It’s an ugly term for an ugly practice. Armies in retreat have used the tactic since — well, since battles have been fought and lost.
As those armies retreated, they left a path of destruction in their wake. They destroyed bridges. They sacked towns and villages. They poisoned water. They burned crops.
In short, they made sure the pursuing army would have the devil’s own time catching up to them.
In war, the tactic makes sense. Armies win wars by killing people and breaking things.
Politics aren’t war — or at least, they shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, a pair of actions taken by the Trump administration shortly before it vacated the nation’s capital smelled a lot like scorched earth.
The first involved 3.4 million acres of land considered to be critical habitat for the northern spotted owl, which has been listed as a threatened species since 1990.
The owl requires a specific type of habitat — old-growth forest of the kind found in the coastal areas of the Pacific Northwest. Before being listed, spotted owl numbers had been declining sharply as large swatches of the birds’ old-growth habitat were timbered.
Critical-habitat designation essentially hung a “no timbering” sign on 9.5 million acres of land in Oregon, Washington state and northern California. In August, Trump administration officials proposed to remove protection from a little more than 200,000 acres.
Earlier this month, when it became clear the Trump administration was on its way out, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt yanked protection from 3.4 million acres, roughly 15 times the area earlier proposed.
The sudden and dramatic increase in acreage, coupled with the timing, can hardly be interpreted as anything other than a scorched-earth effort to leave the incoming Biden administration a Gordian knot that will take months, if not years, to untangle.
If that weren’t enough, outgoing U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director Aurelia Skipwith signed a memorandum of understanding last week that committed the agency to helping recruit, educate and retain more hunters.
In and of itself, that’s not a bad thing.
For the past four years, Skipwith and Bernhardt had worked to increase hunters’ access to public land, and to expand hunting opportunities on those lands. That’s to their credit.
What smacks of scorched earth about last week’s memorandum of understanding is the entity with whom the USFWS chose to partner — the National Rifle Association.
To the incoming Biden administration, hearing the acronym “NRA” is like a vampire seeing a cross. What must particularly gall Biden’s appointees is that they’re locked into working with the NRA for 10 years.
The timing of the signing was doubly unfortunate because the ink on the document had barely had time to dry when the NRA announced that it was entering into bankruptcy.
The bankruptcy raises questions as to how effectively the NRA will be able to hold up its end of the bargain by enhancing hunter safety through its online hunter education program, its Hunters’ Leadership Forum, its Youth Hunter Education Challenge, its Women’s Wilderness Escape and its in-house magazine, American Hunter.
How many of those programs will survive the bankruptcy? That’s a good question, one that might require the incoming administration to pick its way through even more scorched earth.