room floor in order to assemble the coalition for their top priority, which is climate change,” he said.
In some administrations, Ruch estimates that as few as 3 percent to 5 percent of midnight regulations are stopped.
With the country experiencing a near-catastrophic financial crisis, the incoming Obama administration might focus its attention elsewhere. In the absence of federal intervention, conservation groups might have to rely on the National Environmental Policy Act in court.
Here are a few of the midnight regulations that could affect Greater Yellowstone:
Delist the gray wolf
Officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service say they hope to publish a final rule for delisting gray wolves in the northern Rocky Mountains by the end of the year.
This attempt comes despite a ruling by Montana U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in which he found serious flaws with Wyoming’s wolf management plan, most notably a provision that establishes a predator area in most of the state where wolves can be killed anytime, by any means, without a license.
Louisa Willcox, senior wildlife advocate for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Fish and Wildlife is trying to push the rule through without waiting for Wyoming and without substantive changes to the state’s delisting proposal. The delisting proposal could exclude a significant portion of Wyoming.
“Instead of waiting for a debate within Wyoming that might resolve it, the Fish and Wildlife Service is just going ‘bombs away,’” she said. “The Fish and Wildlife Service has blown off the inadequacies [outlined] in Judge Molloy’s ruling. They’re not even giving Wyoming a chance to potentially get it right. It’s a very cynical move.”
Further, Willcox said, there is no way for Fish and Wildlife to review the hundreds of thousands of public comments on the delisting proposal “in any kind of honest way” before the end of the year.
“It’s a bad public process, and its bad for wolves,” she said.
Weaken the Endangered Species Act
This proposal would allow any federal agency to bypass the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service when proposing a project that could impact endangered species if that agency determines the impact is minimal.
Andrew Wetzler, director of the endangered species project for Natural Resources Defense Council, said the regulation would remove the key scientific safety check on agencies such as the Department of Transportation, Army Corps of Engineers, Bureau of Land Management and Department of Energy.
“It removes the key scientific safety check on these agencies,” he said. “These agencies have missions and ... a lot of the projects that the agencies propose are at the core of their mission. They are biased toward completing those projects, which is why a consultation with the Fish and Wildlife Service is so important.”
Wetzler said the change is not being classified by the Bush administration as a “major rule” and could therefore be finalized by Dec. 20.
“It’s kind of taking a meat cleaver to the act,” he said.
Another provision would allow Fish and Wildlife to ignore the effect of climate change on species that are now or could become endangered. The rule could affect a number of species considered fragile in the Yellowstone Ecosystem, including wolverines, which rely on late-spring snowpack to reproduce. Whitebark pine is another high-elevation species that scientists think could disappear in the northern Rockies because of climate change.
Permit hidden, loaded guns in parks
The Bush administration seems to have redoubled its efforts to allow loaded, concealed weapons in national parks with a plan that is expected to be finalized by the end of the year.
Currently, people can take guns into parks if they are disassembled and unloaded.
Conservation groups say 75 percent of current and retired park personnel oppose the rule.
“It totally baffles me as to why this is being considered,” said Franz Camenzind, executive director of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance. “I have yet to see any purpose and need for such a rule change.”
Camenzind said it could potentially lead to more gun violence in campgrounds and backcountry trails, as well as increased poaching incidents.
“Now, if a bear comes down the trail, are we going to see a gun or pepper spray?” he said. “It removes a certain feeling of innocence. As well intended as it may be, it’s not the same as innocently walking down the trail knowing we’re all equally unarmed. It makes it the same as walking down a city street.”
Ease air quality oversight, modeling
A reported memorandum of agreement between U.S. Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Mark Rey and officials in the EPA would negate the need for air quality monitoring for energy projects such as a plan to drill 44,700 acres in the Wyoming Range.
Ryan Lance, deputy chief of staff for Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, said the proposal allows development without proper air-quality analysis, even in areas like Sublette County, which experienced several ozone warnings last winter.
“I’m left to worry about very important places like the Wyoming Range, where the science and the scientists have all suggested that this is the right thing to do,” Lance said.
Another rule would prevent land managers in the U.S. Forest Service from making comments about air quality. Instead, decisions regarding air quality comments would be passed up through the bureaucracy to political appointees in Washington.
720 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone
A recent National Park Service decision would allow 720 snowmobiles a day in Yellowstone National Park this winter. The decision comes despite a U.S. District Court ruling out of Washington D.C., this summer that 540 machines a day is too many to protect park resources.
While the plan is only temporary, conservation groups say decision to allow is a good example of how the Bush Administration has pre-empted Park Service scientists in order to push a pro-recreation agenda.
Open land to geothermal exploration
Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne would open half a million acres of public land to geothermal exploration, much of it near Yellowstone National Park.
While conservation groups and scientists generally support geothermal energy as a clean energy source, they say exploiting these underground geothermal features near Yellowstone could permanently damage the geysers, mud pots, hot springs and steam vents inside the park.
Conservation groups are calling for a 15-mile buffer zone around Yellowstone to protect these geothermal features.
More mountain bikes in national parks
Bush Administration officials have proposed a rule that would allow national park superintendents to decide where and how mountain biking would be allowed in their parks.
Currently, park superintendents can open a trail to mountain biking only after an environmental review and a formal public comment period.
Conservation groups say the rule could allow mountain bikes through sensitive areas of many national parks with little regulation, disturbing other trail users as well as sensitive plants and wildlife.
Allow oil shale production in Wyoming
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne has proposed regulations that would allow oil shale production on more than 2 million acres of public lands in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah, including portions of the Upper Green River Valley.
The regulations come despite claims by conservation groups and even industry officials that the technology is years away from becoming a viable means of energy production.
Chase Huntley, energy policy advisor for The Wilderness Society, said the regulations are meant to give the impression that oil shale development could lower gasoline prices.
“But practical and technological impediments cannot be overcome by fiat,” he said in a statement. “Instead of gambling our resources on unproven fuel sources, such as oil shale, we should invest in proven options that will reduce prices such as higher fuel economy standards, energy efficiency and renewable generation technologies.”