Sierra Magazine


Safety in Numbers | 10 reasons not to drill | Crisis Vultures | Future Farms | Rail resurgent | Coho salmon | Bold Strokes | Cheese Sticks | Panama Canal North? | Value of Nature | Updates

Safety in Numbers

Decentralized power sources are the new victory gardens

Among many new terrors revealed last September 11 was the precariousness of our energy system. With worst-case scenarios being surpassed by reality, nuclear power plants and giant hydroelectric dams suddenly started looking like targets. And it only took a drunk with a gun to shut down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline for three days.

As during the Gulf War, alarms are being raised about the 22 percent of U.S. oil that comes from the Middle East. President George W. Bush's solution is to drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, even though it couldn't supply more than 3 percent of our oil, or even be available for ten years. Barring the discovery of stupendously large oil fields in friendly, accessible parts of the world, the United States will depend on oil from the Middle East as long as we depend on oil. As Canadian environment minister David Anderson put it, "Whenever asked what an individual can do to fight terrorism, the answer is very simple: Drive less."

There is something jarring these days about those giant SUVs flying enormous American flags. Environmentalists are responding with a new press for improvements in U.S. auto fuel-efficiency standards, now at their lowest point in 20 years. Off the road, in a modern-day echo of the World War II "victory gardens," families, businesses, and communities are generating their own power. Every day, according to the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, 30 micro-power plants are installed atop or within buildings: solar panels, windmills, fuel cells, or mini-natural-gas turbines. Even apart from the new, often zero-emission technology they employ, these sources are intrinsically more efficient, since they avoid the 5 to 20 percent power loss that comes with transmission of electricity across hundreds of miles. And while traditional power plants lose 60 percent of their energy as heat, homes and businesses can capture this energy to heat water and living spaces, or even use it in air conditioning with absorption-chillers.

Nationwide, with solar technology becoming increasingly affordable, demand for solar cells has tripled in the last two years. More than a million Americans use solar water heaters, and more than 200,000 homes use photovoltaic systems. "That's thousands of people thinking of themselves as power producers," says David Morris, vice president of the institute. Such literally empowered citizens can be counted on to make their voices heard in favor of energy independence. Solar is even making inroads in oil-rich Alaska. For instance, the 106 new solar panels in the remote town of Lime (population 50) replace more than 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel a year.

In West Texas, tapped-out oilfields are increasingly covered with wind farms, and blustery North Dakota refers to itself as "the Saudi Arabia of wind power." U.S. wind generation has been increasing annually at about 11 percent; last year, it rose nearly 50 percent. Even in the absence of aggressive policy changes, says the American Wind Energy Association, wind could provide up to 6 percent of America's energy by 2020.

Eagerly awaited are new technologies like hydrogen fuel cells, which could power homes or cars (or both), and whose only waste product is clean water. These are already available in the 250-kilowatt range, and home-size models are now being tested.

But it doesn't necessarily take whiz-bang technology to reduce our fossil-fuel insecurity. California consumers showed the way in last year's energy crunch when they voluntarily pitched in to reduce their usage by more than 10 percent overall. In energy matters, security can be as simple as taking power into your own hands. --Paul Rauber

Ten Reasons Not to Drill the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

1. We don't need to. Making SUVs, vans, and pickups as fuel efficient as regular cars would save three times as much oil as we could get from the refuge.

2. It won't help in the current crisis. If drilling were approved today, it would be ten years before oil arrived in refineries.

3. It would permanently scar the Arctic. Drilling would require a massive infrastructure: 280 miles of roads, hundreds of miles of pipeline, and 50 million cubic yards of gravel mined from local streambeds.

4. It's not worth it. Destroying the Arctic Refuge would gain us only a six months' supply of oil.

5. It won't make us independent of Mideast oil. We get about 2.5 million barrels of oil a day from the Mideast; the Arctic Refuge could supply only 300,000 barrels a day.

6. Ninety-five percent of Alaska's North Slope is already open to oil exploration, and we haven't even begun to tap its vast natural-gas reserves.

7. It won't lower gas prices, which are determined by the world market. There isn't enough oil in the Arctic Refuge to affect what you pay at the pump.

8. Seventy percent of the American people support protecting the refuge.

9. It would violate the International Agreement for the Conservation of Polar Bears. Drilling on the refuge's coastal plain would disturb the greatest concentration of denning polar bears in Alaska. 129,000 caribou can't be wrong.


Capitalizing on Terrorism

At least vultures play an important ecological role. What can one say, however, about those officials who swooped down to capitalize on the September 11 attacks?

Before the identity of the hijackers was determined, Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) was ready to cast blame: "If you watched what happened in Genoa, and even in Seattle, there's some expertise in that field," he said. "I'm not sure they're that dedicated, but ecoterrorists . . . there's a strong possibility that could be one of the groups."

In a September 21 memo, John Studt, the head of the regulatory branch of the Army Corps of Engineers, suggested that the filling of wetlands be sped up. "The harder we work to expedite issuance of permits," Studt wrote, "the more we serve the nation by moving the economy forward."

"On September 11, America came under attack by a malevolence that craves our panic, retreat, and abdication of global leadership," said U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick in a September 24 speech. His solution? "Fast track"--the authority for President Bush to submit future trade pacts to Congress with no possibility of amendment.

And two days after the attack, Senator Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska) suggested that there was something treasonous about not drilling the Arctic Refuge because "Mideast oil funds terrorism." Murkowski threatened to hold defense spending hostage to his Arctic drilling proposal, but later indignantly denied having done so. "It would be inappropriate and in poor taste," he said. We can only agree. --P.R.

Future Farms of America

An ag policy that saves land and livelihoods

What do George W. Bush, the Sierra Club, and the World Trade Organization have in common? All three want the United States to phase out its costly federal crop subsidies, replacing them with more enlightened assistance to farmers.

Currently subsidies are doled out based on volume of production rather than need, and in only a few instances with environmental concerns in mind. The result is that more than 80 percent of federal cash payments go to a quarter of the country's 2 million farms, mostly large grain and cotton growers in the South and Midwest. According to the USDA, these payments induce farmers to grow 25 million acres more corn and soybeans than the country needs, driving prices down and small farms out of business.

Every five years or so, Congress passes a farm bill that maps out how and where it will support agriculture and what it expects in return. The current law, passed in 1996, expires this fall. It was ostensibly written to finally wean agriculture from Depression-era price supports, but those same subsidies reemerged virtually untouched each year as emergency appropriations.

In a new twist, the White House has defied long-standing Republican tradition and called for an overhaul of the farm payment system. The Bush administration wants more bang for its billions, with increased emphasis on egalitarian incentive programs that benefit any farm that takes steps to prevent erosion or runoff.

The administration is more concerned about protecting international trade than streamside habitats, but few environmentalists are complaining. This is the first year that lawmakers must abide by a 1997 World Trade Organization agreement committing member nations to reducing direct price supports deemed by the WTO to hamper trade; the United States is capped at $19.1 billion per year. While a bloated-as-usual farm subsidy program could easily violate WTO guidelines, most money spent on conservation incentives is acceptable under the treaty.

Environmental groups want to expand a handful of successful efforts that please farmers and free-traders alike. Among them are the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to leave highly erodible and other sensitive lands fallow, and the Wetlands Reserve Program, which helps farmers restore wetlands and fines those who destroy them.

Other worthwhile conservation programs include the Farmland Protection Program, which helps purchase development rights to halt sprawl, and the Wildlife Habitat Incentives Program, which assists farmers in their efforts to protect threatened and endangered species. In fact, conservation payments are already so popular with farmers that they rank third among federal incentives, behind cash payments for corn and wheat. Farmers know a good thing when they see it, and so do environmentalists and the president. Now it's up to Congress to sow the seed.
--Reed McManus

In October, the House of Representatives chose lobbyists over conservation, passing a $171 billion farm bill that would increase commodity payments by $49 billion and provide huge subsidies to animal feedlots and factories, a major Sierra Club concern. This made the Senate the focus of farm-policy reform, where the Club supports a proposal by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) that would help farmers safeguard clean water, protect wetlands and wildlife habitat, and prevent suburban sprawl. For more information, go to

Riding the Rails

The passengers have come, but where's the funding?

It took the shutdown of the nation's airline system after the September 11 terrorist attacks for a lot of Americans to finally appreciate Amtrak. The perennially underfunded train system pressed extra cars into service and honored airline tickets as its long-distance ridership swelled 35 percent. Barely missing a beat, Amtrak's new high-speed Acela Express trains rolled into Washington, D.C.'s Union Station, depositing travelers even closer to their downtown destinations than temporarily shuttered Ronald Reagan National Airport ever could.

But behind the headlines is the fact that Amtrak had seen increased ridership even before the attacks, as passengers grew tired of airport congestion and frequent flight delays, or found that once-peaceful long-distance drives had become bumper-to-bumper headaches. Travelers in the Vancouver-Seattle-Portland corridor have taken to their newly improved Intercity trains, Florida voters gave the go-ahead for a high-speed system between St. Petersburg, Tampa, and Orlando, and support for high-speed train service connecting urban areas in California, Texas, and the Midwest has been growing. These new trains could clear the air as well as congestion: Intercity trains are 45 percent more energy-efficient than domestic airline service.

What hasn't followed the trend is funding. Supported barely and begrudgingly since its inception 30 years ago, Amtrak can only dream of a dedicated trust fund like those that Congress uses to pay for highway and aviation infrastructure. During Amtrak's lifetime, the federal government has funneled almost 70 times more money into highways and aviation than into trains.

In an America once consumed with stock portfolios and dot-coms, the impulse was to let Amtrak cut and pare until only rudimentary train service remained. But in a country drawn together after September 11, people are less inclined to wince at the concept of the "greater good," and railways might benefit. Amtrak's "greatest missing ingredient is a realistic acknowledgment that it cannot be both a public service and a profit-making operation," the New York Times wrote in a September editorial.

This summer, legislators were considering a bill that earmarked $12 billion for Amtrak. In late September, Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) introduced legislation that would provide $71 billion in bonds, loans, and loan guarantees for states to develop high-speed rail networks. In mid-October, the Senate Commerce Committee unanimously approved a measure that could provide nearly $2 billion in emergency relief to Amtrak. That's less than the $3.2 billion Amtrak requested--and has followed a rockier path than the $15 billion airline bailout that sailed through Congress--but it's a sign that America's train system could be emerging from a long, dark tunnel. --R.M.

Speak Softly and Carry a Cheese Stick

With Canada and the United States already engaged in a heated tussle over softwood lumber (see "Buzz Cut," September/October 2001), trade relations have taken an unsavory new turn: Canada has shut the door to breaded cheese sticks from the United States.

The move follows a 1999 U.S. declaration that Canadian cheese sticks ("widely considered a delightful accompaniment to either soups or salads," according to the Ottawa Citizen) were more cheese than bread. This made them subject to the heavy import duties favored by the U.S. dairy industry, and effectively excluded Canadian cheese sticks from the U.S. market. In retaliation, Canada has now slapped duties on U.S. cheese sticks as well.

The situation casts an interesting light on the purported allegiance of both countries to free trade: If it can't even guarantee an open market in cheese sticks, what use is it--other than to weaken labor and environmental safeguards? --P.R.

Panama Canal North?

Restrictions on arctic shipping may be melting away

A perennial ice pack has kept the Arctic impassable to commercial shipping, but global warming is creating more open water every year. Researchers at the University of Bergen in Norway have calculated that 14 percent of the arctic ice melted away between 1978 and 1998. By the end of this century, they predict, it will disappear each summer.

An open Northwest Passage would trim 5,000 miles off the voyage from Japan to northern Europe--and offer a short, direct route between Alaskan oil operations and East Coast refineries. But a major tanker spill among the fragile islands and channels of Canada's Northwest Passage would make the Exxon Valdez incident look like a disaster drill. The area's volatile weather and sheer remoteness would make cleanup of any spills practically impossible, while alien species introduced by dumped ballast water could disrupt the arctic food chain, as the zebra mussel has done in the Great Lakes.

Canada's Arctic Waters Pollution Prevention Act mandates double hulls on ships and outlaws waste dumping. The United States, however, has challenged its northern neighbor's sovereignty, saying that Canada does not have the unilateral right to ban vessels simply because they might pose a hazard. "The Northwest Passage is a strait for international navigation," says a State Department lawyer. "The Law of the Sea provides a right for all ships to transit that strait." In response, Canada is championing international guidelines that are expected to be approved by the United Nations this year. The United States has not opposed the new standards, which lack the legal teeth to protect this icy ecosystem. --Robert Aquinas McNally

A Coho by Any Other Name

Are coho salmon spawned in cool streams in old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest equivalent to fish hatched in concrete tanks? Federal District Court Judge Michael Hogan says they are. In a case brought by the right-wing Pacific Legal Foundation, Hogan ruled that the National Marine Fisheries Service couldn't protect wild Oregon coastal coho without also protecting hatchery coho. Petitions to delist 26 other populations of wild salmon and steelhead quickly followed.

According to the Oregonian, the ruling strengthens the argument "that we don't need to restore habitat and rebuild wild fish runs, that hatcheries can just turn out more fish. . . . By now, we know where this argument leads: Extinction."

"Hatcheries were created as a substitute for habitat lost behind major dams," says Glen Spain, of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. "But the wild fish swim in the same rivers as the hatchery fish; we have to protect and restore them." The NMFS will hold public hearings on the issue. Meanwhile, the coho are on their own. --P.R.

Bold Strokes

Nothing Rotten in Denmark
One person's rubbish is another's resource--at least in Kalundborg, Denmark, population 20,000. For more than two decades, companies in the seaport town, 75 miles west of Copenhagen, have been passing industrial by-products on to those who can make use of them. For example, Asn‘s Power Station, Denmark's largest power producer, transfers the steam it generates to Kalundborg's heating system. As a result, the city has been able to get rid of 3,500 oil furnaces, which were a significant source of air pollution. The power plant also recycles several other by-products: Desulfurized fly ash goes to the local cement company, and gypsum is sold to a factory that uses it to make wallboard. An oil refinery sends liquid sulfur to a sulfuric acid producer, while surplus yeast from insulin production at the local pharmaceutical manufacturer is used as animal feed. The trade in "waste" is called "industrial symbiosis," and the cooperation has helped save money and the environment.

Lofty Land Grab
Last summer, one of Mexico's largest corporations--the cement company Cemex-purchased 136,000 acres in the northern state of Coahuila and plans to set aside the entire tract as a conservation area. Environmentalists in El Norte are thrilled with the El Carmen Project since the land, which abuts Brewster County in Texas, will act as a corridor for wildlife in the Big Bend region. The joint project between Cemex and the Mexican environmental group the Sierra Madre Association will also help protect local species like the black bear, mountain lion, and mule and white-tailed deer.

Coconut Cars
In a partnership that bridges continents as well as classes, the maker of the swanky Mercedes-Benz has teamed up with an organization called Poverty and the Environment in Amazonia to manufacture eco-friendly car parts. In 1992, UNICEF and DaimlerChrysler (the manufacturer of Mercedes) began working with the group, which is fighting deforestation and poverty in northeast Brazil. The innovative project employs many former subsistence farmers, who often burned forest areas to clear the land for planting. These workers are now turning coconut fibers and natural rubber into seats, headrests, and sun visors. (The coconut meat is sold to food processors.) Nine hundred Brazilian families participate, and monthly incomes have shot up from $36 to $300. With additional natural-fiber processing plants in South Africa and Germany, DaimlerChrysler saves 5 percent on production costs--directly attributable to switching from plastics to natural fibers. Now, if only the forward-thinking automaker would start pushing eco-friendly cars, to go along with its eco-friendly car parts . . .

--Marilyn Berlin Snell

Congressional Notebook

The Value of Nature

by U.S. Representative Jay Inslee

In nature we find peace, even in the face of war. A house finch taught me this lesson. At the end of a long week in Congress last September, I sat in my Washington, D.C., apartment watching the horrific images of man's madness on television for the ten thousandth time. I was despairing at the possibility of someday gaining a lasting peace, when I happened to glance up and see a house finch serenely perched in a maple tree at my window. That little bundle of feathers took me away from the darkness of the week's horror. He was thinking about seeds and lady finches, not terrorist cells and exploding planes. It was a comfort to be so close to a creature that could sit enjoying the morning sun, and greet it with a song--things I was incapable of at the moment. If I could have thanked him for the minute's respite, I would have.

We need nature for ourselves, not just for itself--perhaps more than ever during the trials of war. In this time of new personal and public priorities, we must continue to work to protect nature. Places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge should not fall victim to the terrorist attack on America. It is true that our nation should shift its energy policy, but not from one hole in the ground to another in our search for oil. Just as a man addicted to cigarettes can save his life by quitting smoking--but not by switching brands--we can save ourselves by increasing conservation and use of alternative fuels. We should reduce our addiction to oil from any source.

It wouldn't be difficult. We could set vehicle mileage standards for SUVs and light trucks at 40 miles per gallon and save eight times as much oil as is economically recoverable from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We could invest in wind turbines, which are so efficient that Denmark has decided to produce 50 percent of its electricity in this manner by 2010. We could work toward a hydrogen-based transportation system, as Iceland is doing. We could re-examine solar power technologies, which have made great strides over the past decade. There is a connection between nature, energy, and war--between the golden plovers that migrate from the Arctic Refuge and the societal troubles in foreign countries that migrate to America's shores. Nature can help provide us with a kind of peace that lasts for more than a moment. If our intense feelings for the wildlife of the Arctic inspire us to wean ourselves from oil, we will certainly enjoy more nature and more peace. Henry David Thoreau said it grandly, "In wildness is the preservation of the world." A house finch said it simply.

Jay Inslee (D) represents Washington State's first congressional district.


Freedom for Mexican Activists In November, Mexican President Vicente Fox ordered the release of imprisoned environmentalists Rodolfo Montiel and Teodoro Cabrera. The two have been the focus of intense lobbying by the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, and many others since their 1999 arrest and torture for protesting logging in their home state of Guerrero. (See "Defending the Forest, and Other Crimes," July/August 2000.) Their release followed the international outcry over the murder last October of their former attorney, human-rights lawyer Digna Ochoa. "Defenders of human rights and the environment in Mexico will not be truly safe," warned the Sierra Club's Alejandro Queral, "until those who threaten, torture, and murder these heroes are brought to justice."

Pandora's Box of Pollen Confirming the fears of anti-biotech activists ("Tinkering With the Tortilla," September/October 2001), the Mexican government has found that some native corn is already contaminated by bioengineered varieties. Mexican scientists have identified 15 locations where native maize had interbred with Bt corn, the transgenic variety widely used in the United States. Even though growing Bt corn is illegal in Mexico, large amounts are imported for tortilla production, and illicit plantings are believed to be widespread.

After the Fall The young tree-sitters at Fall Creek in Oregon's Willamette National Forest ("Generation Green," November/ December 2000) have saved more than half of their old-growth grove from logging. Occupying an interlocked village of platforms 200 feet above the ground for more than three years, the tree-sitters resisted attempts by the U.S. Forest Service to dislodge them. In addition to providing shelter, the treetop vantage points led the activists to discover nests of the red tree vole, a favorite food of the threatened northern spotted owl. After the find was confirmed by federal biologists, 51 of the site's 96 acres were closed to logging--and further nests located by the tree- sitters may spare the remainder. Only then, they say, will they return to the ground.

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