Policy News: August 17, 2020

In This Issue:

Upcoming ESA Webinars
ESA will host two webinars with the Federation of American Scientists and Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally.

House passes most spending bills.

Executive Branch
President Trump signs the Great American Outdoors Act.

State attorneys general challenge new Clean Water Act regulations in court.

North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality denies permit for Mountain Valley Pipeline extension.

Scientific Community
National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine seeks experts for study of the impacts of sunscreens on aquatic environments.

ESA In the News
View an up-to-date list of ESA’s media coverage.

Opportunities to Get Involved
Federal Register opportunities.

Register to Vote & Request an Absentee Ballot
The general election is happening in November. Register to vote and learn more about voting policies and rights in your state at Rock the Vote.

Upcoming ESA Webinars

Connecting with Congressional Committees to Inform Hearings
Sept. 10, 2:00 pm eastern time
Register here:  https://esa.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJEocu-srzsuEtV2sn_KNTJFyonT5PR-ZE6s

The Federation of American Scientists’ Congressional Science Policy Initiative (CSPI) seeks to bring scientific expertise into Congressional hearings. The CSPI team tracks Legislative Branch activity, and when key hearings are announced after which the team solicits the CSPI community for questions and ideas that Members of Congress could raise during the hearing. This data-driven information and questions are then communicated to Congress for use in the hearings to promote a rich discussion of the issues. In this webinar, Federation of American Scientist Executive Director Ali Nouri will introduce ESA members to the CSPI program and describe how ecologists can contribute to Congressional hearings.

Local engagement opportunities for scientists                                      
Sept 30, 2:00pm eastern time
Register here: https://esa.zoom.us/meeting/register/tJEufuqorDouHNNcEpqcDaM8OhxbX1W8nPsb

While federal policy and politics tends to dominate the national headlines, the importance of policy-making and implementation at the state and local government level often gets overlooked. Recent events, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and discussions of racial justice and police reform, have highlighted the critical role of city, county and state governments. In this webinar, Engineers and Scientists Acting Locally (ESAL) scientists will discuss the ways in which ecologists can engage with local government and use their expertise and inquiry driven, evidence-based approaches to inform policy decisions. ESAL will highlight examples of scientists who have made substantive contributions to their communities, often without a major career shift. The presenters will also draw on their own experiences working in local government to share in-depth case studies. This workshop is intended for scientists at all stages of their careers, including students. ESAL and ESA hope that attendees will leave inspired with new ideas for how they can get more involved in their own communities.


Appropriations: The full House passed a set of fiscal year 2021 (FY) six spending bills covering the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and more Jul. 31. The measures include $8.55 billion for NSF, a 3.3% increase from FY2020 and $6.97 billion for NSF’s research and related activities account, a 3.46% increase. The research and related activities account funds most NSF grants. For more details from these bills, see the ESA Federal Budget Tracker.

The Senate has not yet released spending bills. Lawmakers will likely pass a stopgap measure to keep the government funded past Sept. 30, when the federal fiscal year ends.

Nominations: The full Senate voted to confirm Mark Menezes as the deputy secretary of energy, filling the position vacated by Department of Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette when he was promoted to his current role from deputy secretary in December 2019.

Legislative Updates:

  • Sen Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Joe Neguse (D-CO) introduced the Protect America’s Children from Toxic Pesticides Act (S. 4406 and H.R. 7940). This bill bans organophosphate insecticides, neonictinoid insecticides and paraquat. It also creates a petition process to enable individual citizens to petition the EPA to identify dangerous pesticides and requires employers of farmworkers to report all pesticide-caused injuries to the EPA.
  • Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH) and Rep. Steve Chabot (R-OH) introduced legislation (S. 4428 and H.R. 7954) to reauthorize the Tropical Forest Conservation Act through 2025. This law provides for loan forgiveness for developing countries that meet specific benchmarks and agree to contribute to tropical forest and coral reef conservation.

See ESA’s Legislative Tracker for more updates on legislation relevant to the ecological community.

Executive Branch

White House: President Donald Trump signed the Great American Outdoors Act (H.R. 1957) into law. The legislation permanently funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) at $900 million a year. The LWCF provides funds to federal agencies and state and local governments to purchase lands for conservation and recreation opportunities. Funding for the LWCF comes from oil and gas leasing revenue. The bill also creates a five-year trust fund to address deferred maintenance needs in national parks and public lands.

Interior Department: A department-wide draft Invasive Species Management Plan identifies five invasive species management goals:

  1. Collaborate across Interior and with others to optimize operations through leveraging partnerships, educational efforts, and funding.
  2. Cost-effectively prevent the introduction and spread of invasive species into and within the United States.
  3. Implement early detection and rapid response efforts in coordination with other federal agencies, states, tribes, territories, and other partners to reduce potential damage and costs from new infestations becoming established.
  4. Cost-effectively control established invasive species populations to reduce impacts and restore native species and ecosystems.
  5. Improve invasive species data management for decision-making.

The John D. Dingell Conservation, Recreation and Management Act – also known as the 2019 omnibus public lands bill – required the Interior Department and other federal agencies to develop invasive species management plans. The draft plan is open for public comment through Sept. 17.

National Park Service: Interior Secretary David Bernhardt announced that Margaret Everson took over the top role at the National Park Service (NPS) temporarily Aug. 10. Career NPS employee David Vela had been the agency’s acting director since late 2019. President Trump nominated Vela to be the director of the Park Service in 2018, but he never renominated Vela during the current session of Congress. The Senate must approve the nominations of permanent NPS directors. Bernhardt told Park Service employees that Vela decided to retire. NPS has not had Senate-confirmed director since the end of the Obama administration. Environmental and government oversight groups have challenged the legality of the Trump administration’s on-going use of temporary NPS directors in the courts. Before her appointment to the top NPS role, Everson was the principal deputy director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

EPA: The latest regulatory rollback lifts methane emissions rules for new oil and gas wells and remove emissions regulations for oil and gas transmission and storage facilities. The changes decrease the frequency of leak detection requirements from quarterly to twice a year and allow companies to meet “certain states’ requirements” instead of federal rules.

Following an April court decision overturning the EPA’s policy barring grantees from serving on scientific advisory boards, the EPA has reopened nominations for the Scientific Advisory Board for two weeks. Nominations close Aug. 31.

Endangered Species: A proposed rule from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service defines habitat under the Endangered Species Act. The proposed definition reads “the physical places that individuals of a species depend upon to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas with existing attributes that have the capacity to support individuals of the species.” The agencies also offer an alternative definition which would exclude areas that would require habitat improvements to support the endangered species. This definition reads “the physical places that individuals of a species use to carry out one or more life processes. Habitat includes areas where individuals of the species do not presently exist but have the capacity to support such individuals, only where the necessary attributes to support the species presently exist.” The agencies are taking public comments on both of these definitions and whether these definitions are too broad or too narrow, otherwise “proper or improper” or if other definitions would be preferable through Sept. 4, 2020.

This definition comes after the Supreme Court ruled in Weyerhaeuser Company v. United States Fish and Wildlife Service that the Endangered Species Act defines the term ‘critical,’ but does not provide a ‘baseline definition’ of habitat. In this case, Weyerhaeuser, a timber company, and Louisiana landowners sued the federal government in 2013 after USFWS designated a 1,500-acre area as critical habitat for the dusky gopher frog. While the frog has not been found in the area for at least 50 years, USFWS argued that area would be essential for the population if it recovers. Weyerhaeuser and the landowners argued that the area should not be designated as critical habitat because the dusky gopher frogs were not currently present in the area and the area would require habitat improvements before the species could survive there.

USFWS: A proposed rule would shrink critical habitat for the endangered Northern Spotted Owl by around 205,000 acres or 2% of the total area of critical habitat for the species. The area that would be removed from the critical habitat designation is mostly Bureau of Land Management land. Various proposals to shrink or expand critical habitat for northern spotted owls have bounced between the George W. Bush, Obama and now Trump administrations and the courts for almost twenty years. The proposed rule is open for public comment through Oct. 13, 2020.

BLM: The agency reversed course and will not open land near Arches and Canyonlands national parks to oil and gas leasing in the immediate future. Environmental groups and local elected officials in Moab and Grand County opposed the lease sale.


North Carolina: The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) denied a water quality permit for an extension to the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which would carry natural gas into the state. DEQ Secretary Michael Ragan said that the pipeline was “an unnecessary project that poses unnecessary risks to our environment.” The fate of the larger Mountain Valley Pipeline project remains unclear.


Migratory Birds: A federal judge in New York struck down a 2017 Interior Department legal opinion, which concluded that the Migratory Bird Treaty Act only applies to the intentional killing of birds. The legal memo determined that companies are not liable for the incidental take, or accidental killing, of birds. The court decision finds that this conclusion is “contrary to law.”

Before the 2017 legal opinion, previous administrations fined companies for incidental take – for example, BP paid a $100 million fine under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act after the Deepwater Horizon spill.

In early 2020, the Trump administration released a proposed rule, which would formalize the legal opinion. If finalized, future administrations would have to undergo the formal rulemaking process to reverse the rule. However, environmentalists noted that this court decision makes it difficult for the administration to move forward with rulemaking.

Scientific Community

USGS: The agency’s first “State of the Survey” report highlights U.S. Geological Survey’s accomplishments over fiscal year 2019, contributing to the agency’s goals and priorities and the Department of the Interior’s Strategic Plan.

NASEM: The National Academies are seeking experts to serve on the Committee on Environmental Impact of Currently Marketed Sunscreens and Potential Human Impacts of Changes in Sunscreen Usage. This committee will undertake a review of the state of science on the use of currently marketed sunscreen ingredients, their fate and effects in aquatic environments, and the potential public health implications associated with changes in sunscreen usage. For this study, NASEM seeks expertise in ecological risk assessment and both freshwater and marine aquatic ecology, including coral reef ecology. The deadline for nominations is Aug. 31.

Register to Vote

The 2020 elections are happening this November. On a national level, the presidency, all seats in the House of Representatives and a third of the seats in the Senate will be contested. Several state governorships and many other state and local elections will also be contested. Be sure you are registered to vote in time to participate!  Learn more about voting policies and rights in your state and register to vote at Rock the Vote, a nonprofit dedicated to engaging young people in politics.

Voting procedures and requirements for requirements for requesting an absentee ballot during the coronavirus pandemic vary by state. Visit your state board of elections website or Vote.org for deadlines and to request a ballot.

ESA In the News

ESA regularly issues press releases to the media about journal articles and other Society news. Press coverage is kept up-to-date on our “In the News” page. Check out news stories here.

ESA Correspondence to Policymakers

View more letters and testimony from ESA here

Opportunities to get involved 

Virtual public meetings and conference calls:

Opportunities for Public Comment and Nominations:

Visit this page on ESA’s website for updates on opportunities from the Federal Register, including upcoming meetings and regulations open for public comment.

ESA’s policy activities work to infuse ecological knowledge into national policy decisions through activities such as policy statements, Capitol Hill briefings, Congressional Visits Days, and coalition involvement. Policy News Updates are bi-monthly summaries of major environmental and science policy news. They are produced by the Public Affairs Office of the Ecological Society of America.

Send questions or comments to  Alison Mize, director of public affairs, Alison@nullesa.org or Nicole Zimmerman, public affairs manager, Nicole@nullesa.org

Visit the ESA website to learn more about our activities and membership.