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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2006
Table of Contents
A Real Refuge
Our Visit to Babyfoot Lake
Underwater Ups and Downs
Backyard Bonanzas
Quiz: Survive This!
Interview: Michael Muir
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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Sierra Magazine
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Lay of the Land

The Power Pack | WWatch | Oily Excuses | Pombo's Progress | Bold Strokes | As the World Warms | A Real Energy Boom | Updates | Ersatz Enviros | Compost and Go to Jail | Weed Whacking | Painted Into a Corner | Voitures du Vin | Ocean's Elk

The Power Pack
Legislators of all stripes offer clean-energy proposals

It takes a slap upside the head to get Congress to pay attention to America's oil addiction. Spurred by record-high gas and heating-oil prices, a brutal hurricane season, and escalating criticism of our role in Iraq, legislators on both sides of the aisle are finally promoting innovative bills designed to reduce the nation's demand for oil.

Late last year, a flurry of energy proposals emerged from both chambers of Congress, some spearheaded by friends of the environmental community, including Democratic senators Joe Lieberman (Conn.), Barack Obama (Ill.), and Maria Cantwell (Wash.). Other efforts garnered support from more-surprising players, including GOP senators Sam Brownback (Kans.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), and Jeff Sessions (Ala.).

All of the bills call for substantial increases in funding or tax incentives to spur clean-energy innovation, and some require reductions in oil usage. But only one includes improvements in corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for automobiles, a defining element of many environmentalists' energy-efficiency strategy. That bipartisan bill, introduced by Representatives Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) and Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), has been endorsed by the Sierra Club. Dubbed the Energy for Our Future Act, it would boost CAFE standards from 25 mpg to 40 mpg by 2016, thereby saving 4 million barrels of oil a day (20 percent of our current demand). It would also jack up the penalty for violating the standards and expand the scope of CAFE to include vehicles that weigh up to 10,000 pounds.

By not addressing CAFE, the remaining clean-energy bills have had to resort to creative legislating to meet their goals. Obama, a past supporter of tightening CAFE standards, dropped any mention of it in the Health Care for Hybrids Act he introduced last November. In exchange for exempting U.S. automakers from paying billions in healthcare costs to retired employees (a burden Detroit has long protested), his bill requires them to devote at least half of the savings to the development of alternative-fuel and energy-efficient vehicles.

Obama also teamed up with Senator Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) to introduce a bill that would require all vehicles sold in the United States to be able to run on both gasoline and biofuels within ten years, and a proposal mandating the annual production of 2 billion gallons of nonpetroleum diesel fuel by 2015. Both bills set specific targets but leave the means of achieving them undetermined.

Similarly nonprescriptive is the Vehicle and Fuel Choices for American Security Act, introduced by Lieberman and Senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) with backing from five Republicans. It aims for the White House and its agencies to reduce oil consumption by 2.5 million barrels a day within a decade, and 10 million barrels a day by 2031. The bill would also create fuel-economy standards for heavy-duty trucks, loan guarantees for hybrid-vehicle production, and subsidies for alternative-fuel development and mass-transit systems.

Why has CAFE been sidelined in so many cases even though energy is shaping up to be a front-burner issue in the 2006 and 2008 elections? Dems and Republicans alike have dismissed it as a political stumbling block. Last summer, nearly three-quarters of the Senate voted against an amendment to the energy bill introduced by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) that would have slightly increased fuel-economy standards. Senators Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and John Kerry (D-Mass.), both 2008 presidential hopefuls, were among the nay votes--an effort to sustain potential campaign support from Detroit.

But CAFE is still there in spirit, says Dan Becker, director of the Sierra Club's global-warming program. The ambitious energy-conservation goals that have been gaining traction on Capitol Hill, he maintains, will eventually bring back a discussion of CAFE standards. "As soon as you implement a strong, fixed target for reducing oil use, stricter fuel standards will inevitably come into play," Becker says. "Incentives alone won't do the trick."
--Amanda Griscom Little

WWatch: Keeping Tabs on Washington

A two-year study by the Government Accountability Office has determined what wilderness advocates have long suspected: Grazing on public lands is a net loss for taxpayers as well as for the environment. The $1.79 per month ranchers pay the feds for each cow-calf pair adds up to a paltry $21 million, $123 million shy of what it costs federal agencies to administer the program. Grazing fees went up slightly last year, but they are still nowhere near the $13.30 per month that private landowners collect.

There are no shades of gray for Puget Sound's favorite black-and-white mammals. In November 2005, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it would list the 89 remaining "southern resident" killer whales as endangered. Though they're a distinct subgroup of orcas that eat fish rather than marine mammals and have their own breeding and communication patterns, in 2002 the agency determined that the whales weren't worthy of protection. NMFS staff say they now realize that the slow-to-reproduce whales are in far worse shape than they'd thought.
--Dashka Slater

Oily Excuses

Cartoon by Lloyd Dangle

At a Senate hearing on skyrocketing energy prices early last November, five oil executives denied participating in (or knowing if their companies participated in) Vice President Dick Cheney's secret energy task force in 2001. Less than a week later, the Washington Post obtained documents showing that officials from each of the firms had, in fact, met with task force members or staff. Providing false testimony to Congress is a federal crime, even though the execs weren't under oath. To wiggle out of their tight spot, the oil companies claimed that their frequent contact with task force representatives didn't technically qualify as "participating." "The American people understand what 'participate' means," responded Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who called the execs' maneuvering "corporate doublespeak that only further demonstrates the need for a criminal investigation."
--Reed McManus

Pombo's Progress

Death Valley was declared a national park in 1994, but that hasn't stopped Representative Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) from trying to sell it. Last fall, the unabashed proponent of rolling back environmental protections tucked a sweeping "reform" of U.S. mining law into a budget bill. The measure would have permitted the purchase of old mining claims on public lands. Included were 617 acres in Death Valley and 18,000 acres in national parks overall. The House of Representatives passed the bill in November.

But the gambit went too far. Opposition came not just from environmentalists, but from three previous U.S. Forest Service chiefs and even the Jewelers of America, which called it "a massive giveaway of public land." Six western governors declared it "sinister in its intent." The measure was removed from the budget bill in December. About the same time, Pombo's approval rating fell below 50 percent, suggesting that his constitutents may be ready to pull the plug on this legislative shock jock. --Joan Hamilton

Bold Strokes

Photo by Jason SchmidtTrunk Sale
Pachyderms can paint, according to the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, which is helping the endangered species by selling the work of domesticated Asian elephants. Some of the abstract pieces, which have been displayed in museums worldwide, have brought in more than $2,000 apiece; a third of the revenues go to sanctuaries in Southeast Asia. With the Asian elephant population down nearly half since 1900, the animals need all the creative help they can get. Find out more at

Neptune's Power
Here's a form of energy that will last as long as the moon circles the earth. British company Ocean Power Delivery is building the world's first wave farm three miles off the coast of Portugal. Three wave-energy converters will be moored to the seafloor to capture the ocean's ebb and flow. With an expected capacity of 2.25 megawatts by the end of 2006, the farm could satisfy the average electrical demands of at least 1,500 Portuguese households. Find out more at

Clean and Green
Cleaning houses is tough enough work without daily exposure to harsh detergents and smelly disinfectants. That's why Women's Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) is running three ecofriendly housecleaning co-ops in the San Francisco Bay Area. Workers are healthier since shifting to the natural products and, because they own their own businesses, have enjoyed an average 40 percent increase in household income. "WAGES recognizes that you can't have human dignity without planetary health, and you can't have planetary health without also uplifting and protecting human dignity. They go together hand in hand," activist Julia Butterfly Hill said at the co-op's recent tenth anniversary. Find out more at

The Hybrid Advantage
California drivers have yet another incentive to switch to energy-efficient cars. Last October, Farmers Insurance announced a 5 percent discount for drivers of hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles in the Golden State. The first U.S. company to make such an offer, Farmers hopes to tap into the more than 25,000 newly registered California hybrids. Other auto insurers are catching on as well. Since February, Travelers has offered a 10 percent discount to owners of hybrid cars nationwide. Find out more at and --Erin Pursell

As the World Warms: Signs of a changing planet

The year 2005 was the hottest since modern record-keeping began. The determination was made by climatologists at NASA's Goddard Institute, based on input from 7,200 weather stations around the world. Of the ten warmest years on record, eight have occurred since 1996.

One consequence of last year's heat wave was that the Atlantic hurricane season was the worst ever. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded seven major hurricanes of Category 3 or higher and so many storms in total that the National Weather Service exhausted the English alphabet and switched to Greek; the season ended with Hurricane Epsilon in late November. NOAA administrator Conrad Lautenbacher called it "the most devastating hurricane season the country has experienced in modern times."

The abnormally warm waters in the tropical Atlantic Ocean that gave birth to Hurricane Katrina also spawned a devastating drought in Brazil. Rivers and streams have dried up, stranding many communities that rely on boat traffic. The drought has also increased the number of forest fires and the incidence of malaria. Ironically, some of the worst-hit areas, like Amazonas, are those that have done the most to preserve their forests. "What is happening is not our fault," Eduardo Braga, governor of the state, told the New York Times. "We didn't heat up the atmosphere or chop down our trees. But we are paying the price with the suffering of our people."

Global warming is an environmentally unjust calamity. A joint study by the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the World Health Organization finds that the countries likely to be most affected by climate-related health problems in the coming years are those least responsible for the increases in global temperature. That dynamic was already in place at the beginning of the century.

A Real Energy Boom
A trend to natural gas brings new dangers

I was leaving a fish-processing plant on Boston Harbor when a police cruiser pulled up and ordered me back inside. From behind the glass, I watched a lime-green tanker with huge cylinders of liquefied natural gas sail in, escorted by armed Coast Guard patrol boats and helicopters. Police units guarded the shores and other water traffic was banned, and with good reason--a terrorist strike on an LNG tanker carrying 33 million gallons of highly flammable cargo could generate a fireball a third of a mile across.

Natural gas now meets about a quarter of the nation's energy needs, and since it burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels, demand is soaring. But for a substance that arrives in the country at 260 degrees below zero, LNG is generating a lot of heat--and fear of terrorism is only part of it.

Four terminals in Massachusetts, Maryland, Georgia, and Louisiana receive all LNG imports. More than 30 "regasification" facilities have been proposed--including ones offshore from New York and California and in the Gulf of Mexico--and 5 have been approved. Onshore facilities heat up the frigid LNG by burning about one percent of the gas, but many of the new offshore terminals would use the far cheaper "open loop" system, in which 100 to 200 million gallons of seawater a day are pumped through radiator-like structures and then back to sea, some 18 degrees cooler and sterilized with chlorine. The process kills fish eggs, larvae, zooplankton, and young fish, sacrificing already-stressed marine ecosystems. But coastal states are now less able to protect their resources: The energy bill signed by President Bush in 2005 gives the industry-friendly Federal Energy Regulatory Commission final say over LNG-plant siting, overruling state concerns. Offshore terminals in federal waters remain under the control of the Maritime Administration, an arm of the Department of Transportation.

Fighting to protect coastal ecosystems is the "Gumbo Alliance" of commercial and sport fishermen, shrimpers, and environmental groups (including the Sierra Club). "Our fisheries are already in trouble," says spokesperson Aaron Viles, "and these guys get a pass to kill fish just because the administration likes them." --David Helvarg

This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.


Last year, public outcry forced the EPA to withdraw its plan to pay families to serve as human guinea pigs for pesticide studies. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October 2005, page 13.) But instead of drafting an ethical proposal for human experimentation, the agency came up with new language that would allow testing on orphans and mentally handicapped children, accept chemical studies done on kids outside the United States, and make possible the use of prisoners as test subjects.

The union representing EPA scientists objected, saying that "our scientists should never have to face this kind of moral dilemma." The final rule was expected to be issued in January.

Interior secretary Gale Norton has followed through on the Bush administration's threat to remove Yellowstone grizzlies from the protection of the Endangered Species Act. Declaring that "the future of the grizzly bear in Yellowstone is bright," Norton proposed that, in the Lower 48, brown bears outside of national parks be managed by the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Trouble is, those lands are exactly where logging, drilling, and development are robbing the animals of the habitat they need to thrive in coming years. "We cannot afford to gamble with the bears' future," says Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope. (See "What Grizzlies Want," July/August 2002.)

Measure 37, the sweeping "takings" initiative passed by Oregon voters in 2004, has been upheld. The statute would allow landowners to file monetary claims against the government whenever land-use regulations reduced the value of their property. Last October, an Oregon circuit court judge ruled that the measure violated the state's constitution, but in January the Oregon Supreme Court overturned that decision. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October 2005, page 14.)

This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.

Ersatz Enviros
GOP "green" group covers for corruption

Why is an organization called the Council of Republicans for Environmental Advocacy (CREA) concerned with Indian gambling? It might have something to do with the large checks it receives from casino operators. A Senate investigation revealed that disgraced Republican fixer Jack Abramoff got the tribes he was defrauding to kick in more than $250,000 to become "trustees" of CREA. The group, founded in 1998 by current Interior secretary Gale Norton and Republican operative Grover Norquist, then used its "juice" (as Abramoff called it) in the Interior Department to block or delay new casinos by rival tribes.

For example, when Abramoff wanted to prevent the Jena Band of Choctaw Indians from opening a competing casino in Louisiana, he e-mailed CREA president Italia Federici. "We have to squash this very, very hard and fast," he wrote. "Please let me know if you think I should come in and see Steve on this." Then-deputy Interior secretary J. Steven Griles (a former lobbyist for the coal and gas industries) did not ordinarily deal in Indian affairs but was a friend of Federici's. He met frequently with Abramoff and helped him out on this and other tribal matters.

On another occasion, Federici arranged a Georgetown dinner party where she got one of Abramoff's clients seated next to Norton. A grateful Abramoff wrote Federici, suggesting that she and Griles attend an upcoming Washington Redskins game in his luxury skybox: "We'll all discuss my doing a fund raiser there for you guys."

Griles left the department in 2004. In January, Abramoff agreed to testify against his former associates--including those at Interior. As for CREA, the genuinely conservationist Republicans for Environmental Protection has labeled it "a green scam." --Paul Rauber

Compost and Go to Jail
The FBI tries to profile an environmental criminal

Could you recognize an eco-terrorist? The FBI thinks it can, and some Sierra readers may want to start looking over their shoulders. In November, the agency agreed to pay $100,000 and issue a letter of regret to 27-year-old Josh Connole, who was mistakenly arrested at gunpoint two years ago and held for four days on suspicion of setting fire to four Southern California Hummer dealerships, spray-painting slogans like "SUV = Terrorism," "Polluter," and "Fat Lazy American Pigs."

The "evidence" that led the FBI to finger the wrong man reads like the resume of many a lanky, goateed vegetarian. At the time of his arrest, Connole, a solar-panel installer, was living at an ecological co-op called Regen V that engages in such subversive activities as composting, graywater reclaiming, and solar electricity generating. Tipped off by a neighbor about "suspicious" activities, government gumshoes put the house, and its members' online activities, under surveillance and sniffed out other incriminating evidence: use of electric vehicles, opposition to whaling, and criticism of fossil-fuel reliance.

Alarmed to discover that he was being followed by shadowy figures in unmarked cars, Connole called 911 and was promptly arrested. Fifty FBI agents then descended on Regen V to ransack it and make off with residents' computers.

Connole's arrest provoked the real arsonist, William Cottrell, to write a letter to the Los Angeles Times claiming responsibility for the vandalism. The FBI may need to update its profiles: At the time of the attacks, Cottrell (who is now serving eight years for the crime) was a doctoral candidate in physics at Caltech who once helped plaster Pasadena with "Go Metric" stickers. --Dashka Slater

Weed Whacking
Parks provide seclusion, sunshine, and fresh water--for drug lords

Remote, untamed, and solitary, the backcountry areas of our national parks have always attracted the most ardent nature-lovers. But these days, a new group of people are answering the call of the wild--drug traffickers. Drug cultivation and smuggling are fast draining the resources of the woefully underfunded National Park Service, as rangers find themselves confronting armed heroin smugglers and booby-trapped marijuana gardens in the once-tranquil wilderness.

The problem isn't new, but it has grown worse since border controls were tightened after the September 11 terrorist attacks. Hardest hit are Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California, which abut a prime pot-growing region. Two Mexican drug cartels have operations there, and in 2004 rangers found more than 44,000 marijuana plants within the parks' boundaries. These large-scale growers terrace the land, making it more vulnerable to invasive species, clear out native trees and plants, divert water sources, poach wildlife, and saturate the soil with pesticides and fertilizers.

By the time park workers had finished cleaning up the irrigation pipes, spent rifle casings, garbage, fertilizer, and human waste left behind by growers, half a million dollars of park funds had gone up in smoke.

If that wasn't enough of a nightmare, there's also the possibility of visitors running into camouflaged drug smugglers toting weapons. That hasn't happened yet, but in 2001, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument ranger Kris Eggle was gunned down by a fleeing smuggler. While border areas like Organ Pipe in Arizona and Big Bend National Park in Texas seem like obvious narcotics crossroads, the Park Service has also disrupted marijuana-, heroin-, and cocaine-smuggling operations at Biscayne National Park in Florida and Acadia National Park in Maine. --D.S.

Painted Into a Corner
An Illinois senator pressures EPA to get the lead out

Here's a quick quiz: What common toxic substance puts more than 400,000 U.S. children under the age of six at risk for permanent neurological damage? Given that danger, how long would you expect to wait for the EPA to take action to minimize exposure?

The substance is lead, and the length of time is 13 years.

About a quarter of the nation's houses contain significant hazards from lead-based paint, which was banned in 1978 but is still present in many homes. Young children who are exposed to relatively low levels of lead--most often by ingesting paint chips or tainted soil--may develop learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, behavioral problems, hearing impairments, and kidney damage. Prolonged contact can result in mental retardation and death.

Back in 1992, Congress instructed the EPA to reduce people's exposure to lead during home-remodeling projects. The agency had four years to issue the regulations but dragged its feet until May 2005, when a whistle-blower revealed that EPA administrator Stephen L. Johnson had decided to indefinitely postpone issuing the new rules. Rather than requiring the owners of pre-1978 homes to use certified contractors trained in lead safety for remodeling projects, the EPA planned to address the problem solely through public education.

That approach didn't go over well with Illinois senator Barack Obama (D), whose home state leads the nation in lead poisoning. In a joint letter to Johnson, Obama and Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) pointed out that "a voluntary approach is unenforceable, is unlikely to be effective, would take years to implement, and requires substantial new funding that is simply not provided for in the EPA's budget."

Obama threatened to block the confirmation of all EPA appointments unless agency officials agreed in writing to issue the regulations by the end of the year. When he failed to receive a satisfactory response, the senator blocked Susan Bodine from becoming an assistant administrator in charge of the agency's Office of Solid Waste and Emergency Response. Soon after, Obama received a letter from EPA deputy administrator Marcus Peacock promising to comply. The new rules, which were finally issued on December 29, are expected to prevent as many as 28,000 lead-related illnesses each year and will add an average of $116 to a homeowner's remodeling costs. Obama has also introduced legislation that would provide a tax credit to homeowners who abate lead-paint hazards on their properties. --Dashka Slater

Voitures du Vin
Facing a market glut, France turns to high-octane wine

Quel fuel. France produces 400 million more liters of wine than it can sell each year, both because of increasing competition from other wine-producing nations and because its police have begun cracking down on drunk driving. With French drivers turning abstemious, winemakers are hoping that the country's cars can drink up the excess. Late last year, the French government asked the European Union to fund the distillation and dehydration of 150 million liters of extra Beaujolais and Bordeaux into biofuel.

Grapes produce considerably less alcohol than traditional ethanol sources like sugar beets, but if all of France's 400 million liters of excess wine were converted, it could be made into 40 million liters of pure alcohol. The alcohol would then be sold to oil refineries, which add it to gasoline.

While the idea of turning fine wine into petrol may shock some vintners and drinkers, the French government hopes that the plan will keep the nation's venerable vineyards from doing something even more drastic: ripping out vines. Zut! --D.S.

Ocean's Elk
To see how ruminants fare in the Rockies, keep an eye on the Pacific

If you're looking for information about the number of elk in Canada's Banff National Park, the Pacific Ocean isn't an obvious place to start. But acting on a hunch, University of Alberta doctoral student Mark Hebblewhite compared the elk population in the Canadian Rockies between 1985 and 2000 with measurements for the North Pacific Oscillation (NPO), an index of sea-surface temperatures and air pressure, over the same time period. He found that positive NPO values, which translated into a milder climate in most of western North America, coincided with colder winters and heavy snow in the eastern Rockies. The harsh conditions resulted in fewer elk in the park because they were easier targets for wolves.

Hebblewhite concluded this because he had a perfect control population for his experiment: Wolves recolonized parts of the park in the mid-1980s, causing some of the elk to move to the adjacent town of Banff, where the predators won't go. Hebblewhite thus had two distinct elk populations to study, one with wolves and one without. "By comparing these areas," he explains, "we could see how climate variability affected the elk."

With their heavy bodies and thin legs, elk tend to sink into snow banks, where they easily become a wolf's dinner. Wolves, on the other hand, are built for snow, with light, sleek bodies and snowshoe-like paws.

High NPO values allowed the wolves to whittle down the park's elk population by more than 50 percent. Fortunately for the elk, even climate-assisted wolves can't kill fast enough to completely eliminate them.

Hebblewhite hopes that his research will help people understand the vast influence of climate on the natural world. "Climate change is a big, esoteric thing," Hebblewhite says. "Without these kinds of connections, people aren't going to see how it will affect them." --D.S.

Illustration by Lloyd Dangle; used with permission
Photos, from top: Jason Schmidt, courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos; used with permission

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