Captured regulatory agencies

On the evening of September 15 2015 I went to the NOAA hearing on whether or not it makes sense to declare a variety of unique geological features with incredible biological productivity and diversity off the coast of New England National Monuments. The President has the sole discretion under the Antiquities act to declare national monuments.

Exactly what sites would be included is not yet decided, so NOAA held a listening session. Essentially the room was divided into two camps. The environmental community and the general public are overwhelmingly in favor of permanently protecting these sites, for a host of reasons including tourism, protection of endangered species, and because refuges like this help maintain the fish populations throughout the region, benefitting the fisheries industries for the long term.

Opposing the plan was the fishing industry. They had several reasons for opposing the plan. Some of it was just hatred of the administration, the president, and anything that smacks of government. I will ignore those arguments, they are simply a mind suck without substance. But what really struck me was the fishing community’s insistence that they are already protecting the areas through the Fisheries management councils and that therefore national monuments are an unnecessary and rogue process that is too vague at this stage. There was also the sentiment that the hearing should have been held further north where there are more commercial fisherman.

On some level I wanted to say to the fishermen, “welcome to my world”, a world in which arbitrary processes and fixes exclude the public from the decision making process in ways both blatant and insidious. I know we just ran into this same kind of inside game when we testified to oppose the expansion of gas pipelines and the building of fossil fuel infrastructure and the government, with the backing of all kinds of powerful interests, railroads communities.

But this one is a bit different. When my colleagues fight the government we are not only asking that they follow the law, we are also fighting captured regulatory agencies. BLM, USFS, BOMA (now MMS) , and local and state agencies, as well as all of the regulators of Wall St tend to be captured agencies. Captured agencies are those in which the regulated community controls the regulators such as the revolving door between Wall St and and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the oil companies sending people to MMS to manage gas leases, ranchers controlling the BLM. In this case it was completely obvious that the Marine Fisheries Councils are captured regulators.

Many people associated with the fisheries councils spoke at the hearing. I did not stay until the end, but I heard a number of fisheries council people speak and not one had anything good to say about the proposal to create a national monument. That tells me they are a captured regulatory agency and unlikely to really look at the issues from a broad perspective including that of the public. Can you really tell me that agencies that have only a fair to middling record of protecting fish stocks, that have a regular history of allowing overfishing and being slow to restrict catches, that have overseen the demise of fisheries are anything other than a captured agency. If these councils were not captured agencies surely there would have been at least one person associated with them that would understand the importance of protecting these spots, and protecting the larger public’s interest in these places. That the fishing industry is unwilling to look more broadly, that the industry and its “regulators” are willing to go all in on short term thinking, tells me that the captured bureaucracy of the fishery management councils needs to be opened up and removed from its insulated coccoon.

That the US has the Antiquities act points out very clearly that even 100 years ago we were very familiar with captured agencies (remember the Teapot Dome?) In other words, the President, who works for all of us even if he only rarely shows it, is allowed to put the public good over the misplaced concerns of a community used to getting just what it wants from captured regulators. And this is just the right place to use such powers.

Issues of democracy are important. And so often the government sides with the rich and powerful and subsidized industries against the public. Rhode Island is all too aware of what happens when inside deals are the norm, and has seen uprisings by the people to overturn bad decisions. But the display by commercial fishing interests at the hearing can be considered nothing but hypocrisy, turning on the government only when the people ask that the captured regulators get out of the way and let the government do the people’s work.

Economic development and amphibians. The stormwater connection

Economic development and amphibians. The stormwater connection.

Greg Gerritt Sept 7, 2015

The Rhode Island economy is mostly bedeviled by the excesses of neoliberal capitalism. Amphibians are the most vulnerable and endangered group of animals on the planet. It is therefore highly appropriate that transforming our stormwater infrastructure, building stronger communities as we build resilience into our infrastructure by returning some wetlands functionality, can also be part of what we do to restore amphibian habitat and populations.

Rhode Islands problems with flooding have worsened over time, primarily due to the destruction of wetlands, but exacerbated by the bigger storms that are now woven into the climate change we are experiencing in New England. Funny how one of the biggest polluter on the planet, the leading edge of deforestation as well as climate change, the automobile, is also the primary reason RI wetlands are so diminished, with our roads and sprawl. Well maybe not funny.

But we are shifting to electric cars run on solar and wind power, so the intersection between humans and the wet places our amphibians need can change as well. Rethinking how we manage water and stormwater in our communities is something we have to do to reduce flooding and pollution. Why not go the next step and use the transformation to create habitat?

There has been a bit of skepticism about our ability to create breeding habitat for amphibians, let alone do it within our stormwater infrastructure. Issues that have to be pondered include road salt, mosquitos, creating false hope for amphibians by ponds going dry or ending up with fish and bullfrogs instead of amphibians like salamanders and some toads that are suffering from reduced habitat in RI.

The fact that I study the amphibian population of a rainwater runoff swale in Providence’s North Burial Ground gives me some foundation for believing we can use stormwater to create amphibian habitat in at least a few places in Rhode Island, and research and communications with people building wetlands as amphibian habitat has convinced me that the questions we have about can we do this well enough to be useful can be answered in the affirmative.

Much of the green stormwater infrastructure built in the future will be in places that do not have sufficient feeding habitat close at hand, and therefor de not make sense as amphibian habitat. But in places with sufficient habitat, it makes sense for us to develop criteria for pond creation that match the species we would like to take advantage of the reconstructed water flows. This means we need to know well the habitat requirements of the various amphibians of Rhode Island as well as what design features would give us clean water in the right quantities in most years. I think the ecologists and designers in Rhode Island might find this interesting, and who knows what else it will stimulate as we evolve towards prosperity through climate resilience

I look forward to seeing what evolves from this changing paradigm.

The Youtube channel Moshassuckcritters focuses primarily on the amphibians in the North Burial Ground that live in the drainage swale

Link to the website of the RI Green infrastructure Coaliton