Walled-Off Wildlife Intended to deter illegal immigrants, an expanded border fence will stop migrating animals in their tracks
Thought to have been hunted to extinction in the United States early last century, jaguars have recently been photographed by remote cameras in the borderlands between the southwestern states and Mexico. The endangered cats, some conservation officials hope, are expanding their range and returning to the United States.
But they face a new danger: the 700 miles of 15-foot-high, double-layered steel wall along the U.S.-Mexican border that Congress authorized last year. So far, lawmakers have only funded $1.5 billion of what could be a $49 billion project. But 80 miles of barrier have either been built or are under construction, and the Bush administration wants to finish an additional 370 miles by 2009.
Completion of the border fence would imperil U.S. jaguars (which typically have a 500-mile range) and other wildlife. Without access to prey and mates on the Mexican side of the border, animals that are already in the United States would have little hope of survival. The Arizona portion of the wall alone would cross or go near ten protected areas critical to wildlife. But animals are not an issue for the feds: In January, Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff exempted the fence from all environmental laws.
While a border wall poses environmental problems, some kind of barrier may be desirable. Smugglers have created an estimated 450 miles of illegal roads in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument over the past six years--and law-enforcement patrols and pursuits add to the damage. For that reason, the park's managers installed a 23-mile-long "vehicle barrier" made of steel posts spaced a few feet apart and connected by a waist-high horizontal bar. Permeable to wildlife but not to cars--and cheaper to build than Chertoff's double wall--it has slashed vehicle impacts in the area.
But a vehicle barrier is not a perfect solution. The one at Organ Pipe, for example, has funneled smugglers into the adjacent Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is planning its own barrier. "These are the unintended consequences of a restrictive border policy," says Rob Smith, the Sierra Club's Southwest regional director. "We need to deal with the causes of illegal immigration, which means building sustainable economies in poor areas." --Dashka Slater
WWatch Keeping Tabs on Washington
SNOW GOING The National Park Service has decided to make permanent a temporary rule allowing 720 snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park daily, despite the fact that actual snowmobile use in the past few years has been a third of that number, dramatically improving air quality in the park. The new rule requires snowmobiles to be guided, which keeps them from accidentally harassing wildlife, but opponents aren't mollified. The plan deserves "burial in deep snow," says Michael Finley, former superintendent of Yellowstone.
TOUGH LOVE Perhaps when you think of President George W. Bush, you think of his attempts to torpedo environmental regulations, log national forests, and open up wilderness areas to mining and oil development. If so, the White House wants you to reconsider. "There's been a lot of misreporting," explains White House press secretary Tony Snow. "Perhaps folks have not taken notice of the fact that this is an administration that's been keenly committed both to environmentalism and conservationism from the start." Feel better now? For a useful roundup of the Bush administration's environmental record, go to bushgreenwatch.org.
IN BED WITH CLEAN OIL Nine months before the Bush Justice Department's former top environmental prosecutor, Sue Ellen Wooldridge, allowed ConocoPhillips to delay cleaning up nine of its refineries whose emissions violate the Clean Air Act, she inked a nice deal for herself. With ConocoPhillips lobbyist Don R. Duncan, she bought a South Carolina vacation home worth just shy of $1 million. A third partner in the Palmetto State getaway is Wooldridge's boyfriend, former deputy secretary of the Interior J. Steven Griles. Members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said they are launching an investigation. Griles, who left the administration in early 2005, pleaded guilty in March to obstructing justice in the Jack Abramoff corruption investigation. His lawyer insists that Griles and Wooldridge simply like to vacation with people with shared interests--in this case, the oil industry. --D.S.
Not Enough Ocean
Even seven seas can't satisfy the world's appetite for fish. According to a study by the environmental-economics institute Redefining Progress, at the rate we're currently fishing, we're overusing the oceans' biological capacity by 157 percent, or one and a half additional earths. Japan, Indonesia, and China have the most egregious "fishprints"; the United States comes in eighth, overfishing by 165 percent. This doesn't mean you have to swear off fish fries--but you should eat lower on the oceanic food chain. Save those top predators like halibut and shark for special occasions and learn to love sardines and mackerel. For details, visit rprogress.org. --Paul Rauber
Hope for the Dammed
While they once were part of the third-largest salmon fishery on the West Coast, the chinook and coho salmon of the Klamath River have been in steady decline ever since the river was dammed more than 80 years ago. Reduced flow and poor water quality, along with the algae and aquatic parasites that thrive in such conditions, have decimated Klamath salmon to 10 percent of their historic numbers.
But in January, the federal agencies charged with licensing four hydropower dams on the river ruled that the dams' owner, PacifiCorp, must invest $300 million in fish ladders and screens before its licenses can be renewed. The changes are so expensive that it makes better financial sense for the company to remove the dams and buy market-rate electricity. Government officials estimate that taking down the dams, meeting water-quality regulations, and funding hatchery operations would save ratepayers between $100 million and $285 million over 30 years compared with building the ladders.
PacifiCorp officials say they may yet invest in the ladders; they could also appeal the licensing decision. But the data marshaled by government agencies will be hard to dispute, says Steve Rothert of the conservation group American Rivers. "If they're going to make a decision that makes sense for their customers, they will remove the dams." --Dashka Slater
Vermont gave its highest environmental award in January to ... manure. More specifically, to Central Vermont Public Service's Cow Power program, the first in the nation to offer consumers the option to purchase locally produced, farm-fresh cow-pie power. Two dairies, including 1,500-head Blue Spruce Farm, process their abundant manure into methane, which fuels generators that feed electricity into the utility's power lines. More than 3,700 customers have enrolled in the program, which costs them an extra four cents per kilowatt-hour. --Monica Woelfel
Rebirth on Borneo
Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei signed an agreement in February to protect 85,000 square miles on Borneo, nearly a third of the world's third-largest island. Rampant logging, forest fires, and a proposed palm-oil plantation prompted the collaborative effort by the three nations that control the biologically rich island. --Reed McManus
A Bright Idea
Australian minister of the environment Malcolm Turnbull announced early this year that his country will become the first in the world to phase out incandescent lightbulbs. Using a combination of "persuasion and regulation," the government will steadily tighten national efficiency standards until, by 2010, only energy-thrifty fluorescent bulbs will pass muster. The effort will cut 800,000 tons of greenhouse-gas emissions by 2012. California and the United Kingdom are considering similar bans. --M.W.
In February, Minnesota passed the most aggressive renewable energy standard in the United States. By 2025, most energy companies in the state must generate a quarter of their electricity from wind, solar, hydrogen, or other renewable sources; Xcel, Minnesota's largest utility, must reach 30 percent five years earlier. Today three-fourths of the state's electricity comes from coal-burning plants and one-fifth from nuclear power. --R.M.
As the World Warms Signs of a changing planet
"UNEQUIVOCAL" That was the debate-ending verdict of the long-awaited Fourth Assessment Report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released in February: that global warming is happening, that human activity is causing it, and that it will be with us for centuries. The report by the United Nations-sponsored body, a consensus of the world's top climatologists, was its strongest to date, the result of a three-year review of hundreds of smaller climate studies. The summary report is available at www.ipcc.ch.
UNMOVED Despite the powerful IPCC assessment, a February poll of Congress by the National Journal found that only 13 percent of Republican members believe that current global warming is caused by humans. (That figure actually represents a 10 percent drop in Republican endorsement of reality since April 2006.) On the other hand, 95 percent of congressional Democrats recognize that people are warming the planet.
BEST DOCUMENTARY At the Academy Awards in February, Al Gore's compelling study of global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, won a well-deserved Oscar. Accepting the award, Gore had this to say: "We need to solve the climate crisis. It's not a political issue; it's a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started with the possible exception of the will to act. That's a renewable resource. Let's renew it."
THE DAM BREAKS Due in part to the events noted above--not to mention record-high winter temperatures that had cherry trees blooming in Boston in January--global warming finally became a top-tier issue. Two major private equity firms agreed to buy TXU Energy, the utility that planned to build 11 coal-fired power plants in Texas. If the deal goes through, TXU will cancel eight of the plants, double the company's spending on energy efficiency, and reduce its carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020. In a separate move, California joined Arizona, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington in promising to establish a cap-and-trade market-based system to lower greenhouse gases.
MEANWHILE, MORE MELTING A 25-square-mile chunk of the Ayles Ice Shelf, off Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic, has broken off and is drifting rapidly southwestward. So huge that it's called an "ice island" rather than an iceberg, the Manhattan-size chunk of 3,000-4,500-year-old ice may float as far as the Beaufort Sea, where it could imperil oil platforms and ships. --Paul Rauber
CEOs Warm Up to Cooling the Climate
Global warming has caused a lot of strange phenomena--droughts, floods, hurricanes, and heat waves--but this past February brought one of the weirdest anomalies of all: the sight of the CEOs of ten of the world's largest and most powerful corporations lobbying Congress for increased regulation.
The companies, which have formed a coalition called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, include such giants as General Electric, DuPont, and Alcoa. They want to see a strict national limit on carbon dioxide emissions that would lead to reductions of 10 to 30 percent over the next 15 years.
Even as Congress debates how to regulate carbon emissions, a variety of Fortune 500 companies are working to voluntarily reduce their carbon footprint. So far, more than 60 corporations with net revenues of roughly $1.5 trillion have established internal goals for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, among them Nike, Polaroid, Sony, and IBM.
Climate awareness has even come to ExxonMobil, which until last year was funding commercials with the tagline "Carbon dioxide. They call it pollution. We call it life." What a difference a year makes. The company has joined talks with 20 other corporations about developing carbon regulations.
Corporate America has warmed up to fighting climate change for several reasons. Concern about image plays a part. But a bigger motivator is the fact that some companies--particularly those with investments in agriculture, fisheries, forestry, healthcare, insurance, real estate, and tourism--are already seeing their operations affected by global warming. Other companies are responding to shareholder pressure. More than two dozen climate-change resolutions were filed by shareholders in 2004 and 2005, and CEOs worry that if they accede to institutional investors and socially responsible funds that want to see reduced greenhouse-gas emissions, they put themselves at a competitive disadvantage. Better to have a level playing field, where all actors are reducing their carbon emissions at the same time.
Most significant, companies are concerned that a patchwork of state regulations will continue to arise in the absence of federal ones. Corporations that operate in a global marketplace want regulations to be as uniform as possible around the world--even if that means accepting more rules.
At a sustainability forum in China in February, Alain Belda, CEO and chair of Alcoa, rose to the challenge. "We can all grow and prosper in a greenhouse-gas-constrained world. Actually, I believe there is no other option." --D.S.
Et Tu, NRA? The gun lobby turns on Bush
Nobody loves a loser. Repudiated at the polls last November, President George W. Bush is now being dissed by the National Rifle Association, his once faithful ally. More surprising still, the issue sundering the former friends is one new to the gun-rights organization: conservation.
"The Bush administration has placed more emphasis on oil and gas than access rights for hunters," complained Ronald Schmeits, an NRA vice president, to the Washington Post. The NRA's 4.2 million members increasingly find themselves locked out of prime wildlife areas, not by jackbooted federal bureaucrats but by the oil and gas industry. "Gun rights are still number one," said Schmeits, "but there will be more time and effort spent on this issue as we move forward."
The NRA has long considered it anathema to agree on much of anything with environmentalists, to whom it has imputed antigun and antihunting stands (falsely, in the case of the Sierra Club). For example, the NRA supported Bush's efforts to overturn the Clinton-era "roadless rule," even though it protected a huge swath of game-rich public land from logging, mining, and other development. It also backed extreme anti-environmental (but pro-gun-rights) politicians like former senator Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) and former representative Richard Pombo (R-Calif.).
In recent years, however, polls have shown substantial majorities of hunters and fishers increasingly opposed to the Bush administration's policies on public lands and wildlife. In addition, environmental groups like the Sierra Club have been reaching out to hunters and anglers, and that effort may be paying off. "When the NRA starts talking like the Sierra Club," wrote Bob Marshall, outdoors editor of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, "you know good times have arrived for fish, wildlife--and generations of sportsmen to come." --Paul Rauber
How Green Is My Valley? "Clean tech" proves good for the bottom line
In February, when 1,400 Silicon Valley business and civic leaders gathered for their annual "State of the Valley" conference, keynote speaker Al Gore exhorted the crowd: "You can chart the course and save the future of this civilization."
Not that the receptive audience needed a moral impetus to pursue environmentally sound technologies. Silicon Valley gained 33,000 jobs last year, good news after having lost 220,000 in the six years following the Internet bust of 2000. A significant portion of these new jobs are in companies that are developing alternative energy and other environmental solutions. Investment in "clean tech" rocketed from $141 million in 2005 to $516 million in 2006. To help the sector grow, TechNet, a lobbyist group representing many of the valley's largest companies, has endorsed federal greenhouse-gas limits.
"This is bigger than the Internet, by an order of magnitude. Maybe two," Ray Lane, a partner at venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, told the Wall Street Journal. Lane's list of clean investments includes solar, biofuels, biomass gasification, and energy storage. Other investors cite the green gamut from water purification to waste processing, natural pesticides, and emissions controls.
Venture capitalists aren't the only ones bullish on green technology. California's and New York's huge public-employee pension funds have collectively put more than $1 billion into the sector. A recent article in American Venture magazine explains the attraction: "Over the last few years, clean tech has moved away from being perceived as environmentally friendly, 'responsible' investments, which provide subpar financial performance. Today clean tech is widely viewed as imperative to growing successful larger companies." --Dashka Slater
Illustrations, from top: Debbie Drechsler, Peter Hoey, Josef Gast
Photo by NASA/GSFC, MODIS Rapid Response; used with permission.