Slippery Slope As the Arctic Refuge battle continues, the western tundra is quietly given away
In the spring of 1973, two dozen Inupiat families left Barrow, Alaska, a gray and sprawling town on the wind-whipped edge of the Arctic Ocean, to return to their roots. Where the Colville River delta spreads out before flowing into the sea, they founded a new settlement, Nuiqsut, on their ancestral hunting and fishing lands. But now encroaching industrialization on the North Slope may bring an end to their traditional way of life.
In January, the Bureau of Land Management approved a plan to open up 387,000 acres just outside Nuiqsut — the northeast section of the rugged stretch of tundra known as the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska (NPR-A) — to oil and gas drilling. Leasing of tracts within the area could begin as early as July.
Like the better-known (and more agreeably named) Arctic National Wildlife Refuge some 200 miles to the east, the NPR-A is rich in caribou, birds, and — potentially — oil. Though the 23.5-million-acre reserve was set aside in 1923 as an emergency fuel source for the Navy, it has yet to produce any oil. In 1976, it was transferred to the BLM with the provision that any resource extraction ensure "maximum protection" of wildlife and other "surface values."
Yet the Bush administration's plan allows expanded drilling in an area that the Interior Department secretaries under three previous presidents (including even Reagan's infamous James Watt) have acknowledged deserves special protection: the Teshekpuk Lake region. Uninviting as its flat, marshy expanses may appear to a human visitor, it's the vacation destination of choice for hundreds of thousands of migratory birds that come from all over the Lower 48 — and as far away as Antarctica — to breed and nest. A 45,000-strong caribou herd calves near the lake each summer.
"The Teshekpuk herd used to migrate right through the community, but now our hunters have to go farther to get caribou," says Nuiqsut mayor Rosemary Ahtuangaruak. She traces the changes to 1998, when construction began on the Alpine oilfield just eight miles away. Its location on the edge of the NPR-A makes Alpine — already slated to expand to seven drill sites, 31 miles of road, and 72 miles of pipeline — a likely gateway for future development in the reserve.
"The development coming west won't be a small footprint, but a web of connected areas," says Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist Geoff Carroll. "With really important wildlife habitat like this, the only way to protect it is to say no leasing." — Jennifer Hattam
Full Court Mess Bush tries to stack the bench with industry-friendly judges
William Myers III once compared federal management of public lands to the "tyrannical actions of King George." To this longtime lobbyist for the coal and cattle industries, the California Desert Protection Act is an "example of legislative hubris." He's never been a judge, the New York Times calls him "an antienvironmental extremist," and George W. Bush wants to give him a lifetime appointment to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Having won control of the executive and legislative branches, the radical right is now fixing its gaze on the judiciary. In Bush's first term, more than a third of his nominees for federal appeals courts and the Court of Federal Claims had worked as energy-industry lawyers and lobbyists. This time around, the National Association of Manufacturers has launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to boost the president's picks — seven of whom, including Myers, were rejected last term as too extreme.
Vermont Law School professor Patrick Parenteau foresees "very bleak times" ahead. Without a judicial commitment to environmental law, he says, "deadlines don't get met, species don't get listed, environmental impact statements don't get written, wetlands don't get saved." The nonpartisan Environmental Law Institute found that, in cases dealing with the National Environmental Policy Act, Bush's first-term appointments to federal courts ruled against environmental challenges 83 percent of the time.
Some Bush appointees and nominees espouse an extreme philosophy known as New Federalism, which rejects the U.S. Constitution's Commerce Clause as the basis of federal environmental law. The Sierra Club and other groups are working to keep such radical jurists off the bench. If they are seated, the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts could be declared unconstitutional. — Glenn Scherer
WWatch: Keeping Tabs on the Washington
CHANGE IN THE AIR: In March, environmental groups applauded the Senate for blocking George Bush's industry-friendly "Clear Skies" initiative. Stymied but not stopped, the White House is pursuing other means: The EPA has announced air-pollution standards for power plants in 28 Eastern states that mimic parts of the president's proposal, and released new mercury rules that fall short of what the Clean Air Act requires.
A SWAT ON THE SNOUT: The EPA signed a backroom deal in January with the meat industry that would exempt factory farms from pollution requirements under the Clean Air Act. Within weeks, a federal court sent the agency back to the trough for a rewrite.
FORESTS FOR USE: In February, the Sierra Club and other groups sued the Bush administration over its new forest-planning rules. Issued in December, the rules sidestep environmental laws and allow logging in national forests with limited public input. — Reed McManus
For the Record
"I believe nuclear power answers a lot of our issues.
It certainly answers the environmental issue."
— George W. Bush, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on January 11
"He's a big supporter. Our donation is just a small way of supporting him."
— John Kane of the Nuclear Energy Institute (which gave $100,000 to the Bush inauguration), on January 13
What, No Oil Rigs?
Interior secretary Gale Norton calls the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge "a flat, white nothingness," but the U.S. Postal Service didn't get the memo. "Arctic Tundra," by John D. Dawson, is a ten-stamp "pane" illustrating this thriving ecosystem.
The Ecology of Fear
Three cheers for the big, bad wolf. That's the conclusion of Oregon State University scientists who discovered that large predators such as wolves and grizzlies keep an ecosystem in balance — by scaring the bejesus out of their prey. A thriving wolf population, they found, affects where and how elk browse; that, in turn, determines whether or not willows and other vegetation thrive next to streams, creating habitat for other animals.
Studying wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990s, the researchers discovered that the predators were most successful bringing down elk in areas where their victims had to negotiate a change in terrain, such as at a stream crossing. As a result, elk started avoiding those areas. "Now that the wolves are back," says researcher Robert L. Beschta, "the ecology of fear comes into play."
Looking at old photographs, the researchers noticed that riparian vegetation along the Gallatin River declined precipitously in the mid-1920s, about the time the last Yellowstone wolves were killed. Since streamside vegetation prevents erosion, cools water for fish, cycles nutrients through the food web, and provides habitat for birds and amphibians, the absence of wolves and resulting elk free-for-all had a cascade effect. In a streamside area where elk had to be wary, scientists found that the willows eaten dropped from 92 percent in 1998 to zero in 2002.
Though not conclusive, the Yellowstone findings dovetail with other studies. One, for example, suggested that the loss of wolves is a factor in exploding deer populations, which increase browsing pressure on plants across North America. And since fear is fear, even the presence of human sport hunters could protect ecosystems: Studies in Montana and Colorado have shown that elk move their foraging to avoid human contact and possible predation. — R.M.
Until now, Spain has taken advantage of its abundant sunshine primarily to lure northern European tourists. While Germany and other EU nations have aggressively developed alternative energy in recent years, Spain has lagged behind in achieving its Kyoto carbon-reduction targets. That may soon change, as the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has mandated that any new or renovated building in the country must include solar panels.
This should result, by 2010, in a tenfold increase in the total area of solar panels. The ambitious plan began with a civic initiative in Barcelona in 2000, which spread to over 35 other cities across the country. When implemented, the national program could make Spain Europe's leader in the use of renewable energy.
No Chipped Beef on Toast
The Bon Appetit Management Company serves more than 55 million cafeteria meals to 148 corporate and university clients throughout the country. But don't expect mushy green beans, pesticide-laden potatoes, or factory-farm rubber chicken from its food lines.
The California-based company has changed its mission statement to emphasize sustainable agriculture, asking its chefs to focus on locally available organic produce, meat without hormones or antibiotics, as well as seafood that adheres to guidelines set by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And when the menu does include fries, the potatoes are organic and the oil is recycled for use as biodiesel. — Paul Rauber
Dispatches From The Warble Zone
On the lookout, for birds: Downtime at Camp Anaconda in the Sunni Triangle.
Nature — and nature-lovers, apparently — will always find a way. Until his yearlong tour of duty ended in late January, Connecticut Army National Guardsman Jon Trouern-Trend maintained an online journal documenting his birdwatching jaunts in a war zone. "The blogging came out of surfing the Internet to find out more about what I was getting into before I went to Iraq," he says. "Several soldiers had blogs and I thought that would be an interesting way to keep track of what I was seeing." He's now back home, pursuing his career with the American Red Cross and rediscovering flak-jacket-free nature walks. Here's a sample from his wartime blog:
TUESDAY, MARCH 16: I'm a soldier in Iraq. I've been mobilized for up to 18 months, which includes a definite 12 months in Iraq and Kuwait. I've been birding since I was 12, which makes it 24 years now. I'm in a New England medical unit. I plan to write about my nature observations during my time here.
In a field across the street from the burn pit, I counted approximately 575 black-headed gulls in various stages of molt. About half had their summer plumage. While I was watching, a C-130 flying low overhead deployed flares and did an evasive maneuver.
Birding on base doesn't usually elicit undue attention from the MPs. I think everyone thinks I'm doing security work when I'm looking into the distance with binoculars. I'm not sure what they think when I'm looking up in a tree.
THURSDAY, MARCH 18: On our convoy up from Kuwait we had to stop because one of the Humvees had a flat. We set up a defensive perimeter with our weapons pointing out. It was a bit surreal because as I'm lying on the ground with my eye on some guy racing around in a pickup truck wondering if he's going to take a potshot at us, a pair of crested larks were not even ten feet from me, with the male displaying and dancing.
THURSDAY, APRIL 1: Today I had an absolutely fantastic day, finally getting outside the wire into the surrounding farmland on a mission delivering school supplies. I saw a summer-plumage whiskered tern cruising over the water. This was a lifer. They are a marsh tern, like the black tern. In the summer of 1993 I drove to Delaware twice to look for the first North American record of this species. I was skunked both times. It took 11 years and 6,300 miles but I finally had my tern.
TUESDAY, APRIL 13: We've had a lot of rocket and mortar attacks. One day we had eight or nine hit inside the wire. So Saturday was a day for birding in "full battle rattle," weapon included of course.
FRIDAY, MAY 14: Several of our personnel had to go to the far south for a site visit. On the way the helicopter hit a bird. The bird traveled through one of the windows near the pilot's feet and into the helicopter. Everyone took pictures. The bird was a male pin-tailed sandgrouse. I'd like to see one alive, maybe later this year.
FRIDAY, JUNE 11: The summer heat has come. The high temperature is between 105 and 122 during the day. The white-cheeked bulbuls don't seem to be bothered in the least. They sing, chase each other around, and hop from branch to branch in the tamarisk.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 23: Near the north pond a couple black-winged stilts came flying out of the reeds. There were a few Dead Sea sparrows flying around in the tamarisks. As I was watching some wood pigeons, a pair of F-16s came tearing down the runway with their afterburners going. The noise was incredible as they disappeared into the sky. The birds were unfazed.
WEDNESDAY, JUNE 30: I was talking to one of our local guys and quizzing him on the Arabic names of various birds. He said the white stork is called lak lak. They nest on the tops of several mosques in a nearby town. As in the West, the stork is associated with bringing babies. Some of the guys started singing me a local song about the stork, a mother, and a baby.
THURSDAY, JANUARY 27: Yesterday was my last day for this deployment. The last few days I walked around base, seeing familiar favorite birds that I'll always remember when I think of Iraq. One day I hope to return, with binoculars but without a weapon.
Until recently, the Open 26 "play area" in Wisconsin's Chequamegon National Forest roared with the sound of revving motors. Off-road vehicles clambered over boulders and spun out in the sand and mud. Participants saw it as good, dirty fun, but others couldn't ignore the toppled trees and hillsides gouged by trails four to six feet deep. Nor was the damage limited to the roughly 40-acre site; in an area with sandy, fragile soils, a network of unsanctioned routes radiates out into the woods. So last June, the Forest Service closed the site, blocking access trails with boulders and planting the parking lot with new grass.
Managing motorized recreation, says Dave Holland, the U.S. Forest Service's director of Recreation, Heritage, and Wilderness Resources, is the agency's "number one priority." One possible solution to the problems caused by off-roading is establishing designated "scramble areas" like Open 26 — contained sites specifically set aside for anything-goes ORV use. By sacrificing one parcel, the rationale goes, much more land remains protected. Drivers can let off a little steam and — in theory — will not be tempted to venture off-trail and cause more damage elsewhere.
Karl Forsgaard, the vice chair of the Sierra Club's Recreation Issues Committee, points to the Evans Creek scramble area near Seattle as a notable success. "ORV drivers have a place to go, and now 99 percent of the forest is free of them. It's quiet, and it's not torn up." Nor has cross-country travel increased outside the designated area. "Around here," says Forsgaard, "it's pretty steep terrain. If you go off the trail, you die."
Others contend that ORV sacrifice zones only provide, as Jeff Brown of Minnesotans for Responsible Recreation puts it, "a training ground where users learn an anti-land ethic."
The Forest Service is implementing a "designated routes only" policy that may also include a very limited number of "intensive-use areas." This could mean creating new scramble areas, legitimizing a few existing ones, and closing others, on a case-by-case basis.
But enforcement remains a concern. Bob Manzoline oversees Minnesota's Mesabi Bike Trail, where problems have increased dramatically since a scramble area was built. "When we put boulders beside the trail and planted ten-foot spruce trees, riders just pushed the rocks aside and uprooted the trees," Manzoline says. "And the ‘No ATV' signs? They tore them down." In the end, he was forced to spend $6,000 a year for additional enforcement.
As for the Open 26 "play area," district ranger Chris Worth calls it a perfect example of unmanaged recreation. "Open 26 was never planned," he says. "It just happened — a combination of local custom and decades of benign neglect. It just wasn't appropriate for our forest." — Al Cambronne
On The Web For Sierra Club policy on ORVs, see sierraclub.org/wildlands/orv.
Two major cosmetics companies, Revlon and L'Oreal, announced in January that they would eliminate suspected carcinogens and other harmful chemicals from beauty products sold in the United States. The promise followed recent legislation in the European Union that banned hundreds of toxic ingredients from cosmetics sold in its member countries. (See "The Hidden Life of Looking Good," July/August 2003)
OUR KIND OF DROPOUT
Responding to shareholder pressure, ConocoPhillips has severed ties with Arctic Power, a lobbying group that advocates drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The company says it will concentrate on its existing North Slope oilfields instead. Along with BP, which dropped out of the lobbying group two years ago, ConocoPhillips has the largest oil operations in Alaska. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2003)
As soon as we lauded Brazil's step forward to protect the Amazon (by training police agents to crack down on illegal mining, logging, and harvesting), the country took two steps back. In February, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva restored logging licenses in the Amazon that had been canceled last year in an effort to slow deforestation. Loggers had organized huge protests and promised chaos and violence if the licenses were not restored. (See "Lay of the Land," March/April 2005)
Despite risks to habitat for the endangered Kemp's ridley sea turtle, the National Park Service approved the drilling of five new natural-gas wells at Padre Island National Seashore (see "The Sierra Club Bulletin," July/August 2003)...Over 100,000 forested acres in Washington State remain threatened after a House committee killed the Wild Sky Wilderness proposal (see "The Sierra Club Bulletin," November/December 2002)...A federal judge restored Endangered Species Act protections for gray wolves, ruling that the Bush administration had illegally changed the status of most populations from "endangered" to "threatened" (see "All They Need Is Wolves," May/June 2003).