Rep. Raúl Grijalva: Public Opinion For Public Lands Can Sway Congress

"Starve the beast," a phrase fashionable with fiscally conservative politicians dating to the mid-1980s, has returned in full force to Congress, where U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva worries about how national parks and public lands in general will fare if Republicans aren't checked.

The theory behind the phrase was that reducing funding to an agency would naturally cause it to shrink in size.

Today, as agencies such as the National Park Service and U.S. Bureau of Land Management struggle to deal with issues ranging from maintenance backlogs to abiding by the National Environmental Policy Act regulations without enough staff, the GOP leadership is hamstringing their abilities to do so, the Arizona Democrat maintained during a phone interview last week. And then the Republicans talk about privatizing operations or reducing the federal landscape by transferring lands to states and counties, he added.

"It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that you choke the agency, and then you blame the agency for not being able to deal with the maintenance backlog, for public demands for permitting and industry demands for permitting, and not being able to have the amenities necessary for visitation by the public," he said. "The fact remains that without resources (funding and personnel), they’re (managers) going to have to continue to shrink their capacity and how they do it and how fast they do it.”

While President Obama and the Democrat majority in the Senate the past eight years was able to temper some of the more extreme tacks taken by House Republicans, the arrival of the Trump administration and the GOP majorities in both House and Senate raises the prospect of deep cuts in the Park Service budget (though whether the president's call for a 12 percent ($1.5 billion) cut in the Interior Department's budget is adopted by Congress is highly speculative at this point).

Still, the heightened political stakes increase the weight on Rep. Grijalva, who since he was elected to Congress in 2003 has been an ardent supporter of the National Park Service and its vast and unique collection of parks, battlefields, seashores, historic sites and more.

“He has less ability to get his agenda moving forward, which is our agenda for the national parks," said Kevin Dahl, the Arizona senior program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association. "On the other hand, he’s strategically working to defend and get as much as we can. But it’s crazy times in Congress. I’m not the first one to say I’ve never seen it so polarized and divided.”

Rep. Grijalva, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, has been honored in the past by both NPCA and the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks for his work on behalf of national parks. Among his efforts was a report at the end of the George W. Bush administration that was highly critical of that president's impact on the National Park System and other public lands.

"Over the last seven and half years, the Bush administration has pushed a concerted strategy of reducing the protections for our public lands, parks and forests, and opening up these lands for every type of private, commercial and extractive industry possible," read the opening paragraph of that 2008 report, The Bush Administration's Assaults on Our National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands.

In a biting, and at times scathing, 23-page assessment of the Bush administration's public lands agenda, the congressman, who then chaired the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, cited case after case after case where the outgoing administration had done damage not just to the actual public lands landscape but to the agencies that oversee those lands.

"Overall, under Bush, dedicated career employees have been driven out because they refused to comply with unethical activities, science has been manipulated to enrich industry, and environmental laws and regulations have been subverted to push forward damaging activities," wrote Rep. Grijalva.

Now, with no small measure of irony, the congressman finds himself in much the same position as he was in 2008, with a Republican president determined to reduce the federal workforce, diminish the role of science in regulations, and expedite energy development and extraction on public lands. Not surprisingly, Rep. Grijalva's skills and strategies will be relied upon even more than in the past by park advocates under the current political atmosphere in Washington. 

"He made it very easy for us to have access to him (when he chaired the House Natural Resources Committee) and relied on us for what he knew would be accurate information about the 'state of the parks,'" said Bill Wade, a member of the Coalition to Protect America's National Parks. "Understandably, his efforts and priorities began to be focused elsewhere when Congressman (Rob) Bishop assumed the chair of the committee, but he continues to be an unwavering defender of parks and to advocate against their degradation – as evidenced most notably by his efforts to limit the impacts of mining on Grand Canyon National Park. Arizona and the United States are fortunate to have him in the Congress."

While Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, a Republican from Montana who came to Interior after having served on the House Natural Resources Committee with Rep. Grijalva, had said he didn't like the Interior budget the Trump administration drafted, he has yet to publicily question it or push back in any form. While the Interior secretary has found time to ride in a snowplow at Yellowstone National Park and declare that Interior Department employees in Washington could bring their dogs to work, on a trial basis at least, he has yet to respond to Rep. Grijalva's concerns over Interior's budget and whether the department will continue to combat climate change.

Secretary Zinke also has been quiet on whether he supports calls from Utah politicians that President Trump rescind the monument designation President Obama placed on 1.35 million acres of land around the buttes known as Bears Ears in that state.

"One of the first inquiries I made to the new secretary of Interior ...  was does a president have the power, or does the Congress have the power, to undo a decision made by a previous (president)?" Rep. Grijalva said. "Because they could go all the way back to Teddy Roosevelt. And we haven’t gotten an answer on that. But a lot of people feel that to undo what (President Obama) did is going to be very, very difficult on a case-by-case basis."

The Democrat, whose political career dates to 1974 when he served on the Tucson Unified School District Governing Board, does worry that Republicans will try to make inroads to restrict a president's use of the Antiquities Act, by which they can unilaterally designate as national monuments "historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest..."

"There were 22 changes to the Antiquities law that were submitted to Congress last session, and I anticipate most of those coming back," he said. "And most of those 22, you had everything from repeal to limiting the size of any monument to 5,000 acres and everything in between. So I’m sure there’s going to be that effort."

And yet, Rep. Grijalva believes the public's will for protection of parks and other public lands will be upheld...if that will is professed loudly enough.

“I think that’s where the public opinion side becomes so critical. There are few things that are bipartisan right now, unfortunately. But our public lands should be, and if they’re not they need to be," he said. "It’s like our veterans. That’s bipartisan. Our public lands should be bipartisan. But the rush to judgment about what can we extract seems to be the big motivation right now (with Republicans on the Natural Resources Committee), and how do we disinvest ourselves of this historic responsibility that we have to each other in this country with our public lands. It is not sinful to add to that legacy in terms of monuments, in terms of additional acreage for parks, which we (Congress) haven’t done now, we’re going on seven years, since this majority took over."

In the months, and possibly years, ahead Rep. Grijalva fears that Rep. Bishop, a Utah Republican, will work not to preserve and "nurture" public lands, but rather to either divest the federal government of some of those lands or at least marginalize their value to the nation.

“Our job is to raise that profile and make it difficult and turn public opinion in such a way that it begins to affect the decision makers here in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives," he said.

By:  Kurt Repanshek
Source: National Parks Traveler