When you think about America’s wildlife refuges, a lush rolling mountain range or untrammeled wetland preserve might come to mind—not a field clouded with industrial weedkillers. There’s a good reason for that: A few years ago, the Obama administration barred two controversial forms of biotechnology on designated wildlife preserves, neonicotinoid pesticides and genetically modified crops, to help the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) better uphold its public mandate of conservation and wildlife protection. But the Trump administration is seeking to make the country’s wilderness safe for agrichemicals again.
In a terse memorandum, seemingly unprompted, the FWS quietly rescinded a hard-won Obama-era legal agreement, which imposed a blanket ban on the pesticides and genetically modified crops on the agricultural lands currently hosted in national wildlife refuges. The Obama-era measure was implemented after a campaign by public employees, scientists, and environmental groups, based on the principle that, for the minuscule amount of commercial farming that intersects with refuge land, curbing the human footprint on these preserves will help wildlife flourish.
Now the original advocates of the ban are stunned at Trump’s unilateral repeal. According to Senior Counsel Peter Jenkins of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an organization representing government whistle-blowers, “It seems like their main motivation is to undo any good pro-environmental progress that was made under the Obama administration and to serve the bare basest interests of industry.”
The Trump administration’s new plans for agrichemicals allows the use of pesticides and GMOs on farmlands located in the habitats of individual wildlife refuges across the United States. This could open the door to wide application of two high-risk biotechnologies. One is genetically modified crops, which have expanded the monopoly power of seed giants like Monsanto across the agricultural supply chain and have often come with increased use of the company’s controversial Roundup glyphosate herbicides. Additionally, the agreement allows refuge-based farms to use neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides associated with the disruption of ecosystems and damage to critical bee populations. Activists say that the chemicals the Trump administration is quietly promoting on conservation areas are known for posing environmental and public-health risks and would upend the fundamental mission of wildlife refuges.
The original ban, secured with the Obama administration through years of litigation in 2014, addressed basic aspects of the FWS’s mission: to turn as much refuge land “from a primarily agricultural use to restored, native habit,” to help limit overall carbon emissions, and to shield animal and plant life from potentially hazardous agricultural technologies and chemicals. The aim was to help shield refuges from the widespread trend across US industrial farmlands of heavy, and often under-regulated commercial use of harmful pesticides and genetically modified crops like corn and soy.