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Will National Forests Be Sacrificed to the Biomass Industry?

The US Forest Service wants to sell our forests for fuel in the name of wildfire reduction

If we’re to believe the biomass energy industry, the US Forest Service, and a chorus of politicians from both sides of the aisle, we can solve the energy crisis, cure climate change, and eradicate wildfire by logging and chipping our national forests and burning them up in biomass power facilities.

The plotline of their story goes something like this: Years of taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression in federal forests (at the behest of the timber industry) has resulted in “overgrown” forests crawling with icky bugs, ticking time bombs ready to burst into flames. And the fix, it just so happens, involves even more taxpayer-funded logging and fire suppression, with the trees forked over to the biomass industry to burn in their incinerators and then the “green” electricity sold to utilities and eventually the public — at a premium.  

White Pines National ParkPhoto by Josh Schlossberg 1,600 acres of White River National Forest are being clear-cut. All of the trees are fueling the Eagle Valley Clean Energy biomass facility.

This “burn the forest before it burns you” propaganda is most prevalent throughout the West, but it’s present anywhere there’s public land, with a total of 45.6 million acres across  94 national forests in 35 states qualifying as “Insect and Disease Area Designations” under the 2014 Farm Bill — money on the stump for the biomass industry.

Saving the Forest from Itself

The Forest Service’s logging-for-biomass agenda has “nothing to do with public welfare or the economy,” according to Carl Ross, executive director of Save America’s Forests, an organization that works to protect US forests. Instead, it is simply a way to justify the existence of an agency whose “multi-billion dollar budget is dependent on cutting trees.” With the lumber industry in contraction due to a dismal housing market and tanked economy, the Forest Service focuses on “sick” forests that can only be “cured” through chainsaw surgery to fuel biomass incinerators.

The concept of logging a forest to “save” it is nothing new. It dates back to President George W. Bush’s Healthy Forest Restoration Act in 2003. However, a recent uptick in national forest logging has accompanied a rash of new biomass incinerator proposals, with politicians and even some environmental groups like the Nature Conservancy, cheering the industry on.

Currently, the majority …more

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Nature Needs Half

Conservation group promoting an ambitious new proposal for wilderness protection

During the last half century conservationists around the world have won some impressive victories to protect wild places. Here in the US, the Wilderness Act preserves some 110 million acres of public land. Private holdings by groups like The Nature Conservancy safeguard tens of millions of additional acres. The idea of protecting ecosystems from industrial development has spread around the world. There’s the Mavuradonha Wilderness in Zimbabwe, the El Carmen ecosystem in northern Mexico, Kissama National Park in Angola, and the Tasmanian Wilderness in Australia, to name just a few stunning parks and preserves; UNESCO’s world heritage list includes 197 sites of special beauty and/or biodiversity.

Patagonia AlivePhoto by Trey RatcliffNature Needs Half has set out an unbelievable challenge: to formally, legally set aside one half of Earth’s land and water as interconnected natural areas.

But conservation biologists now recognize that these sanctuaries are limited in what they can accomplish precisely because they are special — which is to say, rare. Parks and preserves are all too often islands of biological integrity in a sea of human development. To really protect natural systems, healthy biomes need to be the rule, not the exception.

To achieve that vision, The WILD Foundation, a multinational NGO based in Boulder, Colorado, is pushing a bold concept called “Nature Needs Half.” In a world in which even the wealthiest governments routinely abdicate their responsibilities toward future generations and the environment, Nature Needs Half has set out an unbelievable challenge: to formally, legally set aside one half of Earth’s land and water as interconnected natural areas.

This is, of course, a hugely ambitious endeavor, opposing as it does the assumption that Earth’s resources are here to be exploited solely by humans. We live in what some have called the “Anthropocene,” the Age of Man, a world in which every aspect of physical being, from the oceanic depths to the troposphere, has been radically altered by humankind. Rivers are being dammed, forests leveled, oceans emptied and wildlife eradicated. It’s not a pretty picture, but as an empiric truth it’s difficult to refute. Consider a few facts:

  • The long-term acidification of the oceans by our ongoing buildup of industrial carbon dioxide is killing off coral reefs around the world, resulting in the loss of a critical …more

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Experts Look to Lithium Extraction in the Race to Save California’s Salton Sea

Geothermal brine in the region may contain North America’s largest deposit of the element that’s key to the electronics industry

It is easy to imagine the Salton Sea, California’s largest lake, as nothing more than a 350-square-mile puddle. At its deepest point, the silvery inland sea is just 50 feet. By 2030, it will be reduced to a mere 30 feet, and over 100 square miles of lakebed will be exposed and reduced to a noxious dust, swirling in the relentless Sonora Desert wind.

Salton SeaPhotos by Ian UmedaOther than rain and chemical-laden agricultural runoff from Riverside and Imperial County farms, the Salton Sea subsists on “mitigated water” from the Imperial Irrigation District’s. In 2018 the mitigated water supply will be cut off.

The average annual rainfall here is about three inches, and other than chemical-laden agricultural runoff from Riverside and Imperial County farms, the Sea subsists on “mitigated water” from the Imperial Irrigation District’s (IID) annual Colorado River allotment. But on January 1, 2018, in accordance with a 2003 agriculture-to-urban water transfer agreement between the IID and the San Diego County Water Authority, the mitigation tap will be shut off.

The 2003 deal, known as the Quantification Settlement Agreement (QSA), requires the Imperial Irrigation District to divert increasing amounts of water to drought-stricken, densely populated San Diego County. Already, thousands of acres of Imperial Valley farmland have been fallowed and miles of lakebed exposed. The Sea’s wetlands — a vital stopover for some 400 migratory bird species — are disappearing. The air is thick with dust. Imperial County, where the majority of the Sea lies, leads California in both childhood asthma and unemployment.

In the community, this environmental and economic crisis has become known as the “Salton Sea problem.” With the 2018 shut-off looming, the rush is on to find a solution.

The California Natural Resources Agency has estimated that restoring the Sea would cost between $3 and $9 billion. But there is little support in Sacramento and among the greater California public for such an expensive stabilization plan for the remote, accidental lake. (The Salton Sink basin was flooded when a Colorado River irrigation channel breached in 1905.)

“The main question has become what do to with what is essentially a sewage dump,” said Columbia University’s Water Center director and professor of Earth and Environmental Engineering, Dr Upmanu Lall. “A body of water created by mistake has to be looked at differently than one created naturally.”

Lall believes tax …more

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Obama Declares Part of San Gabriel Mountains a National Monument

The wild Is where you find It, and it is always worth protecting

In a wise move, President Barak Obama today designated about 350,000 acres of the San Gabriel Mountains, east of Los Angeles, as our country's newest national monument. It's a decision that came as the result of years of collaboration amongst a vibrant and diverse network of community leaders, a reflection of the many important roles the area's mountains and rivers play for local communities. One hundred and fifty years ago, Sierra Club founder John Muir explored the steep and picturesque peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains and marveled at their beauty.

San Gabriel MountainsPhoto by Raul/FlickrThe San Gabriel mountains are a dramatic landmark in the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests.

The new San Gabriel Mountains National Monument affirms that protecting wild lands is still a popular endeavor for many Americans today. The wild is where you find it, whether that be an urban park or the vast wild spaces that make up much of our country's public lands. And no matter where it's found, the wild is worth protecting.

The San Gabriel mountains are a dramatic landmark in the Angeles and San Bernardino National Forests. These National Forests are within an hour's drive of more than 17 million people in Southern California, making them a popular and accessible outdoor recreation destination.The Angeles National Forest provides more than 70 percent of Los Angeles County's open space. Each year more than three million people visit the Angeles National Forest to be physically active and connect with nature. That's important for everyone, but especially for children in the San Gabriel Valley communities with few or no public parks. Park-poor communities in the San Gabriel Valley have child obesity rates of 30 to 40 percent, nearly twice the national average.

Yet for years this beautiful area has been underfunded and underserviced. A new national monument designation will improve visitor services with new bathrooms and trash cans, trail signs, and culturally-appropriate visitor information and education programs.

The San Gabriel Mountains also provide one-third of Los Angeles County's drinking water. Despite their proximity to Los Angeles, they provide homes for wildlife like Nelson's bighorn sheep, the California spotted owl and the San Gabriel mountain salamander. And they offer the chance for quiet recreation and communion with nature in its most pristine state.

Fifty years after the creation of the Wilderness Act it's clear that …more

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Carbon in the Tank

The price of gasoline in the US reflects not actual costs but the reflected glare of the margins necessary for oil companies to sustain hefty profits.

ON A BOOKSHELF above my desk, I have a rock that’s about the size of a fist. It’s ridged and bumpy, and covered in oil. I’ve been carrying it with me for about a decade, after collecting it from a remote beach in Galicia on the northwest coast of Spain.

workers cleaning up oil from beach in SpainPhoto by Stéphane M. Grueso The sinking of the oil tanker Prestige off the coast of Spain unleashed one of the worst environmental disasters in history — at least until the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010.

The beach, about fifty miles north of the border with Portugal, is barely more than a rocky outcropping in the Atlantic, an isolated place with a sharp cold wind even in the spring. Six months before I slipped the rock into my overcoat pocket, on the night of November 22, 2002, a ferocious storm off that coast had tossed the Prestige, an eight-hundred-foot-long single-hull oil tanker, like a toy boat. As she lurched in the violent waters, a wave smashed into the right forward hull and the three-foot-thick steel blew open—“like a sardine can,” a rescue worker later recalled. After the captain’s SOS, the Spanish Coast Guard sent a helicopter to pick up the nineteen crew members. Then the Prestige sank about thirty miles offshore. Out from the hull came viscous cascades of oil: Seventy-nine million gallons of crude washed onto a thousand miles of coast, all the way up to the beaches of southwest France. Satellite photos taken by the French research agency CIDRE show the oil spreading from the Prestige like spindly black veins in the circulatory system of the Atlantic.

The Prestige unleashed one of the worst environmental disasters in history — at least until the Deepwater Horizon, BP’s oil derrick, exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April 2010. When the oil started gurgling out of BP’s underwater pipes, after the explosion killed eleven people who’d been working on the rig, a sense memory of Galicia returned.

I didn’t go to the Louisiana coast to watch, but I did, like many of us, watch in horror from afar. It rapidly became clear that oil spills are not very different. In fact, they are interchangeable. The Prestige was carrying a refined version of what the Deepwater Horizon was pumping from …more

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PA State Police and Private Security Firms Keeping Close Tabs on Fracking Opponents

Environmental watchdogs worried about the criminalization of dissent

Anti-fracking activists protesting a natural-gas conference in Philadelphia last fall were being monitored by a private security company that sent a photo of a demonstrator to the Pennsylvania State Police, according to an email obtained by Earth Island Journal.

A few months earlier, at another industry-led conference, state Trooper Michael Hutson delivered a presentation on environmental extremism and acts of vandalism across Pennsylvania's booming Marcellus Shale natural-gas reserves. He showed photographs of several anti-fracking groups in Pennsylvania, including Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective protesters demonstrating at an active gas well site in Lawrence County in western Pennsylvania.

photo of a woman holding a protest sign on a farmPittsburgh City PaperA Pennsylvania state police trooper used this photo of organic hog farmer Maggie Henry as part of a
Powerpoint presentation about “environmental extremism.”

That same Pennsylvania state trooper visited the home of anti-fracking activist Wendy Lee, a Bloomsburg University philosophy professor, to question her about photos she took of a natural gas compressor station in Lycoming County. Remarkably, the trooper earlier had crossed state lines and traveled to New York to visit Jeremy Alderson, publisher of the No Frack Almanac, at his home outside Ithaca, to accuse him of trespassing to obtain photos of the same compressor station.

The photo, presentation and house visits are part of a little-known intelligence-sharing network that brings together law enforcement, including the FBI, state Homeland Security agencies, the oil and gas industry and private security firms. Established in late 2011 or early 2012, the Marcellus Shale Operators' Crime Committee (MSOCC) is a group of "professionals with a law-enforcement background who are interested in developing working relationships and networking on intelligence issues," according to an email sent to group members by James Hansel, regional security manager for Anadarko Petroleum.

The MSOCC has taken a keen interest in environmental activists and anti-fracking groups, according to documents obtained through a state Right to Know request. The collaboration raises questions about the increasingly close ties between law enforcement and the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, and whether law enforcement has violated the civil liberties of protesters and environmental groups in its effort to protect the state's most controversial industry.

The production of natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that underlies several states, is a multibillion dollar industry that has grown dramatically over …more

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Election 2014: A Guide to the Biggest Environmental Battles

Green PACs amping up spending; more GMO initiatives; soda tax fights

Slogan-stacked yard signs proliferating like swarms of locusts. Leaflets cluttering the mailbox and the front porch. Histrionic ads filling up just about every spare minute of cable TV.

All of this can mean just one thing – election season.

Polling Placephoto by Theron Trowbridge/FlickrThe US Senate contests aren’t the only races to watch.With continued Washington gridlock certain, state and local governments represent the best opportunities for meaningful climate action in the short-term.

The national media is mostly obsessed with the fate of the US Senate. Thanks to the cynical and baldly partisan congressional redistricting that has occurred during the last four years, many House incumbents will glide to re-election, even though Congress’ favorability rating is polling at an all-time low. The main drama, then, centers on whether the Democrats will be able to maintain control of the Senate.

If you care about the environment – and, especially, maintaining a more-or-less stable climate – then you should care about what happens to the Senate. Here’s how Daniel J. Weiss, the senior vice president for campaigns at the League of Conservation Voters, described the situation to me in a conversation last week: “[Current Minority Leader] Senator Mitch McConnell [a Republican from Kentucky], who would become Senate Majority Leader, has already promised to use the government spending process to block President Obama’s clean power plan, even if it means the government shuts down. So Mitch McConnell has already painted a bull’s-eye on President Obama’s power plan.”

To keep a more climate-action-friendly majority in power in the Senate, environmental political action committees are dramatically boosting their spending compared to previous mid-term election years. The League of Conservation Voters expects to spend $25 million promoting pro-environment candidates – fives times as much as it spent in 2010. Green billionaire Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action Committee has already thrown down even more than that – $30.5 million according to its last filing with the Federal Election Committee – and will undoubtedly exceed that hefty figure. Steyer has said he will spend as much as $100 million this political season to keep climate change deniers out of office.

But the US Senate contests aren’t the only races to watch. With continued Washington gridlock certain even if Democrats manage to hold onto the upper chamber, state and local governments represent …more

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