Environmentalists Wield Powerful ESA to Kill Jobs

Published March 25, 2016

“Another one gone,” began the Lost Coast Outpost’s report in late January.

A.A. “Red” Emmerson, chairman of Sierra Pacific Industries, announced the permanent closure of its sawmill on the Samoa Peninsula in Arcata, California, resulting in the loss of 123 jobs. Emmerson cited reduced harvests from federal forests and regulatory burdens as the primary reason for the closure.

The shutdown of the last mill on the once-bustling Humboldt Bay was just the timber industry’s latest loss in a long and steady decline resulting from endless pressure from environmentalists and from U.S. Forest Service complicity.

In early 2015, the North Coast Journal reported the 131-year-old Korbel sawmill would close its doors in Humboldt County, California, putting 106 people out of work. In 2012, the Pulp and Paperworkers’ Resource Council released its 119-page “Mill Curtailments & Closures From 1990 to December 2012” report, which shows more than 1,700 nationwide mill closures had occurred in only 20 years.

Continuing Spotted Owl Fallout

The closed mills and lost jobs are due primarily to a 1991 court ruling, in which a group of local environmentalists, the Seattle Audubon Society, convinced a court protecting the spotted owl was more important than the robust logging industry in Washington State, Oregon, and California.

The ruling proved so devastating because U.S. District Court Judge William L. Dwyer granted the Seattle Audubon’s demands to use the “regional biogeography” principle promoted by a federal “Spotted Owl Task Force,” which stated, “The duty to maintain viable populations of existing vertebrate species requires planning for the entire biological community—not for one species alone. It is distinct from the duty, under the Endangered Species Act, to save a listed species from extinction.”

This decision was especially problematic because the “entire biological community” of the three-state area was not even known. Within five years of Dwyer’s ruling, 187 mills had been shuttered, wiping out 22,654 logging-related jobs throughout the three states, and the toll taken on the industry has continued to expand ever since.

Killing Navajo Jobs

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) is a radical environmental legal action group that’s known for frequently suing to block commercial, industrial, and personal activities in an effort to “save the environment,” regardless of who gets hurt. One of the group’s leaders and co-founders, Kieran Suckling, was a well-known activist in the 1980s and has been linked to vandalism and sabotage group Earth First!

From its inception, CBD has sought ways to permanently stop natural resource use, and with the help of environmental attorneys, CBD has successfully weaponized the Endangered Species Act (ESA) against ranchers, loggers, miners, and human activity in general. ESA was written in a way that theoretically allows it to halt virtually any activity or state or local law deemed to be harmful to plants or animals considered to be in danger of extinction, and CBD has taken advantage of the law’s vague and broad language to force extreme action against private industry and private property owners.

Even Native Americans, who are commonly thought of as America’s original keepers of nature, are not immune to CBD’s wrath. In 2015, CBD joined a federal lawsuit brought to block essential expansion of the Navajo Mine, located just south of Farmington, New Mexico. The mine is situated on the Navajo Nation’s reservation and is owned by the Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC), a wholly owned subsidiary of the Navajo Nation’s tribal government. NTEC had been granted a federal permit to expand the mine in March 2012.

The mine had been established for the sole purpose of providing coal to the five-unit Four Corners Power Plant (FCPP), located nearby. FCPP provides electricity to residents in Arizona, California, New Mexico, and Texas. Combined, FCPP and the mine bring in $40 million in annual revenue to the impoverished Navajo Nation, as well as provide 800 jobs.

The Center for Biological Diversity argues the mine and associated power plant are responsible for the mercury found in the muscle tissue of the endangered Colorado pikeminnow fish. To fight the mine’s expansion, CBD helped organize a coalition of co-plaintiffs to bring suit against the Navajo Nation—including small local groups, such as the Dine Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment and the San Juan Citizens Alliance, and the very influential and wealthy Sierra Club. 

Attacks Continue

The legal attack spearheaded by CBD secured a Colorado federal judge’s order to nullify the expansion permit. This decision was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit after NTEC lost its appeal for a stay on the lower court’s ruling. Having halted the expansion, CBD has worked to close the mine until a new environmental review of public health and environmental risks from the mine expansion can be conducted.

The Navajo Nation’s sovereignty claims, its agreement to undertake an environmental review, and signed agreements it has made with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to fight regional haze—by closing three of the plant’s five units and installing emission controls on the remaining two plants—has kept the mine open. This could change in the near future, as CBD has once again threatened to sue to halt operations.

Even the sovereignty that comes with being a federally recognized tribe on an established reservation is no protection against a weaponized Endangered Species Act. 

Ron Arnold ([email protected]) is a free-enterprise activist, author, and commentator.