Week 104: Government Shutdown! Fire Sale on Federal Land! Every Tree Must Go!

Week 104: Government Shutdown! Fire Sale on Federal Land! Every Tree Must Go!

The Interior Department bends the shutdown law to keep oil flowing and silences national park officials, and EPA enforcement just . . . stops.

Maria Thi Mai and Toshio Suzuki/BLM

Yule Logging

President Trump is expanding logging on federal lands in the name of wildfire suppression. But there’s a problem: People who understand wildfires say logging won’t diminish the threat and may even make it worse. It’s almost as if—go with me here—Trump is using fire suppression as a pretext to give away public resources to the logging industry.

President Trump issued his tree-cutting executive order just before Christmas (how festive), but it didn’t appear in the Federal Register until last week, so it’s just now being widely reported on. The order recommends the harvesting of 4.4 billion board-feet of wood from land managed by the Departments of Agriculture and the Interior. (A board-foot is a one-foot length of wood, one foot wide and one inch thick, so we’re talking about a lot of wood.) The expansion would increase the amount of federal logging since Trump became president by nearly a third.

Why cut down all those trees? Because Trump suffers from a persistent misconception that logging big trees will cure the West of its wildfire problem. In November he threatened to cut off federal dollars to California if the state didn’t change its forest management practices, and earlier this month he threatened to cease FEMA aid to the state. Trump’s former interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, also wrongly prescribed more logging as a panacea for wildfires.

But the big trees the logging industry wants are not what’s causing the problem. Wildfires spread because of kindling—small stuff like twigs and brush. Not only will logging fail to clear that kindling, it will actually contribute to the problem. For instance, cutting down trees encourages the spread of weeds that serve as efficient fuel for the fires.

You may be wondering how this new logging could go forward during the government shutdown. Good question. The Trump administration has departed from the protocol of past shutdowns, during which the Forest Service barred loggers from working on federal lands, and Trump has gone one step further, exploring the idea of auctioning new areas for logging even if the shutdown persists. This is a pretty good indicator of where the administration’s priorities lie: Airport security is suffering and food inspections have diminished, but oil and logging interests are still getting government service. Basically, this is a selective shutdown based on how much Trump cares about various government functions—and public health and safety do not rank high.

No Shutdown for Oil Men

Another questionable priority for the administration is reflected in the Bureau of Offshore Energy Management’s decision this week to bring back 40 additional workers during the shutdown. What is the life-and-death issue that these employees have been called back to handle? Advancing plans to drill the outer continental shelf for oil, of course.

The BOEM explained the move thusly: “In order to comply with the Administration’s America First energy strategy to develop a new OCS Oil and Gas leasing program, work must continue toward issuing the Proposed Program per the Outer Continental Shelf Leasing Act requirements.” In other words, the administration isn’t even pretending that the workers are necessary to protect life or property, as the law requires during a shutdown.

This isn’t the first time Interior has brazenly flouted the rules of a government shutdown. According to reports from last week, the department is pushing forward with the processing of drilling permits on federal lands, including plans to hold a public comment sessions about drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In short, while our public lands are falling apart and the public is being told to stay away, the Interior Department is breaking the law to roll out the red carpet for oil companies.

Muzzle Funds Are Still Available

There is one way in which the Interior Department is honoring the shutdown: It’s not allowing the superintendents of our crumbling national parks to speak to reporters. Because, you know, they’re technically not allowed to work right now.

When reporters asked Superintendent David Smith about the condition of Joshua Tree National Park, he reminded them that he’s not permitted to talk to them without approval from Washington, D.C. When reporters asked the Interior Department for permission, they were told interviews during the shutdown could only be granted only in cases of public safety or emergencies.

And since the only emergency the administration seems to recognize is the need to plunder federal lands for oil and timber, it’s unlikely we’ll hear from parks superintendents anytime soon.

The Prosecution Rests

Newly released data from the Department of Justice show that last year the number of pollution cases referred by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for criminal prosecution hit a 30-year low.

It would be nice if that indicated a precipitous drop in pollution—but let’s be real. Trump’s EPA simply stopped prosecuting serious pollution cases and declined to seek the stiffest penalties against the few polluters it did sanction. One potential explanation for the steep decline is that former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt took referral authority away from career prosecutors in the Criminal Investigations Divisions and gave it to a political appointee.

According to the environmental watchdog group PEER, the agency appears to be in at least nominal violation of the law. A 1990 statute, the Pollution Prosecution Act, requires the EPA to employ at least 200 special agents in its Criminal Investigations Division, but in 2018 the actual head count of agents fell to 140—and could be as low as 130 today.

Cutting agents and criminal prosecutions is a textbook move by administrations that don’t particularly care about protecting the environment. In 2007 the George W. Bush administration made headlines with its own drop in criminal referrals paired with a lack of enforcement officers. But the Trump administration has gone well below the Bush II totals, and that’s not accounting for the fact that our economy (and likely the number of pollution infractions) has grown since that time.

And things are likely to get worse before they get better. The criminal prosecution referrals for fiscal year 2019 are behind those of the same period last year.

Stay up-to-date on Trump’s environmental antics by visiting NRDC’s Trump Watch.