By Tim Manns
On September 13 at Burlington Library, Skagit Audubon joined four other groups in a presentation about restoring grizzlies to the North Cascades and countering local political efforts to undermine the Endangered Species Act and open national public lands to increased resource extraction. This meeting was as well-attended as the similar one at Padilla Bay on July 19. The fact that our county commissioners use public revenues to involve Skagit County with extreme anti-environmental groups has been a revelation for many and not a happy one. The story behind the story continues to unfold as we learn about the commissioners’ paid helper in Washington, D.C.
A Public Records Request to Skagit County for emails, reports, invoices, and anything else related to Washington, D.C., lobbyist Robert K. Weidner released a first batch of files in early September. Since 2001 our county has paid Mr. Weidner a total of at least $137,000 to lobby on various topics, most of them accurately termed anti-environmental. “Bob” Weidner bills his expertise as “Environmental and Natural Resources Work,” and his regular invoices cite meetings with U.S. Senators, Representatives, and their staff. Bob’s plate has been especially full this year since our commissioners tapped him to head off the long-awaited start of grizzly restoration in the wild North Cascades, where people have all but wiped them out after thousands of years. For this Weidner billed you and me an additional $5,000, bringing his 2017 take from Skagit County to $20,000.
After reviewing just a portion of the hundreds of documents obtained, we know Mr. Weidner is also busily pursuing passage of the innocuously named Resilient Federal Forests Act (HR2936), also called the Westerman Act for its prime sponsor, Representative Bruce Westerman (R-Arkansas). First introduced in 2015, this bill’s 2017 version is, unsurprisingly, much worse. People who see environmental protection as simply an impediment to money-making have long-awaited the present political moment. They are rushing to make the most of it. The Resilient Federal Forests Act is not about making our publicly-owned forests resilient in the face of climate change, bigger and more destructive forest fires, or any such thing. It’s about getting environmental protections and real opportunities for citizen involvement out of the way and making increased logging and mining the primary purpose of our National Forests and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) forested areas. It’s a complicated bill with many specific bits of nastiness. Here’s a sample: Projects on Forest Service lands involving up to 30,000 acres could be excluded from environmental review under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). There would not have to be any consideration of impacts on the environment, and the Forest Service and BLM would no longer be required to consult with the US Fish & Wildlife Service about potential impacts on federally-listed threatened and endangered species. This would be a very significant blow to the many listed species dependent on public lands for essential habitat. It strikes at the heart of Audubon’s mission of preserving and restoring birds and other wildlife. The bill would also overturn the Roadless Area Conservation Rule of 2001, which has protected our public lands from unnecessary road building and habitat destruction. It would exempt from environmental review clear-cuts up to 10,000 acres, a huge increase over the present regulation. The list goes on.
This is just one of the topics on which our Robert K. Weidner is lobbying and which he lists on his invoices to Skagit County, sometimes under the equally innocuous name “Active National Forest Management.” The records request has also uncovered a laundry list of anti-environmental goals he gathered for the counties in our state which contribute taxpayer funds to Weidner. He writes in a January email that the Trump transition team requested this list from him. It includes blocking grizzly and wolf restoration “in populated areas” (not what the
National Park Service is proposing for the North Cascades grizzly, but he’s blocking it anyway), roll-back of national monument designations, undoing Obama administration regulations to curb global warming, codifying “coordination” as law (polite term for county supremacy, giving local officials veto power over national public lands management decisions), pushing aside the Endangered Species Act when fast-declining species like the spotted owl get in the way of resource extraction, and lots more.
Our county commissioners would apparently like a return to an earlier era when logging unencumbered by recognition of other values for public lands reaped revenue and kept taxes lower. But in 2017 Skagit County has many residents like you and me who do value public lands for a wider range of purposes, timber harvest being only one and, in many places, not the most important. Paying Robert Weidner to do what he’s doing against our public lands is counter to the values and ideals of many Skagit residents, whether they’re hikers, birders, hunters, or simply want to save forests to help combat global warming. If you feel this way, let the Skagit commissioners know. They may respond that Weidner also lobbies for such good things as an electric ferry for Guemes Island. True enough, but I suspect that among Washington, D.C.’s 10,000 lobbyists, there are ones who can do that without all the other stuff. We’ve spent $137,000 on this guy so far. Enough.