Obama’s Poor Conservation Record

For those of us who had hoped Barack Obama’s election would finally restore and strengthen protections for imperiled wildlife and natural ecosystems, the results to date have been a letdown. Many voters are extremely disappointed or even angry about his record on wildlife conservation, and I suspect President Obama underestimates the significance of this widespread and well-founded discontent among many who tended to be his strong supporters.

Candidate Obama consistently said that dealing with environmental problems—especially climate change, the number one threat to protecting the rich biological diversity that supports all life on Earth—would be one of his top priorities. Believing that, the House of Representatives acted quickly once President Obama was in office to approve comprehensive climate change legislation and send it to the Senate. The House bill curbed greenhouse gas emissions and set up a mechanism to help protect wildlife and biological diversity. But the President failed to put his political muscle into pushing the Senate to act. Then the long drawn-out battle over health care followed by his party’s loss of numerous House and Senate seats in 2010  doomed any chance of enacting climate change legislation for the foreseeable future – a missed opportunity that will result in considerable unnecessary environmental damage.

The opportunity for legislative action lost, one of the President’s strongest environmental appointments, energy policy “czar” Carol Browner, (former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Clinton) resigned after only two years in office. The White House’s decision not to push for climate change legislation likely further emboldened oil and gas industry champions in Congress determined to block the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas pollution under the Clean Air Act. Their efforts were only narrowly averted in the 2011 budget bill. Given its weak performance to date, it is reasonable to wonder just how firmly the White House will continue to stand by Lisa Jackson, EPA’s strong administrator, and fight future efforts to limit EPA’s authority.

Oiled Pelican, (c) AP / Charlie RiedelUnfortunately, climate change is not the only issue affected by Obama’s  timid legislative approach. The explosion of BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago dramatically underscored the need for stricter regulation of offshore oil drilling to protect our oceans and coasts and the people and wildlife that depend on them. But is the White House fighting for tougher new laws to assure that nothing like this event that triggered the biggest environmental disaster in U.S. history will ever happen again? No. Obama did appoint a stellar commission that made thoughtful and important recommendations for stronger offshore drilling regulation, but he has yet to push for reform legislation – and each passing week whatever opportunity there is to win needed reforms grows smaller. Although a few stalwart environmental leaders have introduced reform bills, others in Congress have interpreted the administration’s congressional inaction as an opportunity to promote more unsafe drilling in more places. These places include Alaska’s Chukchi and Beaufort Seas, where  marine ecosystems are even more fragile and vulnerable to devastation from oil spills than in the Gulf of Mexico.

Not only has the President failed to push for desperately needed legislation, he [supported his Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, who, with no consultation and no warning, adopted the Bush administration’s plan to remove federal protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies based on political boundaries rather than the science required by the Endangered Species Act (ESA). When conservationists sued and a federal court overturned his illegal action, Secretary Salazar actively encouraged Congress to enact legislation removing federal protection from Northern Rockies wolves, ignoring the court’s decision. And the White House did nothing to stop it.

For the first time in the nearly 40-year history of the ESA, Congress—with the complicity of the Obama administration—has intervened to remove all protection from a listed species. If, as many fear, this turns out to be a precedent for additional legislation blocking protection for endangered species, the damage to our ability to safeguard imperiled plants and animals essential to the web of life will be incalculable. In the past, conservationists have successfully defeated equally destructive attempts by anti-environmental administrations to weaken the ESA. Preventing an administration perceived to be in favor of environmental protection from undermining our nation’s most important law for conserving biological diversity is nearly impossible. It should be noted that the President has used his administrative authority to do some good things for conservation. For instance, the Obama administration designated more than 187,000 square miles as critical habitat for polar bears (listed as “threatened” under the ESA), the largest such designation in history.

For the first time in the nearly 40-year history of the ESA, Congress—with the complicity of the Obama administration—has intervened to remove all protection from a listed species. If, as many fear, this turns out to be a precedent for additional legislation blocking protection for endangered species, the damage to our ability to safeguard imperiled plants and animals essential to the web of life will be incalculable.

But this is an administration much too quick to turn and run when anti-conservationists bark. Their kowtowing to the Republican-controlled House and abandoning their own pro wilderness policy for federal lands, barely five months after establishing it, is just the latest example.  They still say they are sticking by their proposed America’s Great Outdoors initiative, which could put renewed emphasis on conserving more of our nation’s vanishing wildlands, but with the same  congressional opposition pushing against it, it is hard to see much hope that  this initiative will achieve anything significant.

Clearly the President’s overall conservation record to date is negative.  Whether he can yet earn a passing grade for this four-year term likely depends upon the final form of two significant Obama administration conservation regulatory proposals—a rewrite of the rules that govern the stewardship of our  193 million acres of national forests and grasslands, and new guidelines for energy development on public lands.
The current regulations for managing national forests, which were written by the Reagan administration, have protected wildlife reasonably well, but they need updating and strengthening.  President George W. Bush’s attempt at a rewrite produced rules that were distinctly pro-logging and overturned in federal court in a suit brought by Defenders. The new set of regulations recently proposed by the Obama administration offer strong statements of intent to conserve wildlife but leave implementation so much to the discretion of individual forest managers that political influence, particularly in an anti-environmental administration, could render stated conservation intentions meaningless. Defenders and other conservationists have made the serious shortcomings of these proposed new rules clear to the administration. Now we wait for their response.

We also wait to see how Obama will handle the development of the utility-scale solar energy projects the Interior Department is vigorously promoting on 22 million acres of western public lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. Conservationists, of course, applaud the development of solar projects to supplant dirty fossil fuel energy plants. But we are strongly encouraging the administration to issue standards that guide these massive solar s projects, each of which can sprawl across thousands of acres and consume enormous amounts of water, to locations where they will not cause significant harm to fragile desert wildlife and ecosystems. Locating the massive projects in this manner should also hasten their actual development by minimizing the threat of environmental lawsuits. Whether they follow such a course, or opt instead to take an overly permissive direction that sacrifices wildlife and habitat to energy development on public lands, remains to be seen.

Obama’s record to date gives us no reason for optimism on forest protections and energy development guidelines. His administration’s conservation record falls far short of what it promised, what was expected of it and – most importantly – what we need. Our major environmental problems, especially those caused by climate change and loss of species and habitat, are huge and growing and will cause future generations great anguish and difficulty if our political leaders fail to lead.  Unfortunately, President Obama’s instinct seems to be to avoid tough battles, relying on the argument that even as his record falls short, his administration is better on conservation than the previous one and better than any likely to succeed him should his re-election effort fall short.

Our major environmental problems, especially those caused by climate change and loss of species and habitat, are huge and growing and will cause future generations great anguish and difficulty if our political leaders fail to lead.

That argument simply isn’t acceptable. Avoiding serious action, or–to use one of the President’s own phrases–“continuing to kick the can down the road” to another administration, will only result in our most serious environmental problems continuing to grow faster than society’s capacity to solve them. The dangers are too great to give the President a pass on environmental leadership. Those of us who care about the fate of the planet and generations to come must demand real progress that promises to solve our very real problems. For conservation, the future has to be now.

83 Responses to “Obama’s Poor Conservation Record”

  1. norm

    While I had misgivings at first Obama talked such a good game about our national parks, public lands and wildlife that I actually believed he would hold up his promises of strong environmental leadership. Then he protected more acres of land in his first month than Bush did in 8 years and I thought, “great, finally a president that cares”. But then he appointed Salazar and I thought “oh no!”. Well that seems to have been the begining of the end. Now we have had over 300 new drilling permits granted including a half dozen more deepwater permits like the BP disaster, thousands of new natural gas permits, solar projects that destroy entire ecosystems, more mountain top mining permits, wolves delisted, loaded guns in national parks, hundreds of species still waiting for protections under the ESA, less wilderness protections, WHERE DOES IT ALL END???!!!

    Unless he does something drastic in the coming year I will find it VERY HARD to justify to myself a reason to vote for this supposed democrat who looks more and more like a republican everyday!!

  2. Paula W.

    I read this article and couldn’t agree more. My first huge anger towards me voting for Obama came after he did not adopt a shelter dog. As much as he tryed to say he did not absolutely “promise” to adopt a shelter dog. This was a lie, he certainly did and he milk-toatsted his way out of that one by saying his daughter had allergies and that Ted Kennedy gifted him a hypo-allergenic dog. This is such poppy-cock! He was offered a hypo-allergenic adult dog or puppy by many rescue and shelter groups. Had he gone this way, we in the rescue business could have adopted millions of shelter pets. Also, his buddy, the Vice President went right out and paid $1600. to purchase a pure-breed German Sheapard, do you think he would have done that if his new boss (Obama)cared at all about helping shelter animals. He is a fake and a phoney, I am sorry he is all we have to choose from. He used animal lovers (9 out of 10 homes have them) to trick us into voting for him. I don’t trust anything this President says if he could’nt do such a simple simple simple, did I mention SIMPLE, thing to protect and save animals.

    • Betty

      In my opinion Obama doesn’t know the meaning of the truth.He has lied and hidden more than any president that I know of.
      Concerning him adopting a dog,he should have gone ahead and done it.Then if it affected his families healt I’m sure as many blue collars as he knows someone would have taken it.If for no other cause because it was the Presidents dog.
      I was raised to be Democrat,but I didn’t vote for Obama and couldn’t believe the United States would. It has nothing to do with racesisem. It had to do with a gut feeling that he wasn’t alright.

  3. cynic

    just playing the devil’s advocate here for a bit and going with the simpler approach. you do know the other side of the coin was Sarah Palin, don’t you? it was a matter of electing the lesser of two evils which is almost always the case with politics…

  4. Ellen Franzen

    I’d just like to remind people who want to vote for third parties to remember that the most important thing a president does is appoint Supreme Court justices. If you want to possibly throw an election to the Republicans because you think they are the same as Democrats, there is a difference between, say, Thomas and Breyer, or Alito and Sotomayor. We live it every day. As someone who was not a big Obama supporter (I felt Edwards was much better environmentally), I can’t say I’m any more disappointed than I thought I would be, but I’ll take him over the Republican opponent any day. It’s up to us to put pressure on everyone from city councilpeople to the president to achieve some sort of way to survive climate change.

    • Sameer

      Agree with some of your thesis, hovewer, given Obama’s high-road campaign, the smallest glimpse of what someone might interpret as negative campaigning (and trust me the Clintonites are very eager to interpret anything in this vein) will spread like wildfire throughout then he could be reduced to a he’s just like everyone else candidate. It is a fine line he must walk to show his electability while not appearing to go negative.Regarding Edwards, he is getting alot of great press lately..Newsweek, etc. Thinking this just represents the media’s attention deficit disorder or theme de jure.Our guy needs to create another postiive new cycle directly after X-mas, since nobody (except us Wonks) will be paying real attention until the 26th On a more positive note, a new ABC / Washington Post poll shows the Barack has pulled even with Hillary on the electabilty question, whereas she had a 14 point lead recently.

  5. Sandra Cournoyer

    Dear Mr. schlickeisen: A milion thanks for your report it could not have been written better. Since our President was elected I have been sending him petitions from your agency, faxes,phone calls, begged him to stop the wolves shlauter that Palin had started and that it would be the biggest disater for our precious wolves in our modern history. I even received a letter from him when he was on his way to the meeting they had last year on the Environment and Wildlife and that he would make the best that he could, I had hope,it never happen…. I hope that you will send him this letter it is to the point, we need answers.. He is listening to the wrong people, and he could not have appointed the worst people for the conservation of our Wildlife..Like I had previously mentioned to him it is task to stop this noncense and listen to our Scientist and Environmentalist- Not the Polititians, that we need a President with Commensence and Compassion so we can save our Wildlife before it is too late…. Still hoping.. We need people like you in the White House….God Bless….Thank you for all your hard work… Sincerely, One of your greatess admirer and member..Sandra Cournoyer

  6. Jennie Duck

    Obama needs to stop lying to us. He needs to stand for what he knows is right,he needs to stop tricking us into believing that he will help and change whatever it is that is most important to us. Grow up Obama,stop being a child. Learn that when you say something to the States -That you are president of- we all expect you to keep it. My generation can’t change the world alone if ignorant people like you keep destroying and tearing it down.

  7. Sharon Kennedy

    The most beloved presidents in history kept a respect for God’s precepts and a compassion for all creation. Looks like this president has forgotten the lessons of Genesis, Noah and the Ark and does not remember that the animals were at the manger for the birth of Christ when the Magi were still on the road. Moreover, President Obama is conveniently forgetting that Christ died on the cross to give justice to all creation and that Christ reminds all followers to: “Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.” God will withdraw from America if we continue to abuse and slaughter animals which like us were fashioned in the hand and breath of our Lord and who like us were made by His design and for His purpose. We serve Jesus when we respect our brothers and sisters from the animal kingdom by doing the work that builds love, peace and justice for all creation.

    • Carol

      A big “AMEN” to that Sharon. We need to pray for this president in order to have things changed around and to have compassion for all life, not to destroy it.

  8. Barbara Loomis

    Why do people not understand the everything is connected? Do our schools fail to teach this lesson? Do we not think this lesson is important enough to teach?

  9. angelfire1712

    yes, we need stiffer laws at the federal level but let’s look at what this president has been up against from day one. Prior to his election he was making campaign promises that he really thought he could keep but when he entered office..this country was on the verge of a real depression thanks to the republicans who I feel and still do feel want to destroy America in exchange for becoming re elected. In other words, he’s had to do a tactical political dance in order to put through legislation that would, number one, keep our economy flowing. I not only wouldn’t vote for a republican…I actually have a difficult time talking to one. They’re totally against scientific facts…unlike Obama. One crisis, one fire to put out after another and yes, I blame it on the previous administration…Obama inacts a bill and then the republicans take the funding away..that’s how they destroy his dream for America and let me say this…the people of the United States voted those republicans into the house/senate last term so what were they thinking…? We can only blame ourselves for the ignorance this country seems to engender… and I think the person who asked the question, “what are they teaching our kids” is very appropriate. We need to educate ‘everyone’ to realize how life on this planet is a delicate system and that we as human animals are connected to every other living organism, working together to maintain a balance. I think we’re all feeling the affects to this already but as long as those nay sayers (Palin) are twisting science..we’ll have a fight on our hands; just don’t lay the blame on Obama for this; look in the mirror.

  10. Dwcerino

    Wow, he is NO better then the rest of them. He looks like we are going to have to fight the GOPs because they may win in 2012..

    We need to push harder and hope something will give

  11. Roberta

    This is a masterful letter by Roger, who has mightily advocated in a diplomatic and patient way with this Administration until there was no alternative but to go public with our disappointment. We have suffered at the hands of this President’s unscrupulous Secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar.

    I wrote a letter to Peter Rouse in the President’s cabinet (also known as the 51st senator because of his knowledge about legislation) and I protested the apparent collusion between Salazar and his legislative cronies from Idaho and Montana in scripting a budget rider that denied wolves endangered species protection. People are not stupid in noting this gratuitous piece of legislation was added to a long-awaited and debated budget that required timely action. The President chose to allow this maneuver to work when he signed the legislation. A previous Court ruling to keep endangered species protections pending further review was also subverted by this cynical legislative response.

    Jamie Rappaport Clark of Defenders wrote an article in January 2010 which pointed to the inconsistency of President Obama’s March 2009 statement advocating for expansion of endangered wildlife protections and the lack of progress his Administration achieved towards this goal. Has the President taken eyes off his policy directives to the point where his Interior Secretary has become a renegade and is acting without sanction by the President? I think not. President Obama knew how to make Salazar disappear when he looked unprepared and foolish during press conferences after the BP oil disaster. Salazar was off the television and out of public view quickly following that media debacle … until his unmistakable finger prints showed up on the devastating budget rider which delisted wolves from endangered species protections.

    The only apparent answer to this contradictory series of actions is that the President’s re-election hopes are so tied in with Colorado, that he will sacrifice his earlier spoken beliefs and endure political gamesmanship by his Interior Secretary’s undermining of the public trust, in order to gain electoral votes. It is a very sad and empty tradeoff in my opinion.

    Defenders has been magnificent in the stamina they have exhibited to counter every ploy and deceitful practice that have arisen while they sought an honest partner in this Administration. While we may not want to reflexively deny support of this President because
    his agenda has not been as favorable to protecting America’s natural resources and wildlife as we hoped, it would be appropriate to offer our support of the President in exchange for the ouster of Ken Salazar after November 2012, should the President be re-elected. Maybe a second term of office could then be more productive.

    Thank you Defenders for your diehard efforts and inspiration to keep us plugged into this battle!

    • Thomas Duncan Nichols

      We really should not reward Obama, just because Rick Perry is a
      corupt politician (we just call it “Pay to Play” in Texas), against education for everyone in Texas and has even less understanding of science than Obama. Obama does not understand that his environmental flank is vulnerable. We have to consider that when faced with two horrible choices, we have to vote the “ins” out, and the “outs” in. We have no other choice. We can no longer reward Obama with our support and dollars. Frankly we just have to vote against him, sit out the next four years and hope wolves survive. Obama has given us no other reasons to support him.

  12. VooDoolittle

    Hi Paula,

    Do you know of any URLs where I can find info about Obama’s being offered hypo-allergenic dog and refusing them?

    It’s not that I don’t believe you, because I totally do…But I’m trying to keep track of this stuff (article-wise) before it’s lost down “the memory hole.”


  13. VooDoolittle

    Mr. Schlickeisen,

    Thank you for posting this.

    I knew Obama was bad after the FISA betrayal, but still had hoped he would do good *somewhere.* Unfortunately, as soon as Salazar was in, I felt sure the fauna and flora – the environment was done for.

    How can we have any hope for the environment and the animals when Obama has shown himself to be firmly in the pocket of big biz? He doesn’t even care about the most vulnerable in a society that he’s sworn to protect (SS, Medicare, Medicaid cuts), how can I hope that he might still help with our planet?

    It’s completely demoralizing :(

  14. Michelle

    Good article. I agree that Obama has fallen behind and made promises which he has yet to follow through with, but I do feel that he had a lot of on plate from past presidencies. Issues that could not be ignored, and perhaps may have been more of a priority during the last few years. Granted, that is no excuse, however it should be taken into consideration. It is a known fact that citizens do not see the effects of a presidents decision until after he is no longer president. I am skeptical of Obama but after viewing the candidates who are running for the 2012 election, majority are republican and many of the candidates have far from an impressive background. I would much rather give Obama a second chance to start the new year focusing on what he has neglected.

  15. Jamie Baxman

    This is a great article. I’m only 19 and pretty new to the whole politics thing, so I really appreciate the information I’ve been reading from this site. So….I have a proposal : Rodger Schlickeisen, why don’t you you run for president? Think about it, you could help our planet and it’s inhabitants stay alive and well.

  16. Renee Carrigan

    Before the 2008 election I researched Obama’s record on environmental issues. Guess what? There is not much of a record because the only pro-environmental acts he has taken were speeches meant to make people think he cared. He doesn’t. The “lesser of two evils” is not as simple as it sounds. While Palin may not be the greatest, Cain has a record of voting pro-environment.

    The democratic leadership (what a joke) isn’t pro-environment either. Reid’s actions in Nevada against the wild horses is horrid. He was behind Conrad Burns slipping in the amendment to allow captured wild horses to be sent to slaughter. Sec Salazar is the the back pocket of the corporate cattle industry. The D or R after a person’s name has little meaning anymore.

  17. George

    What is wrong with you people. Do you live in caves? Have you not noticed that little issue regarding unemployment. Does everyone here yearn for the Clinton Years? Remember his trademark quote: “Its the economy, stupid”. Obama is not perfect when it comes to environmental concerns, but that’s because he has to balance that with economic issues along with a deeply defiant anti-environmental Republican lead House. Use to be basic environmental issues weren’t so partisan. Everyone wanted clean air, water, and forest; Now the Tea-Party mantra says anything related to protecting the environment is socialism. Keystone pipeline? Obama stopped. LWCF? Obama has increased and has pushed for full funding. Requiring more gas efficient cars? Check! You people need to balance reality with desire.

  18. Believe

    I helped with President Obama’s election and will support him again. Instead of complaining about everything President Obama has not done why don’t you recognize all the good he has accomplished during his presidency. It is very difficult to attempt to get anything passed on either the House or the Senate when the Republican Parties main objective is to oust Obama from office. If you take this attitude oh well we will just wait four years and maybe the wolves will survive~Really? Stand up, Stand up for what you believe and support our President of the United State Of America!
    I Believe in this man, and given the chance and support he will contiue to do great things. Need I remind everyone that he began his presidency with one of the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.
    Believe in him~

  19. Judith L. Chase

    President Obama lost my vote when he passed the horse slaughter bill, resulting in our country going backwards, implementing horse slaughter again. The rest, which he has not taken action on, was the last straw for me.

    We believed him when he was re-elected. He’s lost many of us. His own doing. What a huge disappointment. What a tragedy.

  20. von natur

    Obama is a Trojan horse. He is a republican posing like a democrat. His policies have been disastrous. His Nobel prize should be taken away. His legacy is shameful for an educated person. The deaths of millions of animals are on his hands. Both parties are equally evil. They just put on a show, but both have the same agenda.

  21. Blake

    Obama’s record is absolutely atrocious (and not just on the environment – consider the fact that he signed into law the unconstitutional provision for indefinite detention without charge or trial in the NDAA). But unfortunately, there’s nothing that we can do to hold politicians accountable except threaten to not re-elect them. And who is going to seriously suggest that Romney would have a better environmental stance (or civil rights stance for that matter)? Within a two party system there’s absolutely nothing that can be done here. Obama knows that whether we like him or not, we have little choice in picking him as the lesser of two evils.

    Also I’d like to point out that ‘Believe’ below seems to have missed the point, in asking that we ‘believe’ in Obama instead of criticizing him because he’s had a hard situation to deal with. The point is, Obama’s had many opportunities to stand up for wildlife that he’s failed to take. It’s not like he’s been pushing for environmental positions but been blocked by GOP resistance. He hasn’t even tried.

  22. David J. Colegrove

    Mr Schlickeisen presents very well the case for keeping the pressure on this, and every, administration – State and Federal – for every environmental issue. A very devout Barack Obama supporter, I nevertheless support any and all well-done environmental pressure. We almost can’t err on the side of too much concern for this one ecosystem we inherited, but we have and will continue to make bad environmental decisions in favor of economic pressures.

    So keep the pressure on, Defenders, it won’t hurt this very strong President. But a tad of respect might be appropriate – for all the various messes he inherited and what it might take to do battle with a bunch of nitwits on a daily basis, on a thousand fronts.

  23. Gee

    I too am very disappointed by Obama’s record on the environment and wildlife. In our neck of the woods we are seeing Green spaces and parks being de-designated for commericial gain even if they contain wildlife and rare seed stock. I expected more.

  24. Ben

    I think of this administration as “Bush Lite” in almost every sphere. (The lawyerly rhetoric, of course, is far superior.) As for the environment it’s hard to think of worse appointees than the heads of Ag, Energy, and Interior. How about drilling in the Artic,
    15% ethanol, subsidizing rich sugar farmers in the Everglade, etc., etc. Bush might at least have gotten near a cow patty or two on his vacations. As for Sarah Palin, she didn’t use verbal smokescreens –you knew her positions. And wolves are just as dead when shot by government-subsidized ranchers as when shot by Sarah’s rifles from airplanes.


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