It turns out, there have been some big wins.
It turns out, there have been some big wins. (Photo: South_agency/iStock)

5 Good Environmental News Stories from the Past Year

Amid stories of ecological doom, we found a few instances of progress worth celebrating

It turns out, there have been some big wins.

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These days it’s easy to feel gloomy about the state of earth’s ecosystem. The climate continues to change, causing a host of issues, from more catastrophic weather and wildfires to the increased acidification of our oceans. Meanwhile, we have a president actively working to erode hard-won ecological protections. So it was a surprise to many when, in February, there was a huge win for the conservation community: the Natural Resources Management Act sailed through Congress and was signed into law, creating some 1.3 million acres of wilderness and six new national-park units and reauthorizing the venerable Land and Water Conservation Fund, which has funneled billions of dollars into conservation projects. 

We wondered what other recent good news stories may have been buried under the constant negative reports and commentary. It turns out, there have been a few things to celebrate recently.

New Wilderness Was Created in 2018

New tracts of wilderness in Tennessee and Arkansas received almost no media coverage after they were created in 2018. The Tennessee Wilderness Act protected 20,000 acres of the Cherokee National Forest, and the Flatside Wilderness Enhancement Act added 640 acres to the popular 9,541-acre Flatside Wilderness near Little Rock. What’s surprising is that both were created in staunchly Republican states, while Congress was still under Republican control, and were championed by Republican lawmakers—Tennessee senator Lamar Alexander and Arkansas representative French Hill, respectively.

Where was the pushback to wilderness we are so accustomed to seeing from Republicans, like the Sagebrush Rebellion battles that have raged in Utah, Oregon, and Montana? According to Anders Reynolds, a policy officer with Pew Charitable Trusts, wilderness east of the Rockies is a different issue. “I think this demonstrates that, in the South, wilderness transcends political affiliation,” he says. “In the South, it’s a local issue, not a political one.”

The Upshot: In both cases, politicians mentioned the economic benefits of wilderness attracting outdoor recreation. Efforts like the outdoor industry’s push to quantify the economic value of outdoor rec are right on target.

Courts Are Overturning Trump’s Attempts to Weaken Environmental Protections

On April 19, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration couldn’t simply sidestep an Obama-era moratorium on selling coal dug from federal lands. In response to a lawsuit from four states and a host of environmental groups, a judge ruled that the government must consider the environmental impacts of coal mined on federal lands. The Trump administration had reversed the Obama-era moratorium but failed to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which requires government agencies to assess environmental impacts of any project. Therefore, before more coal mining can occur on public lands, the government will have to negotiate with the case’s plaintiffs.

It’s another in a series of defeats for the Trump administration’s attempts to weaken environmental protections, says Jayni Hein of the New York University School of Law. “They’ve won only two of 39 environmental-regulation cases,” she says. “That’s not a good track record.” The reason? “They are rushing in their efforts to overturn Obama-era actions, and courts are finding that they aren’t doing enough to comply with bedrock environmental and administrative laws,” Hein says.

Another significant example was a ruling in March that blocked the Trump administration’s efforts to expand offshore drilling in Alaska and off the northeastern coast. In that case, the Trump administration tried to overturn a moratorium on drilling put in place to protect rare and endangered species, like polar bears and some deep-water corals in the Atlantic, but the judge found that the president had no power to lift the moratorium, which was based on the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act of 1953. “This bodes well for upcoming legal actions to protect national monuments,” Hein says.

The Upshot: The Trump administration’s decision to shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments, both created using the Antiquities Act, may not stand up in court.

Single-Use Plastics Are Being Phased Out More Rapidly

Campaigns against the use of plastic straws have been getting a lot of attention lately, partly thanks to the clownish reactions of congressman Devin Nunes (R-California), who decried the “straw police” challenging his need for a straw to drink water. “The more attention people pay to straws, the better,” says Trent Hodges, plastic-pollution manager for the Surfrider Foundation. “Straws are an unnecessary habit. We use them to drink our smoothie, never thinking, This piece of plastic will be here long after I am dead.” Straws and plastic bags, 88 pounds of which were found inside a dead whale’s stomach this year in the Philippines, are famously awful for marine life. An estimated 18 billion pounds of plastic waste enters the world’s oceans each year. Plastic particles are showing up in rivers worldwide and entering the human food chain.

The good news, says Hodges, is that people are starting to take notice and do something about it. In 2018, Surfrider counted a record 51 plastic-pollution-related legislative victories worldwide—laws restricting single-use plastics. That doesn’t even include decisions last year by McDonald’s and Pepsi to require all their packaging be recyclable or biodegradable by 2025, and a similar effort by Walmart. The biggest victory, Hodges says, was the European Union’s plastics-ban agreement, which will outlaw ten separate products in the 500-million-person EU, from straws to plastic cutlery to plastic Q-tip sticks.

The Upshot: Look for upcoming stringent legislation in California, whose provisions mirror those of the EU law. As for recent reports suggesting that cotton tote bags may be more harmful than plastic, Hodges points out that the study fails to take into account what happens to the bag after it is discarded. “Cotton bags will biodegrade,” he says. “The plastic will go on killing organisms for years.”

There’s Increased Freedom for Rivers

It was another great year for fans of free-flowing rivers, as 82 dams were removed across the country in 2018. The roll included obsolete dams in 18 states, California topping the list with 35. Removing dams helps restore native fish habitat and improves the ecological health of riparian systems, our most biologically productive zones.

Less dramatically, but probably more significant, was the agreement between seven western states to a drought contingency plan for the Colorado River. The Colorado is famously overapportioned—many years not enough water flows into it to satisfy the claims of water-rights holders. With climate models overwhelmingly pointing to a drier future, it was critical to get the states—Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California—to agree to allow farmers, cities, and other water users to voluntarily cut back their water usage to reduce water-supply risk. The system has traditionally been use it or lose it, so there was no incentive for a farmer to let water go downstream, even if it wasn’t needed. Now they can, says Matt Rice, director of American Rivers’ Colorado Basin Program, “which means there’s a possibility that water delivery could be timed for ecological or recreational benefit.” Such a system is common sense, but the politics of water rights usually isn’t. “Getting the states to agree on this was a monumental victory for the river,” Rice says. Had the effort failed, it could have meant more dams being built so states could protect their water. “When people fight over water, river health always loses first,” he says. 

The Upshot: The Colorado River agreement provides inspiration for the Bay Delta Plan Agreement process in California. A broad swath of river stakeholders are wrangling with improving the health of the Sacramento and San Joaquin River deltas, which encompass 40 percent of the state’s water in more than 120 rivers and streams and serve as critical habitat for several endangered and threatened species.

The Potomac Reopens to Paddlers

Of course, our favorite recent river news is a bigger win for paddlers than it is for river ecology. In 2017, the U.S. Coast Guard ruled that boaters could not use a popular section of the Potomac River adjacent to the Trump National Golf Club when the president was golfing there. Sued by the Canoe Cruisers Association of Greater Washington, in March the Coast Guard modified its rules to allow boats access to a lane of the river

The Upshot: Paddling trumps golf.