Secretary Zinke, Welcome to California!
I hear you’re here to talk infrastructure and parks with our Governor, as well as do a bit of sightseeing in the Sierra. What a time to visit! The waterfalls will be raging, spectacularly falling from Yosemite’s grand, granite cliffs. And have you seen a Giant Sequoia yet? They don’t make bigger trees!
Two things I’m sure you will hear about while here: climate change and our state’s diverse and vibrant communities. Out here, we know that climate change is real, and we are doing a lot about it. We also know our ability to face these challenges is dependent upon solutions that make for more inclusive prosperity for every Californian, and not just those in power.
To get you up to speed, here is a bit of a primer on the Golden State and how decisions made by your Interior Department can markedly improve our situation — or put our economy, health, and natural heritage at risk.
National Parks and Climate Change The NPS manages 34 parks in our state. Wow, do we love them! From Yosemite to the Mojave to Lassen Volcanic to the Presidio of San Francisco, they include the best of our natural places, celebrate our cultural heritage, and commemorate historic events. The stars at night in Death Valley? So clear and sublime.
But, as this NPS pamphlet says: “Climate Change is Happening.” Joshua Tree is far along the road to losing its Joshua trees due to heat stress on adults and seedlings alike. Yosemite, a landscape shaped by glaciers, is likely to lose its remaining two in the next twenty years. The oyster fisheries of Point Reyes are at risk from ocean acidification and rising water temperatures. From a physical maintenance perspective, climate change is putting intense pressure on infrastructure in the parks: Death Valley alone has $29 million in damages from two back-to-back years of 500-year floods.
Times of Drought; Times of Flood: You’ll definitely hear about the good snowpack in the mountains and our wet, flood-ridden winter. This deluge followed a five-year drought. These wild swings between mega-drought and mega-precipitation are caused by burning coal, oil, and gas.
You should take note because the Bureau of Reclamation, also under your purview, manages and maintains over 44 big dams in California, plus the Central Valley Project which delivers water to 6 of our top 10 agricultural counties. Climate change only further strains dam infrastructure, just as we’ve seen at Oroville this year. We need to invest in this infrastructure for public safety, flood control, water security, and ecosystems.
Tribal Lands and Economic Development: DOI also oversees the Bureau of Indian Affairs which officially recognizes 110 tribes in California. Many of California’s tribes look to BIA to help foster economic development, deliver healthcare, maintain public safety, and build basic infrastructure — needs that have not always been equitably served by the Federal government. Climate change is affecting tribal lands across the state with increased heat, prolonged drought, floods, higher intensity and more frequent wildfires, and worsening air quality. BIA can do a lot to foster climate adaptation in these communities, and spurring clean energy development on tribal lands is one significant potential source of economic development for these predominantly rural communities.
Remembering our Complex, Not-Always-Flattering History: You won’t have time this trip (next time!) but in the Southern Sierra just below where you’ll be in Sequoia National Park is Manzanar Internment Camp. This is where our government rounded up and illegally detained Japanese-Americans for the duration of World War Two because fear got the best of us and our compassion fell short. Any of this sounding familiar…? This National Park is here to remind us never to be complicit to hate.
Clean Energy Development: The Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan, a joint effort between the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFW), the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), and many state and local agencies, has done wonders to protect the desert and simplify permitting for appropriate renewable energy development in the California desert to help the state meet our ambitious clean energy targets of 50% renewables by 2030.
Plus, there are over 100,000 jobs in the solar industry in California. We know the future when we see it.
The Trees are Dying: You’ll notice this as you drive from Fresno up to the mouth of King’s Canyon and the entrance to Sequoia National Park. The trees are dead. From the tan oak to the pines, they stand blackened and red, colors not natural to these hills.
Further up King’s Canyon, you’ll see a big burn — one of many to hit in recent years. In 2016, over 500,000 acres burned in nearly 7,000 blazes. As forests dry and crackle in the climate-change driven heat of summer, ignitions happen more readily and fires carry faster across the droughty landscape.
What you see on that drive is just a sliver of the problem.
The Forest Service estimates there are now 102 million dead trees in California alone. They are dying because of climate change. Notice a theme here? And you can do something about it.
And Finally, That Border Wall Thing: This is the President’s vanity project — but one with very real consequences. About ⅓ Trump’s $22 billion racist boondoggle would be built on Federal Land — much of that managed by you. Again, don’t be complicit in hate.
With all of the above at stake, I hope you’ll forgive my interrupting your time in that glorious playground of John Muir, but it is hard to escape the importance of the decisions you’re making for communities here and across the nation.
So I’ll leave you with two thoughts:
First, we know the climate impacts described above are driven by the burning of fossil fuels. There should be NO new leasing of coal on Federal Lands. Period. And, there should be no new oil or gas leasing in the Arctic or Atlantic. All further infrastructure should pass a climate test, and we should work with local communities to transition justly and permanently away from dependence on these polluting fuels for our health and economic security. The evidence for this is clear.
Second, don’t be complicit — to the rapid worsening of climate change, to the erasure of history or cultures, to the economic misfortune of those out of power, and to any policies that go against our better natures. For the National Parks were created in the best image of ourselves. It is in that image by which example you should serve the American people across your portfolio.
Now, as John Muir would say, “climb the mountains and get their good tidings!”
And don’t mess this up for the rest of us.