The national parks advocacy nonprofit—created by the federal government—is pushing back against the new administration on all fronts.
By Zach Mortice
In the months since Donald Trump’s election, the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), a nonprofit parks advocacy group, has taken aim at oil and gas drilling bills and rule changes from Republican majorities in Congress, draconian budget cut proposals from the White House, and a host of Trump-appointed agency administrators who’ll affect the health of the national park system. It’s even addressed the coarsening public rhetoric around basic civil rights granted to American citizens. These are all issues Theresa Pierno, NPCA’s president and CEO, sees as under assault by a cast of characters including climate-change deniers, pollution bystanders, and resource-extraction enthusiasts. All are newly empowered with Trump in the White House.
There’s a bill in Congress to ease rules that limit drilling for oil, gas, and minerals in national parks. And this month, LAM editor Brad McKee wrote about revisions to the Department of the Interior’s stream protection rules that make it easier for companies to dump mining waste into streams and waterways. The NPCA has opposed all of these moves.
When the Trump administration ordered the Department of the Interior (DOI), the parent agency of the National Park Service (NPS), to stop tweeting after it posted photos comparing the sparse attendance of the January 20 inauguration ceremony to President Obama’s first inaugural, a fleet of rogue, unsanctioned, NPS Twitter accounts popped up, tweeting their opposition to Trump’s climate science denials. And Pierno was there to make it clear: As a delicate public resource available to all, national park matters should be above partisan muzzling. “If [parks] are threatened, and the people that manage them are threatened, I think you’re going to see these kinds of activities happen,” she says. “We really weren’t surprised by it. Parks are really the thing that can unite us in a way that’s unique in this country.”
Lately much of the NPCA’s energy has gone toward safeguarding national parks by challenging Trump’s cabinet picks, and by issuing preemptive warnings when agency heads are already putting these places at risk. The NPCA warned that Department of Agriculture Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue must preserve the system of national forests (many of which border national parks) and encourage policies that protect waterways from agricultural pollution. (Pierno closed her statement on Perdue with criticism of the lack of diversity seen in Trump’s cabinet.) Upon the announcement of Trump’s pick to head the Department of Energy, the NPCA called out Secretary Rick Perry for his denial of climate change, and his efforts, as governor of Texas, to inhibit the cleanup of polluting coal plants.
To judge by Trump’s early days in office, the preservation of national parks looks to be a multifront fight where the difference between real threats and idle distractions are just now coming into focus. But one opponent is already quite clear: Scott Pruitt, the administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Pruitt’s fervent climate change denial (renewed earlier this month), patronage of energy companies, and stream of lawsuits over the years aimed at inhibiting the EPA from doing its job have made him a prime target of the NPCA. Pruitt has sued the EPA to block implementation of a plan to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed, to end protections granted to national park waterways, and to overturn rules meant to reduce air pollution from power plants. In total, he filed more than a dozen lawsuits against the EPA as Oklahoma’s attorney general.
Pruitt’s adversarial stances should not be surprising. During the campaign, Trump made it clear that the job of his EPA administrator might be dismantling the agency instead of running it. He vowed to eliminate the EPA “in almost every form,” leaving only “little tidbits.” So far, he’s moving toward making good on this promise, proposing to cut the agency’s budget by nearly one-third.
For Pierno, losing ground on the EPA’s regulation of carbon emissions and environmental quality is a devastating lesson on the ecological fragility of the park system. “Climate change is already affecting parks,” she says. “It’s not something that’s debated among people that have spent a lot of time in our national parks.”
And that includes Trump’s pick to lead the DOI, Ryan Zinke.
During his confirmation hearing, Zinke, until recently a Montana congressman, told senators that he’s seen glaciers at Glacier National Park recede over the time it takes to eat lunch. “Climate is changing; man is an influence,” he told the Senate panel (though he stopped short of specifying how much human activity is causing climate to change). Meanwhile, the NPS estimates that there is $40 billion worth of NPS infrastructure at risk because of climate change.
Pierno says the NPCA has a “good, working relationship” with Zinke, and has worked with him through an NPS field office in his hometown of Whitefish, Montana, while he was in Congress. With DOI staff, Zinke had been vocal about combatting the 10 percent cuts Trump had proposed for his agency, which Pierno says would be “devastating,” especially considering that the NPS is currently understaffed and in the midst of a federal hiring freeze. “I don’t know how they could take a 10 percent cut, or quite frankly, [any] cut in their operations expenses at this point,” she says.
But when more detailed budget proposals were released pushing for a 12 percent cut at the DOI, Zinke accepted it, saying, “This budget allows the Interior Department to meet our core mission and also prioritizes the safety and security of the American people.”
At his hearing, Zinke promised to tackle the $12 billion backlog of deferred maintenance at national parks (see “Roads to Ruin,” LAM, February 2016), a vow he reaffirmed to Pierno at a public reception recently. Trump’s budget proposal does include some provisions to repair this backlog. “Maybe there’s an opportunity there to see that folded into a major infrastructure package,” Pierno says.
In addition to rebuking Trump’s claim that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, Zinke opposed the federal government’s transferring its land to states, and invoked the name of the storied conservationist and president Teddy Roosevelt 10 times during his confirmation hearing.
But Zinke’s environmental record is far from spotless, as the NPCA has pointed out. The NPS and DOI didn’t return requests for comment, but Zinke has advocated for greater state control of energy resources on federal property, and also voted against Endangered Species Act protections. Oil and gas companies have donated more than $300,000 to his political campaigns, and the League of Conservation Voters gave him a 4 percent lifetime score.
The NPCA was created in 1919 by the NPS’s first director, Stephen Mather, with Robert Sterling Yard as its first executive. It was initially funded with federal dollars, but has long since been a completely independent advocacy group, chartered to be a nonpartisan “watchdog group,” Pierno says, that guards against parks policy being used for political aims. Though it originated within the government, the NPCA takes on an antagonistic role toward the NPS whenever it sees fit. The group is currently suing the NPS over oil and gas exploration in Florida’s Big Cypress National Preserve.
For Pierno, this preservation and conservation ethos taps into more than just climate change policy.
Days after Trump surrogates began floating the idea of World War II Japanese internment camps as a lawful precedent for a national registry of Muslims, Pierno posted a blog entry about the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, the first of these detention camps. Titled “There Is No Precedent,” it didn’t name Trump directly, but closed with, “The incarceration of Japanese Americans was a travesty of justice. It should not and cannot be used today to inform policies that marginalize another group of people just because they share a common religion.”
“It’s very frightening to think that our nation would consider going down that path and [repeating] such a serious mistake,” she says, calling it “a dark day in our history.”
Lately, more and more national park sites have been established to teach us how diverse, marginalized groups have been treated as they’ve tried to enter the American mainstream, including Manzanar, the César E. Chávez National Monument in California, and the Stonewall National Monument in New York. “Parks are part of the fabric of who we are as a nation,” Pierno says. And this fabric is made from both the cultural and ecological legacy of national parks, both of which the Trump administration is putting at risk.
Zach Mortice is a Chicago-based architecture and landscape architecture journalist. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram.