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The New West: Can Trump avoid becoming America’s most environmentally illiterate leader?

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CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Earth Day is Saturday, the 47th time it’s been commemorated since the first one was held in 1970.

In many locales, “Marches for Science” are being held in support of science and against the Trump administration’s muzzling of scientists, gutting of federal research budgets, and slashing of funding for federal land management agencies—many of them foundational to the lifeblood of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Last year on Earth Day, the Paris Climate Accord was ratified by the U.S. and nearly 200 other nations, including China, serving as a voluntary framework for proceeding on reducing human-generated greenhouse gases warming the planet. Under Trump, the head Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, is pushing to have the U.S. withdraw from the agreement and go its own way in the world, denying that anthropogenic climate change is a serious problem.

Every year, we hear grumbling from the usual suspects—including those now identifying as Trumpians—curmudgeons who claim Earth Day as nothing more than a meaningless green pagan cult celebration, the product of hippie flower-children Leftists aspiring to self-righteously worship at the altar of nature.

Trump supporters forget: Earth Day was as much born by mainstream Republican tree huggers as by progressive Democrats, yet in recent years the spirit of its genesis seems to have been abandoned by most of the current GOP who have lost their mooring in the truism that conservation is a conservative ideal.

Let’s quickly recap where America was during the 1960s prior to the advent of Earth Day:

– Many of this nation’s rivers were used as garbage disposal systems, carrying toxic waste dumped out the backs of factories, raw untreated sewage and runoff from streets and storm drains filled with paint thinners, poisons and other toxic household products. Some rivers, like the Cuyahoga, caught fire.

– In 1969, an oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, sullied the Pacific Ocean and served as a wake-up call for those who believed that citizens should listen to fossil fuel companies saying, “Trust us, everything will be alright.” The Santa Barbara spill ranks as the third worst behind the Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 and Deepwater Horizon in 2010.

– Smog in urban areas, linked to bad air coming out of auto tailpipes and smokestacks, was causing modern outbreaks of childhood asthma cases and lung diseases.

– The country’s public forests were being cut over and liquidated, given away to private timber companies that didn’t want to cash out their own private holdings when the federal government—read: uninformed taxpayers—were ever so happy to subsidize their profits by building roads and giving away old growth for pennies on the dollar.

– Hardrock and other mines, including those of radioactive uranium and coal, were dug with no reclamation plans, only to be abandoned, leaving taxpayers stuck with Superfund sites and billions of dollars in liabilities; in some cases, giving the public a cleanup burden that will last forever.

– Tens of millions of acres of public lands in the West were cleared of bears, wolves, mountain lions, coyotes, and even eagles by poisons, traps and bullets to ensure the landscape posed no threat to cattle and sheep overstocking rangelands. Many of the beneficiaries were not, in fact, mom and pop ranchers but corporate, tax-decrying outfits ever so happy to suckle from federal government subsidies.

– Manufacturers of lead paint, lead gasoline and harmful pesticides were making children and others, across generations, sick by being exposed to contamination that diminished brain function and learning skills, harming the lives of poor people at disproportionately higher rates than impacts affecting the wealthy.

Earth Day was supposed to mark a turning point. The creation of the EPA was considered a bi-partisan statement of hope and conviction that a clean and healthy environment mattered.

Think of this: The Endangered Species Act (the vanguard wildlife protection law in the world), the National Environmental Policy Act (which requires scientific and public review of major management actions), the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, the National Forest Management Act and others came on line during the Nixon years. They were a response to ecological destruction directly linked to a lack of regulation and the failure of the free market to be the conscience of the common good.

Donald Trump will never understand Earth Day. On a daily basis, he flaunts epic environmental illiteracy. Those in Greater Yellowstone cheerleading his evisceration of longstanding environmental laws don’t seem to get the hypocrisy of their own desire to dwell in our region’s public land-rich paradise, which only exists because of Earth Day-era regulations and wise human self-restraint.

Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the West for more than 30 years and his column the New West has been widely read in the Greater Yellowstone region for nearly as long. He writes his column every week, and it’s published on on EBS off weeks. You can also read and get signed copies of his latest book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” a story about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly 399 featuring photographs by Thomas Mangelsen.

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