The battle for national parks and other federal lands under a Trump presidency

Legislators and environmentalists are already waging a new fight over oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Creative Commons)
Caribou graze on the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, with the Brooks Range as a backdrop. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Creative Commons)

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is a pristine wilderness populated by polar bears, grizzlies, and gray wolves, stretching across 19 million acres of mountains, boreal forest and tundra in Alaska’s North Slope.

Congress and a just-defeated President Jimmy Carter set aside the territory in late 1980, as part of a vast network of open spaces protected under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. But the legislation deferred a decision on the coastal plain between the Brooks Mountain range and Beaufort Sea, suspending the fate of caribou calving grounds and as much as 12 billion barrels of recoverable oil reserves.

That political punt set up a fight between energy interests and environmentalists that has raged for decades. Following the election of Donald Trump, that long-standing feud over ANWR has been reignited.

“The whole Alaska delegation came out immediately and said it’s high on their list,” said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. “We’re going to have a battle again.”


And it won’t be the only one. The Republican party’s control of both the White House and Congress, for the first time in a decade, forms a unified political block that could reopen numerous battles over national parks, forests, refuges, and other protected federal lands. In addition to ANWR, conservationists, environmentalists, and other observers fear the GOP will again push for oil drilling at the foot of Arches National Park, throw open the gates of national forests to timber and energy interests, and roll back environmental rules protecting the air, water, and animals on and around these lands.

“No one wants to look through Delicate Arch and see a pumpjack,” said Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “So we just hope the next administration will care about these open spaces as much as the rest of us do.”

But Brengel acknowledges it doesn’t look promising so far.

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park. Credit: James Temple
Delicate Arch at Arches National Park. Credit: James Temple

The president-elect’s 100-day action plan calls for lifting restrictions “on the production of $50 trillion dollars’ worth of job-producing American energy reserves, including shale, oil, natural gas and clean coal.” In addition, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin ​is now the ​top​ candidate for Secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the National Park Service as well as the Bureau of Land Management, according to Politico.​ She is a strong advocate of energy development and has been​ a vocal critic of ​the Obama administration’s ​Clean Power Plan. Other contenders for the job have reportedly included oil executive Forrest Lucas and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.

Conservative calls to turn over federal lands to state regulators or commercial interests have been growing for years. The 2016 Republican platform argued for giving state regulators the power “to manage energy resources on federally controlled public lands.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) pushed for capping the amount of land the federal government can control in any state, and transferring the rest to state control or private hands. Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) raised the possibility of drilling in Florida’s Everglades, a large part of which is set aside as national park lands. And one Wyoming Republican gubernatorial candidate proposed oil drilling at Yellowstone. (He lost.)


In the closing days of the Bush administration, the Bureau of Land Management moved to lease 77 oil and development sites around Utah, including areas near the borders of Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dinosaur National Monument. All but 17, however, were later rescinded under the Obama administration.

Any number of these proposals, or entirely new ones, could reemerge with greater momentum under an ascendant Republican party.

Dwight Pitcaithley, a history professor at New Mexico State University and the former chief historian for the National Park Service, told Fusion:

… The only thing blocking the government from leasing land inside National Parks to drillers are pieces of legislation. To allow drilling in, say, Yosemite, “you would simply change the legislation,” he says. With Congress and the White House both Republican, and a Supreme Court that will likely swing conservative during Trump’s tenure, “I think the chances are good that will happen in certain places.”

Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. CREDIT: James Temple
Half Dome at Yosemite National Park. CREDIT: James Temple

The immediate issue Brengel is watching closely is the pending Interior Department appropriations bill, which includes a litany of riders that would weaken environmental rules on park lands. Among other policy changes, the various amendments would: limit funding for preserving endangered gray wolves, allow aggressive sport-hunting practices such as spotlighting bears in their dens, prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from monitoring the impact of uranium mining on the Grand Canyon watershed, and ease rules protecting national park air and water from nearby fracking operations. The National Parks Conservation Association is in favor of an amendment that would strike a section of the bill eliminating the president’s ability to set aside new national monuments in certain counties.

The bill is scheduled to come back before the House of Representatives in March. Many of these amendments, which may well have fallen away before they came up for a vote during a Clinton presidency, are much more likely to move ahead under the Trump administration.


“When you take out the backstop of a veto threat, those riders are a very good indication of where Congress could go,” Brengel said.

Areas at risk

The good news for environmentalists and park lovers is that simply eliminating or shrinking a national park wouldn’t be easy politically.

As Pitcaithley notes, it just requires a new piece of legislation. But the slim 52–48 Republican majority in the Senate (assuming Republican state treasurer John Kennedy wins the runoff in Louisiana) probably isn’t a broad enough margin to do something as radical as, say, selling Yosemite to theme park operators or turning Yellowstone into a geothermal power plant. In large part, that’s because Americans across the political spectrum love their parks. More than 80 percent of people say they would even pay higher taxes to preserve and protect them, according to a survey by researchers at Harvard University and Colorado State University.

“It would be silly to go after parks,” said Deborah Sivas, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford University. “Politically it doesn’t make sense, when most of what the resource extractors want is on [Bureau of Land Management] land or Forest Service land.”

National Monuments might also be relatively safe. In an emailed response to National Geographic, John Ruple, an associate professor at the University of Utah’s S.J. Quinney School of Law, wrote:

“It would be unprecedented for President Trump to attempt to revoke a national monument designation — and any attempt to do so would likely be invalidated by the courts…”

“The Antiquities Act gives the president the power to designate national monuments, but not the power to revoke prior monument designations, and two prior U.S. Attorneys General have opined that absent express delegation, the president would be without the power of revocation,” he adds. “If President Trump attempts to revoke a national monument designation, that effort will almost certainly be embroiled in litigation, and the revocation would likely fail.”

That could offer an important counterbalance as the GOP looks to undo President Barack Obama’s accomplishments. Obama has been one of the busiest conservationists in presidential history, creating 23 new monuments so far, including the César E. Chávez National Monument and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument. Last year, he also quadrupled the size of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in Hawaii, creating “the largest protected place on the planet.”

Environmentalists, Native Americans, and other groups are lobbying for Obama to protect as many additional areas as possible in the final days of his presidency. Specific sites of interest include the Bears Ears area in southern Utah, the Gold Butte, Nevada territory at the center of the armed Bundy standoff last winter, and land near the border of the Grand Canyon, where mining companies and local legislators have pushed to lift a moratorium on uranium extraction.

The GOP and commercial interests may have more luck loosening restrictions on public lands operated outside of the National Park Service, specifically the vast wilderness areas managed by the National Forest Service and resource-rich territories overseen by the Bureau of Land Management. The latter includes nearly half of the land in the western states. Allowing more coal, oil, natural gas, or timber companies to tap into these areas generally wouldn’t require new legislation, just departmental administrative shifts such as increased leasing and eased permitting.

“The area I fear for the most is public lands,” Stanford’s Sivas said. “I’m worried because that stuff happens out of public view.”

A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. CREDIT: Susanne Miller/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Creative Commons — image cropped)
A polar bear keeps close to her young along the Beaufort Sea coast in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. CREDIT: Susanne Miller/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (Creative Commons — image cropped)

What happens next

As for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Alaskan legislators wasted no time in signaling that coastal plain energy exploration is back on the table.

Minutes after news outlets called the presidential election for Donald Trump, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) said of ANWR development: “If the numbers continue for us with the Senate and you have a president who has expressed support, I will be chairing the energy committee again, and I am going to look to push that early on.” Her office didn’t respond to an inquiry.

On the House side, Rep. Don Young (R-AK) intends to work closely with Sen. Murkowski to “move this important legislation back to the President’s desk,” a spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

“Ending the prohibition against oil and gas development in ANWR is the answer many Alaskans and Americans have been asking for; additional jobs for our economy, further relief at the gas pump, and an energy secure nation,” said Matthew Shuckerow, Young’s communications director.

The House has already passed various bills opening up the coastal plains a dozen times, he noted. But the real battle for the so-called 1002 area is likely to play out in the Senate. Republicans’ narrow advantage in that chamber leaves them eight votes shy of a filibuster-proof majority (again, assuming the Louisiana runoff goes their way).

That’s why it will be critical to get Democrats on board, said former Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), who now acts as a consultant and policy adviser. He publicly offered to “drum up support” on that side of the aisle pro-bono.

“The development of 1002, which is a postage-sized stamp on ANWR, can be done safely and produce a resource that this country continues to need,” he said. “It will help us become more energy independent and allow us more flexibility in our foreign policy, so we don’t have to go to every damn war to protect the oil flow.”

But the Alaska Wilderness League is already working to line up support as well, Shogan said. The organization had 37 Senators in support of preserving the coastal plain during the last session and hopes to secure 41 in the new one, ensuring opposing legislators couldn’t override a filibuster.

Shogan offered a long list of reasons for preserving what she and others describe as the nation’s “last great wilderness,” including risks to the environment, climate, migrating species and native communities.

The Gwich’in people call the coastal plain “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins,” underscoring the cultural importance of the Porcupine Caribou calving grounds. They rely on the herd for sustenance, clothing, tools, and spiritual purposes.

Shogan argues that energy exploration would inevitably and permanently damage the fragile ecosystem there, pointing as proof to the massive drilling infrastructure and frequent oil spills at the nearby Prudhoe Bay Oil Field.

“Oil and gas exploration does not have a tiny footprint,” she said. “It would have a huge impact on the landscape, the wildlife and the communities that rely on them.”

James Temple is a multimedia journalist based in Berkeley, California, focused on science, climate, energy and the environment. He was a senior director at The Verge, a deputy managing editor at Recode, and a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle.

Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published on the author’s own Medium page and has been republished on ThinkProgress with his permission.