Forests for Sale The Bush administration puts our natural heritage on the block
The feds want to sell off 300,000 acres of our national forests, but Mark Rey, the former timber industry lobbyist George W. Bush put in charge of them five years ago, may never get to pound a For Sale sign into the ground.
The proposed sale would raise $800 million to help pay for rural schools in 41 states over the next five years, part of a program that subsidizes counties with non-tax-paying federal lands. Rey claims that the lands on the block are either isolated, expensive to manage, or no longer meet the needs of the national forest system. "These are not the crown jewels we are talking about," he told the Associated Press when the sale was announced in February.
But the environmentalists and reporters who explored some of the parcels with U.S. Forest Service maps in hand tell a different story: There's acreage in Oregon and Washington's Columbia River Gorge, lakefront property in Mississippi, land eligible for "wild and scenic" designation in North Carolina's Uwharrie National Forest, overlooks of Colorado's Rocky Mountain National Park, and a 160-acre haven along Montana's Big Creek near an upscale guest ranch.
Four former Forest Service chiefs blasted the plan. "Selling off public lands to fund other programs, no matter how worthwhile those programs, is a slippery slope," they wrote in a letter to Congress. In March, Senator Larry Craig (R-Idaho), chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests, promised to bury any legislation enabling the sale. Craig is hardly a tree hugger: He earned a 5 percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters.
Bureau of Land Management parcels are also at risk: A second Bush proposal would sell as many as 500,000 acres to help reduce the federal deficit. As Montana governor and third-generation rancher Brian Schweitzer (D) puts it: "This is just a government living beyond their means. It's a damn poor way to run a ranch, and it's a way worse way to run a government." --Reed McManus
Interior Redesign Goodbye, Gale Norton. Hello, Gale Norton II.
Dirk Kempthorne, the Bush administration's pick to replace Gale Norton as secretary of the Interior, loves nature. Just ask the president. George W. Bush recently noted that Kempthorne, a Republican former representative who is in his second term as governor of Idaho, got married atop the state's Moscow Mountain at sunrise. "I don't think there's a more beautiful cathedral than the outdoors," Bush quoted Kempthorne as saying.
Unfortunately, Kempthorne seems to like his cathedrals adorned with oil rigs, bulldozers, logging trucks, and snowmobiles. During his time in public office, he has supported drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on the outer continental shelf, filed a lawsuit to overturn the Clinton administration order banning new roads in national forests, introduced legislation that would have undermined the Endangered Species Act, and cosponsored a bill giving a free pass to the polluters responsible for dumping millions of tons of lead, zinc, and other toxic metals into his state's Coeur d'Alene River Basin. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a score of 6 out of a possible 100 during his first year in Congress; after that he earned five consecutive zeros.
That means Kempthorne is likely to mirror Norton, who resigned in March. Norton spent her five years in office opening the nation's public lands to the gas, timber, and other extractive industries. One of her final acts was to quietly issue a policy allowing counties and states to turn existing rights-of-way into highways across federal lands. The policy, which was developed without any public input, could transform hiking trails, jeep tracks, streambeds, and cattle paths in some of the nation's most pristine wildernesses.
While enviros fulminate, the new ruling should suit Kempthorne. After all, what good is a cathedral if you can't drive down the nave? --Dashka Slater
WWatch: Keeping Tabs on Washington
CATASTROPHE STRATEGY Nearly five years after September 11, Department of Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff has decided it's time to protect the nation's 15,000 chemical plants from terrorist attack--as long as it doesn't inconvenience the chemical industry. Chertoff says he wants uniform federal security regulations, but only if the industry is allowed to monitor itself. He also opposes requiring chemical plants to use safer alternatives for compounds that could cause a toxic catastrophe, even if the substitutes add little or no cost.
GAS BAGS The Bush administration's efforts to encourage oil companies to drill in the Gulf of Mexico will cost taxpayers $80 billion over the next 25 years, according to the Government Accountability Office. The cost will come as a result of the royalty-relief program, originally designed in 1995 to encourage deep-water drilling when energy prices were low. The GAO report comes on the heels of a New York Times article alleging that energy companies deriving gas and oil from public lands routinely report to the government that they've sold natural gas at a lower price than they disclose to their shareholders, thus netting even larger tax breaks.
Weathering the Oil Storm
When oil prices really hit the fan, we can recommend the best places to hide out--starting with New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia. SustainLane, a Web site that promotes sustainable living, rated U.S. cities according to their ability to withstand a crippling spike in oil prices. The site gave top priority to commuting practices, public-transportation ridership, sprawl, and traffic congestion. (Dense regions with strong transit systems will fare best when fuel supplies wither, so San Francisco and Chicago round out the top five spots.) The availability of local food sources was also considered, since long-distance trucking will become pricey, as well as access to wireless networks, because telecommuting could replace morning drive time. For the complete list of 50 cities, go to sustainlane.com. --R.M.
Another Closed Season
Steve Schwartz, fishing out of Sausalito, California, despairs over a bad salmon season back in 2001. This year is even worse, with fishery managers all but shutting down the Pacific Coast commercial fishing season for the second year in a row. The extended closure is a desperate attempt to preserve the chinook run on the Klamath River, which feeds into the Pacific near the Oregon border. Four dams and huge water diversions for agriculture make the river a fish killer; in 2002, more than 70,000 mature salmon died there because of low water levels and disease. This year, fewer than 35,000 Klamath salmon are expected to return to spawn.
A solution may be in sight. The licenses for the Klamath dams are expiring, and the feds are requiring their owner, PacifiCorp, to make sweeping and costly improvements for migrating fish. Since dam removal would be cheaper and would open 350 miles of river to spawning salmon, PacifiCorp might be swayed to do what's best for fish--and the fishing industry. --Paul Rauber
A Working Marsh
A soggy situation in Northern California will put a sleepy suburb on the map. The city of Petaluma is building one of the country's largest wastewater facilities to use wetlands to help process sewage. Treated wastewater will drain into two marshes, eliminating one round of chemical treatment. The marshes will filter solids, soak up nutrients, and shade water to prevent algae growth, while providing flood protection and wildlife habitat. During the summer, about 4 million gallons of reclaimed water per day from the $110 million facility will green the lawns of nearby golf courses and city parks.
Rock the Boats
One of the largest food-service companies in the world is making waves. The Compass Group has promised not to buy fish species that are endangered in the wild or farmed in environmentally harmful ways and to offer more fish from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Best Choices" list. Because Compass buys a million pounds of seafood a year for corporations, schools, concessions, and restaurants worldwide, its ocean-friendly policies could mark a sea change for the industry.
Keeps Your Fish Sparkling!
You shouldn't have to kill fish to get your dishes clean. Washington governor Christine Gregoire (D) signed a bill in March that bans the sale of residential dishwasher detergent containing more than 0.5 percent phosphorus by weight. (The state imposed the same restriction on laundry detergent in 1993.) When dumped in waterways, phosphorus acts as a nutrient that causes algae blooms, robbing aquatic animals of oxygen. A first in the country, the dish-detergent ban will start clearing the water in three counties in 2008 and statewide in 2010.
Cheeseheads Go Green
The state that brought us John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson has just unveiled Travel Green Wisconsin, a program that will certify travel and hospitality companies with admirable environmental practices. Restaurants, shops, accommodations, marinas, and other tourism businesses will prove their worth in energy efficiency, wastewater management, and community benefits as they vie for the Travel Green Wisconsin logo. Starting in four regions, the program will spread statewide next year. Visit travelgreenwisconsin.com.
This article has been corrected subsequent to publication.
As the World Warms: Signs of a changing planet
Using satellite data, scientists have calculated that the Antarctic ice sheet is losing up to 36 cubic miles of ice each year. This comes as a surprise because the authoritative Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had predicted that Antarctica would actually gain ice this century, through increased snowfall, as the climate warmed. "The total mass balance of the Antarctic ice sheet is in significant decline," professor Isabella Velicogna told the Guardian newspaper. And lost ice from Antarctica translates into even greater sea-level rises than previously predicted.
The Arctic Ocean's ice pack was smaller than usual last winter for the second year in a row, leading to predictions of yet another record expanse of open water this summer. According to the National Snow and Ice Data Center, the winter-ice retreat was probably the largest in a century. The loss of polar ice tends to be self-reinforcing because instead of being reflected by ice, the sun's rays are absorbed by open water, leading to further warming.
With parts of England experiencing the worst drought in a century, the water-hungry English rose is falling out of favor. A new favorite tome of British gardeners is Designing and Creating a Mediterranean Garden, and traditional cottage gardens are being replaced by olive trees, date palms, and bougainvillea.
A series of mild winters and dry summers in British Columbia has led to an epidemic of mountain pine beetles, which now infest lodgepole pines over nearly 33,000 square miles. In the past, the beetles were controlled by prolonged periods of cold, but average temperatures in the province have risen 4 degrees in the past century, and winters haven't been cold enough for a decade to kill the beetles. The Canadian Forest Service predicts that within seven years, 80 percent of British Columbia's pines will be dead. --P.R.
All Pumped Up Almost everyone wants to save gas
With gas prices topping $3 per gallon again, everyone in politics knows one thing for certain: Americans hate the idea of raising the federal gas tax. One recent survey conducted by the New York Times and CBS News found that 85 percent of Americans oppose the notion.
Or do they?
The survey found that only 12 percent of the population supports raising the gas tax unequivocally, but 59 percent would support the idea if the money were used to fight global warming and lower fuel consumption. Fifty-five percent would go along if the tax reduced the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
The key, it seems, is making sure that a fuel fee is used for a clear purpose. Coincidentally, that is what is being considered in California, where Republican governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's Climate Action Team has proposed a "public goods charge" on gasoline that would be used to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions and dependence on foreign oil. (Similarly, a California ballot initiative is being circulated for signatures that would impose a tax on the gross value of oil produced in the state--and spend it on alternative-energy research and development.)
So are our national leaders stepping forward to propose that Americans pay a little more at the pump for the sake of national security and energy independence? Not so far. Perhaps they need to pay attention to another recent poll. According to a survey conducted by Time magazine and ABC News, 85 percent of Americans think that global warming is already happening, and 35 percent want to see the government do more to fight it.
That task may fall to state governments: In May, ten states announced plans to sue the feds over their most recent, and inadequate, changes to fuel-economy standards. --Dashka Slater
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Lloyd Dangle, Mark Matcho