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Why Protecting Rivers is a Conservative Cause

January 28th, 2020 | 10 min read

By Gracy Olmstead

Rivers play a pivotal role in our national imagination. In school, we learn about Abraham Lincoln’s travels on the Mississippi River, or Lewis and Clark’s passage along river routes toward the Pacific Ocean. From the Bible, we learn of the river running through the new Jerusalem, with the picture of redemption and new life it brings. As a child, I watched documentaries about Idaho’s Salmon River, and crossed over the powerful Snake River via bridge every week.

Some rivers play a more vital role in our discourse than others—we care more about the Rio Grande, say, than about the small creeks and rivulets that feed it. But if we’re honest, we also are more aware of rivers’ symbolic meaning than we usually are of their literal health. In a time of climate change and drought, Americans living in the Southwestern region of the United States are perhaps more cognizant of the health of the Rio Grande, the Colorado, and other rivers and streams which they rely on for water. But many members of the United States have watched as wetlands and marshes disappear, rivers are dammed up, and creeks run dry with little to no thought. If our largest bodies of water remain unimpeded, we ignore the health of the little places. We are, one might say, oblivious to the smaller signifiers of health that make up the larger whole.

This was especially clear last week when the Trump administration removed millions of miles of streams and wetlands from the Clean Water Act, thus reducing the law’s capacity to check pollution, chemical runoff, and oil spills throughout the nation’s riparian systems. Politico’s Annie Snider notes that this is the largest rollback of the act since it was first passed in 1972.

The change primarily targets small streams, intermittent streams, and roughly half the nation’s wetlands—part of an ongoing disagreement between Republicans and Democrats over the intended scope and objectives of the Clean Water Act. As Snider notes, the Obama administration passed a more sprawling version of the rule in 2015 “based on a massive scientific report that documented the importance of small streams to the health of downstream rivers and bays.”

But the Trump administration has sought to narrow the rule as part of an argument that, in the words of a senior Environmental Protection Agency official, “This isn’t about what’s an important water body. All water is important. This is about what waters Congress intended the agency to regulate.”

EPA Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler celebrated the change in his address to the National Association of Home Builders in Las Vegas, arguing that this change will “[rebalance] the relationship between the federal government and the states.” Many states already have a “robust network of water regulations” in place, he said, whereas the federal government’s part in protecting riparian systems should be tailored to the nation’s largest, most important bodies of water. Snider notes, however, that several states (including Arizona) “have laws on the books that prevent them from regulating more stringently than the federal government and states have been cutting the budgets for their environmental agencies.”

The rollback has been heralded as a “major win” for homebuilders, oil and gas companies, and farmers, many of whom will no longer be required to get a permit from the EPA to discharge pollution, spray crops adjacent to creeks and ditches, or fill in wetland. The American Farm Bureau, the aforementioned National Association of Home Builders, and the National Corn Growers Association (among others) have all applauded the Trump Administration’s new rule.

But before the EPA finalized their rule, they received some pushback from their scientific advisory board, which argued that “decreas[ing] protection for our Nation’s waters and does not support the objective of restoring and maintaining ‘the chemical, physical and biological integrity’ of these waters.”

This rollback could particularly impact the Western hemisphere of the United States, which is arid and semi-arid, and thus dominated by streams of the “intermittent” variety. According to a 2008 EPA report, 58 percent of U.S. streams are considered ephemeral or intermittent—but Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and California are dominated by this category of riparian systems. One of the complaints Wheeler leveled at the old Obama administration rule was that it was a “confusing regulatory patchwork across the country,” with states subject to different versions of regulations. But to some extent, this is what one could (and perhaps even should) expect for a nation with as much geographic diversity as the United States.

Most conservatives who would argue for federalism and subsidiarity will see this rollback as a good thing. This is what we want, after all, isn’t it? For government overreach and bureaucracy to be hacked to pieces, replaced with a system that encourages job creation, innovation, and state rights?

There could be some benefit to the federal government putting the onus on states and counties to develop a more tailored regulatory system for their particular riparian systems. “Bioregionalism” could encourage Southwestern states like Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico to develop a set of laws to protect the systems they know best, and are primarily responsible for. A bunch of bureaucrats in Washington, D.C. may never realize or appreciate the role intermittent streams play in the arid West (though they should). But states and regions can and should play a strong role in developing a vision of stewardship for the land and water within their care—if for no other reason than to make sure that neither federal government agencies nor large corporations abuse those resources. And in the West, where water is a precious resource, this sort of active involvement in water protection seems vital.

But the Trump administration’s new rule does not seem at all geared toward fostering bioregionalism, or a more robust set of state standards. Its goal is more focused on lessening the restrictions previously set on businesses that might like to use this land. As Ellen Knickmeyer noted in an Associated Press piece, farmers are not the key beneficiaries of this rule change: “It is real estate developers and those in other nonfarm business sectors that take out the most permits for impinging on wetlands and waterways, and stand to reap the biggest regulatory and financial relief.”

Trump has geared his administration toward job creation, innovation, and disruption over other, more conservationist-minded goals, such as preserving or protecting ecological health. As of December 2019, the administration had rolled back 58 rules and regulations, and had another 37 rollbacks in process—many of them with the intended goal of making the U.S. more “business-friendly.” For libertarian conservatives and many corporations, this is a dream come true.

But we cannot measure the health of our society merely by what we create or transform. A conservative might argue that we can see its health just as well by what we maintain: by the health, life, and goodness that remain in place.

Rules that prevent the destruction of delicate riparian ecosystems will, indeed, tie the hands of land developers and land owners. They will cause some headaches for the oil and gas industry. They might even cost a few people some money. But if you see the ongoing health and wellbeing of our nation as a primary function of government, then you will see rules such as this one as net benefits to our citizens. Clean drinking water is a good worth protecting—even if it means one less suburb, or a few more regulations for oil and gas companies.

Maintenance and stewardship require something of us. Those who advocate for them suggest that we have responsibilities that lie beyond ourselves and our own profit. This often makes stewardship unpopular with the right, which has long espoused an individualism and governmental freedom that cuts against the idea that there is something we owe to our community, our neighbor, or our place.

But true stewardship should also involve rootedness and attentiveness: a knowledge of the local ecosystem full and intricate enough to understand its changes, its losses, and its requirements. In a 2015 article for The Atlantic, Wendell Berry noted that no conservationists or scientists seemed concerned when black willows began disappearing from the banks of the Kentucky River in his home county—no one even seemed to have noticed, except some of the “old timers” like him. Berry concluded that Wes Jackson’s “eyes-to-acres” principle should probably apply to conservation in the same way it applies to farming—because otherwise, conservationists won’t know what they are meant to be conserving.

But this idea can be deeply unpalatable to the left, which espouses the same principles of self-fulfillment and individualism that the right so often enjoys. You shouldn’t be forced to stay in place, to commit your life to one plot of ground. But of course, if you are constantly jetting from coast to coast, you will never truly see or understand what’s being lost.

Wendell Berry once wrote that “one of my ambitions, perhaps my governing ambition, was to belong fully to this place, to belong as the thrushes and the herons and the muskrats belonged, to be altogether at home here…. It is a spiritual ambition, like goodness. The wild creatures belong to the place by nature, but as a man I can belong to it only by understanding and by virtue.”

Berry—along with several other important conservers, such as Aldo Leopold and Wes Jackson—have suggested that our membership in place is never “free.” It costs something of us, in large part because we ourselves are often costly to the land around us. To live in place without depleting it, we must also then give something back: preserve, love, maintain. We—and thus, also, our government—owe something to the land.

There’s a problem, then, with bioregionalism that is only backed by local or state power, and not by a set of robust federal government policies. Many corporations active in America today have amassed global influence and wealth. They are thus very difficult to control or curtail. Can the Mayor of Bryant, Indiana tell the CEO of Bayer what to do? Small voices often need big ones to back them up. In our time, localities interested in protecting their rivers, streams, and wetlands may need the EPA’s support as they do battle. The federal government may, in fact, have a positive role to play in advancing a vision for conservation, for proper maintenance and care. After all, when the government doesn’t take up the mantle of stewardship, that vacuum of leadership and care can have devastating consequences.

Conservatives should not oppose measures like the Clean Water Act without first considering what they are opposing, and why. We are very good at saying what government is not for, what it shouldn’t be. But unless we can also present a vision of what government is for—and, particularly, of what a conserving government might be for—then we will not be able to preserve our places. We will lose the joy and peace we could find on a quiet river, or never know the beauty of a marsh drained dry.

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Gracy Olmstead

Grace Olmstead writes from her home state of Idaho. Her writings can also be found at The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, Christianity Today, and others.