Standing at the Grand Canyon and seeing the red ribs of the far rim, tracking towering walls of granite up Yosemite Valley, or watching the green hills of the Great Smoky Mountains roll into the distance were all privileges secured through the work of the Environmental Protection Agency. The national parks in these areas were among 156 landscapes identified by Congress in the late 1990s as in need of protection from air pollution, caused by coal-fired power plants and other sources of emissions. The results have been dramatic: In the last 15 years, visibility in some of these parks has doubled.
The component of the Clean Air Act responsible for those gains, the Regional Haze Rule, is one of 14 environmental policies then-Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt sued the EPA over, calling it federal overreach. Now, Pruitt himself is in charge of the EPA, and wilderness and environmental advocates are apprehensive about what his tenure means for national parks and other public lands.
“His point of view on those plans would push us backwards in terms of better protecting air quality and visibility in national parks,” says Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs for the National Parks Conservation Association.
The federal government holds states accountable to meeting environmental standards, and under Pruitt’s leadership, those lines will likely soften. Faced with fewer staff and a budget cut potentially by billions, enforcement is also likely to slip. The Union of Concerned Scientists went so far as to declare Pruitt’s appointment “potentially disastrous for vital science-based policies that protect public health.”
“If you go back to just focus on the EPA and their task of keeping our air clean and our water clean, that’s something that all of us who are out there recreating care about,” says Dan Ritzman, associate director with Sierra Club’s Our Wild America campaign. “I think we can expect our air is going to be dirtier, our views of our amazing national parks and wild lands are going to be diminished.”
Pruitt’s Senate committee confirmation hearing was thin on his ideas for the agency. Asked to name one regulation he supports, he couldn’t, saying he hadn’t comprehensively reviewed them. His list of options, had someone made it a multiple choice question, would have included the Clean Water Act as well as the Clean Air Act and the Toxic Substances Control Act.
“Based on the lack of substance with respect to many of his answers, it is unclear whether Mr. Pruitt supports any clean air or clean water federal regulations or if he understands the science that is the underpinning the agency’s actions to protect public health,” Senator Tom Carper (D-Delaware) wrote in a letter to the chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
That lack of knowledge should worry hikers, trail runners, and other outdoor recreationists. Pruitt could not, for example, explain the problem with exercising outdoors on high-ozone days. Pruitt also seems reluctant to recuse himself from handling cases that he filed against the EPA as attorney general when they come before the agency now under his purview.
Pruitt argues his lawsuits represented the interests of his constituents in Oklahoma, but thousands of emails released after his confirmation suggest he takes his cues as much from oil and gas interests. Repeatedly, he copied and pasted text from fossil fuel lobbyists onto his attorney general letterhead to send to the EPA. Not surprisingly, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, an oil and gas lobby group, celebrated his confirmation as administrator of the EPA.
“We are confident that Administrator Pruitt understands that environmental protection, economic growth, and energy security are not mutually exclusive, but rather require reasonable balancing,” said Chet Thompson, the organization’s president and CEO, in a statement. “Under his leadership, we can realize the President’s America First Energy Plan, which embraces our country’s potential to be an energy superpower while simultaneously protecting the environment.”
Indeed, Pruitt says he hopes to see the EPA become as pro-energy and pro-jobs as it is pro-environment. A month after that confirmation hearing in which he stated he wasn’t familiar enough with EPA regulations to name one he supported, he told the Conservative Political Action Conference attendees, "I think there are some regulations that in the near-term need to be rolled back in a very aggressive way.”
The Clean Power Plan and the Waters of the U.S. rule are apparent priorities for axing under the Trump administration, and both hit home in the backcountry
The latter rule was finalized in December after an eight-year effort by the Obama administration to clarify the definition of what bodies of water the 1972 Clean Water Act covers. The definition expands the protections to include sources of drinking water for 117 million Americans, as well as water sources used by wildlife and parks and major bodies of water, like the Chesapeake Bay, the nation’s largest tidal estuary.
Opponents characterized it as a last-minute effort to secure protections for, as Pruitt said at the Conservative Political Action Conference, every puddle and dry creek bed.
The rule isn’t just a technicality. “If your clean drinking water or your last paddling trip weren’t enough to remind you why laws like the Clean Water Act exist, it was less than 50 years ago that Ohio’s Cuyahoga River, which runs through Cuyahoga Valley National Park, caught fire,” Chad Lord, senior director of water policy for the National Parks Conservation Association pointed out shortly after the executive order was announced. “At the time, limited protections for our waterways led to toxic industrial waste and oil-soaked debris filling the same rivers and lakes that supply our drinking water and flow through our national parks.”
More than half of the waterways in national parks still fail to meet healthy water quality standards, he continued, often affected by dumping and development upstream.
Revising that rule will require a similar process to what was done to write it, which included some 400 public meetings.
Pruitt has questioned scientifically-accepted evidence for climate change and the role humans play in it—though lately conceded these matters are worth careful review, as is whether the EPA can legally do anything to address them.
“You’re putting somebody who’s a climate denier in charge of an agency that’s supposed to be protecting our environment and addressing climate change, and he has a history of working alongside or at the behest of the oil and gas industry in his state,” says Ritzman, with the Sierra Club. “That’s something that we’re deeply concerned about.”
Pruitt has repeatedly expressed a preference for states, instead of the government, to enforce environmental rules, a strategy that could pose a danger to wildlands throughout western states. In northern Utah, near Dinosaur National Monument, pollution tied to the oil and gas drilling in the nearby Uintah Basin spikes the ozone to levels found in Los Angeles on summer days.
“The state of Utah and Utah’s congressional delegation have been pushing the EPA to back off and allow us to ‘bring Utah solutions to these sorts of problems,’ which is some sort of odd euphemism for ‘Hands off feds. We know how to fix the problem, and when we say that we generally mean we’re going to stick our heads in the sand and hope it will go away,’” says Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.
“Having Pruitt heading up the EPA is, I’m afraid, a harbinger of more bad things to come,” Bloch says.
Pruitt’s EPA, meanwhile, is inheriting a climate already in dire straits. In the Colorado Plateau, the average temperature is predicted to rise by as much as 8.5 F by 2050, meaning less snow, earlier peak runoff and less water in streams and the Colorado River (which provide drinking water supply for 40 million people). On the northern edge of Alaska, warmer temperatures have dried lakes and allowed trees and shrubs to encroach on the tundra. Glacier and Joshua Tree national parks both stand to lose their namesakes to changing climates. For environmental advocates, the transition couldn’t have come at a worst time.
“We don’t really have any time to waste on the climate issue and on trying to keep the planet below that 2 Celsius point of no return,” says Lauren Pagel, policy director for Earthworks. “I think that is probably the biggest existential threat for this administration.”