Environews: February 2018

By Amy Brunvand

Environmental news from around the state and the West.

“Local control” a sneaky strategy to kill environmental protection

Republican politicians and the Trump Administration are trying a particularly sneaky strategy to undermine conservation land management and environmental protections by promising “local control.” In recent months, this phrase has popped up again and again in legislation and policies proposing to transfer federal responsibility to state and county governments.

On the surface, “local control” sounds like it might be a good thing. After all, don’t people in Utah know better how to manage our own state than remote bureaucrats in Washington D. C.?

But the consequences became apparent in December 2017 when the size of Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument was slashed 85% due to dubious claims that Monument designation had insufficient “local” input. Utah politicians made it clear that only certain “locals” counted. So “local control” became a dishonest excuse to pick and choose who was to be excluded from the public process.

Even if “local control” policies are applied equitably, though, they often give ordinary citizens less of a voice in environmental issues and hand over significant decision-making power to national and international corporations.

This is because existing laws were written under assumptions that federal agencies would be responsible to enforce environmental regulations. Because the State of Utah was never responsible for these environmental protections, Utah laws don’t provide formal opportunities for public input on environmental issues. By contrast, a public process is mandated at the federal level by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970 or the Federal Lands Policy and Management act of 1976.

Federal protection is necessary because air, water and wildlife don’t stay neatly within political boundaries. When President Nixon formed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1970 it was because state governments had already failed to protect the environment. State government is not able to regulate across borders in order to protect communities downstream or downwind from out-of-state pollution. Without federal regulations, corporations that operate in more than one state can misbehave in places with lax environmental regulations and then pressure other states to lower their standards.

Utah legislators have never demonstrated much political will to hold big companies (i.e. big donors) accountable, and in the past Utah citizens have often relied on federal regulations to force the state to protect clean air, clean water, land and wildlife.

Right now the State of Utah is working to upgrade an air pollution strategy largely because the Wasatch Front is out of compliance with EPA standards, not because state officials are particularly responsive to citizen demands for clean air.

In January, under the guise of “local control,” Utah Senators Orrin Hatch (R) and Mike Lee (R) introduced the ONSHORE Act. This ill-conceived bill would transfer oil and gas permitting to state control, exempt state and private land from federal oil and gas regulations and waive environmental regulations for hydraulic fracturing (fracking).

The call for “local control” has also been raised in bills intended to block lawsuits seeking to restore Utah’s National Monuments. Representative John Curtis (R-UT-3) introduced a bill that purports to create a “tribally managed national monument” but actually undermines tribal sovereignty. Likewise Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT-2) introduced a bill that would create a fake “national park” under the control of Garfield County, even though county government has no accountability on a national level.

The lesson for environmentalists is, we need to apply much greater pressure on state, county and city government. If we can’t rely on federal environmental protection under the Trump Administration, local rules and regulations to protect the environment may be the best we can do.

Beware! Utah legislature in session

The 2018 General Session of the Utah Legislature runs from January 22 to March 8, 2018. Here’s what you need to do:

1) find out who represents you and know how to contact them https://le.utah.gov/GIS/ findDistrict.jsp

2) Sign up for email alerts and social media from your favorite Utah-based environmental organizations. They’ll let you know when it’s time to take action. And then do it! The Utah Chapter of the Sierra Club also maintains a legislative tracker for priority environmental bills at utah.sierraclub.org/priority-bills

Here are some bills and resolutions currently in the works:
  • Good for air quality, HB 38: James Dunnigan (R-Taylorsville) and Jani Iwamoto (D-SLC) are teaming up with a “Fireworks Restrictions” bill.
  • Good for bikes, HB58: Carol S. Moss (D-SLC) would let bicycles treat stoplights like stop signs and proceed through after stopping if all is clear.
  • Bad for clean water, HR 135: Mike Noel (R-Kanab), long a foe of environmental protection, has sponsored a bill to prevent the Wasatch Front from having clean drinking water. HB 135, “Extraterritorial jurisdiction Amendments” would remove language from the Utah Code that enables Utah cities to protect their watersheds which nearly always lie outside of city and county boundaries. The bill would deliver SLC residents both dirty water high-priced water treatment. Watersheds are so important that in an ideal world, political boundaries would have been drawn around watersheds.
  • Good for carbon emissions and air quality, HCR 1: Raymond Ward (R-Bountiful) acknowledges human-caused climate change and calls upon state government to base policies on scientific evidence. HCR 4: Rebecca Edwards (R- North Salt Lake) has sponsored a similar Resolution, but without acknowledging human causes.
  • Bad for public lands, HJR1: Carl Albrecht (R-SLC) and David Hinkins (R- Orangeville) call on the U.S. Congress to exempt Utah from the Antiquities Act of 1906.
  • Bad for public lands, HJR 2: Carl Albrecht (R-SLC) and David Hinkins (R-Orangeville) call on the federal government to move the headquarters of the U.S. Department of the Interior and U.S. Forest Service to Utah.

Bears Ears undone for uranium

Journalists at the New York Times have uncovered persuasive evidence that Utah’s Bears Ears National Monument was downsized specifically to accommodate uranium mining. An article published in January examined mining claims registered in a government database and found that nearly all of them “fall neatly outside the new boundaries of Bears Ears.”

Many of these claims are owned by a Canadian company called Energy Fuels Resources which has been pressing to end a ban on uranium mining near Grand Canyon National Park. The company was also heavily involved in lobbying against Bears Ears.

The destruction of Bears Ears for the sake of uranium is particularly offensive since many Navajos are downwinders. Intensive uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation from 1944 to 1986 left a legacy of more than 500 abandoned mines along with contaminated land and drinking water and an epidemic of cancer and kidney disease.

Cliven Bundy off the hook (for now)

Nevada Rancher Cliven Bundy received a “get out of jail free” card when a federal judge declared a mistrial after federal prosecutors failed to turn over evidence relevant to the case. Bundy was charged with conspiracy and assault related to an event in 2014 when the Bureau of Land Management tried to remove Bundy’s cows from illegally grazing on public rangelands.

Bundy’s anti-government views derive from an off-beat brand of Mormon fundamentalism, but due to his anti-government stance he became a hero to far-right militias, sagebrush rebels, constitutional fundamentalists and states’ rights fanatics. He was able to recruit an armed paramiliatary group for a “range war” to prevent the cattle round-up, and government personnel backed off to avoid a violent confrontation.

After this perceived victory, Bundy supporters began to foment other armed anti-government actions. In May 2014, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman was inspired by Bundy supporters to lead an illegal offroad vehicle rally through a closed portion of Recapture Canyon (Lyman was convicted of misdemeanor trespass and conspiracy). In January 2016, Bundy’s sons Ammon and Ryan led an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. A jury acquitted them of conspiracy, apparently convinced that the occupation was a legitimate protest of government overreach.

Environmental activists are deeply concerned that the Bundy clan has avoided responsibility for their attacks on public property which creates a false appearance that their radical anti-government rhetoric has validity. There is legitimate concern that Bundy will inspire more violence and environmental destruction on public lands.

However, no court ever decided that Bundy can violate federal grazing rules. Conservation groups are asking Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to remove Bundy’s illegal cattle which are still trespassing on desert tortoise habitat and inside Gold Butte National Monument 18 years after Bundy’s grazing permit was revoked. Groups working to hold Bundy accountable include Western Watersheds Project, Center for Biological Diversity, WildEarth Guardians and Public Employees of Environmental Responsibility.

Herbert proposes gas taxes for transit

Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s FY 2019 Budget Recommendation calls for “flexibility to use Transportation Investment Funds (TIF) for all modes of transportation.” This would represent a major breakthrough for sustainability in Utah.

Right now the Utah Code specifies that TIF money can only be used to pay for “maintenance, construction, reconstruction or renovation to state and federal highways”—that is to say, to make air quality and traffic congestion worse. By contrast, the Governor’s budget recognizes the connection between transportation, land use, and air quality.

One of four key objectives in the document is “Affordable, Thriving Communities” where infrastructure allows people “to live in communities with access to ample opportunities for housing, jobs, education, recreation, and shopping within a short walk, drive, transit trip, or bike ride. “ This sounds like a great vision for Utah’s future.

  • Utah State Budget: gomb.utah.gov/budget-policy/state-budget/

This article was originally published on January 31, 2018.