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National Park Service Abandoned Opposition to Pinelands Pipeline

Shadow of Trump Cast On NJ Pinelands

NPS fold may have national significance

We know how Trump feels about pipelines and promoting fossil fuels.

The public should now whether this insane Trump policy extends to the National Parks.

[Updates below]

Was it a career bureaucrat’s fear of Trump?

Or was it Trump policy?

What explains the fact that the National Park Service (NPS) representative on the Pinelands Commission abstained from voting last Friday on the controversial South Jersey Gas Co. pipeline?

What explains the fact that NPS abandoned its prior official position of opposition to the same pipeline?

Some may recall that the NPS representative to the Commission voted NO in a January 2014 7-7 tie vote. That vote represented a NPS policy decision.

Therefore, the current representative’s abstention of Friday represents an abandonment of the prior NPS policy.

The NPS representative to the Commission who voted NO in January 2014, retired in December, just prior to the Friday vote.

According to current NPS representative Frank Hays’ (see his bio) remarks during the vote on Friday – after asking Executive Director Wittenberg a good question – he claimed he abstained because he lacked sufficient information and time on the Commission to make an informed vote.

That claim does not pass the straight face test. Here’s why.

First of all, a foundational slogan of US government is that we are a nation of laws not men. The rule of law is fundamental to governing.

Agency decisions are made in accordance with law and science. Representatives of agencies are supposed to act in accordance with and represent agency policy, not their own individual preference.

Accordingly, NPS policy is not made by individual preferences. Retirement of an individual NPS representative should not change NPS policy.

Second, NPS policy on the  SJG Pinelands pipeline was established back in January 2014. That policy must have had a technical rationale that the NPS representative to the Commission cleared with NPS upper management and that rationale was incorporated in NPS administrative files.

Given the controversy and high profile of this pipeline, Mr. Hays, the current NPS representative, had to be aware of the prior 2014 decision and the NPS rationale for that decision.

Third, Mr. Hays had to know that President Trump has repeatedly personally supported pipelines. As I wrote:

In Trump’s first weeks in office – just like his advisor Gov. Christie – Trump issued sweeping Executive Orders to rollback environmental regulatory protections. He directed the US Army Corps of Engineers to reverse the Obama Dakota Access pipeline environmental review process and ordered the State Department to reconsider the Keystone XL pipeline. Trump has pledged to abandon the Paris Climate Accords and withdraw EPA’s Clean Power Plan. He nominated Scott Pruitt, who has sued EPA 14 times and advocated for the oil and gas industry, to head EPA. The head of Trump’s EPA Transition Team threatened to abolish EPA.

So, the only question in my mind is whether Mr. Hays abstained because he feared for his personal career or whether the Trump NPS leadership directed his vote.

I suspect it is a little of both –

But it could be only the former and that Mr. Hays is a careerist bureaucratic survivor.

Almost all career bureaucrats that survive and manage to be promoted to middle management positions, put their personal career above principle. They know which way the political winds are blowing, what upper level managers want, and when to duck.

But if the abstention reflects a formal change in NPS policy under the Trump administration, then that is very bad and will set precedent for the upcoming vote on the NJ Natural Gas pipeline – as well as have national significance. 

Perhaps environmental groups could file a FOIA for NPS documents or an intrepid media could make inquiries to the NPS press office to clarify the rationale for Mr. Hays abstention and whether it reflects agency policy.

We know how Trump feels about pipelines and promoting fossil fuels.

The public should now whether this insane Trump policy extends to the National Parks.

[End Note: Yes, I understand that the Pinelands National Reserve is a unique management model and very different from a National Park in terms of NPS’ role and that NPS tends to defer to State and regional management. I also understand that the Jan. 2014 vote on the SJG MOA was a different vote than Friday’s vote on the revised SJG application.

Regardless, these realities are not the driving forces behind Friday’s NPS fold. –end endnote]

[Update #2 – 3/20/17 – We just learned that Frank Hays, NPS representative to the Pinelands Commission, died on March 3 (obit). Frank was just 58 and had fine career with the NPS. We mourn his death, offer our condolences to his family, loved ones, and friends, express our deep respect of his career in service to our National Parks. ~~~ end update]

Update #1: They say never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. Just a quick Google – and now we know! IF Trump wants to drill, pipelines are chump change – but Mr. Hays, Pinelands Commission member from the NPS Northeast Offices, should have said this publicly as the basis for his vote:

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