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Trump cracked down on environmental agencies, and the Internet fought back

SHAWN THEW/EPA

President Donald Trump during a meeting at the White House on Tuesday.

By Victoria McGrane Globe Staff 

WASHINGTON — Trump administration crackdowns on the flow of information out of federal environmental and parks agencies have created an Internet backlash and made a cause celebre out of social media accounts purporting to be run by rogue federal employees.

The dissents have grown as President Trump, who has called man-made climate change a “hoax,’’ takes control of agencies that have been working to stem global warming for the past eight years under the previous administration.

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Environmental groups have expressed outrage that the official White House climate change web page was eliminated, and reports indicate the same fate is being considered for the climate change site of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is in line to be led by a former Oklahoma attorney general with strong oil industry ties.

The official Twitter account of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota appeared to go rogue Tuesday afternoon. In quick succession, the account posted several messages about climate change — and appeared to do so in direct defiance of recent orders from the new administration.

“Today, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher than at any time in the last 650,000 years. #climate,” read one.

A few hours later, the tweets were deleted. A National Park Service official said that the messages were posted by a former employee who was not authorized to use the Twitter account. Badlands National Park officials decided on their own to remove the tweets “when they realized that their account had been compromised,” the official said.

But not before like-minded people noticed. The tweets got tens of thousands of retweets and favs. The account’s followers jumped from 7,000 on Monday to 181,000 as of Wednesday afternoon, according to Twitter.

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Shortly after the erasures, another account, @BadHombreNPS, popped up, describing itself as the “unofficial feed” of Badlands National Park, its name a play on a phrase Trump used in a debate to describe the sort of illegal immigrants he wants to deport.

“Hey, friends. Here to support @BadlandsNPS with the science facts they can no longer share!” read the account’s maiden post. It went on to retweet the climate posts since scrubbed from the official Badlands account.

The resistance will be tweeted, it seems. Another resistance account sprang into action Tuesday, this one claiming to be run by current National Park Service employees “and friends,” though their claims could not be verified. Calling itself the AltUSNatParkService, the account describes itself as the Park Service’s “Unofficial ‘resistance’ team” and as of Wednesday afternoon boasted more than 400,000 followers.

The account has posted climate change facts, criticized Trump for signing an executive order reviving the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, told followers to call their congressional representatives to protest moves to sell off federal lands, and encouraged people to sign on to a nascent effort to organize a march of scientists in Washington. Organizers are meeting this weekend to hammer out more details for the march, which doesn’t have a set date yet, but is coming together as a response to “clear anti-science actions taken by the Trump administration,” one organizer told the Globe.

“The National Parks, forest and wildness reserve in our country are our greatest natural assets. We are scared for the future. #Keystone,” read one post. The account did not respond to inquiries from a reporter.

The remarkable social media outpouring illustrates the fears gripping employees of numerous federal agencies and the broader scientific community in the wake of the Trump’s arrival in Washington.

Before he took office, Trump put environmentalists on alert when his transition team sent a questionnaire asking Energy Department officials to name all employees and contractors who had worked on climate issues. Critics deemed it a “witch hunt,” and the agency refused to comply, and Trump’s spokesman later said the inquiry was unauthorized.

Minutes after Trump assumed power Friday, the new administration removed all mentions of former President Obama’s climate change plan from the White House website, among other changes made to highlight the new president’s priorities. The National Park Service was also temporarily banned from tweeting after its account retweeted images comparing Trump’s inaugural crowd unfavorably to what Obama enjoyed in 2009, and a report on the climate change references being removed from the White House website.

More disturbing to many were directives instituting communications blackouts at the Environmental Protection Agency, among others. Among the EPA restrictions listed in an internal e-mail reviewed by the Globe: no press releases, no blog messages, no social media posts. The Trump administration also placed a freeze on new EPA contracts and grant awards, which support air and water quality monitoring, toxic site cleanup efforts, and research, among other initiatives.

Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey is collecting signatures for a letter to Trump asking him to immediately reverse the grant suspension, reminding him of campaign promises to protect the environment, and asking for information such as who approved the move.

He also spearheaded a letter sent to Trump Wednesday protesting the communications blackout at EPA and other agencies.

“Targeting the scientists at these agencies and prohibiting them from sharing the results of this research with the broader public is irresponsible and serves only to undermine the integrity and public trust in the federal government,” reads the letter, signed by 11 other Democratic senators, including Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Among other points, it reminds Trump that it is against the law to “interfere with federal employees communicating with Congress.”

Memos detailing the communication restrictions have leaked from the agencies to the press and sympathetic lawmakers, suggesting they’re concerning officials inside those buildings.

Trump’s transition team has said it expects the communication blockade to be lifted shortly.

‘‘We’re just trying to get a handle on everything and make sure what goes out reflects the priorities of the new administration,’’ Doug Ericksen, the communications director for Trump’s transition team at EPA, told the Associated Press.

The restrictions add to fears stoked by Trump’s own views on climate change, which he called a hoax, and his choice of Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, who is skeptical that human activity is driving climate change, to head the EPA.

The fear, said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, is that “scientific and technical material will be screened, altered and suppressed so that it does nothing but support the official talking points. . . . That’s where they appear to be going.”

But for many federal employees involved in environmental science, especially at the EPA, joining the resistance is not top of mind. Whether they will have a job in the weeks ahead is, given that Trump has said he wants to get rid of the agency altogether. Ruch said his group is fielding questions such as “can they take away my pension, I work on climate.”

That puts censorship as a secondary issue, he said, to “whether or not there will be any work to censor.”

“The employees, I think, are feeling helpless,” he said.


Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @vgmac.