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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2004
Table of Contents
When Aliens Attack
Neighbor to Neighbor
Interview: Ecologist Gretchen Daily
The Green Old Party
Winning Words
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Let's Talk
Food for Thought
Lay of the Land
Good Going
Hidden Life
Sierra Club Bulletin
Mixed Media
Last Words
Sierra Archives
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Lay of the Land

Starving National Parks | W Watch | In Marines' Way | 10 Reasons to Stop Walmart | What Color is their Money? | As the World Warms | Turning on the Cruise Control | The Price of Blue Gold | Updates

Starving the National Parks
Bush administration leaves America's natural wonders $600 million short

Coming to a park near you: "service level adjustments."
If you're planning to head to a national park for an upcoming holiday, you'd better have a backup plan; budget cuts mandated by the Bush administration could drastically reduce services and operating hours at parks throughout the system.

Sorry, did we say "cuts"? Make that "service level adjustments due to financial constraints." Park superintendents were instructed "not to directly indicate that ‘this is a cut'" in internal Park Service memos that have been released by the Coalition of Concerned National Park Service Retirees. Northeast Region superintendents, for example, were cautioned to "be sure that adjustments are taken from as many areas as is possible so that it won't cause public or political controversy."

Recommended "adjustments" to cope with a $600 million budget shortfall include: "Close the visitor center on all federal holidays, eliminate lifeguard services at...guarded beaches, eliminate all guided ranger tours...[and] close the park every Sunday and Monday."

Ironically, the Park Service was simultaneously joining with the travel industry in a "See America's National Parks" campaign. "You can't engage in large-scale efforts with the travel industry to ramp up visitors to the parks," says Denny Huffman of the retirees group, "and then at the same time pressure superintendents to cut services."

It's all a far cry from George W. Bush's 2000 election pledge to "restore and renew" the National Park System. Some $50 million of the Park Service's budget woes stem from increased Homeland Security duties: protecting dams, borders, and national landmarks. But the Bush administration has not gone to Congress for the additional funds needed to pay for security and other increased costs, and Park Service personnel have been warned not to complain.

After Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers publicly revealed how budget cuts had weakened her operation (arrests are down and traffic accidents up), she was charged with "lobbying" and "commenting on budget discussions," and ultimately suspended last December. Her removal (which is being challenged) "sent a clear message to park superintendents," says Jeff McFarland of the Association of National Park Rangers: "You may lose your job for telling the truth about your park budgets."
Lauren Sommer

For more on the parks' budget, see "National Park Rangers ‘Endangered' " at

W Watch: Keeping tabs on the Bush administration

Poisonous Profits | For the Record | By the Numbers | Razed and Confused

Poisonous Profits

President Bush likes to brag about his efforts to "leave no child behind." But his administration stops short of protecting children from accidental poisoning.

Each year, more than 15,000 kids under the age of six mistakenly ingest rat poison. So in the late 1990s the EPA proposed a pair of simple safeguards: Rodenticides would have to contain a bittering agent–already used by agrichemical giant Syngenta to discourage tasting of its rat poison Klerat–and a dye to aid in diagnosis.

Manufacturers balked at the added cost, and they soon found an understanding ear. The Bush administration dropped the new safety requirements by "mutual agreement" with industry.

Also on the chopping block was a report documenting how rat poison endangers wild animals. (The same chemicals are used by farmers to keep rodents from munching on grain.) As the Washington Post reported in April, the EPA responded to industry complaints by softening its description of a fatal poisoning of deer and eliminating this statement: "[These] incidents depict how toxic rodenticide balls can be even to large animals." It's not hard to smell a rat in that.
– Jennifer Hattam

For The Record

"We were not doing it to improve the image of the Forest Service–we were doing it to help us explain complex questions. We are not very good at taking technical language and boiling it down."
— Jack Blackwell, the U.S. Forest Service's regional forester in California, explaining why he paid a public-relations firm $90,000 to promote a plan that would triple timber cutting in the Sierra Nevada.

Razed and Confused

The Forest Service drew plenty of criticism for hiring flacks to help sell the public on its Sierra Nevada logging plan. More trouble ensued when the plan was unveiled in January. It had a catchy name, "Forests With a Future," and an appealing promise: increased logging would reduce fire risks and protect communities. The details, however, were less rosy: Logging on 11 national forests would nearly triple, and older trees up to 30 inches in diameter could be axed.

The PR firm the Forest Service hired, OneWorld Communications, prepared a glossy brochure that explained how "historically the forests of the Sierra Nevada had fewer trees and less underbrush," which kept wildfires small. "Today's forests, dense with green, may seem beautiful, but in fact are deadly." A series of photos labeled "1909" to "1989" showed the progression. There was just one problem: The 1909 photograph, which purported to illustrate historic Sierra Nevada conditions, was actually taken in Montana's Bitterroot Valley–after it had been logged. — Jennifer Hattam

By The Numbers

  • Percent of all babies born in the United States each year that are exposed to dangerous levels of mercury in the womb: 15
  • Rank of coal-burning power plants among the largest sources of mercury emissions: 1
  • Number of new coal-fired power plants that have reached the planning and permitting stages since President Bush took office: 94
  • Number of miles of Appalachian streams damaged by mining waste: 1,200
  • Size of buffer zone, in feet, that federal rules currently require between mining operations and waterways: 100
  • Size of buffer zone, in feet, proposed by the Bush administration: 0
  • Acres of California's Giant Sequoia National Monument that would be opened to logging under a U.S. Forest Service proposal: 64,000
  • Amount taxpayers would pay to subsidize the logging: $14,000,000
  • Estimated number of unwanted pregnancies prevented each year under the Cairo agreement, which promotes family planning, prenatal care, and women's education worldwide: 187,000,000
  • Number of countries, other than the United States, that voted against reaffirming support for the Cairo agreement in March: 0

For more "W. Watch," visit

In Marines' Way

In Okinawan legend, the dugong is a sacred messenger from the kami, powerful nature spirits who dwell in the surrounding seas. But these gods seem no match for the U.S. Marines.

With help from the Japanese government, the Marines plan to build a 1.5-mile-long floating base off the east coast of Okinawa. Construction would take place over a coral reef that supports nine endangered species, including three types of sea turtles and the dugong, a relative of the manatee, whose Okinawan population numbers fewer than 50.

Although an environmental review will occur later this year, activists expect it to be perfunctory. (Under Japanese law, such assessments do not require a "zero option," that is, the possibility of not building the base.) Environmental groups on both sides of the Pacific have sued the U.S. Department of Defense to stop the project, hoping to succeed where the kami have failed. — Jeff Shaw

10 Reasons to Stop Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart, the world's biggest retailer, is intent on supersizing U.S. communities, whether they like it or not.

After the Inglewood, California, city council rejected its proposal to build a "Supercenter" as big as 17 football fields, the company financed a ballot initiative to overturn the decision. (Signature gatherers were paid more than Wal-Mart employees.) The company shelled out $1 million on the campaign, producing glossy mailers that promised new jobs for Inglewood's predominantly black and Latino youth.

With one-tenth of that budget, community groups, unions, and religious leaders worked to educate Inglewood residents about Wal-Mart's shortchanging of employees and the environment. In the end, Wal-Mart paid $230 per vote to lose by a three to two margin.

Is Wal-Mart trying to muscle into your town? Here are ten arguments to beat it back:

  1. Wal-Mart Supercenters, with their big-box design, remote locations, and sprawling parking lots, increase automobile pollution.
  2. Wal-Mart's strategy of undercutting local businesses destroys traditional, walkable, transit-friendly downtowns and neighborhood shopping areas.
  3. One Wal-Mart Supercenter can cover up to 1.2 million square feet with pavement. This can create major drainage problems, leading to flooding and ground subsidence. In 2001, Wal-Mart paid a $5.5 million settlement for violating storm-water-discharge laws at 17 stores.
  4. This May, Wal-Mart agreed to pay a $3.1 million settlement for violating the Clean Water Act due to shoddy construction practices at 24 stores in nine states.
  5. Wal-Mart has a history of labor-law violations, including unpaid overtime, discriminatory hiring practices, and illegal use of undocumented workers.
  6. A new Wal-Mart Supercenter with a grocery facility can put two area supermarkets out of business and all their employees out of work. In California, the mere threat of 40 new Supercenters is driving down working conditions in the grocery industry.
  7. Wal-Mart tries to place itself above the law. Its initiative in Inglewood would have exempted the project from local zoning, planning, and environmental rules.
  8. Wal-Mart's tremendous buying power can force suppliers to cut costs to the point where they outsource American jobs, close factories, and move abroad. Wal-Mart now imports over half of its products, up from only 6 percent in 1995.
  9. When manufacturing moves abroad, the environmental costs of shipping products to the United States can be huge.
  10. Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton said in his autobiography, "If some community, for whatever reason, doesn't want us in there, we aren't interested in going in and creating a fuss." In practice, however, the chain won't take no for an answer. — Amanda Shaffer, Abby Wheatley, and Robert Gottlieb

Take Action: Learn how you can stop Wal-Mart at See also

What Color Is Their Money?

Big banks pledge to go green

It's easy to profit by plundering, but the Rainforest Action Network has convinced two of the world's largest financial institutions that protecting the earth is a better investment. In January, Citigroup adopted new environmental guidelines that include investing in renewable energy and ending its financing of logging in primary tropical rainforests. Four months later, Bank of America topped its rival, adding protections to intact temperate and boreal forests and committing to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in both its internal operations and its investment portfolio.

RAN targeted Citigroup over a four-year period with demonstrations outside its Manhattan headquarters and print and television ads urging people to cut up their Citigroup credit cards. One full-page ad in the New York Times showed images of rainforest destruction and asked, "Did you know that someone is using your Citigroup credit card without your authorization?"

Bank of America came on board after RAN turned its attention to ten banks it terms the "Liquidators" because their lending policies are helping transform natural resources into quick cash. The rest of these institutions, including J. P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, are now being challenged to meet or beat the standard set by Bank of America.

At the World Bank, which provides nearly $20 billion annually in loans and assistance to over 100 countries, pressure has come from within. A Bank-commissioned report recently recommended that the agency cease financing coal projects, and phase out funding for oil projects by 2008. Written by a former environmental minister from Indonesia, the report deems these projects incompatible with the Bank's mandate to fight poverty and improve living standards in the developing world.

RAN spokesperson Paul West is encouraged by these developments, which add to the longtime sustainable-lending commitment of smaller banks like ShoreBank Pacific in Washington State and the Netherlands-based Triodos Bank.

"Pressure on the industry is bearing fruit," says West. "But financial advocacy is still in its infancy, and the scale of the issues facing us demands further action." — Silja J. A. Talvi

To learn more about RAN's campaign, visit

As the World Warms

Signs of a changing planet

Just before last Christmas, a bumblebee made an early appearance near London. That may not sound newsworthy on its own, but steadily warming temperatures are causing a variety of animals and plants to show up earlier in the year. On average, bumblebees emerge from hibernation two to three weeks sooner than they did 25 years ago.

Concerned about the mismatches such life-cycle changes could cause–birds hatching before their food sources appear, for example–the Woodland Trust and the British Association for the Advancement of Science are asking UK residents to record their first sightings of spring species. For more information, visit

Last year, scientists at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory measured record levels of carbon dioxide, a key contributor to global warming, in the atmosphere. (Data from the observatory, located atop an 11,000-foot volcano, are valuable because few human activities occur nearby that might affect results.) While the United States still emits more CO2 than any other nation, increased burning of fossil fuels in China and India may also have contributed to the recent rise.

Over three-quarters of Greenland is covered with ice, so when it starts to melt, there goes the neighborhood. Professor Curt Davis at the University of Missouri—Columbia recently calculated that the higher-elevation portions of ice sheets in the country's southeast are thinning at the rate of four inches each year. The region's coastal outlet glaciers are diminishing even more rapidly, losing three to six feet of ice annually.

The tropical and subtropical regions of the Atlantic Ocean are getting saltier. According to a study published in the journal Nature late last year, higher average global temperatures are evaporating more ocean water from the hotter parts of the world. That water vapor eventually condenses at the poles, where the oceans are becoming less salty. The imbalance disrupts the flow of water north and south in the Gulf Stream, which affects air temperature. If the evaporation continues at its current pace (or accelerates), winters in northern Europe could cool by 9 to 18 degrees Fahrenheit within half a century.
Jennifer Hattam

Turning on the Cruise Control

New laws for luxury liners

Lovely scenery, the clink of champagne glasses, and all-you-can-eat buffets lure millions of Americans aboard cruise ships each year. Belowdecks, however, torrents of filth are flushed into the ocean, defiling the marine environments the tourists came to enjoy.

Some 180 cruise ships currently ply U.S. waters, with dozens of new ones launched every year. Carrying upwards of 3,000 passengers and crew, each vessel produces about 30,000 gallons of raw sewage a day–as much as a small city. But because these ships aren't held to municipal sewage-treatment standards under the Clean Water Act, the oceans are getting a raw deal. Currently, luxury liners can dump sewage once they are three miles offshore, and can release other wastewater almost anywhere except in Alaskan waters.

Pressure from environmental groups has led Congress to consider the "Clean Cruise Ship Act," which would expand the "no discharge" zones in America's coastal waters, prohibiting the dumping of sewage or wastewater closer than 12 miles from shore. Heavily touristed Alaska adopted a mandatory dumping-disclosure law in 2001, establishing effluent standards and requiring regular sampling; Washington State accepted a voluntary cleanup agreement in April; and California legislators are considering an outright ban on dumping. Activists in Alaska are now pushing for a ballot initiative to require cruise ships to apply for wastewater-discharge permits, and to impose a $50-a-head tax on passengers to pay for onshore infrastructure improvements.

The underlying problem, says Teri Shore of Bluewater Network, is that the popularity of the cruise industry has outstripped efforts to regulate it. But for luxury liners, the party may soon be over.
Amy Ettinger

For the latest on cruise ships, see

The Price of Blue Gold

Israel trades weapons for water

Water can be controversial in the United States. But in some of the world's thirstier places, the discussion is not just about dams and pollution, but about life itself.

In Israel, for example, water is so precious that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has announced he is willing to give weapons to Turkey to get an ample supply. Under an agreement signed in March, Israel will import 50 million cubic meters of water per year for 20 years from Turkey's Manavgat River. Israeli tankers capable of transporting the massive amounts are being built. The weapons Turkey will get in exchange will be worth about $50 million.

Sharon has described water as "a stark issue of life and death" for his people, saying that the Six-Day War in 1967 was ignited not by border disputes with Syria, but by that nation's attempt to divert water from the Jordan River. The prime minister's new trading scheme will surely be another explosive factor in a region long mired in conflict.
Marilyn Berlin Snell


From Dell and Back A corollary to Moore's law–that computing power doubles every 18 months–is that there are an awful lot of outdated computers out there. Some 250 million are expected to be obsolete by 2005, and many of them will end up in landfills, leaking toxics (see "The Hidden Life of Computers," July/August 1999).

Now, after pressure from shareholders and the San Francisco—based As You Sow Foundation, PC-giant Dell has agreed to institute a comprehensive recycling program. For $5 to $15, Dell computer owners can send their old machines to the company, where they are "demanufactured," with the raw materials either reused or safely disposed of. In Maine, legislators are considering a comprehensive computer and television recycling law that would make manufacturers responsible for the recycling of products that bear their names.

New Nukes? No new nuclear power plants have been ordered in this country since the 1979 Three Mile Island disaster (see "Ways & Means," March/April), but two giant consortia of power companies are now competing to lead the second nuclear boom. The two groups, which include some of the nation's largest energy and engineering companies, responded to a simplified application process promoted by the Bush administration.

To help meet the administration's goal of getting a new U.S. nuke built by 2010, the Department of Energy is kicking in up to $300 million to pay for the streamlined process. Should the groups' general applications be approved, the first new nukes in a generation could quickly follow.

EPA's Happy Talk Following revelations that the EPA deliberately downplayed air-quality concerns in the wake of September 11 (see "Ways & Means," January/February), a dozen Manhattan residents and Ground Zero workers have filed a class action suit against the EPA and then-administrator Christie Whitman. The suit charges the agency with "a shockingly deliberate indifference to human health."

For more news every weekday, visit

Photo illustration by William Duke; used with permission.

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