EPA Exodus: Nearly 1,600 Workers Have Left Since Trump Took Office, Analysis Shows
By Jessica Corbett
Since President Donald Trump took office, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has seen an exodus of nearly 1,600 former federal employees, including some who say they "did not want to any longer be any part of this administration's nonsense" and believed they "could do better work" elsewhere, according to a new report from the Washington Post.
"I felt it was time to leave given the irresponsible, ongoing diminishment of agency resources, which has recklessly endangered our ability to execute our responsibilities as public servants," Ann Williamson, a scientist and longtime supervisor in the EPA's Region 10 Seattle office, who left in March after 33 years, told the Post.
"It's really awful to feel like you don't have any role to play, that theres not any interest in the work you're doing," said Betsy Smith, who retired from the EPA's Office of Research and Development in June after 20 years there. "My feeling was I could do better work to protect the environment outside the EPA."
At least 260 scientists, 185 "environmental protection specialists," and 106 engineers are among those who have left the EPA during the Trump era, according to the Post's review of data released under the Freedom of Information Act, and "those who have resigned or retired include some of the agency's most experienced veterans, as well as young environmental experts who traditionally would have replaced them—stirring fears about brain drain at the EPA."
"Hundreds of employees accepted buyouts last summer, and records show that nearly a quarter of the agency's remaining 13,758 employees are now eligible to retire," the newspaper reports. "As the departures continue, some EPA workers have voiced worries that the administration's refusal to fill vacancies with younger employees has effectively blocked the pipeline of new talent."
During the president's first 18 months in office, the EPA has hired fewer than 400 new employees. With limited hiring and a flood of departures, the agency's workforce has declined by 8 percent—or, as the Post noted, "to levels not seen since the Reagan administration, which has always been the administration's vision for the agency.
Trump's first EPA head, Scott Pruitt—who stepped down in July amid a flurry of ethics scandals—reportedly bragged to the president in April that agency staffing was "down to Reagan-era levels," and on the campaign trail, Trump had promised to dismantle the agency "in almost every form," telling his supporters, "We're going to have little tidbits left."
Despite mounting fears of brain drain and that the agency may have too few employees to be effective, under the Trump administration, it seems unlikely that the numbers will rise any time soon. Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who took the helm after Pruitt's resignation, told the Post in a statement on Friday, "With nearly half of our employees eligible to retire in the next five years, my priority is recruiting and maintaining the right staff, the right people for our mission, rather than total full-time employees."
The Post report echoes findings from a survey of 63,000 scientific experts across 16 federal agencies—published by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) last month—which outlined how the administration is "sidelining science" across the federal government, with staffers reporting issues including "censorship and self-censorship, political interference in scientists' work, low morale, decreased agency effectiveness, and dwindling resources."
When the survey results were released, Andrew Rosenberg, director of UCS's Center for Science and Democracy and an ex-senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), warned, "the challenges we're seeing for scientists in the Trump administration are serious," and "we can't afford to have these agencies hollowed out or let their work be manipulated for political reasons."
Dan Costa, former director of the EPA's national air, climate, and energy research program, left in January after 34 years with the agency. He told the Post that near the end of his time there, he "had young people come into my office, close the door and say, 'What should I do? Should I be looking for a job somewhere else?'" Costa's advice was to "test the waters," but of Trump's appointees, he warned, "These people are like termites, gnawing at the foundation."
Reposted with permission from our media associate Common Dreams.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.