As a global pandemic continued to rage across much of the country, President Donald Trump held an event at the White House Tuesday to celebrate himself as a conservationist in the mold of late President Theodore Roosevelt.
Flanked by Republican lawmakers, including two Senate allies with lousy environmental records and who face tough roads to reelection in November, Trump signed into law a major public lands package that’s being celebrated as the most significant conservation legislation in a generation.
Much like his environmental speech last July, Trump’s address Tuesday was full of spin ― an attempt to greenwash an abysmal conservation record ahead of the 2020 election. He repeatedly mentioned and compared himself to Roosevelt, America’s conservation president.
“This is a very big deal,” Trump said at the signing ceremony. “There hasn’t been anything like this since Teddy Roosevelt, I suspect.”
For more than three years, Trump has prioritized fossil fuel and other development over environmental protection, cutting regulatory “red tape” over species conservation. He led the largest rollback of national monuments in U.S. history and has worked to weaken safeguards for some 35 million acres (nearly 1,000 times more than he and his team have protected), earning the title of the most “anti-nature” president ever, according to a recent analysis from the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
“President Trump and his enablers in the Senate can’t wash away the dirty reality of a public lands record that is unequivocally the worst in history,” Jayson O’Neill, director at conservation nonprofit Western Values Project, said in a stateme. “This is a win for the people that spoke up, reached out, and whose overwhelming outcry to save our parks and fund our public lands forced politically vulnerable officials into action. At the end of the day, people can tell the difference between public land champions and D.C. double-talkers.”
The bill, dubbed the Great American Outdoors Act, allocates $9.5 billion to fix crumbling infrastructure at America’s national parks and permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a decades-old conservation program that the Trump administration tried repeatedly to gut funding for. Established in 1964, LWCF uses offshore fossil fuel revenue to establish and protect parks, wildlife refuges, forests and wildlife habitat. Only twice in history has the program received the maximum $900 million per year allowed by law. And Trump sought to cut LWCF funding by as much as 95%.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt downplayed Trump’s attempts to gut LWCF funding during a call with reporters ahead of the signing ceremony, saying “a lot of factors go into making a budget” and “that’s a process that people propose and other people dispose.”
“I think here the president made a bold realization that he could combine the national parks and public lands funding bill with the Land and Water Conservation bill and do something that is completely unprecedented and historic and a game-changer for conservation,” he said. “I do not believe for a minute either one of these proposals would have passed without his strong and bold action.”
Two vulnerable Republicans, Sens. Steve Daines (Mont.) and Cory Gardner (Colo.), helped champion the bill through Congress and are credited with securing Trump’s about-face on LWCF. All it took was invoking Roosevelt. Daines told Trump during a meeting at the White House in February that passing a public lands bill would be the biggest conservation win since the 26th president established national parks, refuges and forests across the country in the early 1900s, The New York Times reported.
In what many see as an election-year political stunt, Trump and his team have worked to ensure the two Republican allies get the credit.
“Today we’re making the most significant investment in our parks since the administration of the legendary conservationist President Theodore Roosevelt,” Trump said. “This landmark legislation would not have been possible without the incredible leadership and hard work of two outstanding senators, in particular, and two fine people ― Cory Gardner and Steve Daines.” He added that people gave the two lawmakers “zero chance” of getting the legislation passed.
Daines and Gardner, who both previously voted in favor of slashing LWCF funding and have been vocal supporters of Trump’s agenda, were among those who took the podium during the 30-minute event. Each talked about their February meeting with Trump.
“You said, ‘You get this bill on my desk and I’ll sign it.’ Well, five months later we’re here,” Daines said. “Perhaps it’s only fitting it took public lands to bring a divided government together.”
Trump attempted to paint the bill’s passage as a largely Republican win, despite the fact that all but three of the 132 votes against the bill in the Senate and House were cast by Republicans. At some point people “will have have to start thinking about the Republican Party and all the incredible things we’ve done on conservation,” Trump said shortly before mispronouncing Yosemite as “yo-semites.”
Noticeably absent at the ceremony were many of the people who have fought throughout their careers to secure full, permanent LWCF funding ― people like Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), Richard Burr (R-N.C.), Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). No Democrat took the podium.
Meanwhile, Trump is pressing ahead with his pro-industry, anti-conservation efforts. In the 10 days between the House passing the bill and Trump signing it, the administration gave its blessing to a massive proposed open-pit copper and gold mine in southwest Alaska, concluding that the Pebble Mine project will not significantly damage the pristine environment. It introduced a proposal to defining “habitat” under the Endangered Species Act ― a move critics say will further weaken the bedrock conservation law by limiting the areas that can be protected for imperiled species recovery.
Further undercutting any points Trump and his Senate allies might gain from the public lands bill is Trump’s pick to lead the Bureau of Land Management, an agency that manages more than one-third of all federal land. Last month, Trump last month formally nominated William Perry Pendley, a conservative lawyer with extreme anti-environmental views and a long history of advocating for the sale of federal lands, to serve as the agency’s director.
In a column last week that foreshadowed Tuesday’s remarks, Pendley boasted that Trump “pursues a conservation ethic second only to the Rough Rider himself,” referring to Roosevelt, and that the administration “has furthered these ideals more than any administration in generations” ― a claim that appears to have no basis in fact.
Roosevelt protected over 230 million acres of federal land by establishing five national parks, 18 national monuments and dozens of national forests and wildlife refuges. Trump, on the other hand, has protected via executive action less than 37,000 acres, including an extension of a mining ban on 30,000 acres in former Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s home state of Montana.
“The Great American Outdoors Act is a loud and clear rejection of President Trump’s relentless, unprecedented, and deeply unpopular attacks on America’s lands and oceans,” Matt Lee-Ashley, a senior fellow at Center for American Progress, said in a statement. “If President Trump deserves any credit for this bill, it is that his awful environmental record has reignited a powerful grassroots movement to save nature for the benefit of every person in America.”