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