Wheeler and Bernhardt are double trouble for national parks
America’s national parks have a unique power to transcend political party lines and bring people together. More than a century ago, our leaders saw the importance of protecting these places for the enjoyment of future generations. But even though national parks enjoy overwhelming public support, they are now under attack by the individuals with duties to protect them.
President Trump’s two most recent nominees who would oversee the health and protection of our public lands, waterways and air have deep roots and alarming ties to mining and drilling industries: Andrew Wheeler, nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and David Bernhardt, nominated for Secretary of the Department of the Interior (DOI). While the conflicts of interests shared by both nominees are substantial, even more concerning is their seeming hostility towards the very missions of the departments they are meant to lead and their prioritization of industry interests over public health and our national parks.
Wheeler has been serving as acting administrator of the agency since former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt resigned amid multiple ethics controversies. Without missing a beat, Wheeler — a former coal lobbyist — has aggressively continued Pruitt’s agenda to undermine the EPA’s duty to safeguard the environment, particularly when it comes to clean air and water and climate policies. Wheeler is actively threatening the health of our national parks as he works to gut and replace the Clean Power Plan, that set limits on carbon pollution from power plants with a program that would actually increase pollution, potentially resulting in less visibility and more harm to natural resources in national parks.
When we think about places like Yellowstone and Acadia, we envision unspoiled landscapes and scenic views, but that’s no longer a reality. In fact, a recent study found that air pollution in some of our most iconic national parks are comparable, and at times even worse than densely populated cities like Los Angeles and Houston. Similarly, a study on climate change found that national parks are warming twice as fast as the rest of the country putting park visitors, wildlife and cultural and natural resources in jeopardy.
National parks don’t exist in a vacuum, and like communities, parks are affected by air pollution and climate change in adverse ways. Without strong EPA regulations, national parks like Glacier, Joshua Tree and Saguaro risk losing their namesake features, while other forested parks like the Great Smokies and Yosemite will continue combating record wildfires in both intensity and scope. Despite these risks, Wheeler continues weakening environmental and health standards in favor of unrestrained energy development — as does Bernhardt.
Deputy Interior Secretary Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, was recently nominated to lead the Department of Interior, replacing former Secretary Ryan Zinke. Now, David Bernhardt has picked up right where Zinke left off, willfully ignoring science-driven policy, aggressively pushing the administration’s “energy dominance” agenda targeting public lands and coasts across the country, and blatantly disregarding the fundamental duties of the National Park Service to ensure our nation’s most precious natural and historic places are protected.
Bernhardt’s seeming loyalties to the fossil fuel industry and his efforts to expand oil and gas development at all costs continue to put public lands at risk. Since Bernhardt joined the administration in August 2017, the Interior Department has offered millions of acres of oil and gas leases across the West, including many in iconic national park landscapes. He has also been instrumental in pushing to open our coasts, which are home to 88 national parks, to expanded offshore drilling, rolling back regulations on fracking and methane leaks, and reducing protections for endangered species. These actions put industry before parks, their visitors and wildlife.
Bernhardt’s industry ties and questionable judgment became blatantly obvious during the recent government shutdown when he instructed parks to remain open to the public even after widespread damage was occurring to the natural and cultural resources.
Additionally, while the government was shut down and the public was unable to communicate with most federal land managers, Bernhardt gave industry a backdoor channel and continued issuing permits for oil companies to drill on public lands, without adequate public input and federal oversight.
These are not the actions the American people expect from those responsible for protecting our most treasured public lands. We need an EPA administrator and an Interior secretary who will protect our heritage — not those who will actively undermine it. Wheeler and Bernhardt have already demonstrated they are not fit for those jobs.
Theresa Pierno is the president and CEO for National Parks Conservation Association. For 100 years, the nonpartisan National Parks Conservation Association has been the leading voice in safeguarding our national parks.