The Donald Trump Environmental Scorecard

What does the GOP's big orange machine think about issues like climate change, energy development, and federal control of public lands? We rounded up Trump's surprising (and sometimes shocking) set of views.

Sep 26, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
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What are the GOP nominee's views on environmental issues?    Photo: Danny Lawson/Associated Press

Perhaps you’ve heard that Donald Trump is running for president, and that he has strong opinions on issues like immigration and terrorism. Chances are, though, that you don’t know much about his positions on issues that Outside readers often care about, like public lands, the environment, conservation, and climate change. These topics usually aren’t in the forefront of any presidential race, and that’s certainly been true this year.

We reached out to Trump’s staff in the weeks before the first presidential debate tonight. The campaign asked us to provide specific questions, saying that Trump’s oldest son, Don Jr.—a frequent surrogate for Trump—would get back to us with answers. After that initial exchange, we didn’t hear anything—if we ever do, we’ll let you know—so we tried the next best approach: assembling Trump’s views from speeches, interviews, and statements made on social media. There are a few surprises, a few non-surprises, and a few contradictions that may leave even some of Trump’s supporters scratching their heads.

Ownership of Federal Public Lands

These days, the Republican Party seems eager to give federal lands back to the states, especially in the west. But in a stand that many voters won’t expect, the Trump campaign doesn’t appear to be on board. At a gathering last summer sponsored by the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, a coalition of 49 pro-hunting and -fishing groups, Don Jr. told reporters: “[W]e’ve broken away from a lot of traditional conservative dogma on the issue, in that we do want federal lands to remain federal.”

Trump himself put it like so to Field & Stream last January: “I mean, are they going to sell if they get into a little bit of trouble? And I don’t think it’s something that should be sold. We have to be great stewards of this land. This is magnificent land.”

Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, said these statements aren’t especially surprising. “Don Jr. is not just an armchair outdoorsmen,” he says, but an active fisherman and hunter who’s vocal about his support for outdoor recreation—particularly of the hook-and-bullet variety. Junior has even joked about wanting to run the Department of the Interior.

None of this means Trump loves federal bureaucrats. In an op-ed published by the Reno Gazette-Journal last January, he blistered the Bureau of Land Management, which he said was “so reluctant to release land to local disposition in Nevada, the cost of land has skyrocketed and the cost of living has become an impediment to growth.” The 2016 GOP platform, meanwhile, calls for Congress to “immediately pass universal legislation providing for a timely and orderly mechanism requiring the federal government to convey certain federally controlled public lands to states.”

What will happen if Trump actually wins is anybody’s guess. One month after writing his Reno editorial, he told a crowd in Las Vegas that federal land transfer is “not a subject I know anything about.”

Climate Change

Nobody can accuse Trump of being contradictory or vague on this one. He has repeatedly called climate change a “hoax,” “bullshit,” and a ruse by the Chinese government to make the U.S. non-competitive.

“I’m not a big believer in manmade climate change,” he told the Miami Herald in August. “Nobody knows for sure.” This despite the fact that 2016 is set to go down as the warmest year on record. Even the U.S. military, which Trump would command, acknowledges the threat posed by climate change and is preparing for it.

As a businessman, Trump has said repeatedly that many proposed restrictions on business and industry to lower greenhouse gas emissions will be harmful to the economy. He’s said the only climate change he’s worried about is nuclear winter following a nuclear war. In his first 100 days in office, Trump says, he would renege on the U.S.’s voluntary pledges to reduce emissions under the Paris Climate Agreement and encourage the Canadian company TransCanada to re-apply for a green light to build the Keystone XL pipeline. He’s also said he would halt U.S. contributions to United Nations global warming programs.

“That’s a problem for us,” says Alex Boian, senior director of government affairs for the Outdoor Industry Association, which represents makers and suppliers in the $646 billion outdoor recreation business. “We are very clearly a trade association, but we’re rooted in values of conservation and access and stewardship of public places.”
Sometimes there are inconsistencies in all this, like when a Trump holding, International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland, invoked climate change in an application to build a seawall—placing 200,000 tons of rock along two miles of beach, according to Politico. The goal is to protect the property from further erosion caused by anticipated larger, more frequent storms caused by ... climate change.

Public Lands and Energy Production 

There’s been some confusion on these issues, too. In Trump’s statements, he sounds gung-ho about pincushioning federal lands to extract as much oil and natural gas as possible. But Don Jr. sometimes strikes a different note.
 
One thing we know for sure: Pa Trump really likes oil. “I’m very much into energy, and I’m very much into fracking and drilling,” he told Field & Stream last January. In a major energy speech delivered last May in North Dakota, he rhapsodized about “very, very pure, sweet, beautiful oil,” according to news coverage.

Trump added that, in his first 100 days, he would lift moratoriums on energy production “in federal areas,” though he wasn’t specific about which lands or waters he meant. “Any regulation that is outdated, unnecessary, bad for workers, or contrary to the national interest will be scrapped,” he said.
 
The next month, however, Don Jr. gave a more nuanced reply to a reporter’s question about revised leasing requirements coming into place on some federal lands, to enhance protections. “We do have to preserve those lands, and what I’ve seen thus far has been pretty reasonable,” young Don asserted.
 
That reply seemed to please some sportsmen’s groups, even as it miffed energy producers.
 
“We’re all confused, really, about his policies,” says Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Western Energy Alliance, a group of oil and gas producers. “But we do know he would not be a third Obama term … in terms of regulatory overreach. This current administration has made a concerted effort to make it more difficult to produce oil and natural gas in North America.”
 
“Honestly, I think there’s contradiction in what he has said on energy,” says Fosburgh of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. Fosburgh says Trump talks about energy production being stifled, even as he ignores the fact that there has been record production on public lands during the Obama Administration.

To some critics, Trump has mouthed the talking points of energy producers closely enough to cause alarm. “Trump is unfit for the presidency,” says Seth Stein, national press secretary for the League of Conservation Voters, which supports candidates (or not) based on their environmental records. “He completely lacks the character, the temperament, and the knowledge for the White House.”

Environmental Regulation

More than once in interviews, Trump has said that he would eviscerate the Environmental Protection Agency, saying it’s bloated and that it unnecessarily impedes commerce. In October 2015, he had this exchange with Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday: 

WALLACE: Who’s going to protect the environment?

TRUMP: We’ll be fine with the environment. We can leave a little bit [of the EPA], but you can’t destroy businesses.

Addressing North Dakota energy producers last May, Trump said that, during his 100 days, he would rescind the Obama Administration’s Clean Water Rule. The rule, a major piece of Obama’s environmental agenda, was designed to bolster the federal government’s ability to ensure clean water on the nation’s lakes, wetlands and waterways. It infuriated many in the business community.

Trump repeatedly says he is a big fan of clean air and “crystal clear water.” But as Don Jr. told an audience in June: “We can’t use these acts as a backhand way to block anything from possibly happening, anywhere.” He mentioned “groups” using “frivolous litigation” as a cudgel to thwart progress, but gave no specifics.

The Border Wall

As everybody knows, Trump wants to build a high wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico, to keep out illegal immigrants, and he wants to make Mexico pay for it. Obviously, this policy would affect many people. It would also have major impact on the environment and species.
 
Several years ago, research scientist Aaron Flesch and his colleagues performed a study focusing on the border wall in the Sonoran Desert that lies on the Arizona-Mexico border. (About one-third of the 2,000-mile border has some kind of fencing already, according to the Sierra Club.) Specifically, they looked at ferruginous pygmy-owls and desert bighorn sheep. “Everyone thinks that the birds are just going to fly over those walls, because they have wings,” says Flesch. Instead, researchers found that small pygmy owls fly very low—the average height was just four or five feet above the ground, as the team reported in Conservation Biology in 2010. Assuming Trump’s wall is 12 feet tall—he’s mentioned several possible heights—the owls’ flights often wouldn’t clear it. The blank spaces surrounding the wall also disrupted their movements.

For the sheep, a simulated border fence disrupted at least ten predicted cross-border corridors for bighorn sheep, and could affect the long-term viability of some populations, he says. But the big issue for all these animals—owls and sheep alike—is that a wall divides small populations into even smaller populations, Flesch says. There’s no longer a free flow of animals. And the more isolated groups that are left are vulnerable to being extirpated due to random events like disease.
 
Chances are, Trump supporters would laugh off these problems, but the potential species disruptions are no small matter. Using a rough planning tool on the U.S. Fish & Wildlife web site, Outside estimated in May that a Trump wall would “potentially impact” 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory bird, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands. Species in question range from tortoises to ocelot to roadrunners to black bears, the last of which which re-established in west Texas in the 1990s from Mexico after being wiped out earlier in the century.
 
As for the structure itself, without a firm idea of what Trump wants to build, other environmental impacts remain speculative. A wall made of pre-cast concrete panels, the most feasible way to fit Trump’s statements about what he wants, would require three times the concrete that was used to build the Hoover Dam, according to one back-of-the-napkin estimate. The production of concrete is a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for as much as 10 percent of global carbon output.

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