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The Rangers Risking Their Lives for Virunga’s Gorillas

The huge national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world

It is dawn on the shores of Lake Edward and the sun is rising over the volcanoes on the eastern skyline. Mist lies over the still water. In the forest there are elephant, hippopotamus and buffalo. Guarding them are 26 rangers in a single fortified post.

Then the silence is rudely broken. There are shouts, scattered shots, volleys from automatic weapons. Waves of attackers rush through the brush and trees. Some are close enough to hurl spears and fire arrows.

mountain gorilla in Virunga park, CongoPhoto by Joseph KingThanks to the efforts of a committed force of rangers, populations of endangered species are recovering in the national park. The endangered mountain gorilla population, for instance, now stands at more than 1,000.

Later, the rangers will tell their commanders that their assailants numbered more than a hundred. For 45 minutes the unequal battle continues. Then the guards, ammunition running low, withdraw. They take with them the bodies of three of their comrades. At least a dozen of their enemy lie on the ground.

“This is not an easy profession. Losing your friends and colleagues is very painful. But we chose to do this, and we know the risks,” said Innocent Mburanumwe, the deputy director of Virunga National Park, an enormous stretch of more than 5,000 square miles of woodland, savannah and mountains on the eastern border of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The clash last August was the bloodiest in the park for many years. There was little elation when the post was retaken four hours after the rangers’ initial retreat. The steady attrition of what Mburanumwe calls “a low intensity war” in the Virunga has claimed the lives of more than 170 rangers over the last 20 years, a toll earning the park a reputation as one of the most dangerous conservation projects in the world.

“Every day when the patrols set out, we know that they may come under fire. We know we may lose someone or we may be killed ourselves,” said Mburanumwe.

The threats facing the Virunga, home to one of the world’s largest populations of critically endangered mountain gorillas as well as hundreds of other rare species, are multiple.

There are armed rebel groups, hardened by years of combat against the Congolese government troops or those of neighboring countries, local bandits and self-defense militia, and poachers out for ivory or bush meat. Then there is the hugely lucrative charcoal industry, for which the …more

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Bill Relies on Fear of Wildfires to Expedite Logging on Public Lands

HR 2936 was pushed through the House by lawmakers whose campaigns are bankrolled by the logging industry

A bill making its way through Congress would ostensibly protect our communities from wildfires. But it really would do more to enrich the timber industry keen on harvesting more trees from federal lands.

Over the past two years, the US Congress has conducted at least eight hearings on forest fires and the US Forest Service’s (USFS) supposed lack of resources to tackle them. But it hadn't moved on any legislation to deal with the problem until last fall, when the House passed a measure that blames the increase in the size and intensity of forest fires in recent years on a “decrease in timber production” that is leaving too much deadwood and trees that serve as fuel for the flames. The legislative solution? Make it easier for the timber industry to haul away the trees.

burned forest with deerPhoto by Louis Haynes/US Forest ServiceThe will would allow agencies to conduct timber sales after wildfires without requiring standard environmental review — in some instances, on parcels up to 10,000 acres

Last November, Members of Congress, many of whose campaigns are bankrolled by the logging industry, pushed the Resilient Federal Forest Act of 2017 (H.R. 2936) through the House. The bill purports to streamline the ability of USFS and the Bureau of Land Management to "return resilience to overgrown, fire-prone forested lands, and for other purposes" by expediting the environmental review process. In reality, the bill would allow these federal entities to bypass environmental reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act and reduce the ability of citizens to challenge forest management projects and seek judicial relief.

The House passed the bill on a near party-line vote, with ten Democrats joining the Republican majority.

If the bill were to become law, it would undermine key environmental laws that protect our national forests. It would allow agencies to conduct timber sales after wildfires without requiring standard environmental review — in some instances, on parcels up to 10,000 acres (existing law caps this figure at 250 acres). In addition, it would establish a “State-Supported Forest Management Fund” that could use federal money to pay for timber sales.

The bill would also limit the agency’s consideration of alternatives for some Forest Service activities, including post-wildfire logging, to only two options — a proposed action — for example, logging to remove so-called “deadwood" — and taking no action. The USFS would also have to consider the effect of “no action” on the timber industry. (Traditionally, …more

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Grizzlies Back on Track in the North Cascades

Ryan Zinke revives grizzly bear recovery plan in Washington

Washington State's conservation community was understandably concerned when rumors began to circulate a couple of weeks ago that US interior secretary Ryan Zinke would be visiting the North Cascades to make an announcement about the proposed restoration of grizzly bears. Zinke hasn't exactly been a champion for nature since he ceremoniously arrived at his first day of work on horseback and overturned a ban on lead ammunition only hours after climbing out of the saddle. Then he began an unprecedented assault on America's national monuments, which included shrinking Bears Ears National Monument in Utah by an astounding 85 percent. What hope did we have that he'd endorse the long-awaited return of grizzlies to one of the most remote and rugged mountain landscapes in the Lower 48?

cascades mountainsPhoto by Robert LongGrizzly bears are at risk of extirpation in the Washington portion of the North Cascades Ecosystem. Although a few grizzlies have been sighted here since 1967, there hasn't been an officially confirmed sighting in more than two decades.

Well, in this particular case, hats off to Zinke and the horse he rode in on. The secretary apparently holds a special place in his heart for grizzly bears.

"I grew up on the flanks of Glacier National Park, so I've dealt with the grizzly bear all my life," Zinke told a small group of agency personnel and conservationists gathered at North Cascades National Park headquarters in Sedro Wooley, Washington, on March 23. He went on to say that he has directed his staff to accelerate the recovery planning process for grizzlies in the North Cascades — which his agency reportedly halted last December. "I'm in support of the great bear. I'm also in support of doing it right," Zinke said, adding pointedly that we're not talking about the "reintroduction of a rabbit."

True, grizzlies are not rabbits — they reproduce much more slowly, and tend to evoke a far less cordial response from people who encounter them. After Lewis and Clark blazed the trail to the Pacific in the early 1800s, a steady stream of fur traders and other settlers eradicated grizzly bears from the US West, with the last documented kill of a North Cascades grizzly occurring in 1967. Although a few grizzlies have been sighted here since, there hasn't been an officially confirmed sighting in more than two decades.

The North Cascades Ecosystem remains one of the wildest places in the Lower 48, with 6.1 …more

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White House Launches Inquiry into Pruitt’s Rent Deal With Energy Lobbyist’s Wife

Lobbyist’s clients reportedly include ExxonMobil, Enbridge Energy, Colonial Pipeline, and Cheniere Energy

There is a growing political scandal surrounding the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the climate denier, Scott “Polluting” Pruitt.

The White House has launched a formal inquiry into any potential conflict of interest over the fact that Pruitt rented a bedroom in a centrally located Capitol Hill townhouse, which just happens to be co-owned by the wife of a top energy lobbyist.

2013 fracking protest in BalcombePhoto by Greg SkidmoreThe rental agreement between Pruitt and Vicki Hart, the wife of lobbyist J. Steven Hart, “potentially violates the Ethics Pledge you signed on becoming the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator,” Democrats on the House panel on Energy and Commerce wrote in a letter to the EPA administrator.

ABC News is reporting that Pruitt rented the bedroom in 2017 which was partially owned by “Vicki Hart, the wife of lobbyist J. Steven Hart, who was registered to lobby for several environmental and energy concerns.”

The issue is further complicated as Pruitt’s daughter McKenna Pruitt, reportedly also used a second bedroom whilst she interned at the White House, despite the fact that Pruitt was supposedly only paying for one room.

Although a spokesman for the lobbyist, Hart denied lobbying the EPA since Pruitt took the job, this has not satisfied Pruitt’s many critics and the revelations have forced the White to investigate. You can see why people are concerned: Hart’s clients reportedly include ExxonMobil, Enbridge Energy, Colonial Pipeline and Cheniere Energy.

Worried about conflicts of interest, Pruitt now faces questions from members of Congress, too. Yesterday Democrats on the House panel on Energy and Commerce, which oversees the Environmental Protection Agency sent him a letter: Reps. Frank Pallone, D-N.J., Diana DeGette, D-Colo., and Paul Tonko, D-N.Y., wrote: “We are concerned that the unique rental arrangement, in which you only paid rent on the nights you were in town for use of one bedroom in the home, could be a potential conflict of interest”.

They continued that the rental agreement “potentially violates the Ethics Pledge you signed on becoming the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator.”

Of particular concern, the letter says: “As Administrator, you have taken a number of actions to benefit industries regulated by the EPA, and this news raises the possibility that you may have personally benefitted from your relationship with industry”. The letter to Pruitt includes nine questions which he has to answer before April 16.

The growing political scandal cones as there was further news of Pruitt’s further …more

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A Fracking Firm’s Return to Balcombe Could Be One of the Industry’s Last Mistakes

In 2013, the residents of this small British village rallied to head off this threat. Now they are getting ready to fight it off again.

In August 2013, a crowd of protestors snaked down a narrow country lane toward a drill site just outside of Balcombe, England. Anti-fracking chants were overlaid with the dull buzz of a police helicopter overhead — surely a first for this sleepy Sussex village. Legions of police officers dressed in helmets and stab-vests were also a novelty here, and posters opposing a 2004 ban on hound hunting, still stuck to the trees almost a decade later, reminded all who passed by that Balcombe was not the typical setting for an environmental march.

2013 fracking protest in BalcombePhoto courtesy of Push Europe/FlickrThe Balcombe protest in 2013 didn’t by any means start the British anti-fracking movement, but it helped to supercharge it.

A British fracking firm, Cuadrilla Resources, in its attempt to test-drill ahead of fracking in the rural heart of Sussex, had awoken an unexpected sleeping giant. It had also inadvertently sparked unlikely alliances in the region's movement against fracking, which continues to grow today.

During the march, a local wine critic named Charles Metcalfe gave a rousing speech to the crowd, dispelling newspaper myths that the villagers didn’t want protesters in Balcombe, a village and civil parish in England’s West Sussex County. On the contrary, two surveys had confirmed the community's overwhelming opposition to fracking, with one estimating local resistance at 90 percent. Metcalfe, who went on to become a major anti-fracking figure in the UK, said he'd learned about Cuadrillia's plans for Balcombe while reading The Telegraph on a train. His speech was followed by another — made by a representative from the environmental direct action group, Reclaim The Power. The contrast was striking — rarely do Telegraph readers and radical environmentalists share platforms.

Anti-fracking drama continued to intensify in the weeks that followed, as hundreds of people engaged in direct action to stop Cuadrilla. A group of protesters, later nicknamed "the Sticky Six," glued themselves to the doors at Cuadrilla’s PR firm, Bell Pottinger. (Bell Pottinger's other reputable clients included the dictator of Belarus and the controversial Gupta family of South Africa, the firm's racist campaigns for the latter leading to its own demise.)

The arrest of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, for whom I served as campaign manager at the time, catapulted Balcombe onto the front pages of national newspapers. The trial of Lucas and four others, and their resulting acquittal, kept Balcombe in the headlines for months. Meanwhile, anti-fracking groups were springing up …more

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The Sea in Our Veins

“No matter how high and dry the mountaintop, no matter how secluded and modern the retreat, we sweat and cry what is basically seawater”

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”— Rachel Carson

My daughter Kaia Isolde was born just over three years ago. Her world still seems to be growing a little more spacious every day. Her tiny body is so delicately attuned to me and to her mother that it becomes difficult to say where one ends and the other begins. It has been over three years since I cut the umbilical cord between them. Scissors in hand, I watched it pulsate in small waves. Then, from one moment to the next, it stopped moving. The midwife placed her hand on my shoulder, and I understood. It was time. I cut the cord, and just like that, my daughter was separated, on her own. But somehow, it seems, our three bodies have remained inseparable, deeply entangled and connected. I suppose in some delicate ways, they always will.

newborn humanPhoto by Jlhopgood /Flickr My little one and I are both creatures of the sea. The essential act of animal creation still always takes place in water. Derived from sea, river, pond, or the body’s own tissue fluid, sperm and egg always meet in a wet environment.

My astonishment drifts back in time. The blood that flows through my girl’s veins, where are its headwaters? In the womb, drinking and eating and breathing were all one for her; it was what her mother gave her; it was what trickled through that small umbilical river from which everything the child was had flowed. Are these her headwaters? What came before?

If her blood flowed from mother’s blood, must I not also trace back the flow of her blood? This would take me upstream to her mother’s umbilical unity with her mother. And so I follow the watershed up through the generations, upstream and past the point where I know their stories, their faces, their names. The bodies begin to metamorphose before my eyes, until the upright walk of distant grandmothers cowers forward and downward, mother by mother by mother, into a four-by-four tread, past all of her mammal grandmothers and even past all of herreptile grandmothers, until limbs reform into the fins they once were, and body parts as separate as breasts, teeth, and hair all grow back into the early skin of ancient mothers from whence each emerged.

These mothers inhabit the brackish water of …more

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Are Environmentalists Prepared for a Post-Brexit UK?

Withdrawing from the EU has massive implications for Britain’s national environmental regulations

Regulation. Directive. Act. Convention. Environmental policy in the United Kingdom is entangled in a complex network of legislative papers of varying legislative power, administrative levels, and sectoral coverage. The marine environment in the UK alone is regulated by more than 100 pieces of legislation at the international, intranational, European, national and regional levels. This “horrendogramm” of policies makes it, on one hand, extremely difficult to avoid gaps in legislation when one level is removed — such as the European level through Brexit — but on the other hand, can function as a safety net when legislations are dismantled.

pigeon with backdrop of EU and British flagPhoto by Welsh photographs/FlickrEU policy has largely shaped the UK's approach to environmental issues, as well as funding resources to maintain and restore the environment, the loss of which will reduce the force with which British environmentalists can move forward.

Environmental policy is inherently vulnerable to dismantling in a society predominantly driven by economic growth, but can develop a high resilience to such attacks when well-defended and designed. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, for instance, ignited a chain reaction, revealing a remarkable suite of tools available to the public, professional, and political spheres to counteract the dismantling of policy.

Withdrawing from the European Union has massive implications for the UK’s national environmental regulation. Because the country has signed many international environmental conventions and agreements as a member of the EU, negotiating their new relationship as single party will require extensive resources. The task of  ensuring compliance to environmental regulations, reporting, and accountability of the governmental machinery and its public institutions, all which was formerly covered by European bodies, will need to be redistributed. Barely any of this was discussed before the vote.

The three of us, along with 19 other students of the Technische Univeristät-Berlin decided to research the vulnerability of the UK’s environmental policies in the face of Brexit — not only due to our geographical proximity to the UK, but also because of the surprisingly low engagement of the British leadership with environmental concerns during the transition from the referendum to "Brexit-Day," currently scheduled for March 2019.

Through personal interviews, an online survey, and participation in workshops, we probed for impressions of environmental activists and policymakers on the opportunities and obstacles Brexit poses.

Some of the questions we sought to answer include: How will the UK's withdrawal from the EU affect environmental standards in the UK? …more

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