The November Election

President Trump during December 2017 appearance in Salt Lake City to announce his decision to remove protections for 2 million acres of public land in Utah. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — I’m not at all concerned by the talk about the “end of the American empire.” I saw that needless arrogance slipping by nine years ago in Beijing’s spotless and soaring international airport, fast subways, faster intercity high-speed rail lines, and well-dressed professionals building the Asian century on boulevards flanked by state-of-the art offices.

No, what keeps me up at night — quite literally, I’m not sleeping well these days — is my creeping conviction that President Trump has opened the door to the dungeon of American ugliness. Our most grotesque cultural behaviors are being turned loose. Innate violence. Racism. Hate. Ignorance. Intolerance.

The administration’s program of separating babies and older children from their parents along the Southwest border, and holding them in chainlink enclosures, is cruel. It’s also supported by nearly all the people who voted in 2016 for the president.

It’s starting to appear that the last half century of cultural advance — civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmentalism, access to higher education — may be an aberration. A remarkable period when America really tried to live up the social contract framed by its founding documents. That half-century, though, may soon be regarded as a departure for a nation that enslaved and sold human beings, waged war on its indigenous people, subjected millions of its citizens in the South to decades of state-supported separation and terrorism, met its union organizers with machine guns and bullets, assassinated its prophets, and concocted lies to dispatch its young to die in losing wars of ideology.

Oh Lord. What will the November election tell us about the American character? It better be good.

— Keith Schneider

30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right

Lake Powell, the second largest reservoir in the U.S., is steadily drying as long-term drought settles on the American Southwest. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

SOMERSET, KY — This was the week 30 years ago, third week of June 1988, that global warming rose to the top of the list of national priorities. I was a young correspondent for the New York Times that summer, dispatched to Montana and the northern Great Plains to report on an unfolding drought so deep that elderly farmers told me it reminded them of Dust Bowl conditions a half century before.

On June 23 that week, the day after I returned to my desk in Washington, James Hansen, one of NASA’s top scientists, told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that Earth was warming. Hansen said he was “99 percent certain” it was the result of human activity. Hansen’s testimony received powerful validation from broad print and TV news coverage in the U.S. and in Europe.

Later that summer a mammoth wildfire raced across Yellowstone. It’s gotten steadily more dangerous since.

I was in the car two weeks ago listening to Rush Limbaugh aggressively make a religious case that, and I’m paraphrasing, mankind could not possibly be powerful enough to produce forces capable of altering the global atmosphere. Only God was capable of that. And, said Limbaugh, if there actually was any evidence of the meteorological disruption described by liberals, scientists, and the ridiculous mainstream media, God was responsible.

Limbaugh’s frustrating assessment reflects a popular theological doctrine that justifies a political construct. Half the country rejects irrefutable evidence of climate change. The back story, of course, is how impediments to climate action support the fossil fuel industry and its user group allies — utilities, railroads, airlines, vehicle manufacturers, elected officials. They are flat out scared breathless by the prospect that $20 trillion in black fuel reserves still in the ground will get stranded.

Climate change is battering Malaysia. A titanic storm last year brought down this retaining wall on Penang island, destroying residences about to open. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

If God is to be thanked, we all should express our gratitude to her/him that the U.S., despite the Trump administration’s market-buffeting interference, has maintained a good bit of its Obama-era momentum to shift the electric-generating sector from coal and gas to renewables. Other nations in Europe and Asia are going there too, and much faster than anybody anticipated. Continue reading “30 Years Later — James Hansen Was Right”

Listen to Our Kids’ Call to Disarm America

Perhaps 800,000 people gathered in Washington to rally support for Parkland, Florida students organizing to end gun violence in the United States. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Republican right is unnerved in the days following Saturday’s March For Our Lives in Washington and hundreds of other cities across America and the world. Stricken with grief and stirred by the passions of love cut short by bullets, the students from Parkland, Florida stood up, stepped forward, and found a mass movement to end gun violence waiting for them.

Hundreds of thousands of people were on Pennsylvania Avenue on Saturday, perhaps 800,000 by some measures. They came from all over the country to hear words of grief, statements of resolve, and pleas for change from middle school and high school students, who also came from all over the country.

The alchemy of potent words, visible strength, and palpable emotion forced Fox News and its conspiratorial cousins in right wing media to lose their rhetorical footing. The students, they asserted, were tools of liberal media and Democratic leadership perpetuating the left’s campaign to unseat President Trump. Their reporting was so ridiculous that Breitbart News accused David Hogg, one of the Parkland students and movement leaders, of displaying a “Nazi salute” when he raised his fist at the rally.

What nonsense. It’s precisely because young people are independent and authentic that their call to disarm the country has gained such credibility.

It’s also because their capacity to articulate the issues is so keen. “Politicians, either represent the people or get out,” demanded one student, speaking before the largest crowd he’ll ever face again. “The people demand a law for universal background checks. The people demand to end the sale of high-capacity magazines. The people demand an end to this gun violence. Stand with us or beware. The vote is coming.”

Students from Baltimore have a message. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Their signs, displayed in a bright garden of irony and anger and cleverness, also made the point: “Mental illness is global. Mass shootings are American,” said one. “Kids safety is more important than your hobby,” said another. Continue reading “Listen to Our Kids’ Call to Disarm America”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Tough Second Act

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses reporters in Salt Lake City, February 2018 (Keith Schneider photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — January was supposed to be a great month for Interior Secretary Ryan Keith Zinke, the tall, cowboy-fit, decorated SEAL warrior dispatched by the White House to battle the “elites” and elevate resource development to the primary goal of the world’s largest conservation agency.

Guided by his personal hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “conservation means development as much as it does protection,” Zinke opened the year with the most ambitious federal plan ever to explore for oil and gas off nearly every mile of U.S. coastline. Ten months in the making, the drilling scheme was the latest of the administration’s coordinated steps to sweep away decades of environmental impediments and unleash the fossil energy reserves stored beneath much of the 1.7 billion acres of ocean bottom and at least half of the 500 million acres of surface land overseen by the 168-year-old department.

The bid to decorate America’s coast with drilling rigs was bigger than even the ocean leasing program proposed in 1982 by James Watt, the last Interior secretary to try as hard as Zinke to swing the department’s mission from conservation to extraction. “We’re embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America,” Zinke declared. “We are going to become the strongest energy superpower.”

But five days later, like the unpredictable president he serves, Zinke disrupted the show. During a trip to meet with Rick Scott, the Florida Republican governor and likely Senate candidate, Zinke announced he was excusing the offshore waters of the Sunshine State from participation. The drilling waiver, which shocked his own staff, ignited an impassioned political backlash led by Republican coastal state governors, Congress members, and state lawmakers. It also put the entire plan in grave legal peril because at the very least the federal Administrative Procedure Act requires a substantive and rational basis for making new policy.

The public dismay grew more intense two weeks later when a senior Interior executive rebuked his boss and told a Congressional committee that Zinke’s waiver had no authority. Florida, he said, was still in the offshore drilling plan. As the month ended, Zinke appeared on CNN to counter his aide and explain that the exemption stood because, in Florida, “the coastal currents are different.”

It is not clear why Zinke apparently set out on his own to alter the Trump administration’s marquee energy development plan. Heather Swift, Zinke’s spokesperson, declined repeated requests to interview the secretary or members of his senior staff. “The secretary is unavailable,” she said during Zinke’s appearance at a hunter and sportsmen expo in Salt Lake City.

Ryan Zinke’s effort to expand oil and gas leasing in the West’s public lands is not attracting much interest across most of the domain. (Keith Schneider photo)

Whatever the cause, Zinke’s change of heart about Florida raised eyebrows across official Washington. “It was different, to be sure,” said Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson.
Continue reading “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Tough Second Act”

The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West

The Ruby Mountains in Elko County, northeast Nevada. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

ELKO, NEV. – From this rest stop desert city midway between Salt Lake City and Reno the snow peaks of the Ruby Mountains are like finely crafted wainscoting in an elegant ballroom. The slopes rise sharply to form triangles in the sky. In 1989, Congress approved permanently safeguarding 92,650 wooded acres along the ridge lines from any intrusions in the Ruby Mountain Wilderness. The big flat sagebrush valley that runs up to the base of the mountains’ western flank is open range for grazing, and hunting ground for golden eagles. The watery meadows on the eastern flank are nesting sites for migrating birds. Since 1938, 37,632 acres of it have been protected as the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Elko is an intriguing place. It’s the biggest city in the nation’s sixth largest county and has a nationally-recognized cowboy poetry festival every winter. Elko also has understood since its founding as a railroad stop in 1869 the economic value of extracting resources from the land and conserving the natural geography. The county is home to one of the largest gold mining sectors in the United States. Elko County, where about 50,000 people live, was hardly scratched in the 2008 to 2012 Great Recession because Americans got so freaked out that the price of gold climbed to $2,000 an ounce.

Lately, though, residents in Elko County have been stirred up by a plan, hatched in the Trump White House, to disrupt the decades-long equilibrium they’ve achieved between extraction and conservation. In the last week of December I drove out to Elko from my base in Salt Lake City to take a tour of the Ruby Mountains and see what’s going on. Since early October I’ve been based in Utah’s capital city to report for the Los Angeles Times as the western environment and public lands correspondent. My contract ends in early March. Until then I’ve got time and room to roam to tell a momentous story of an administration’s pursuit of an economic and energy development story in the West that does not fit its time. (Read my reports here.)

The Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, sits in a valley on the east side of the Ruby Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider

The powerful tide of that story washed into Elko County in September when residents learned that the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Ruby Mountains, is preparing to auction leases for oil and gas development on some 50,000 acres of public land that border the wilderness on the western flanks, and the wildlife refuge on the east. The Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that owns and manages most of the public land in the West, also is preparing an oil and gas lease auction for hundreds of thousands of acres of public desert land in the western reaches of the county. Continue reading “The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West”