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They Are Coming for the Endangered Species Act


In another sign of what any Republican administration would do, the Trumpers are coming for the Endangered Species Act.

The Interior Department on Thursday proposed the most sweeping set of changes in decades to the Endangered Species Act, the law that brought the bald eagle and the Yellowstone grizzly bear back from the edge of extinction but which Republicans say is cumbersome and restricts economic development.

The proposed revisions have far-reaching implications, potentially making it easier for roads, pipelines and other construction projects to gain approvals than under current rules. One change, for instance, would eliminate longstanding language that prohibits considering economic factors when deciding whether or not a species should be protected.

The agency also intends to make it more difficult to shield species like the Atlantic sturgeon that are considered “threatened,” which is the category one level beneath the most serious one, “endangered.”

Battles over endangered species have consumed vast swaths of the West for decades, and confrontations over protections for the spotted owl, the sage grouse and the gray wolf have shaped politics and public debate. While the changes proposed Thursday by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service wouldn’t be retroactive, they could set the stage for new clashes over offshore drilling and also could help smooth the path for projects like oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

The ultimate goal here is to eradicate the act entirely and it wouldn’t really surprise if a right-wing Supreme Court eventually eliminated it. And yet, this won’t create nearly the sense of outrage that it would have twenty years ago. Intense support for environmentalism–and especially this sort of environmentalism–is simply not what it was in the 1990s. Environmentalists have lost of a lot of their political power and the movement looks more like the labor movement than the powerhouse of the 1970s-1990s. There are a number of reasons for this–in fact, I have a scholarly essay coming out on this very topic in the next issue of a fairly major journal that I will link to when it is published–but the short version is that it’s a combination of environmentalism’s own success, it’s embrace of wealthy donors over movement politics, and the rise of conservative activism that has targeted it. What interest there is in environmentalism among young people–at least in my experience–revolves around climate change for some (for good reason), environmental justice issues (extremely welcome) and food politics (which I think is really complicated but ultimately a combination of being about our own bodies and being something we can control in an out of control world). What you don’t see much is the interest in public lands, intense outdoor recreation, and ecosystems that was so powerful in saving much of the West in the late 20th century. I’ve heard from many people that outdoor recreation among the young, especially activities such as backpacking, have declined precipitously, but doing a bit of research, that story seems more complicated and maybe isn’t so true.

In any case, there are many issues that have created great protest in the Trump years. But the destruction of the Utah national monuments and now the Endangered Species Act are not going to be among them.

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