Exclusive Interview with House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl Grijalva
Since Democrats have taken back the House of Representatives, climate change and conservation are finally back on the agenda in Congress. As our last interview of Earth Week, we wanted to chat with the Chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, about his priorities for the committee and how his party can continue to push for environmental action even if President Trump been no #FriendOfThePlanet. This is the first in a two-part series with the Chairman, look out for part two next week!
ODP: Since becoming Chairman, many of the hearings the Natural Resources Committee has held have focused on how the fossil fuel industry irrevocably harms not just public lands but also vulnerable indigenous communities. Can you explain a bit more about the agenda you’ve set for the Committee and its focus on marginalized communities?
RG: Across the country, the administration has prioritized oil, gas, and coal development above all other public land uses. This has had immensely harmful impacts on marginalized communities and tribes, but few people are listening to them. I want the Natural Resources Committee to seek out and hear from the people impacted by these actions. It’s important to hear from scientists and policy staffers when we’re discussing the impact of fossil fuel development, but that’s not enough. Impacted communities must be at the table.
That’s why I’ve made it my mission as Chair, and previously as Ranking Member, to diversify and expand the voices we listen to on Capitol Hill. We’ve visited Puerto Rico for a public forum on reconstruction; held a field hearing in New Mexico on oil and gas development impacts on air pollution and sacred sites; and held an unprecedented number of Capitol Hill roundtables with women’s groups, Latino organizations, Native American tribes and other communities traditionally underrepresented in environmental decision-making.
ODP: You’ve been a vocal critic of President Trump’s authorization to downscale the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. As a member of Congress representing the West and indigenous people, has it been particularly difficult to witness these executive actions?
RG: Native tribes want sacred ancestral sites protected, and it’s in our shared interest to support them. It’s true at Bears Ears, at Grand Staircase-Escalante, at the Grand Canyon, at Chaco Canyon, and at other sacred sites across the country. Anyone who thinks these sites aren’t “really” sacred doesn’t know these communities. They travel to these places just as their ancestors did. They perform the ceremonies their ancestors taught them. It’s no different than any other community finding meaning and importance in a special place. We wouldn’t want a president shrinking protections around the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier either.
For more than two years, the Trump administration orchestrated an assault on tribes, sacred sites, and indigenous peoples across the United States. The Interior Department’s decision to drastically shrink the boundaries of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument and Bears Ears National Monument is just one of many examples. These lands belonged to Native people long before the State of Utah or the United States existed.
ODP: President Trump recently signed the Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan Authorization Act into law, which was a rare bipartisan feat to better protect 40 million Colorado River water users in the West. What other impacts will this law have for people, wildlife and the environment?
RG: The Colorado River Drought Contingency Plan (DCP) greatly reduces the risk of water shortages on the Colorado River, using voluntary water reductions and reservoir operations to manage the effects of a 19-year drought. The DCP Authorization Act provides certainty and security for the tens of millions of people who rely on the Colorado River, from small mountain communities in the headwaters to major cities like Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Denver.
The DCP is a major win for conservation efforts because it allows cities and farms across the Basin to conserve in creative ways that make the most sense for them. The DCP provides certainty in water management for those working to recover endangered fish found only in the Colorado River like the humpback chub, razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, and bonytail. The DCP means that hydropower will continue to cleanly power homes and businesses across the Southwest. It ensures that the $25 billion recreational economy along the Colorado River and its tributaries can continue to thrive. And it lays the groundwork for the next round of Colorado River negotiations that begin in 2020.
Implementation of the DCP will unveil opportunities for proactive water management that protects water users and the environment alike. This is not the last step we have to take, but it’s a big one, and I’m glad to have been a driving force behind its passage. It meant a lot to me to bring both parties and both chambers of Congress together to accomplish something that needed to get done so badly.
ODP: Outside of the Green New Deal, what other pieces of legislation that protect land, water, and wildlife, do you think have a likelihood of being passed through your committee to also become signed into law?
RG: Congress should be able to protect certain sites that need help quickly, like Chaco Canyon, without excessive delay. Major environmental legislation takes time, and we have to be realistic about President Trump and the Republican Senate majority not sharing our level of interest in conservation. But where we can help local communities facing problems, we should be able to put philosophy aside and act. Larger, more fundamental solutions will need a different government to enact.
That doesn’t mean we won’t be pushing that conversation. We can’t just keep drilling, logging and mining everywhere – and ignoring climate change in the process – without the environmental and public health consequences piling up. The remainder of this Congress will be about laying out a vision of responsible environmental conservation and what it means to make decisions for the long term, not just next quarter’s profits.
ODP: Surely you deal with a lot of difficult issues in Congress, bad news, and troubling stories from people being impacted, what keeps you going?
RG: What keeps me going is that the work we’re doing on the Natural Resources Committee is bigger than myself or my colleagues. It really is about all of us. These are our homes we’re talking about protecting. These are our communities. We’re working to save the planet for ourselves and for the future. We’re working for the people to restore balance and protect Earth. There is no more important job for all of us, especially right now.
This is Earth Day. Let’s celebrate it, and then let’s keep working. You have a partner in me and Democrats in Congress in this fight.
ODP: Can you tell us a bit more about the hearings you’re planning on holding at the Natural Resources Committee this year? What are your goals with the hearings?
RG: With our New Mexico field hearing, we launched what will be a series of subcommittee hearings focused on the impacts of oil and gas development. These hearings, and the testimony we receive from voices that are often missing in these discussions, will aid us in crafting legislation that addresses the harmful impacts of oil and gas development. For far too long, public policy has treated oil and gas company profit margins as more important than public health and the environment. Our goal is to restore some balance. Fossil fuel companies have gotten sweetheart deals on public lands because their Republican allies in Congress have blocked efforts to update our energy laws.
Things are stacked heavily in favor of industry. This is not popular with the American people. The field hearings and roundtables we’ve held have dramatically demonstrated just how unpopular these giveaways and lack of care for the public really are. This Committee is responsible for overseeing the policies that are making their lives worse. Not listening to them isn’t an option for me.
ODP: Has hearing from your constituents and what protected public lands in the West mean to their heritage shaped your response to the Trump administration’s efforts to chip away at their protections?
RG: They are sacred places with profound historical, religious, and cultural significance to tribes throughout the southwest. The Trump administration decided to slash their boundaries apparently at the request of fossil fuel companies. This president and his political supporters want oil, gas, and coal companies to have more power than Native American communities or the public at large. I don’t support that level of special treatment, especially at other people’s expense.
When you listen to the way indigenous peoples describe these sacred spaces, as I have in my home state of Arizona and elsewhere, you realize just how important these landscapes are. They are where ancestors have been laid to rest, where ceremonies and pilgrimages take place, where the history of their culture is housed. Tribes in the United States date back thousands of years. We can’t let these sacred spaces be lost forever. They must remain protected.
ODP: In your view, how has the politics around climate and conservation changed throughout your career?
RG: Environmental policy is a little different from the years when I first became involved. We always knew we needed to do more to protect the planet we live on, but today climate change is getting out of control. Drought, hurricanes, floods, wildfires, glaciers melting – it feels like every day there’s a new breaking story about destruction and things getting worse. I know that it can sometimes be overwhelming.
ODP: On a more personal note, what compelled you to join the Natural Resources Committee in the first place and eventually become Chairman?
RG: I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist. Before running for Congress, I was a conservation leader on the Pima County Board of Supervisors, where I successfully championed the landmark Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan to protect the fragile Sonoran Desert ecosystem from overdevelopment.
When I joined the House of Representatives I knew that I wanted to continue being an outspoken voice for endangered species, wilderness, national parks, public lands – and for stronger standards for the fossil fuel industry. The Natural Resources Committee is the best place to work for these protections. I’ve been proud of the work we’ve done to protect our environment, both by proactively pushing good policy in the majority and by stopping the worst from happening in the minority.
Source: Our Daily Planet
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