The EPA's White House transition team cut staff attendance at an annual Alaska environmental conference in half, which had conference attendees wondering about the future of environmental protection for their communities.
What happened: The White House transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency directed the agency to cut staff attendance at a major annual Alaska environmental conference by half, citing concerns about travel spending—even though some of the restricted attendees live only blocks from the conference site.
Why it matters: Restricting staff attendance at public events that are pertinent to its mission doesn't help the agency fulfill that mission. And it sends a message to community stakeholders that environmental protection is not a high priority for the new administration.
In February 2017, EPA staff were pulled from the Alaska Forum on the Environment, an annual conference on climate change and other environmental issues affecting Alaska. Out of the 34 EPA staff expected to attend, 17 were restricted from attending the conference.
The forum’s director, Kurt Eilo, said he was informed that only 17 staff members would be attending just days before the conference began. “We were informed that EPA was directed by the White House transition team to minimize their participation in the Alaska Forum on the Environment to the extent possible,” Eilo stated.
The conference typically brings together more than 1,000 attendees from native communities, government agencies, and the public to discuss a swath of environmental challenges in Alaska including climate-related issues such as melting permafrost and rising seas.
The EPA reported that a prior review of travel-related costs is the reason why the 17 staff members were restricted from attending the conference. “EPA travel costs were $44 million in 2016,” Doug Eriksen, the EPA transition team spokesperson, said. “This is one example of how EPA will be working cooperatively with our staff and our outside partners to be better stewards of the American people’s money.” Eilo also noted that this is the first time in the forum’s history that EPA staff had been restricted from attending the conference, and that while some of the staff were traveling from Seattle or Washington D.C., some restricted staff lived only blocks away from the forum’s site in Anchorage, AK.
Given that the President has called climate change a “hoax” and that the White House’s proposed budget aims to cut EPA’s budget by about a third., those that attended the forum expressed concern about the future of environmental protection. “There’s a lot of uncertainty among folks here at the forum. There’s concern about the tribal programs, there’s concern about how we’re going to address things like climate change in the next upcoming administration,” Eilo said. Others like Melinda Pierce, legislative director for the Sierra Club thought that restricting EPA staff from attending environmental conferences was not a productive way for the agency to fulfill its mission. “It’s clearly wrong and counterproductive to restrict EPA staff from attending meetings pertinent to the agency’s mission,” Pierce stated.