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Sierra magazine

Happy Honeymoon | Up to Speed | Evicted | Organic on a Budget | As the World Warms | Woe Is Us |
The Charm of Char | Guerrilla Bidder | True Grid

Happy Honeymoon
Environmentalists remain starry-eyed--for the moment

No one expects it to last forever, but as this goes to press, the U.S. environmental movement is in a state of connubial bliss with the man it labored so hard to put in office, President Barack Obama. Frances Beinecke, Natural Resources Defense Council president, calls it "a thrilling moment." Sierra Club executive director Carl Pope is "enthralled." Says Gene Karpinski, head of the League of Conservation Voters: "Awesome."

After eight years of desperate rearguard actions against George W. Bush, the eco-establishment has been popping off jubilant press releases: "Obama Shows Early Leadership on Climate," "Landmark Global Warming Lawsuit Settled," "Bold Action by Department of Interior Halts Leasing of Utah Wilderness." Many of the huzzahs celebrate Obama's reversals of Bush-era administrative decisions: ordering the EPA to consider granting California's request to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from cars, requiring federal agencies to consult with biologists when their actions could harm endangered species, and ending funding for the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain in Nevada.

Most strikingly, Obama has elevated green energy to the top of his agenda. "It begins with energy," he told a joint session of Congress in late February, pledging to double the nation's renewable power by 2012 and promising $15 billion a year for the development of new technologies. This was on top of the nearly $100 billion in his economic stimulus package for energy efficiency, renewables, electricity- grid modernization, and mass transit.

Michael Tomasky, U.S. editor at large for the British Guardian, warns that if this romance has a first tiff, it will likely be sparked by coal. "There is no way you can take an energy source that supplies half the country's electricity and move away from it very quickly," he says. "I don't think this is going to be one of his most courageous policy areas."

Then there's that number-one source of marital strife: money. David Orr, a professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College, sees peril in the troubled world financial system.

"The question now for Obama is whether he can solve the economic crisis without compounding the environmental crisis," Orr says. "This is going to be as tough a policy challenge as any president has ever faced." --Paul Rauber


Maybe a Thin Mint would make him feel better? This unconscious orangutan is being relocated after his rainforest home in central Borneo was clearcut to make way for a palm oil plantation. Palm oil, one of the most widely produced oils in the world, is found in soaps, shampoos, and treats like Oreos, Skittles, and Girl Scout cookies (where it replaced unhealthy trans fats).

To feed our appetite for oleaginous junk food, Indonesia and Malaysia, the world's top palm oil producers, have jointly cleared 25,000 square miles of native forests for monocultural plantations. (Bonus side effect: Burning forests and draining peat swamps for palm trees has made Indonesia the world's third-largest emitter of greenhouse gases.) The rapid destruction of rainforests may soon eradicate orangutans from the wilds of Borneo and Sumatra. The easy fix? Sustainably grown canola oil could substitute for palm oil in most cases, so you could have your Little Debbies and eat them too. --P.R.

Organic on a Budget

In a perfect world all your food purchases would be organic. In our world of unemployment, cutbacks, and tanking 401(k)s, however, compromises often have to be made. Given limited resources, how can green consumers get the most from their shopping dollars?

The "Shoppers Guide to Pesticides" (, by the nonprofit Environmental Working Group, distills 87,000 government studies into two simple lists. The "dirty dozen" are the foods most important to buy in organic form, because conventional versions are so laden with pesticides. The "don't worry" list is for those you don't have to fret about--they either face few pest threats (and thus avoid pesticides) or have impermeable skins that are customarily removed prior to eating. --P.R.

THE DIRTY DOZEN: Peaches, Apples, Bell peppers, Celery, Nectarines, Strawberries, Cherries, Kale, Lettuce, Grapes (imported), Carrots, Pears

DON'T WORRY: Onions, Avocados, Sweet corn (frozen), Pineapples, Mangoes, Asparagus, Sweet peas (frozen), Kiwis, Cabbage , Eggplant, Papayas, Watermelons

As the World Warms
Quick thinking before we slowly fry

COALED FRONT Well-placed leakers are exposing the coal industry's "clean coal" charade. First revealed was a memo from the head of the faux grassroots group Center for Energy and Economic Development to the CEO of Peabody Energy. It detailed efforts to "sow discord" among states participating in a cap-and-trade program via in-house "research" purporting to show that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions hurts the economy. Then came a PR firm's secret strategy for making coal look popular: Give away "clean coal" swag at presidential campaign rallies, record videos of people wearing it, post the clips on YouTube, and voila--instant movement.

GREASING THE WHEELS Since 2007, San Francisco has been converting "yellow grease" from restaurant fryers into fuel. Now the city is building a plant next to its wastewater treatment facility that will also convert "brown grease"--the noxious, smelly scrapings typically caught in restaurant grease traps--into biodiesel. This is the first time a city has gone after the nasty stuff, which is usually treated as sewage. The recycled grease will also help fuel the city's sewage plant. Nationally, sewage treatment accounts for 3 percent of total electricity use.

LAND OF THE BREEZE The United States has elbowed ahead of Germany to become the world's largest producer of wind power, and we're poised to take the solar crown as well. American wind capacity increased by half last year to 25 gigawatts, and the number is expected to grow with help from the stimulus package. President Barack Obama plans to double the amount of power produced by renewables over the next three years. --Dashka Slater

Since it was founded in 1910, the Boy Scouts of America has taught more than 110 million kids how to tie knots, pitch tents, and--according to the organization's Outdoor Code--"be conservation minded." Troops around the country collect recyclables and e-waste, build trails, restore streams, plant trees, and learn to "leave no trace" during their outdoor expeditions. "In wilderness areas," as the Boy Scouts' wilderness policy explains, "it is crucial to minimize human impact, particularly on fragile ecosystems."

Since 1990, the Boy Scouts of America has logged more than 34,000 acres of forest. This includes 60 clearcutting operations. Critics say the organization's lumberjacks fail to leave buffers around streams and waterways, threatening endangered trout and salmon. Other wildland properties have been sold to developers. Scout officials say they need the money. "People talk about what a bad, evil, horrible thing it is to cut a tree," Boy Scout executive Tim McCandless told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. "But our mission is kids, not trees." —D.S.

Woe Is Us
Ready, set, panic.

Global Swarming
It's like Alien (albeit without Sigourney Weaver): Vast jellyfish swarms, some covering hundreds of square miles, are invading coastal waters around the globe, stinging swimmers--Chironex fleckeri's poison can kill in three minutes--disrupting fisheries, and clogging intake valves of nuclear power stations. Congregations in the Gulf of Mexico are sometimes so thick they are more jellyfish than water, while the Sea of Japan is choked by half a billion refrigerator-size nomurai, which break fishermen's nets with their enormous mass. Like other jellies, they reproduce daily.

As in any good horror film, we may have brought this protoplasmic plague upon ourselves. Nitrogen pollution from overusing chemical fertilizers creates "dead zones" where only jellies can flourish; overfishing removes the predators that would otherwise keep them in check; tourist beach resorts displace the leatherback turtles that eat them too; oil rigs and sunken ships provide nurseries for juveniles; and climate change provides the warmer waters in which they flourish. And multiply.

Perverse Polarity
The shiny black surfaces of modernity--skyscrapers, asphalt roads, and plastic-covered fields--are dooming millions of insects and birds. Reflections from such surfaces are polarized, fatally confusing many creatures that have evolved to respond to light reflected from water. Caddis flies, for example, are laying their eggs on office blocks rather than in streams; pelicans are landing on desert roads, mistaking them for water. --P.R.

The Charm of Char
Can baked poop save our bacon?

It doesn't do windows. But fans of the porous charcoal known as "biochar" say it can do just about everything else: take carbon out of the atmosphere, increase crop yields, cut fossil-fuel use, and reduce the fertilizer runoff that creates offshore dead zones. Boosters include visionary British scientist James Lovelock, who sees biochar as the solution to climate catastrophe.

"There is one way we could save ourselves and that is through the massive burial of charcoal," Lovelock told New Scientist in February. The nonprofit International Biochar Initiative says that by its most conservative estimate, biochar could offset a quarter of a gigaton of carbon each year by 2030--the equivalent of shutting down 250 coal-fired power plants.

Invented around 450 b.c. in the Amazon basin, biochar is created by burning or baking biomass in a low-oxygen environment. Ancient Amazonians used it to convert nutrient-poor rainforest dirt into thick, dark soils that are still productive 2,500 years later. Today, biochar can be made out of anything from wood chips to manure. In West Virginia, poultryman Josh Frye shovels litter from his 800,000 chickens into a gasifier, uses the biogas to warm his henhouses, and sells the biochar to farmers for $480 a ton. What's in it for them? Studies at Cornell and Delaware State Universities show that biochar helps soil retain nutrients, store water, and sustain beneficial microorganisms.

No one, however, has yet examined the feasibility--or potential unintended consequences--of sprinkling the stuff from one end of the earth to the other. Even so, the idea is gaining traction. The government of low-lying Micronesia has placed biochar on the agenda for this December's Copenhagen climate talks as a "fast-start" strategy before the nation's islands sink beneath the waves. --D.S.

Guerrilla Bidder
Going, going, saved!

It wasn't just the lack of a shave that distinguished Tim DeChristopher from the other auction-goers. The 27-year-old University of Utah student was half the age of and twice as aggressive as most of the oil and gas company representatives who gathered in Salt Lake City late last December to bid on 131 parcels in a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) auction. He was also fiercely opposed to exploiting the redrock desert.

Many of the parcels up for bid are adjacent to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and 77 of them, totaling 103,000 acres, had been proposed for wilderness designation. But George W. Bush's BLM changed its resource-management plans, giving energy companies one last bonanza before the Obama administration took over.

At the auction, DeChristopher drove up prices with audacious bids on individual parcels. Before he was taken into custody by BLM officers, he had won a total of 13 leases for $1.75 million--which he had no intention of paying. "I decided I could live with prison for a few years, but not with these leases landing in the hands of oil and gas companies," he told Sierra. He has yet to be charged with a crime.

Six weeks later, new interior secretary Ken Salazar canceled oil and gas leases on the 77 parcels being considered for wilderness status. DeChristopher's well-publicized protest notwithstanding, Salazar may have been more influenced by a federal judge's ruling in a challenge brought by the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) that the proposed leases were illegal.

"No matter what happened at that auction," says David Garbett, SUWA staff attorney, "these parcels wouldn't have been leased." --Rachel Odell Walker

Editor's note: After this story went to press, a grand jury in Utah charged DeChristopher with two felonies: interfering with a federal auction and making false representations at an auction. If convicted, he faces $750,000 in fines and up to ten years in prison.

True Grid
Getting that cool new power to market

Everyone agrees that the nation's energy-transmission system needs a makeover. It lacks the "smart grid" technology that could reduce carbon emissions and power outages (see "Innovate," page 24), and it fails to connect prime sites for wind farms and solar plants to big cities. The American Wind Energy Association says that nearly 300,000 wind-generated megawatts can't connect to the grid because of inadequate transmission capacity. And President Barack Obama's energy plans require 3,000 miles of new lines. But when the Department of Energy and four other federal agencies rolled out plans for 6,000 miles of energy-transportation corridors this winter, the new grid looked a lot like the old one, connecting to existing and proposed coal-fired power plants.

Known as the West-wide Energy Corridor, the plan invites electric transmission lines--as well as oil and gas pipelines--to splay across 3.3 million acres of public land in 11 western states. The nearly mile-wide corridors would cross two wildlife refuges and five roadless areas, among them the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in Utah, the Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area in Idaho, and the Desert National Wildlife Refuge in Nevada.

"If we're going to industrialize public lands, let's pick the right places," says Nada Culver, senior counsel for the Wilderness Society, "not on national monuments or wilderness."

Officially, the planning process is over. But Ron Lehr of the American Wind Energy Association says that given Obama's commitment to doubling renewable-energy production, it's going to have to be reopened.

"If you're waiting for the wind guys and solar guys to put up the plants without knowing where the transmission is going to come from," he says, "you're going to be waiting a long time." --D.S.

Photos and illustrations, from top: Jim Young/Reuters, Lori Eanes, Peter and Maria Hoey, John Ueland, Cliff Lyon.



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