Whenever things get bad in the U.S., I like to remember that America isn’t just a country, or an idea, or a possibly doomed experiment in democracy. It’s also a 3.8 million square mile expanse of dirt. I’m talking about the land of America — and whatever your thoughts on the country or its people, the land itself includes some quality real estate. Desert and tundra, mountain and prairie, canyon and coastline — as Stefon might say on SNL, this place has everything.
It’s largely the mission statement of the Interior Department to protect all of that real estate. But Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke seems to have a different goal in mind. When he hasn’t been busy threatening U.S. senators on behalf of his boss, he and his department have been rolling back Obama-era regulations that protected the environment.
Zinke submitted a report to the president last week recommending scaled back boundaries for at least three national monuments. According to the Washington Post, Zinke is recommending a “significant” reduction in the size of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, which was “designated at the request of Native American tribes to preserve artifacts and sacred lands.” Prior to its designation as a monument, the area was being eyed for fossil fuel development.
Meanwhile, the National Park Service, “in close consultation with Department of Interior leadership,” decided to end a ban on the sale of bottled water in the parks that was first enacted in 2011. The justification for the ban is clear: Plastic takes hundreds of years to degrade, so plastic litter is a problem anywhere, but especially in national parks, which are renowned for their untarnished natural beauty.
The decision to reverse the ban isn’t completely without merit: Banning the sale of water bottles removes a convenient option for visitors to stay hydrated. But the park service would still have allowed visitors to bring their own water bottles, and was in the process of installing free water stations to offset any inconvenience caused by the ban. Moreover, there’s evidence of a less innocent motivation. Environmental groups have pointed out that David Bernhardt, the recently confirmed deputy interior secretary, previously worked for a firm that was hired by the bottled water industry to lobby the federal government on this issue — one group called Bernhardt a “walking conflict of interest.”
Maybe these cutbacks would make sense if the Interior Department were some gargantuan vacuum sucking up taxpayer dollars. But the department’s budget in 2016 was $13.1 billion — just over one percent of total federal discretionary spending that year. Despite all the president’s bluster about bygone greatness, the natural beauty of this country is as great as ever, and his administration is abdicating its responsibility to defend it.
Groves is a philosophy junior from Dallas. He is a senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @samgroves.