Profiles of people, places, wildlife, and conservation programs threatened by federal budget cuts and environmental policy rollbacks. A new story series by Audubon.
Consider this: President Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget calls for a total of $639 billion for defense spending, a figure that would require lifting a current cap to include an additional $52 billion. The Environmental Protection Agency on the other hand—which, it’s worth noting, also protects Americans—could see cuts of potentially $2.6 billion for a total budget of $5.7 billion. And now this: Just one of the 70 new F-35 fighter jets proposed could cover the bulk of a pending $125 million cut to the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, which makes sure major polluters pay for and clean up their messes. That’s a pretty important job, most people might say.
Most people, though, probably haven't perused President Trump’s proposed budget, “A New Foundation for American Greatness.” But if they did, one thing is abundantly clear: Many of the biggest slashes in the budget severely hobble and in some cases wholly eliminate a wide array of agencies, departments, and programs having to do with conservation, science, and the environment.
This isn’t surprising. After all, proposed federal budgets are the purest distillation of an administration’s priorities and values, and Trump made clear in his campaign that he was hostile to environmental issues with his frequent calls to dismantle the EPA and end climate action. The proposed budget still needs to go through Congress and will likely look very different in the end, but chances are good that many of the administration's cuts and regulatory rollbacks—and possibly some new ones—will be passed.
Which brings us to why we’re here. Audubon is launching our What’s at Stake series to take a closer look at what exactly these cuts and policy reversals mean for Americans, our environment, and our wildlife. The stories will feature people such as Cynthia Giles, who used to head the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance mentioned above, and can tell you what it does and why it's important. Or take Ellen George, a young fisheries scientist working on her PhD. She’s one of thousands who would suffer from cuts to scientific education programs. These are just two of the stories below, and these stories are just the beginning of a string of pieces that will dig deep into the current administration and congress's fiscal and regulatory decisions, providing readers with real examples and a better sense of what could be lost. Or saved.
—Andrew Del-Colle, site director and editor, Audubon.org
Restoring the Gulf Coast
Restoring the Gulf Coast
David Richard has spent four decades working to rebuild the marshes of southwest Louisiana. But Trump’s budget axes a crucial source of funding for these critical coastal restoration projects.
In 2005, weeks after Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Louisiana coast, Hurricane Rita struck. At the time, wildlife biologist David Richard was living on his family’s land next to the Mermentau River, three miles from the coast. After the storm passed, Richard went out in his airboat to inspect the damage. “It was like you took an eraser and erased the buildings,” he says. His parents’ house was gone. His house was in shambles. “There was no light and there was no noise,” he says. “It was just like a complete void.”
Richard has spent most of his life in the neglected heel of Louisiana’s boot. In 1957, when he was just a kid, he weathered Hurricane Audrey in a wooden boat tied to a tree. After the storm passed, he helped rebuild his grandmother’s house. Then, after Rita, he moved inland, but he didn’t leave. “I think my genes pull me there,” he says.
Southwestern Louisiana is dominated by rolling ridges called “cheniers” that cradle some of the most diverse and productive marshes in the world. As Richard is intimately aware, the region is prone to hurricane damage, but what worries him most is the ecological devastation caused by manmade alterations to the region’s hydrology. The channelization of the Mississippi River, for instance, has starved wetlands of nutrients and sediment. And the network of deep shipping canals allows saltwater to infiltrate inland freshwater marshes, killing the flora and converting productive wetland to brackish and saline lakes. (Natural subsidence and rising sea levels are taking a toll, too.) In all, the state has lost roughly 1,900 square miles of coastal land since the 1930s, and over the past decade around 12 more miles have disappeared every year.
Richard remembers doing aerial surveys of the region in the 1980s to assess the health of the Bald Eagle population. One year, he found a healthy nest in a grove of cypress trees. The next year, saltwater had killed the trees, and the nest was on the ground. The loss of habitat doesn’t just spell trouble for birds and other wildlife: Wetlands are natural buffers against storm surges, protecting coastal communities from hurricanes. “I don't know if the world understands the severity of this problem here. We have lost over a million acres of land,” an area greater than the size of Rhode Island, he says. “And it's continuing to deteriorate.”
For four decades, Richard has been trying to reverse the damage. He worked as a state biologist for 16 years, then, in 1991, he took a job managing the estate of one of the largest landowners in southwest Louisiana, the Stream family. But his restoration work extends beyond the family’s holdings. He manages more than 100,000 acres of other people’s land, too. And through his wetland consulting and restoration business, he works with developers, corporations, private landowners, and state and federal agencies. To him, it doesn’t matter who owns the title. “We are not bound by our boundaries,” he says. “The land can’t help who owns it.”
John Foret, an ecologist who spent nearly two decades with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, met Richard in 1998. What impressed him, he says, is how Richard worked with landowners in the region to piece together restoration proposals that, when combined, could have an outsized impact.
In Cameron Parish, near the Texas border, for example, Richard helped piece together different funding sources and recruit partners to protect and restore the fragile marshes of Oyster Bayou. They erected rock structures to restrict the intrusion of saltwater, and then pumped in sand to replenish the eroded beach. Now the partners are working to fill in open water with sediment dredged offshore to rebuild marshland. The $75 million project will create or re-nourish more than 600 acres of marsh.
Rebuilding Oyster Bayou’s marsh is no small undertaking, but it’s still just a tiny sliver of the coastal restoration work outlined in Louisiana’s 50-year, $50 billion master plan. A chunk of the money—$8.7 billion over 15 years—for the work is guaranteed because it comes from BP oil spill fines. However, another major funding source, the largest recurring source of federal funding, is based on legislation, which can be amended or repealed.
In May, the Trump administration proposed cutting the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA), which provides Gulf States with some revenue from offshore oil and gas leases. The move would save the federal government about $3.6 billion over the next five years. But it would also be a disaster for Louisiana’s restoration efforts. Johnny Bradberry, the Governor's Executive Assistant for Coastal Activities, said in a statement that eliminating GOMESA “would essentially end the coastal program as we know it.”
Historically, oil and gas revenues from leases in federal waters went to the federal government. But GOMESA, which became law in 2006, mandates that 37.5 percent of funds from new leases in the Gulf of Mexico’s Outer Continental Shelf go to Alabama, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana. The states haven’t received much money yet—Louisiana collected about $80,000 in 2016 and 2017—but revenues will skyrocket in 2018. Louisiana alone expects to bring in approximately $140 million. “It’s a really important, predictable, recurring revenue stream,” says Garret Graves, who represents Louisiana's 6th congressional district.
"GOMESA is a critical source of funding for Louisiana, and without it the state won't be able to do the important work of restoring one of the most critical habitats for birds and people in the world," says Brian Moore, Audubon's vice president of Gulf of Mexico policy. Audubon helped advise which projects the state's master plan should prioritize, based on factors such as which sites are important for migrating and breeding birds.
This isn’t the first time GOMESA has been on the chopping block. The Obama administration proposed axing it in 2015 and 2016. But each time, Graves and other legislators from the Gulf States managed to save it. When the Trump administration proposed the cut, however, Graves was particularly concerned. He worries that a budget request coming from a Republican president might carry more weight with a Republican-controlled Congress.
GOMESA appears to be safe for now; neither the House nor Senate versions of the budget call for cutting it, although Congress still has to hammer out their final consolidated version. And even if the act makes it through the 2018 budget negotiations unscathed, it could be under threat again next year if Graves and other legislators can’t convince the administration of its significance.
Losing GOMESA would be devastating, Richard says. “GOMESA funding [alone] is not enough, but it is the best thing we have." But with or without the act, he’ll keep hunting down funding for rebuilding the state’s marshes. “You grab at money from wherever you can to do wetland restoration,” he says. “This is a complex, diverse, productive system that man has altered, and now it is up to man to straighten up his mistakes.”
—Above video of David Richard by Scott Dalton
Making Farmland Work for Wildlife
Making Farmland Work for Wildlife
Audubon California's Samantha Arthur joined forces with dairy farmers to save the Tricolored Blackbird. The proposed USDA budget would see the partnership and possibly even the species go extinct.
It’s hard to say just how many hours Samantha Arthur has spent driving the dusty back roads of northern California’s dairy country on the lookout for clouds of blackbirds. In 2015, her first year monitoring Tricolored Blackbirds for Audubon California, she covered around 5,000 miles behind the wheel, putting in 10- and 12-hour days from February through mid-May as she rolled slowly along unpaved roads edging farm fields, scanning the horizon for signs of Tricolored Blackbird nesting: females collecting grass; males perched and singing; thousands of birds ferrying insects to feed newly hatched chicks.
Those long hours are necessary to document each and every colony of Tricolored Blackbirds nesting in the green wheat fields that provide food for the region’s dairy cows. After losing 95 percent of the Central Valley’s epic wetlands to development, the species adapted to nest in the next best thing: upright wheat plants similar to wetland plants. However, in an unfortunate coincidence, Tricolored Blackbirds reach peak nesting right when the wheat is ready for harvest. Each colony contains tens of thousands of birds—a significant proportion of the species’ total population of 178,000 birds—so losing a single colony to the plow is hugely detrimental. And because the Migratory Bird Treaty Act makes it illegal to kill or harass the birds, it could also be detrimental to the farmers, few of whom have the know-how or time to monitor their fields for colonies.
Arthur’s nest-spotting work is the first step in a process aimed at protecting both the blackbirds and the farmers in whose fields they’re nesting. Created through a partnership between conservation non-profits, dairy-farm interest groups, and government agencies, the project is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Bill’s Regional Conservation Partnership Program (RCPP), which was created in 2014 to bring together farm and conservation groups for mutually beneficial collaborations. Last year the RCPP distributed $225 million in five-year grants to 88 projects across the U.S. It’s not clear, however, how much longer projects like Arthur’s will last: Under the Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget, the RCPP would be eliminated entirely—and along with it, funding for conservation-agriculture partnerships crucial for wildlife adapting to human landscapes.
The RCPP funding is unique because it fosters collaborations between groups that can sometimes have a tense, even adversarial relationship—if they have a relationship at all. The Tricolored Blackbird project is a perfect example: When Arthur started her job at Audubon California, in July 2014, she walked into a simmering conflict between dairy farmers and conservationists. The Tricolored Blackbird was being considered for state endangered species listing in California, an effort Audubon supported and the farmers did not. Luckily, Arthur has experience negotiating conservation policies between groups. “I like to work in environments where I’m working across sectors,” she says, “working with people who are non-environmentalists, and trying to find practical collaborative solutions to conservation issues.”
Over the course of several months of meetings, the conservation and dairy groups—Audubon California, Western United Dairymen, Dairy Cares, California Farm Bureau, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Sustainable Conservation—managed to find some common ground: The farmers agreed that they shouldn’t be able to destroy birds with no repercussions, and the conservationists agreed that farmers shouldn’t have to deal with environmental regulations without assistance to meet them.
But it was the RCPP that gave them an incentive to work together: funding. Specifically, funding to compensate farmers for 75 percent of their losses on any acres left unharvested to allow Tricolored Blackbirds to nest. “That’s the beauty of the program,” Arthur says. “We can get this funding, but we can only get it together. So we had to sit down and build that relationship.”
The group decided to let Audubon lead on bird monitoring, while the dairy groups would manage farmer relations. When Arthur finds a blackbird colony on one of her long drives, she contacts Paul Sousa, director of environmental services for Western United Dairymen, California’s largest dairy trade association, which has worked to protect Tricolored Blackbirds for more than a decade. Sousa takes it from there: Based on the colony’s GPS location and nearby landmarks, he identifies and contacts the field's owner, alerting the farmer to the birds’ presence and offering them compensation and help if they agree to leave the field unplowed.
Arthur attributes the project’s strength to Sousa’s conversations with these farmers, who are more likely to trust their industry association than a conservationist. He’s not always successful: This year, one farmer refused assistance from the RCPP and plowed under part of a colony. But the other five farmers who chose to participate this spring protected 74,500 birds on 264 acres.
Overall the program is considered a success. After witnessing a 66 percent population drop between 2008 and 2014 to 145,000 birds, this year’s survey saw an increase to 178,000 birds. There’s no way to know for sure if the RCPP funding is directly responsible for the turnaround, or if other factors, like recent droughts, are involved. But the extra monitoring during their crucial nesting period couldn’t have hurt—and the ability to compensate farmers surely didn’t either. “It really helps in reaching out to a dairy farmer when he’s got birds nesting in his field to have something to offer to him,” Sousa says.
And so it’s worrying that RCPP is on the chopping block. The partners are currently searching for other funding in case the program, which they hoped to renew for many more years, goes kaput. As far as conservation programs go, this one is relatively low-cost—this year, $175,000 went to compensate farmers—especially considering the potential impact on blackbirds. But more important is the partnership, which, without the RCPP and its promise of collaborative funding, might have never left the conference room.
—Video of Samantha Arthur by Elizabeth Herman
Reviving the Everglades
Reviving the Everglades
Mike Cherkiss tracks Florida's crocodiles as part of a $6 million program that evaluates the $16 billion devoted to Everglades restoration. Trump's proposed budget would gut the program's funding.
The minor miseries of Mike Cherkiss's job—the weird hours, wet-blanket South Florida heat, sudden thunderstorms, and maddening swarms of mosquitoes—are worth it, he says, when he sees those glowing eyes in his flashlight beam: American crocodile hatchlings, 30 or more in a typical nest.
“A ton of little dinosaurs,” Cherkiss, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, calls the tiny, toothy reptiles. “They’re prehistoric, and we’re not that old in the greater timeline. It kind of puts things in perspective.”
Humans may be relatively recent arrivals, but it didn’t take us long to throw the Everglades ecosystem wildly out of whack. The pre-settlement Everglades was, in essence, a river without banks—a shallow sheet of water slowly flowing through what is now Everglades National Park to Florida Bay, the estuary between the mainland and the Florida Keys. Seasonal variations in water levels and gentle rises in the land formed a rich variety of habitats. Sawgrass prairies, cypress swamps, pinelands, and mangroves supported a staggering diversity of plants and animals adapted to the region’s rhythms of flowing fresh water, including more than 360 bird species.
To make way for farms and development, settlers drained and diverted the Everglades, cutting its area in half. Habitat shrank for native plants and animals, including around 50 species now listed as threatened or endangered. Wading bird populations in the Everglades have declined by 90 percent since the 20th century began. Crocodiles were never very abundant in Florida, the only state where they live. But by 1975, when they were listed as endangered, the population had dipped to a perilous 300 or so.
Today there are as many as 2,000 crocodiles along the coast thanks to refuges set aside for their protection. And along the way, they were upgraded to threatened status in 2007. “It’s a great success story,” Cherkiss says. But the reptiles remain vulnerable to the effects of roaring real estate development in Florida, he warns. Their future, like that of the Everglades ecosystem itself, hinges on the success of a $16 billion, decades-long restoration effort. And just when experts say it’s most needed, a program designed to gauge whether various restoration projects work—the program that funds Cherkiss’s crocodile research—stands to lose more than 80 percent of its funding under President Trump’s proposed budget.
That program is called the Greater Everglades Priority Ecosystems Science Program, and Nick Aumen is the USGS regional science advisor who runs it. Its main goal is to “provide unbiased and high-quality science to support those who design, implement, and manage the restoration of the Everglades,” Aumen says. “One analogy is that we’re flying this big airplane, sometimes in the clouds, and it’s important when you’re flying an airplane in the clouds to have instruments that help guide you.”
The president’s plan shrinks Aumen’s $6 million budget to about $1 million, and ends research on how changes in water flow affect Everglades ecology—the bulk of the science his program provides. If Congress accepts the spending cuts, it will leave Aumen with the priority of controlling the spread of Burmese pythons and other invasive species that have upended Everglades food chains. Beyond that, everything is on the chopping block.
That means Aumen might have to axe the Everglades Depth Estimation Network, which provides daily updates on water levels—a crucial tool in maintaining habitat for vulnerable birds like Cape Sable Seaside Sparrows. He could be forced to end longstanding research on the causes of mercury contamination that make regularly eating some Everglades fish unsafe. And he might have to cut Cherkiss’s crocodile monitoring.
Each spring, Cherkiss, 44, and partners from the University of Florida cruise the mangrove islands of Florida Bay, searching by boat and helicopter for signs of crocodile nesting. They return to likely nest sites in the summer and gather up as many hatchlings as they can. They measure each one, give it an identifying marker, and note site conditions like salinity and water temperature.
Crocodiles and alligators are top predators and keystone species in the Everglades ecosystem, the only place on Earth where the two coexist. “If something’s wrong at the top, there’s a problem in the links down below,” Cherkiss says. They’re also sensitive to changes in water temperature and salinity. That’s why they are among 11 ecological indicators picked by scientists as proxies for the success or failure of the massive state and federal effort to restore the Everglades.
Tracking those indicators is becoming more important than ever as large, expensive projects near completion, people involved in the restoration say. “If a project costs billions of dollars, you need to know that it’s doing what it’s supposed to,” says Julie Hill-Gabriel, deputy director of Audubon Florida, which has its own Everglades research and monitoring program and has been an outspoken voice for a robust restoration effort.
One key project involves building bridges to raise the Tamiami Trail, a highway between Tampa and Miami that has acted as a dam across the north end of Everglades National Park since it was completed in 1928. A 2013 ribbon-cutting ceremony marked the opening of a mile-long bridge, and work got underway last year on a second, 2.6-mile span. Engineers will release water under the highway in stages; with another three miles of bridging planned, it will be years before the flow is fully restored.
As more water moves southward, crocodile monitoring and other USGS research will show how the ecosystem responds, helping water managers decide where and when to direct the flow to ensure priority species rebound. But not if Congress slashes the program’s funding.
Hill-Gabriel says she’s hopeful that pragmatism will win out over politics as budget discussions continue. “Overall, Everglades restoration is the nonpartisan issue in Florida,” she says. “To cut $5 million out of the budget and then not have the information to show the benefits of the billions of dollars we’ve just spent? That seems like a shortsighted decision.”
—Above video of Mike Cherkiss by Oscar Hidalgo
Fighting for Environmental Justice
Fighting for Environmental Justice
Margaret Gordon’s reports on pollution in her West Oakland neighborhood allege racial discrimination by the city and industries. They’ll be ignored if the EPA’s environmental justice initiatives are hobbled.
When Margaret Gordon moved to West Oakland in 1992, she didn’t know she’d relocated into a toxic fog. Soon, workers redirecting a freeway closer to her home discovered cancer-causing vinyl-chloride gas emanating from the soil and leaching into groundwater. Nearby, a yeast plant resisted demands to reduce emissions of sweet-smelling acetaldehyde, another carcinogen. Every day, diesel fumes spiraled out of ships entering the local port.
Air pollution is largely invisible to the eye and burns in the lungs, evidenced only in shadows of black soot that rim residents’ windowsills. On days when the air smells particularly bad, West Oakland residents hide from it, keeping their children inside the house and inhalers on hand. As Gordon, now 70, learned about the persistent and unwanted chemicals in her historically black neighborhood, her lifelong asthma became much worse.
She spoke with neighbors who’d been hospitalized for asthma attacks and realized that the sprawling, noxious Port of Oakland was to blame. The fifth-busiest container port in the United States, the Port of Oakland covers 54 square miles and handles 99 percent of northern California’s containerized goods, just blocks away from Gordon’s home on Willow Street. Countless tractor-trailers barreling down the nearby freeway move those goods past and through the neighborhood, spewing exhaust as they go.
Gordon grew up an activist and began organizing around the port soon after she arrived. She collected data on trucks driving in and out, attended community meetings, and demanded the port develop a community-engagement process. But too often officials dismissed her pleas as emotional. Finally, in 2004, she made greening the port her full-time job when she co-founded the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project (WOEIP) to train her community to collect environmental data and generate hard statistics that regulatory agencies couldn’t ignore. WOEIP’s first report found that diesel soot levels were five times higher in West Oakland than anywhere else in the city, and that Oakland children were seven times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than average for California.
But progress through bureaucracy is achingly slow. For example, it wasn’t until 2003 that the contaminated soil emanating vinyl chloride—the project that launched Gordon’s environmental career 23 years ago—was designated as a Superfund site, and its $10-million EPA cleanup didn’t start until this March.
So after seven years of asking the Oakland to write a plan to reduce emissions at warehouses around the port, WOEIP filed a complaint with the EPA and Department of Transportation this April under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Title VI provision states that no federal agency that receives financial assistance may discriminate on the basis of race—and in her complaint, Gordon's attorneys cite the city and Port of Oakland’s pattern of neglect toward West Oakland’s health as evidence of racial discrimination. If the EPA confirms these violations, the city and port will have to mitigate air pollution and involve the West Oakland community in future planning.
While Title VI claims are powerful tools in theory, leveraging the same law that ended segregation, they are paper tigers in practice—and nowhere is this more evident than at the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights. A 2015 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity found that, in its 22 years, the office never made a formal finding of a Title VI violation. In fact, nine times out of 10, communities’ complaints were dismissed or rejected, and the majority went without investigation.
Under Obama, the EPA began addressing these failures. Last fall, a report from the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights corroborated the CPI’s findings and recommended that the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights be empowered and better staffed to deal with the Title VI backlog. Then, a few months later, the EPA published its blueprint for environmental justice: EJ 2020, an update from a 2014 iteration, which would integrate impacts to low-income and minority communities and indigenous peoples into nationwide environmental planning overseen by the EPA Office of Environmental Justice.
But it appears those plans have evaporated if President Trump’s proposed EPA budget is any indication. If approved by Congress, it would slash the EPA’s funds by 31.4 percent, including cutting $1.8 million from the Office of Civil Rights and eliminating the 25-year-old, $7-million Office of Environmental Justice.
These budget cuts are alarming considering the EPA’s historical failure to address civil rights complaints. “Even with a budget, [the EPA’s] not done a good job for a long time,” says David Konisky, who researches environmental policy and justice at Indiana University. But now, any progress made under the Obama administration is slated to be undone and future efforts to improve the Title VI complaint process abandoned.
Konisky says the new administration may accelerate the process of reading Title VI complaints, as recommended by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights—but not for communities’ benefit. “Given the signals we’ve received from this administration, I wouldn’t be surprised if [Gordon] did get an immediate decision but one that was not sensitive or well-studied,” he says—in other words, a poorly justified denial.
For now, though, Gordon’s complaint—and its potential to deny the City of Oakland federal funding—has given her leverage against Oakland’s inaction. “It’s a real threat,” she says. “To deny the city of Oakland any future funding? It’s already had positive effects.” Since she filed the complaint, Gordon says the city has started offering specific solutions about greening equipment and fuel around the port. But if a newly efficient EPA Office of Civil Rights decides to clear the backlog and deny her complaint, WOEIP would lose one of its only bargaining chips against the city of Oakland.
While Gordon's Title VI complaint hangs in the air, she juggles other projects at home—fighting emissions from a former army base, pushing for accurate measurements of smog from big-rigs, and identifying businesses that violate diesel regulations—all to help her community breathe easier. She sometimes thinks about moving away from Oakland to cleaner air. “We still have black soot on our windowsills. Still have people using inhalers. Still have people who develop respiratory disease. We still have people who suffer.” She pauses, takes a breath. “But I’ve been here so long. I’ve learned how to keep my asthma under control. And I have so much work to do.”
—Video of Margaret Gordon by Alison Yin
Training a Generation of Scientists
Training a Generation of Scientists
Ellen George has barely begun her scientific career studying a little—and a little-known—fish called the cisco. Proposed budget cuts to graduate funding and fisheries science threaten to cut it short.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, cisco, a prey fish key to the Great Lakes food chain, were among the most commercially important fish in the region—seine nets would bulge with them every fall and winter. But by the mid-twentieth century populations crashed in all five lakes due to overharvesting, habitat loss, and invasive species. The only remaining commercial fisheries are in Lake Superior and Lake Huron.
Meanwhile, invasive fish such as alewife and rainbow smelt have filled the cisco’s niche, but they’re an imperfect replacement. Poorly adapted to the local environment, they’re prone to wild population swings, which in turn affect the numbers of the economically crucial sport fish that eat them. Restoring cisco isn’t just important for the continuation of the species in the Great Lakes, but it could also help return balance to the entire ecosystem.
Ellen George, a PhD student at Cornell University, has spent the past four years collecting data on the last remaining spawning cisco population in the American waters of Lake Ontario. It’s work she loves, getting her outdoors in the beautiful Great Lakes and bringing her in contact with anglers and others who share her passions.
“What we’re trying to do is build resilience back into the food web by promoting restoration of these native prey fish species,” George says. “To do that, my project is to learn as much as we can about them.” After she finishes her PhD in 2019, she hopes to work for a government agency or nonprofit, continuing to do on-the-ground science to promote healthy fish populations.
Two funding sources have made George’s work possible: the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, or GLRI, and Sea Grant. Launched in 2010, GLRI provides funding for a range of projects at agencies such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey focused on protecting and restoring Great Lakes ecosystems. Sea Grant is a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) program that’s been around for more than 50 years and funds hundreds of research and outreach projects around the country administered at the state level through public universities. Nearly all of George’s collaborators are funded by one or the other, and New York Sea Grant is specifically paying for two years of her PhD.
“That covers my tuition and stipend and health insurance, but it also pays for all of our research expenses—all the equipment and supplies, lab space, even gas for the boat,” George says. GLRI and Sea Grant also fund the salary and benefits of the technicians and support staff at the field station where she works.
Both of these programs are up for total elimination in the Trump administration’s budget proposal for 2018. Together, the cost of Sea Grant and GLRI is around $372 million dollars annually—a tiny piece of the total federal budget, which is measured in the trillions.
Thanks to the work she’s already completed, George is fairly confident that she’ll be able to finish her degree even if she loses her funding. However, instead of being able to focus on her dissertation, she’d have to find an alternate way of supporting herself. The loss of funding for other Great Lakes researchers would also be bad news for her beloved cisco, postponing hopes for their restoration indefinitely.
More than herself, George is worried about the cohort of grad students coming up behind her. Two students are just starting PhDs in her program, and their plans could be scrapped if funding is lost. Professors who rely on Sea Grant to fund their research may simply stop accepting new grad students if those programs are cut. In 2016, Sea Grant funded 1,045 graduate students nationwide.
And when George and others like her do finish their degrees, their prospects could be grim. Those agency and nonprofit jobs she is interested in? Many of them are funded by GLRI and Sea Grant, too. “You’re out of the frying pan and into the fire, in a sense,” she says.
No funding to bring pricey graduate degrees within reach and no jobs waiting for those who do make it through—an entire generation of fisheries scientists could be lost.
But efforts are underway to save both initiatives. Many advocacy groups have launched campaigns in defense of GLRI, and a bipartisan group of 26 senators is calling for continuing full funding of Sea Grant. The two programs won a temporary reprieve when a short-term budget negotiated to fund the government through September 30 of this year, and which has now been extended until December, included both.
So how is George handling the potential loss of all her research funding? “I think I’m dealing with it okay,” she says with a laugh. “I’m fairly optimistic about GLRI, at least. It has a really strong history of bipartisan support, because the Great Lakes are so important for the economy of the region.”
Once, that economy was supported by cisco. And if the work of George is allowed to continue, she and others like her could one day bring the little fish back, restoring stability to the Greater Lakes ecosystem and again filling the region's sein nets with the native fish.
—Above video of Ellen George by Heather Ainsworth
Holding Big Polluters Accountable
Holding Big Polluters Accountable
The former head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, Cynthia Giles knows how the office’s proposed budget cuts—totaling more than $125 million—could let major polluters off the hook.
In a small suburb about 30 minutes outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, the Cinderella Knitting Mills site has been a source of environmental and public health concern for more than 20 years. In 1993, the owner of the clothing plant, Dawson International Investments Inc., alerted state officials that it had leaked toxic chemicals used in dry cleaning into a nearby stream. Dawson worked with the state to begin cleaning up the property, but told state regulators in 2015 that it couldn’t afford to continue the work. Having already spent $64,000 on the cleanup, one of hundreds of contaminated sites North Carolina taxpayers have inherited, the state requested the U.S. EPA's involvement in February 2016.
In addition to the previously reported leak, investigators found dangerous levels of chemicals in the air in the plant’s offices, suggesting workers may have been exposed to perchloroethylene, a likely carcinogen, over the years. And that wasn’t all: The chemicals had contaminated local groundwater supplies under a city park and had also reportedly worked their way to nearby homes. This was a lot to clean up, but Dawson filed for bankruptcy in 2016, asking for protection from cleanup costs.
That perchloroethylene wasn’t going away on its own, though, so to recoup money already spent on cleanup costs and cover potential remaining costs, the EPA sued Dawson in 2016 for $300,000 to cover previous costs and projected potential future costs that could top $3.5 million. The lawsuit—which is a typical case for the EPA in both its complexity and length—is currently working its way through federal courts.
At least for now it is. The case could slam to a halt if the White House’s proposed vision for the EPA—or one similar to it—is passed by Congress. That’s according to Cynthia Giles, former head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance under President Barack Obama. Now the University of Chicago’s director of strategic initiatives, Giles worked for eight years as head of the EPA’s enforcement office. She says that proposed budget cuts would cause the department to funnel the majority of its money intended for enforcement toward covering staff salaries. As such, cases involving Superfund site cleanup costs, cases with multi-state companies, and cases where pollution crosses state lines could all sit in legal limbo.
The White House’s 2018 budget allocates $5.7 billion for the EPA. Within that, $357 million is set to cover staffing for the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, and another $62 million for that office’s operational funds, which covers everything from buying water testing kits to maintaining digital storage systems to managing paperwork for lawsuits. Overall, that’s $125.6 million less than the EPA’s enforcement office received in the 2017 budget, including $83.5 million less for salaries, according to the White House’s budget justification document delivered to Congress.
The reduced budget estimates 757 full-time-equivalent positions (which is the government’s way of counting 40-hour-a-week slots and thus do not translate to precisely 757 employees) will be eliminated from the Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance. Regardless of the exact number, hundreds of EPA staffers will have to be laid off to meet that budget.
Layoffs don’t happen quickly in the federal government; worker protections are intentionally designed so people can’t be fired quickly. But the new budget won’t take any of this into consideration. So there’s a good chance the EPA enforcement office will have to use operational funding to cover salaries for lingering and repositioned employees well after the budget is passed. This will leave essentially no money for enforcement actions, Giles says.
Holding polluters accountable takes a lot of work and a lot of money. Giles is concerned that if this budget is passed as-is by Congress, the EPA will be forced to redirect money meant to investigate and pursue cases to cover their payroll deficit, essentially leaving the office with no money for people to do their actual jobs. “My principal concern is the practical effect of the budget would be to bring federal enforcement of law to a halt,” she says.
Before Lawrence Starfield took over as acting assistant administrator, the current top role in the EPA’s enforcement office, Giles oversaw the 2016 EPA case against Volkswagen for cheating emissions tests and managed the federal EPA’s role in the case against BP for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. (The EPA did not provide Audubon with an official comment for this story.)
Giles says cases like those against VW or BP never would have seen the inside of a courtroom with a budget like the one the White House is proposing. “All of the large cases that the EPA has dealt with that people have heard of wouldn’t have been possible.”
She also points out that the U.S. EPA’s enforcement office doesn’t have as much money as the budget lets on—a large chunk of the operations funding is directly funneled to state environmental protection agencies in the form of grants. In fact, $14.5 million of the $62 million earmarked for the EPA enforcement office’s operational budget is set to go to state agencies and tribes for pesticide and toxics enforcement, according to the White House’s budget justification document.
While the vast majority of environmental regulation cases in the U.S. are typically handled by state agencies—they’re often the first to be tipped off, the first to investigate, and the first to issue warnings—the federal EPA plays an important role as a safety net, says Alexandra Dapolito Dunn, executive director and general counsel of the Environmental Council of the States, a nonprofit association of state and territory leaders. U.S. EPA officials might take a case when state environmental protection offices are overburdened with other cases or when expensive court cases are required to stop polluters—as with Volkswagen or the Cinderalla Knitting Mills. Dunn says that the proposed budget places a larger responsibility on state environmental protection agencies to manage enforcement while also reducing the state grant funding from the federal EPA.
“EPA Administrator [Scott] Pruitt has been talking a lot about returning power to the states,” she says. But if the funding that states depend on is simultaneously getting cut, “it’s incongruous to look at those two things.”
Even if jurisdictional power is further pushed to the states in most cases, Giles says the federal EPA will still be vital to the bigger picture of environmental enforcement. But without the proper funding, cases with multi-state jurisdictions will fall through the cracks, states will be overburdened with caseloads, and some of the most egregious environmental crimes will likely go unpunished. There are some cases that the U.S. EPA has to tackle, she says, “or no one else will.”
—Video of Cynthia Giles by Tony Luong
Adapting to Climate Change
Adapting to Climate Change
Dennis Ojima helps Great Plains ranchers adapt to the local impacts of climate change—namely, drought. But if Trump's budget goes through, funding for the nation’s climate science centers would also dry up.
Over the past decade, the agricultural community at Wind River Indian Reservation, a 2.2-million-acre expanse of sagebrush steppe in central Wyoming, has seen its share of drought. Still, the distinctly dry summer of 2013 caught Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho ranchers by surprise. Stream and reservoir water levels ran so low that the start of the hay-growing season was delayed till mid-May and, by August, irrigation water had run out, four months earlier than usual. Without hay, ranchers couldn’t feed their cattle. Some had to sell off animals. And elsewhere on the reservation, the drought affected drinking water supplies and harmed fish and wildlife.
Some might see this nothing more than a particularly bad year, but Dennis Ojima, director of the Interior Department's North Central Climate Science Center, understands it as a local manifestation of a global problem. His rare perspective—an ability to see the forest and trees at once—draws from his dual familiarity with local land use in the Great Plains, where he completed his PhD research, and large-scale global changes in climate. After graduate school, a stint at Sweden’s International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, one of the first worldwide efforts to coordinate climate research, sparked a “critical change in my view of how the Earth operates,” Ojima says. Those three years of intensive study let him see how distant and seemingly unrelated climatic and environmental changes can influence one another—“such as how grazing in one part of the U.S. West can affect the speed at which snow melts in the Rocky Mountains miles away.”
He's since devoted himself to sharing this perspective with as many people as possible. In the late 1990s, he wrote the first National Climate Assessment’s section on the Great Plains and, later, his contributions to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s global climate assessments earned him a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Through it all, he has watched climate change subtly but irrevocably reshape the Great Plains where he lives, as communities from the western bank of the Mississippi River to the eastern edge of the Rocky Mountains deal with more extreme heat waves, floods, and “flash droughts,” such as the unanticipated and intensely dry summer that shocked the northern plains this year.
As a result, Ojima is one of the few people with the vision to help farmers, ranchers, water managers, and others living through the early impacts of climate change in the Great Plains—and as director of the North Central Climate Science Center, one of eight regional climate-research hubs established by the Department of Interior in 2009, he has the tools to do so. At the center, headquartered at Colorado State, where Ojima is also a professor of global change ecology, he leads efforts to gather and compare technical climate data (such as snowpack and stream-flow measurements, or long-term temperature and precipitation records) and translate them into information that regional land, wildlife, and water managers can use to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable world.
But these efforts could be snuffed out if the Trump administration gets its way. Under the president’s proposed 2018 Interior budget, half of the country’s regional centers would be eliminated and funding for all centers and the overarching National Climate Change and Wildlife Science Center would be slashed from $26.4 million to $17.4 million. It’s not known whether Ojima’s center would be among those eliminated.
The potential cuts are alarming because much of the country is already behind in adapting to climate change, including the Great Plains. Ojima projects that the region will face a “dramatic increase” in the number of extremely hot days (95°F and higher) and warm nights by mid-century, regardless of any action to curb carbon emissions. The increased heat will affect patterns of rainfall and drought, forcing farmers and ranchers to experiment with growing practices and eventually plant different crops. It will stress existing infrastructure, challenging the reliability of water supplies and electric grids. The sooner managers can get ahead of these changes and begin adapting, the better.
The climate science centers aim to ease the impacts of climate change, but the proposed budget cuts would be “a pretty major cut to our capacity,” Ojima says. Currently, the center funds several dozen projects to help land managers adapt—including a partnership at the Wind River Reservation to ensure future droughts aren’t so surprising to ranchers. Through a $393,000 grant from the North Central center, researchers translate climate data and models into digestible drought and climate newsletters so that Wind River ranchers and managers can protect their livelihoods and the environment.
“The partnership has allowed us to identify and become more prepared for drought,” says Mitch Cottenoir, Wind River tribal water engineer. “We’re an agricultural-based community, so it’s pretty important. The expertise [the center’s scientists] bring to the table wouldn’t be available to us as a stand-alone organization.”
Trump’s proposed cuts would make those partnerships “difficult to maintain,” Ojima says. Plans to eliminate or consolidate the regional hubs “would really dilute the effort and would cause us to provide less precise assistance to resource managers.”
Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke have already slammed the brakes on major research projects funded through the department. In April, Zinke issued a memo requiring department bureau chiefs and office directors, including climate science center leaders, to report all grants and cooperative agreements of more than $100,000 for additional review. Several Congressional Republicans, hostile to climate action, have also backed the freeze and supported eliminating the climate hubs, suggesting they lack proper oversight.
“It seems to me the added oversight is a political mechanism to slow down the progress that we’re making,” Ojima says, adding that proposals already go through “relevant, appropriate, and adequate” agency and peer review.
So far, the U.S. House Appropriations Committee has suggested reducing some of the proposed Interior funding cuts. A bipartisan group of 19 representatives has also called on colleagues to uphold current funding levels for the climate hubs, citing in a June letter the importance of coordinating research and sharing information among climate scientists, local decision-makers, and managers faced with adapting to climate change.
That bipartisan show of support is encouraging, Ojima says, and a reminder that the climate centers’ work—preparing and protecting communities and landscapes for climate change—benefits everyone. “In a number of ways, working with natural resource managers across the region de-politicizes climate change,” Ojima says. But if Trump’s war on climate research and adaptation succeeds, “something will have to give.”
—Video of Dennis Ojima by Benjamin Rasmussen
With Matt Hepler’s help, Appalachians are leading investigations, lawsuits, and economic ventures to reclaim neglected lands and tainted waters. The White House seems determined to get in their way.
When Matt Hepler reached the summit of West Virginia’s Kayford Mountain in 2007, any ideals he held about the Appalachian Mountains were shattered. A native Virginian, he grew up exploring the cool rivers and peaks that dot the Shenandoah Valley. But from the top of Kayford, the formerly lush panorama was unrecognizable. There were no idyllic green hills left for him to admire; they had been blasted away by decades of mountaintop removal and mining. All Hepler could find were barren rock and debris—the scars of coal seams being stripped away.
Since the 1960s, 500 peaks like Kayford have been razed and leveled across West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. An analysis from 2016 shows that the region is now 40 percent flatter, making it more vulnerable to erosion and long-term water pollution. As coal companies ravage the mountains, they rob residents like Hepler of an important piece of their identity.
“Mountains matter to people because they’re very majestic,” Hepler says. “The first time they see [the mining], there’s this visual impact that’s very emotional.” The view of the leveled landscape from Kayford forced Hepler to reorient his entire life. He joined the ranks of the anti-coal movement as an activist and later started working for Appalachian Voices, a sustainability group that fights fossil-fuel exploitation in the Southeast. There, he studies waterways for signs of contamination left behind by coal mining and advocates for state and federal policies that are firmly backed by science.
In his work, Hepler has seen how soils and minerals displaced by explosives settle across the landscape, burying or polluting springs and streams. In 2011, an EPA study showed that water-quality levels in streams near central Appalachian coalfields are “acutely lethal” to macroinvertebrates, fish, and birds. Yet impacts to human health aren’t well known. Last year, that looked like it would change after the U.S. Department of Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) funded a $1 million study on cancer and birth-defect rates in mining communities at the request of West Virginia’s environment and health departments. But then, last month, OSMRE issued a "cease all work" order and put the grant up for review.
The cancellation of the study is just one example of how Trump’s campaign promise to help Appalachians by bringing back jobs is undercut by harmful policies and decisions for their communities. In February, Congress and the President revoked the Stream Protection Rule, which went into effect a month earlier and updated 33-year-old regulations on coal pollution to protect 6,000 miles of streams and 52,000 acres of forest, largely in Appalachia. Additionally, his 2018 proposed budget would slash 45 percent of funding for OSMRE, the agency responsible for overseeing the million-plus coal-mined acres in Appalachia, along with active and abandoned mines nationwide. Its experts and regulations force companies to comply with environmental laws and seek justice for communities that have suffered from chemical spills and other industry-related damage. Cuts of this magnitude would force OSMRE to roll back state grants, technology programs, and restoration plans, leading to reduced monitoring and fewer cleanups overall.
These new efforts add to a history of neglect, and some residents have been fighting back. Five years ago, the Alliance for Appalachia, an environmental-protection coalition that includes Appalachian Voices and Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards, launched the Appalachian Citizen Enforcement Project (ACE), which gives residents training and equipment to test for pollution in local creeks, streams, and other water bodies. Hepler himself has coached about a dozen volunteers to gather baseline conductivity data near coalfields; the more electricity the water transmits, the more likely it’s contaminated.
The result is a small but determined army of amateur chemists. In 2011, after ACE Project volunteers found unsafe levels of selenium in a stream near the Kelly Branch Surface Mine in Wise County, Virginia, they filed a Citizen’s Request for an Inspection with OSMRE. OSMRE forced the mine owners to do a follow-up test, and it confirmed the initial reports. Still, the community’s requests for remediation were ignored, so Southern Appalachian Mountain Stewards and other groups filed a lawsuit against the coal company, A&G Coal.
After three years in court, A&G Coal agreed to pay $300,000—split between clean-up efforts, government fines, and the alliance's legal fees—and install selenium-control technology in the Kelly Branch mine.
Victories like these entice coal companies to find creative ways to avoid legal responsibility, Hepler says. Following the case in Wise County, the industry lobbied the state to require a fish-tissue exam to prove stream contamination instead of a standard water test. With its complicated sampling process and associated lab and gear costs (between $5,000 and $10,000), the new method would effectively eliminate ACE Project groundwork and make monitoring impossible in waterways too shallow to support fish. The decision is still pending.
If they wanted, coal companies could easily afford to clean up mining sites with the billions they extract from the region each year. West Virginia alone produced 95.6 million short tons of coal in 2015, worth $6.7 billion. But companies prefer to let the acres sit, where they continue to erode and pollute waterways. “Many of the mines around Inman, Virginia, where I live, are now idle, some for close to five years,” Hepler says. “You don’t know how good the reclamations are going to be.” Or whether they’ll occur at all.
Unfortunately, Trump’s budget would eliminate programs designed to help communities near abandoned, closed, or idle mines by rebuilding and diversifying their economies. These include the 52-year-old Appalachian Regional Commission, the U.S. Economic Development Administration (the only federal agency focused exclusively on economic development), and a $90 million OSMRE program for states hit hard by coal’s decline. Appalachian communities might have to further rely on grassroots organizations like Hepler’s to help them transition to new economies. He and Appalachian Voices are currently working on a long list of mine-conversion proposals, including a hydroponic fish farm, a whitewater rafting area, a community agricultural site, and a solar facility. It’s a difficult transformation, Hepler admits, but these projects help communities reinvest in themselves while preserving their homes and their mountains.
—Video of Matt Hepler by Jessica Tezak
Protecting Our Estuaries
Protecting Our Estuaries
As part of a much larger potential cut, Jenna Harper and her staff at Florida’s Apalachicola Reserve stand to lose 70 percent of their funding. The people and wildlife that depend on them stand to lose everything.
Jenna Harper loves fall on Florida's Apalachicola Bay. As the evenings cool, she kayaks through the cypress- and tupelo-lined sloughs and back channels that teem with anglers, Brown Pelicans, and turtles.
Harper both works and plays in the bay as manager of the Apalachicola National Estuarine Research Reserve (ANERR), a 246,766-acre wetland that stretches 52 miles from the Gulf of Mexico into the Florida Panhandle. The reserve is a hub of ecotourism, welcoming roughly 30,000 visitors to its nature center each year and generating $14 to $16 million annually from its fisheries—money that sustains up to 85 percent of the local human population. What's more, the reserve's barrier islands are home to thousands of waterbirds such as nesting Snowy Plovers and Black Skimmers, and wintering Piping Plovers and Red Knots. Each autumn swarms of Purple Martins, monarch butterflies, and other migrants also drop in.
“Everything revolves around the bay,” says Harper, who's been with ANERR for 15 years and has been running it for the past three. “People really understand the value of the resources that we have here, and they want to protect them.”
That drive to defend the bay will be even more crucial if Congress adopts the proposed 2018 White House budget in coming weeks. It would eliminate all National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration funding for the National Estuarine Research Reserve System, a group of 29 semi-protected tracts, including Apalachicola. Environmental monitoring at these sites enables scientists and landowners to refine stewardship strategies for brackish habitats, which are often neglected and bulldozed over. In total, grants would drop by 70 percent, or $23.5 million, an average of $633,000 per reserve plus extra research and administrative costs.
Estuaries are some of the most biologically rich habitats on the planet. Having a reserve system that spans more than 1.3 million acres ensures that they receive protection, even as they shield coastal communities from sea-level rise. Apalachicola is the second largest in the network, surpassed only by Alaska's Kachemak Bay. Its staff works with Audubon Florida to monitor and secure the reserve's bustling waterbird colonies—the largest in the Panhandle.
Just as important to locals, Apalachicola is the gem of rural Franklin County, where 23 percent of the population lives under the poverty line. Fishing and tourism profits can benefit from insights provided by the routine marine-wildlife surveys Harper's team conducts. “Not only is the ecology at risk, but the economy is, too,” says Julie Wraithmell, deputy executive director of Audubon Florida.
For example, Apalachicola Bay once accounted for 90 percent of the oyster harvest in Florida and 10 percent of the harvest for the entire country. But after the shellfish population crashed in 2012, the region saw an 88 percent slump in annual catch numbers. To suss out the exact cause of the decline, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) dissected hourly water-quality readings supplied by reserve staff. They learned that reduced freshwater flows had damaged the fisheries, and were able to identify the maximum salinity levels that should, in the future, trigger diversions from upstream dams.
Having experts on the water is the key to detecting fluxes and averting new calamities, says Jim Estes, the deputy director of the division of marine fisheries management at FWC. “If I want to get a perspective, I can talk to the fishermen,” he says. “But I also like to hear from the biologists. It's important to have them there.”
But whether they'll still be around in two years is uncertain at best. The reserve has enough funds to last until December of 2018; it's up to Congress and the state's environmental department to stretch support beyond that. One thing is clear, however: Any significant cuts would translate to profound changes to ANERR programs—to work that benefits all the national estuarine reserves and their communities.
Despite the unknowns, Harper heads to the reserve each day excited by “the opportunity to protect a pristine, amazing place.” As she joins the anglers, boaters, and migrating birds on the water, she's hopeful it will buoy them for decades to come.
—Video of Jenna Harper by Oscar Hidalgo
What’s at Stake was a collaborative effort by: Jenny Bogo, Molly Bennet, Camilla Cerea, Andrew Del-Colle, Martha Harbison, John Mahoney, Andy McGlashen, Sabine Meyer, Alisa Opar, Purbita Saha, and Hannah Waters