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.