Administration’s weakening of conservation law raises concerns for wild horses

/ In The News, News
Photo taken at RTF’s American Wild Horse Sanctuary by Meg Frederick.

An examination of the Trump administration’s gutting of regulations that implement the National Environmental Policy Act raises significant concerns about its effect on federally protected wild horses and burros and the public lands upon which they depend.

Return to Freedom strongly objects to this weakening of one of our country’s bedrock environmental laws.

Released July 15 following a two-year process, the updated regulations from the White House Council on Environmental Quality are intended to streamline the environmental review process. They will affect not just infrastructure projects from bridge building to broadband but also decision-making about grazing, forestry, energy extraction and restoration projects on our public lands.

The updated regulations are set to go into effect on Sept. 14. At that point, each agency will have one year to modify their regulations to correspond with the new rules. 

The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) directed government agencies to assess any environmental effect of a proposed action before a decision was made. The process can be repetitive and bureaucratic, but it is an important tool for ensuring continued environmental protections. Congress has recognized that the reviews are cumbersome and has recommended improved interagency coordination, concurrent reviews, and increased transparency.

The sweeping changes initiated by the Trump Administration are nothing of the sort, but rather a kowtow to special interests and industry, with a particular eye on hastening oil and gas extractive industries on public lands. 

Anything that narrow agencies’ NEPA obligations and reduce actions required for NEPA review do not follow the very purpose of the policy. NEPA allows for weighing environmental impacts equally alongside other factors as part of practical, ecologically-driven decision making processes. Broad exclusions, time and page limits, and shortening or eliminating public participation do not enable a critical review, but rather set up a system that is easily manipulated by special interest groups – exactly the opposite of NEPA’s intent.  

RTF expressed particular alarm at the following portions of the NEPA streamlining EA, during the public commenting period back in February:

  • That arbitrary time and page limits were set for important environmental reviews;
  • That there would be an elimination of any evaluation of cumulative effects;
  • That public input was forced towards the front end of a project, potentially eliminating expertise and newly-digested information throughout a project’s progress;
  • That government wide “categorical exclusions” would be established, eliminating entire swaths of project types from any environmental review at all;
  • And finally, and perhaps most shockingly, that private entities would be allowed to participate in the NEPA process facilitating their very own project – a blatant conflict of interest.

Further, on the extensive list of deregulatory projects the Department of the Interior has listed, wild horses and burros will be subject to further challenges by at least three of the proposed rules: Protection, Management and Control of Wild Horses and Burros (which lists, specifically, “authority to sell excess wild horses and burros”); Livestock grazing; and the Repeal of Resource Advisory Committees, local committees who discuss regional range and management concerns.

The updated regulations released last week have done nothing to reduce these concerns.