08/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Wild America Creeps Back

For eight years under George Bush, America's wilderness faced a systematic assault from the federal government. By the end of the first Bush term, more than 100 million acres that previously enjoyed federal protection had lost it.

Since last November's election, the Bush legacy has been unraveling, and the progress on this front has been encouragingly swift. Last month the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) issued a biological function that will require fundamental changes in how the government operates California's water system. The biologists concluded that salmon, steelhead, green sturgeon, and killer whales all would be at risk unless the amount of water that remains in the rivers and deltaic systems is increased -- which means less diversion for irrigation.

"What is at stake here is not just the survival of species but the health of entire ecosystems," said Rod Mcinnis, administrator of the NMFS Southwest Regional Office. In addition to mandating a reduction in irrigation supplies by another five to seven percent a year, NMFS made other suggestions: The boldest is to open up the Red Bluff Diversion Dam on the Sacramento River to allow Chinook salmon and sturgeon unimpeded passage upriver.

Given that this decision comes in the middle of a serious drought that is hammering both farmers and fisheries, this announcement was yet another sign that science is back in Washington!

Then this week a U.S. District Court here in the Bay Area threw out what, I believe, is the last tattered legacy of the Bush-Mark Rey attack on the National Forests.

Pre-Bush versions of the forest-planning rules contained enforceable standards that protected wildlife, water, and forests. The earlier rules also provided opportunities for public involvement and required analysis of environmental impacts of forest plans on the national forests, impacts that result from plan decisions regarding logging levels and other extractive uses of forest resources. Bush and his USDA undersecretary Mark Rey simply threw out the idea of enforceable environmental standards -- the Court was not amused:

[C]ourts have rejected USDA's argument that the programmatic nature of the plan development rule necessarily means that it will have no effect on the environment or protected species. The USDA has simply copied those rejected legal arguments in a new document and called it a 'Biological Assessment.' This is not sufficient to satisfy the [Endangered Species Act]'s requirements....Because the EIS does not evaluate the environmental impacts of the 2008 Rule, it does not comply with [the National Environmental Policy Act]'s requirements.

It will take years to undo all the damage from the past eight years (and some places that we lost will never recover) but we're only five months in to the new administration, and the contrast could not be starker.