Now We Can All Retire … Right?

Jan. 20 marked the dawn of a new day in Washington.  We hope it means a clear break from the past eight years of drilling, logging, and ignoring science.  So now all us enviro lawyers can retire or get real jobs because President Obama – enjoy those two words together – is going to take…

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Jan. 20 marked the dawn of a new day in Washington.  We hope it means a clear break from the past eight years of drilling, logging, and ignoring science.  So now all us enviro lawyers can retire or get real jobs because President Obama – enjoy those two words together – is going to take care of everything … right?

Well … probably not.  The next four years will likely be as busy as the last four for conservationists.  Here’s a sampling of reasons.

  • Cleaning Up the Mess and Defusing Bombs. For the last eight years – and even in its waning hours – the Bush Administration worked overtime to undermine or outright undo environmental protections.  From mountain top removal, to carbon-belching oil shale, to gutting endangered species protection, Pres. No. 43 left many a problem for No. 44 to address.  We’ll need to be there to press the Obama Administration to clean up all of W’s many messes.  And there will be time bombs that Bush left that may be difficult for Obama to defuse.  Example: the orgy of oil and gas leasing OKed by Bush opened millions of acres of wild country to industry.  It may be difficult for the new administration to stop Big Oil from exercizing its "rights" to bulldoze and drill on these lands.  Our job will be to limit the damage.
  •  Defending the Good Guys.  When public lands and environment agencies get sued, the "world’s largest law firm" as the Department of Justice likes to call itself, defends them.  And when the new administration tries to do something to protect the environment from pollution or damage by industry, industry will sue.  We’ll be there to help when the agencies make a good decision, by intervening on the USA’s behalf.  And believe me, they can use the help. 
  • Climate Change.  This many-headed hydra will likely take the new administration years to get a handle on.  From cows to cars, gas wells to gas pumps, the regulatory possibilities are dizzyingly numerous.  And the politics will be bruising.  We may be able to help slow down the damage from new coal plants and coal mines and other greenhouse gas sources in the meantime.
  • The Lords of Yesterday. The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service together manage around 400,000,000 acres of America’s public lands.  And they have schizophrenic missions, mandated by Congress, to both protect the land and encourage commerical uses.  (Professor Charles Wilkenson called the old laws and policies that saddled our 21st Century conservation ethic with 19th Century rules, "the Lords of Yesterday.")  These mandates have created an agency culture that is often friendly to damaging use and hostile to conservation – there’s a reason the BLM is often sarcastically referred to as the "Bureau of Livestock and Mining."  These large bureaucracies can be turned on a dime by the new administration about as easily as an aircraft carrier.  And the agencies will still be required by law to manage public lands for multiple (ab)uses.  Boneheaded decisions from these agencies won’t stop overnight, if ever.  And you don’t have to look far to find them – just as a for instance, BLM last week proposed a new coal mine, spewing one of the most powerful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere from roads and drill pads bulldozed into a proposed wilderness in Colorado
  • The New Energy Economy.  I know, I know.  How can conservationists complain about more solar generation, geothermal power plants, and wind farms?  As renewable portfolio standards and climate change concerns increase these types of "green" developments, pressure will build to site them on public lands, along with their attendant infrasture of transmission lines.  When these projects are proposed in the wrong places, conservationists will have to stand up to them, just as we do to poorly sited oil and gas development.  Of course, we’ll work like hell to make sure the agencies and developers of renewable energy do it right before opposing any project.  But the potential for conflict is real and will only grow in the future.
  • Money – Too Much and Too Little.  The new administration will not be focused on the environment – let’s face it.  The economy will come first.  And with money flying out the door to GM and the banks, don’t expect a sudden boost in funding to protect wildlife and public lands.  Long-strapped budgets for identifying critical habitat for wildlife species are still likely to be governed less by Congressional largesse and more by litigation. And if financial famine isn’t a problem, financial feast may be. The Forest Service may be in line to get billions of dollars to maintain roads, some of which might be better left closed to restore watersheds and habitat.  Others are hoping that the stimulus package will stimulate lots of logging to counter fire threats, though the money may get used to log areas far from where homes, property, or waterhseds are threatened.  Some of these projects may be money well spent, but we’ll need to watch like hawks to make sure that’s the case.

This is just a sampling.  And it ignores the fact that conservationists will have allies in high places where we haven’t had them for nearly a decade.  Yes, there will still be plenty of work to do.  But it’s going to much better to be playing some offense instead of defense all the time.

Ted was an attorney in the Rocky Mountain regional office from 2003–2018. He protected wilderness, roadless areas and the planet's climate on behalf of conservation groups in the Four Corners' states.