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Saving Earth: Trump's track record for wildlife conservation makes him the 'most anti-nature President' ever

The Trump administration has attempted to remove protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands — approximately 1,000 times more land than his administration has protected
President Donald Trump (Getty Images)
President Donald Trump (Getty Images)

Planet Earth is in dire need of solutions. Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that we have a responsibility "to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known." Our campaign Saving Earth focuses on nature and wildlife conservation and this column will feature stories on the pressing needs of our planet and hopefulness of our fight.

It is no secret that President Donald Trump is not a fan of his predecessor, Barack Obama. During his tenure in the White House over the last three-plus years, Trump's administration has systematically rolled back many Obama-era protections meant for minority groups. This track record is worse when it comes to nature protection and wildlife conservation. Trump's family has also been embroiled in controversy, with his son, Donald Trump Jr having traveled to Mongolia to hunt endangered sheep — a move that cost taxpayers over $70,000.

Trump's policies are antithetical to claims by his administration that he wants to "create a conservation stewardship legacy second only to Teddy Roosevelt," as listed on the Interior Department's priorities. In December 2017, former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke declared that he had lived up to the conservation ideals of Roosevelt and that the administration was "one of the leading conservationists."

This claim was later blasted by environmental activists, and even Theodore Roosevelt IV, Roosevelt's grandson. Roosevelt's family was angry that Zinke kept invoking their ancestor to misrepresent his own actions. "His concept of how you protect public lands and the values that they represent are certainly very different than the old lion’s,” said Roosevelt IV, an investment banker. “And when he says he’s going to live up to the legacy of [Teddy], he’s not doing it."

The American bald eagle (Getty Images)

According to The New York Times, the Trump administration has completed reversals of 64 environmental policies, and another 34 policy rollbacks are in progress, making a total of 98 policies. The policies span the breadth of the environmental realm, affecting air pollution and emissions, drilling for fossil fuels, infrastructure, animals, safety and toxicity, water pollution and more. 

Even one of Trump's key campaign promises — the infamous border wall — has been decried by environmental groups. The Center for Biological Diversity stated that "Trump's wall would harm border communities, perpetuate human suffering, destroy thousands of acres of habitat, and halt the cross-border migration of dozens of animal species."

In the Center's 2017 report, A Wall in the Wild, they wrote that endangered and candidate species would potentially be affected by the construction of a wall and related infrastructure spanning the entirety of the border. In 2017, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that trophies from elephants legally hunted in Zimbabwe and Zambia can once again be imported to the US, reversing a ban under Obama.

Perhaps his most egregious action was when he made changes to the provisions of the US Endangered Species Act in August 2019, one of America’s oldest and most effective environmental laws. The Act was signed into law by former President, Richard Nixon in 1973 and is credited with saving many iconic species like the bald eagle, the very symbol of America, the rare California condor, grizzly bears, gray whales, and many others. The law had been a long source of frustration for drilling and mining companies because new listings could put vast areas of land off-limits to "development".

Rare Bornean orangutan (Getty Images)

According to the revision, the Fish and Wildlife Service would need to write separate rules for each threatened species, slowing their protection until conditions worsen. Previously, threatened species, which account for 20% of listed species under the Act, would receive the same automatic protections as endangered species, according to the liberal Center for American Progress policy research organization. The revised rules will also prohibit the designation of critical habitat for species threatened by climate change, the impacts of which tend to be felt in the future, the Center for Biological Diversity noted.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the Trump administration, suspended various environmental regulations for the fossil fuel industry. Additionally, the EPA recently made some changes to the Mercury and Air Toxic Standards, a set of regulations signed into law by Obama in 2012 that have helped reduce mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants by a total of more than 80 percent, according to AP News. In June, Trump rolled back Obama-era restrictions on bear hunting in Alaska.

Obama's restrictions barred hunters in Alaska national preserves from baiting bear traps or killing denning bear cubs and wolf pups or other practices that have been condemned by environmental and wildlife protection groups. Under the new National Park Service rule from the Trump administration, hunting on natural preserves in Alaska will be controlled by the state, which allows baiting of brown and black bears; hunting of denning black bears with artificial light, killing of denning wolves and coyotes, hunting of swimming caribou and hunting of caribou from motorboats. 

A March 2020 lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity stated that the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the Department of the Interior have failed to protect 241 plant and animal species under the Endangered Species Act. Among the species listed in the suit are spotted turtles in the Great Lakes and on the Eastern seaboard, moose in the Midwest, a western bumblebee that has declined by 84 percent, and a tiny freshwater fish in the Chesapeake Bay that flips stones with its nose to find food, according to a statement from the Center for Biological Diversity.

Grizzly bear cub (Getty Images)

Trump's Prevention of Animal Cruelty Act may have served as a reprieve, but activists flagged the legislation as reeking of hypocrisy. The Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture (PACT) Act was signed on November 25, 2019, and bans the intentional crushing, burning, drowning, suffocating, implement, or other serious harm to "living non-human mammals, birds, reptiles, or amphibians."

The law also bans "animal crush videos" — any photograph, motion picture film, video, or digital recording or electronic image that depicts animal cruelty. It was the use of the word "pets" in the legislation that signaled an alarm, showing that Trump did not think as much of wildlife welfare as he considers protecting the rights of pet animals. 

In a report from May 2020, the Center for American Progress calculated that the Trump administration has attempted to remove protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands—approximately 1,000 times more land than his administration has protected. They stated that the analysis showed that "Trump has led the most anti-nature presidency in US history at precisely the time when our leaders should be doing everything in their power to save it." 

By stripping protections from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, more than 2 million acres designated for conservation and cultural use were opened up and sold for mineral development. The Center's analysis found that the Trump administration has removed or is in the process of removing protections from nearly 35 million acres of public lands, or roughly 53,125 square miles -- approximately equivalent to the size of the state of Florida and 15 times the size of the Yellowstone National Park.

Their report stated that "President Trump has eliminated protections on 16 times more land than President Teddy Roosevelt protected as national parks and monuments." Additionally, the report says, "Rather than building upon the bipartisan conservation legacy of presidents before him, Trump is the only president to have removed more protections from US lands and waters than he put in place. With the United States losing a football field’s worth of natural area every 30 seconds to human development, the planet simply cannot afford any additional destructive anti-conservation actions."

It is no wonder then that environmentalist and former executive director of the Sierra Club — one of the nation's oldest environmental organizations — Carl Pope told MEA Worldwide (MEAWW), that "we need new leadership more than we need new laws." He added that the most important thing that can be done in the United States to protect wildlife is to undo the legacy of the Trump administration.