When a majority of North Carolina voters backed Donald Trump in 2016, many believed his promise that he would drain the swamp in Washington, D.C. That hasn’t happened, but Trump has been busy pulling the plug on North Carolina’s real swamps — and its forests, streams, coastal waters, air quality and wildlife.
A state with a richness of natural resources and wildlife helped elect a president who is shaping up to be a one-man environmental disaster. He scoffs at climate change as more powerful hurricanes pummel the state and sea level rise threatens the coast. He’s pushing for oil and gas drilling off of North Carolina, putting the coastal environment and the tourist industry at risk. He has reduced federal clean water protections intended to limit pesticides, fertilizer and animal waste from entering streams and wetlands, an important issue in flood-prone eastern North Carolina. He has moved to block Obama-era limits on emissions from coal-burning plants that would have helped clear the air in the western part of the state.
Now comes Trump’s latest assault on nature that could have a major impact in North Carolina. He is about to weaken the Endangered Species Act, an environmental law passed in 1973 with bipartisan support and signed by a Republican president, Richard Nixon. The law has saved 99 percent of species on the list from extinction, largely through habitat conservation efforts that also benefit other wildlife.
North Carolina is home to some of the act’s greatest success stories, including the salvation of the national symbol, the bald eagle. Currently, the state has 61 species listed as endangered or threatened under the ESA, including the red-cockaded woodpecker, the loggerhead turtle and the northern flying squirrel.
Under the Trump revisions, species newly categorized as “threatened” would not automatically be given the same protections as those that are endangered. The additional protections would be granted on a case-by-case basis that would inevitably lead to more plants and animals dwindling toward extinction.
Another change in the law will require that regulators assess the economic cost of saving animals or plants from extinction along with the scientific risk of that happening. This doesn’t sound like good news for creatures whose habitat is in the way of mining and oil companies and developers.
NC Wildlife Federation CEO Tim Gestwicki expressed the impact of the proposed change: “This is a blatant and egregious proposal to undermine conservation actions while kowtowing to corporate special interests, particularly the oil and gas industries. Without the Endangered Species Act, iconic species such as our American symbol, the bald eagle, would be no longer.”
With Republicans either silent or cheering this rollback, the task of preserving protections for endangered animals and habit will fall to Democrats and environmental groups. They are ready. Molly Diggins, state director of the NC Sierra Club, said, “Without question we will mount a formidable opposition. This goes to the very heart of environmental protection.”
Trump’s move to weaken the Endangered Species Act comes three months after a United Nations report that said human activity and climate change have put 1 million animal and plant species at risk of extinction. Apparently that number will now need to be revised upward.
To prevent such losses in North Carolina, it is up to the people — including, and perhaps especially, those who voted for Trump — to let their representatives in Congress know they will not surrender the beauty of their state and the irreplaceable wonder of the plants and animals that live within it.