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Obama Creates World’s Largest Protected Marine Area Off Hawaii

Expanded Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument is now more than twice the size of Texas

Barack Obama has created the world’s largest marine protected area by expanding an existing ocean reserve off Hawaii to cover 582,578 square miles, providing what’s likely to be the grandest, and final, chapter in the president’s conservation legacy.

photo of Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monumentphoto by NOAA’s National Ocean ServiceBigeye soldierfish in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

The sweeping move quadruples the size of the Papahānaumokuākea marine national monument, which was originally designated by George W. Bush in 2006 and was declared a World Heritage site in 2010.

The monument, which is now double the size of Texas, stretches outward from the north-western Hawaiian islands and includes Midway Atoll, famed for its former military base and eponymous battle that was crucial in the US defeat of Japan in the second world war. The protected area is now larger than the previous largest marine reserve, situated around the Pitcairn Islands and announced by the UK last year.

Conservationists had pushed for an expansion to the monument following recent research that discovered new species and important ecological connectivity in the area, as well as raised concerns for the ecosystem due to the impact of ocean acidification and coral decline driven by warming temperatures.

The White House said the decision will provide “critical protections” for more than 7,000 marine species, a quarter of them found nowhere else on Earth. The area is inhabited by whales, sea turtles and yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna, which are commonly referred to in Hawaii as ‘ahi. Swaths of black coral, the world’s longest-living marine species at more than 4,500 years, will also be protected.

“This is one of the most important actions an American president has ever taken for the health of the oceans,” said Brian Schatz, a Democratic senator for Hawaii.

“Expanding Papahānaumokuākea will replenish stocks of ‘ahi, promote biodiversity, fight climate change, and give a greater voice to Native Hawaiians in managing this resource. This declaration sets us on a strong path forward for our irreplaceable environment and the generations to come.”

The expansion of the ocean reserve has been mooted for some time and was expected to be announced at the IUCN World Conservation Congress, scheduled for next week in Hawaii. Obama will address the international gathering on Wednesday, before traveling to Midway Atoll to highlight the threat posed by climate change upon marine ecosystems.

The new designation is perhaps a fitting conservation denouement for Obama, who was born in Hawaii. The …more

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A Birthday Gift for NPS: Obama Creates Maine Woods National Monument

Decades of efforts to establish a national park in Maine’s vast North Woods region pay off

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valleyIn honor of the National Park Service, which turns 100 today, President Obama yesterday signed into law the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument in Maine using his authority under the Antiquities Act.

Obama’s action follows in the tradition of many other presidents who have created national monuments such as the Grand Canyon, Grand Tetons, Olympic and others that were subsequently upgraded to national park status. The new national monument – which will be managed by the National Park Service – will protect approximately 87,500 acres, including the stunning East Branch of the Penobscot River and a portion of the Maine Woods that is rich in biodiversity. "The protected area – together with the neighboring Baxter State Park to the west – will ensure that this large landscape remains intact, bolstering the forest’s resilience against the impacts of climate change," the White House said in a statement yesterday.

view of Moosehead LakePhoto by George WuerthnerA view of Moosehead Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Maine, from top of Mt. Kineo in the North Woods. The lake was inlcuded in RESTORE the North Woods' initial 3.2 million park proposal. It's not inlcuded in the area covered by the new national monument.

There were several earlier attempts to establish a national park in the Maine Woods starting in the early 1900s, but all failed (read “A Park that Begs Creating”). The most recent effort to protect the Maine Woods began back in the 1980s and illustrates how persistence and perseverance can pay off. Conservation is more like the tortoise, not the hare — a slow continuous process that can take decades.

Back in the 1980s, I was writing several books on Maine, Vermont, and the Adirondacks that revealed that much of northern New England was owned by large timber corporations. I also learned that the regional timber industry was in steep decline, and much of the corporate lands were being sold off. And I also knew that nearly all of the parks and national forests in the eastern United States had been created by purchasing private lands. Here, I thought, was an opportunity. Feeling there was not enough public land in the region, I wrote an article proposing the creation of a national park in northern New England. I shopped it around, but no one would publish it. The editors kept asking me …more

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Illegal Herbicide Use on GMO Crops Causing Massive Damage to Vegetable Farms

Dicamba can drift for miles after spraying, harming non-target crops

Last year, Kade McBroom launched a non-GMO soybean processing plant in Malden, Missouri, and was optimistic about the potential to serve the fast-growing non-GMO market.

photo of soybeans in Missouriphoto by CAFNRA soybean field in Missouri. Monsanto's GMO crops can tolerate sprays of dicamba, but other crops can't

But now McBroom sees a potential threat to his new business from herbicide drift sprayed on genetically modified crops. This past spring, Monsanto Co. started selling GM Roundup Ready Xtend soybean and cotton seeds to farmers in Missouri and several other states. The seeds are genetically engineered to withstand sprays of glyphosate and dicamba herbicides. The problem is that the Xtend dicamba herbicide designed to go with the seeds has not yet been approved by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), leading many farmers to spray their GMO soybeans and cotton with older formulas of dicamba — illegally.

May Not Be Able to Grow Non-GMO Soybeans

While Monsanto's GMO crops can tolerate sprays of dicamba, other crops can't. As a result, dicamba, which is known to convert from a liquid to a gas and spread for miles, is damaging tens of thousands of acres of "non-target" crops in southern Missouri and nine other states, mostly in the South. An estimated 200,000 acres are affected in Missouri alone, though the EPA puts that number at 40,000. Non-GMO and even GMO, soybeans that aren't dicamba resistant are damaged as well as peaches, tomatoes, watermelon, cantaloupe and other crops.

"Farmers are so mad," said McBroom, who has spoken with several farmers in his area about the problem. "I'm assuming there will be lawsuits."

Two farmers who grow non-GMO soybeans for Malden Specialty Soy told McBroom that they may be forced to grow dicamba tolerant GMO soybeans to protect their farms from dicamba drift.

"When my suppliers say 'I'm going to have to quit growing non-GMO soybeans and start planting dicamba beans just to protect myself' it becomes an issue," he said. "They don't want to go that route, but they may not have a choice."

For now, McBroom says his business is fine, but warns: "If they don't get this under control it will be a threat."

Peach Producer Lost 30,000 Trees

The dicamba drift problem extends beyond non-GMO soybeans to many other crops. Missouri's southern "Bootheel" region is known for its agricultural diversity. Farmers grow a wide range of crops including cotton, rice, wheat watermelon, tomatoes, cantaloupe, peaches, sweet potatoes, peas, popcorn and peanuts. Many of those crops are threatened …more

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Feds Move Oil & Gas Lease Auctions Online in Effort to Avoid Opposition

23.8 million acres of leases in Gulf of Mexico are being auctioned today amid protests from community activists and environmentalists

This morning, the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management will auction 23.8 million acres of oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Today’s sale is the agency’s first attempt at auctioning oil and gas leases using an online, livestream auction format, eliminating in-person observation by the public.  

photo of the Maersk Developer in Gulf of Mexicophoto by JournoJen, on Flickr An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM is auctioning 23.8 million acres of oil and gas leases in the Gulf today.

Environmental activists say this move to an online system is aimed at stifling the public’s ability to protest at the auction. They see it as a response to the nationwide Keep it in the Ground campaign, which works to stop new fossil fuel lease sales, and has targeted BOEM’s offshore oil and gas lease auctions, as well as onshore auctions held by the Bureau of Land Management. Indeed, BOEM admits that the change is, in part, a response to recent events.

The agency was the target of protests back in March too, when hundreds of Gulf Coast residents showed up to an auction at the New Orleans superdome protesting the lease sale of 43 million acres in the Gulf of Mexico. BOEM says the move to an online system was largely about efficiency — as well as, ahem, “to help BOEM minimize its carbon footprint” by reducing travel.

But, responding to questions by email, the agency admitted that mounting protests factored into the decision, claiming that “recent events have demonstrated that some modifications to the lease sale process are warranted… to ensure the safety of employees.”

“They are trying to hide from our movement,” says Blake Kopcho, an oceans campaigner with the conservation nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “We have shown up at every BLM and BOEM fossil fuel auction over the last year since we launched this campaign… And I think the [Obama] administration really dislikes the attention that we are bringing to the fact that, in the emerging climate crisis, the federal government continues to offer up our public lands and waters for pennies on the acre to the most profitable industry in the history of the world to continue to burn fossil fuels.”

Advocates in New Orleans, home to BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic regional office, have been fighting the agency’s decision. “The move from a public to online auction is corporate manipulation, and I believe it …more

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Moving Past the Transportation Gridlocks in Our National Parks

To reduce the impact of vehicles on our parks, we need to make them accessible via public transit

graphic depicting a hiker overlooking a valley

As the train snakes along the inner Bay, I relax into my Amtrak seat and settle into that euphoric feeling I have every time I leave the city and aim for the mountains.

Looking out the viewing car window, I already see fewer marks of industrial development (refineries and highways) and more signs of rural California (blue herons and citrus orchards).  In a couple hours I'll transfer to the YARTS bus (Yosemite Area Regional Transportation System) in Merced, which will take me right to the heart of Yosemite Valley. I don't have to worry about driving or fighting the get-the-hell-out-of-the-city traffic snarl. Instead, I enjoy the view, sip a mid-afternoon wine, and study trail maps. Once I arrive, the park entrance fee is included in the fare, and I take the electric-hybrid Yosemite Shuttle to many of the trailheads and attractions on the Valley floor.

My combined train-bus trip saved at least one car from contributing to gridlock in the Valley. Most people I tell about this way of traveling to and in Yosemite had not heard of it and I suspect that is common. As the National Park Service enters its second century, it made me consider: What is the impact of millions of vehicles on our nation’s “best idea” and how does it compromise our experience of these grand places? What is being done to minimize auto traffic in national parks? Which parks are accessible via alternative transportation?

photo of Grand Canyon National Park South Entrance with Carsphoto by Grand Canyon National Park Cars wait to enter Grand Canyon National Park. In 2015, more than 300 million people visited national parks, most using personal vehicles.

During my last trip to Yosemite during summer for a volunteer activity, there were times when it was a literally a traffic jam on the Valley floor. I might as well have been on I-80. No doubt being able to view Half Dome was a saving grace.  

But still….I wanted to join Edward Abbey in his famous rant towards the end of Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness:

“No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs—anything – but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out. We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art …more

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Native American Protesters Will Defy North Dakota Pipeline Construction ‘For as Long as it Takes’

Some 2,000 activists have descended on the site of the $3.7 billion pipeline construction project

Joey Montoya, like other protesters near Cannon Ball, at the northern boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation in North Dakota, sees himself as not just protecting the local community from a new oil pipeline — but also the country and the earth.

photo of Dakota Access Pipelinephoto by Lars PlougmannAt 1,172 miles, the Dakota Access Pipeline will rival Keystone XL in size.

“Native communities are always just the first to be affected. We’re always at the front lines when oil companies come in.”

Montoya, a 22-year-old member of the Lipan Apache tribe from San Francisco, is part an influx of Native American and environmental activists from all over the country who have gathered in the remote part of the state to take a stand against the $3.7 billion North Dakota Access Pipeline, which tribal members say threatens to pollute drinking water and damage sacred sites.

Though people have been gathering on the site since the proposal was announced in April, hundreds descended on the site this week as construction began — and 18 people have been arrested. [According to the latest news this morning, 28 people have now been arrested.]

On Monday night, protesters say pipeline workers were instructed to leave their equipment after protesters walked onto the work site and surrounded the machinery, in an action led mostly by women in the group. Cody Hall, of the Red Warrior Camp who joined the movement this week, said women had “jumped fences” to get closer to machinery in order to obstruct it. On Tuesday and Wednesday construction continued to be suspended. It is still unclear when work will resume.

If and when the pipeline is completed, it will transfer fracked crude oil from the Bakken field in the north-western part of North Dakota. It will run south-east across that state and then through South Dakota and Iowa before joining with a pipeline hub in Patoka, Illinois. According to its website, Energy Transfer Partners, the parent company behind the project, is the largest pipeline operator in the US by volume.

Although the pipeline will run outside the formal boundary of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation, tribal members have argued that it will disturb sacred sites, and that consultation on this point was inadequate. These arguments failed to stop the approval, which was granted in late July.

Kandi Mossett, an organizer with the Indigenous Environmental Network explains: “There are sacred sites out here, there are midden pile sites, historic sites. …more

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Coral Reefs Need Big Fish Pee

New research shows overfishing of large, predatory fish can deplete reefs of key nutrients

Fish pee. OK, I suppose I kind of knew that, but somehow the thought fish they pee right where they swim never crossed my mind. Now I’m learning that the waters around thriving coral colonies are liberally laced with fish urine. I’m glad I didn’t give this subject much thought back when when I was diving quite a bit among coral reefs 

 Nassau Grouper Photo by Craig Layman The Nassau grouper, pictured center with stripes, is one of the larger fish that lives around coral reefs.

Ick-factor aside, it appears that fish urine plays an important role in coral reef ecosystems. Previous research (which too, I was unaware of) has shown that reefs wouldn’t exist without the phosphorous that’s released into the water when fish pee, as well as the nitrogen excreted as ammonium through the gills of fish. This nutrient supply from fish is crucial to the survival and growth of coral reefs.

Now a new study has established what should be an obvious corollary: In coral reef areas that have been overfished, nearly half of these key nutrients are absent from the ecosystem. 

The researchers, whose findings were published in the journal Nature Communications on Tuesday, found that the falling numbers of large-bodied and predator fish had the most impact on these ecosystems.

"Part of the reason coral reefs work is because animals play a big role in moving nutrients around," Jacob Allgeier, researcher at the University of Washington's School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences and lead author of the study, said in a statement. "Fish hold a large proportion, if not most of the nutrients in a coral reef in their tissue, and they're also in charge of recycling them. If you take the big fish out, you're removing all of those nutrients from the ecosystem."

Coral reefs are highly productive in terms of the biodiversity they support, but they are also very fragile. They operate on what scientists call a "tight" nutrient cycle, meaning there must be an efficient transfer of the limited nutrients in the waters around them for coral to grow. Phosphorus in fish pee and nitrogen excreted through their gills are important nutrients for coral reefs. In many reef communities, fish will take shelter in and around coral during the day — peeing out valuable nutrients — then forage for prey in and around the reef by night.

Allgeier’s research was inspired by a 1980s study …more

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