A new push to deregulate America's oceans and backcountry

Recent decisions at the Interior and Commerce departments are opening the doors for more commercial exploitation of US fisheries and land resources. Advocates say the changes finally allow local voices to be heard. Critics say science is being ignored in favor of industry.

Steven Senne/AP
Fishing vessels are docked in New Bedford Harbor, in New Bedford, Mass., in December. The Commerce Department has been relaxing some Obama-era regulations on fisheries, pleasing commercial fishermen but worrying those who say the department is ignoring science-based recommendations.

In Talbot County, Md., waterman Jeff Harrison can trace his family lineage to wind-hardened pioneers combing the Chesapeake Bay since the 19th century for oysters, crabs, and rockfish.

Yet even as one of America’s great estuaries slowly returns to health after decades of pollution and overfishing, Mr. Harrison’s generational claim to the water and its wealth is being revoked by federal and state decree in the name of conservation science.

“We want to see a clean Chesapeake Bay, but we also want to be able to make a few dollars out there,” says Mr. Harrison, president of the Talbot Watermen Association, who saw his rockfish, or striped bass, quota cut to zero this year even amid a stock rebound. “The average age of the commercial fisherman in the Bay is 58 years old. The job is already hard enough. I’m probably going to be the last commercial fisherman in my family.”

It’s partly in response to such concerns that the Trump administration – particularly Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross – is starting to both decentralize its decisionmaking and open up America’s oceans and lands to resource extraction.  

But as America’s powerful land and water managers promise broad reforms to bring rule-making closer to the bayous and prairies, clashes over science in resource management are likely to intensify. After all, the new Republican administration has put into fresh play America’s core natural wealth – its game, minerals, fish, fossil fuels, and landscapes – in ways that are challenging scientific thinking and, potentially, threatening the sustainability of those resources.

“We need good, sound science, but science has become politicized,” says John Freemuth, director of the Cecil D. Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University and an expert on the intersection of science and resource management.

The push to deregulate the American backcountry is stoking centuries-old tensions over how the federal government preserves or exploits its land and natural resources. It’s epitomized, in some ways, by recent announcements by the Interior Department that they will open up almost all US coastal waters to oil drilling, are peeling back coal regulations, and will overhaul the department’s organization so that state-by-state jurisdictions are replaced by 13 regions, guided by watersheds. An Appalachian region would stretch from Bangor, Maine, all the way to Huntsville, Ala.

A US Geological Survey map dated Jan. 3, 2018, obtained by E&E News, a Washington, D.C.-based online news organization that specializes in energy and environmental coverage, shows a plan to divide Interior Department supervision of land and resource management into 13 proposed regions: North Atlantic-Appalachian, South Atlantic-Gulf, Great Lakes-Ohio, Mississippi Basin, North Central, South Central, Colorado Basin, Northern Rockies, Great Basin, Northern Pacific Mountains, Southern Pacific Mountains, Alaska, and Pacific Islands. In many cases, the regions split states into multiple management regions.

E&E News, US Geological Survey

Jacob Turcotte/Staff

“It’s ... about getting more resources out to the field,” Deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt told Energy & Environment News, adding that “the generals will be closer to the troops.”

Together, Interior and Commerce oversee roughly 500 million acres of land – a fifth of the US land mass, and nearly half of all Western lands – along with more than 3 million nautical square miles of open ocean.

Interior alone has 70,000 employees, a complex bureaucracy that laces politics and science, as well as intricate relationships with all 50 governors, their respective state bureaucracies, and phalanxes of interest groups ranging from the liberal Sierra Club to the conservative American Land Council.

But while these lands and waters may belong to every American, some feel particularly invested, including the roughnecks, loggers, fishermen, hunters, snowmobilers, and miners who eke out tough livings from rough but beautiful surroundings.

Many of them, like New Hampshire boat owner, biologist, and former fishery council member Ellen Goethel, have watched resources grow increasingly off-limits under what she calls a “one-size-fits-all” conservation approach implemented by the Obama administration. The New Hampshire groundfish fleet – the nation’s first – had 150 boats at Obama’s inauguration. Only six remained when Trump was sworn into office a year ago.

At a gun show in Las Vegas last week, Secretary Zinke, a former Navy SEAL from Whitefish, Mont., agreed that “local voices have been ignored” – referring in particular to regulations limiting coal leases, uranium drilling, and the creation of new national monuments.  

But critics say that many of these decisions pay lip service to “local voices” while in reality ignoring both science and the diversity of local voices that exist.

Whitefish carpenter Tom Healy points to proposed amendments to a sage grouse conservation plan that had been written by a wide-ranging group of stakeholders but was modified by the Interior Department to reflect 11th hour concerns by ranchers and miners. The revised grouse plan – which would allow BLM administrators to bypass the original one when considering new gas and oil leases – is expected to be released soon.

The grouse plan “is the first time that an effort like that has been put together at that scale, by that many stakeholders, and not only did it look like it was going to work but it is a working model for other conservation efforts,” says Mr. Healy, who recently objected in a widely-circulated essay to being called an elitist by his neighbor Zinke. “Now that whole program is being picked apart. It doesn’t bode well for the sage grouse but it does bode very well for the corporations [that the administration] is doing the bidding for.”

And while Secretary Ross’s moves to override the decisions of federal fishery managers and expand the season for species like fluke and red snapper have been welcomed by many commercial fishermen, others worry that they undercut the established tradition of having a commerce secretary heed the advice of those managers.

“We’ve seen some recent decisions in the Southeast which ignore science, and that’s troubling,” says Holly Binns, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Southeast ocean conservation work. “When science doesn’t lead the way, I think it’s risky and everyone loses out.”

Fisheries can be tricky to manage as numbers fluctuate. US fish stocks have largely rebounded in recent decades under strict management, but it is difficult for managers to trust self-reporting by fishermen of catch and bycatch – key indicators of stock health.

Since a near-collapse of the red snapper stocks in the Gulf in 2007, a plan from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) that halved the quota and divided it evenly among commercial and recreational fishermen has had a dramatic impact. The fish is now so numerous that it is being found outside of its native ranges. Yet recreational anglers overshot their quota by a million pounds last year, leading to a dramatic cut to the season this year. Fishermen fumed.

Zinke, a tall, rugged Westerner, came into his role vowing a Theodore Roosevelt vision of balancing conservation with resource capitalism, and some conservation-minded Westerners thought he would be a champion for protecting public lands. Many are now reassessing that idea.

Along with his pushes to undo regulations and shrink two national monuments have been several decisions that seemed mostly political, including what appeared to be a handshake waiver of oil exploration off Florida’s coast, made at the request of Gov. Rick Scott, a GOP Senate candidate. That left other Atlantic seaboard governors feeling that the administration’s decisions have more to do with political loyalty than science and fairness.

That was a “gaffe that he needs to address,” says Prof. Freemuth.

Still, “Western governors are talking about convening meetings on working landscapes, and what’s intriguing about that is that it’s largely bipartisan,” Freemuth says. “Democrats and Republicans both want solutions and are tired of centralized Washington decisions. That’s where you get the archetype of the rancher or the Native American who have been on this landscape for a long time, and they’re doing a kind of citizen science. That’s why the administration’s moves are timely.”

But given the stakes, he warns, “It is a profound thing if it’s not done right.”

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