The federal government’s approach to climate change may be the biggest difference between the administrations of President Donald Trump and President-elect Joseph Biden when it comes to environmental policy.
Trump removed the U.S. from the international Paris climate accords early in his presidency, often referred to human-caused climate change as a hoax and sought to roll back a host of environmental standards such as car and truck emissions limits.
When Biden takes office Wednesday, many people believe climate change will take a center stage in the new administration’s environmental policies.
“We are seeing already through some of Biden’s appointees and statements there is going to be a major push to address climate change and of course we are very supportive of that,” said Justin Hayes, executive director of the Idaho Conservation League at Boise.
Hayes and others believe Biden will link policies to address climate change with actions to recover the national economy that was leveled by the coronavirus pandemic. The president-elect already has signaled his interest in investing in things like renewable energy.
Federal land management agencies are likely to elevate efforts to address climate change in their work and make it a higher profile in their overall mission, said Chris Wood, president and CEO of Trout Unlimited. Wood served as an assistant to U.S. Forest Service Chief Mike Dombeck during the Clinton administration.
“These are natural resource professionals in these agencies,” he said. “They know what is happening. I don’t know if they are going to be able to do much on the side of climate mitigation, but I think there is a ton they can do on the adaptation side — helping make these lands and waters more resilient to the effects of climate change like the fires, the floods and the droughts.”
When it comes to managing federal land, many observers expect Biden’s team to continue an existing emphasis on collaboration. For several years, dating back to at least the early days of the Obama administration, agencies like the U.S. Forest Service have relied on bringing stakeholders who sometimes hold opposing views and push different agendas to the same table in an effort to reach broad-scale agreements. Federal agencies also have started working more interactively with state land managers through programs like the Good Neighbor Authority and Shared Stewardship that allows managers to share expertise and labor.
“I think the concept of working with local people, state governments, facilitating and improving management and restoration, I would anticipate that is going to continue,” said Tom Schultz, vice president of resources and governmental affairs for the Idaho Forest Group at Coeur d’Alene.
The collaboration trend has extended to salmon restoration policy in the Pacific Northwest in recent years. The National Marine Fisheries Service tapped its Columbia Basin Partnership Task Force to set salmon recovery goals and the governors of the four Pacific Northwest states are poised to begin collaborative talks that are expected to include leaders of Columbia Basin Native American tribes.
Shannon Wheeler, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, believes collaboration will be key to crafting potential salmon saving measures such as restoring the lower Snake River by breaching dams. He is hoping the new administration looks for a bold solution such as dam removal and places an emphasis on science and new energy technologies, as well as tapping the experience tribal people have managing salmon, steelhead and lamprey.
“We need a big-picture fix that requires a lot of work, a lot of gathering of information and facts, and putting that technology and science and the will to solve problems to the forefront,” he said.
“We hope the administration sees that and the congressional leaders see that and, going forward, that is something this generation wants to be remembered for.”
Biden has chosen Deb Haaland, a congresswoman from New Mexico and member of the Laguna Pueblo, to be Secretary of the Interior. Wheeler said tribes such as the Nez Perce work closely with federal agencies that have a trust responsibility to ensure obligations in treaties with the federal government are honored. He said the agencies generally do a good job, but with Haalan, the first Native American to head Interior, it may improve.
“There is a good possibility of our voices being heard,” he said.
Biden has tapped former governor of Iowa Tom Vilsak to be his Secretary of Agriculture. Vilsak served in the same post under President Barack Obama and he and his forest policies are a known entity to those in the timber industry and environmental community alike. Schultz said the way issues are framed may change under Biden, but the end results will be similar. For example, he said the Trump administration pushed for timber outputs while the Biden team may frame timber harvest around other goals, such as restoration and climate resilience.
“We do see there is definitely a focus on a role for active management. We don’t expect to see wholesale changes.”
Some do fear big changes, though. Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt is worried some of the more progressive members of the Democratic Party may push Biden to the left and toward more restrictive environmental policies that will limit logging, mining and ranching.
“It gets down to what is going to take place in the Democratic Party. Is there going to be a Green New Deal? They (supporters) never really touch on forest management, but once you bring in global warming and carbon emissions, yada, yada, yada, you are now stepping on cutting trees,” he said.
He also fears the influence that local communities and governments enjoyed in shaping federal work, such as the nearly completed revision of the Nez Perce-Clearwater Forest Plan, may be replaced by the sway of conservation organizations.
“I felt we had a pretty good influence, if you will, but now if there is a swing to hand over more wilderness, if the Wilderness Society has more influence than the local communities, than that is a concern,” Brandt said.
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