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Champagne in the Peel

The adventure to save one of the world’s last great wildernesses

After an all-night drive up from Whitehorse, Canada, our small group of activists, artists, and outdoor enthusiasts begins the process of loading gear onto the floatplane dock at Mayo, a village of 200 inhabitants along the Stewart River in the heart of Canada’s Yukon Territory. Bleary-eyed, we load our supplies into two aircraft, then lash four canoes atop the planes’ floats. Five minutes after we are airborne, we swing around to the northeast and watch houses and roads and other signs of human life disappear beneath us.

photo of a man using a tent in a meadow under mountains and a rainbowPhotos by Peter MatherMusician and composer Matthew Lien on a Canadian Park and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) expedition to the Wind River in 2013. Lien blended sounds from the watershed into his original pieces to create stunning songs that were played at Protect the Peel events.

For nearly two hours we climb over the wilderness, heading further north toward the high spine of the Mackenzie Mountains, which stretch nearly 500 miles from British Columbia to bisect the Yukon. We marvel at the green valleys and snow-dusted mountains below us. As clouds gather and then part, sunlight splinters into beams that bathe the sparkling, steaming summits with ethereal yellow light.

A full-throttle climb brings us over a final mountain pass with so little room to spare that it seems we could reach out and touch the spires on either side. We descend into Bonnet Plume Range, toward a pair of lakes near the headwaters of the Snake River. Once we land and unload and the sound of the departing planes fades into silence, we sit on pads of soft moss and take stock of our position. In the Lower 48, the most remote point – the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park – is little more than 20 miles from a road. Here, just below the Arctic Circle, we are nearly 200 miles from the nearest highway.

With only 35,000 inhabitants, this California-size territory remains almost completely unsettled. Walled off by Canada’s highest peaks, the Yukon’s lake-dotted taiga, mountains, and river systems sweep down from the Beaufort Sea between Alaska to the west and the Northwest Territories to the east. Most of that land is drained by the Yukon River, which flows north and west nearly 2,000 miles across the Yukon and Alaska …more

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Getting Past Scientized Scrutiny

Too often, reporting on food and agriculture treats science as a singular source of truth

It’s been a rotten spring for glyphosate. On March 20, the World Health Organization announced that it was officially classifying the herbicide — the most widely used farm chemical in the United States — as a “probable” cause of cancer. Days later, the American Society of Microbiology linked glyphosate and two other herbicides to antibiotic resistance, the low-boiling public health disaster. And then a well-known skeptic scientist tried to downplay these findings, deepening the crisis: Appearing on the French cable channel Canal+, Dr. Patrick Moore told interviewers “you can drink a whole quart” of the herbicide “and it won’t hurt you” — but then refused to take a swig. “I’m not an idiot,” he said. 

 glyphosatePhoto by Chafer Machinery A crop-sprayer applies glyphosate to a field in North Yorkshire, England .

For many casual observers of these events — and certainly for folks in the ever-growing food movement — glyphosate had finally tipped the scales from ‘bad idea’ to unconscionable. If the collapsing of monarch populations, the evolution of spray-tolerant weeds, and the pollution of soil, water, and farmworker bodies was not enough to dethrone the king of agrochemicals, then maybe the specter of cancer and antibiotic resistance would.

It was all the more remarkable, then, to see just the opposite reaction spelled out in one of our country’s most reputable publications. In an April 10 New Yorker piece, well-known science writer Michael Specter went to bat for the chemical industry, declaring that the WHO report should change nothing about popular use of glyphosate. Why? Because while it could be dangerous, it is not proven to be. “Scores of studies,” he noted, have found “no connection” between glyphosate and cancer. What’s more, the handwringers would have us believe that all GMOs and their companion chemicals are to blame for troubles spanning cancer to autism. These critics just don’t understand science, he implied.

Not to pick on Specter per se, but his latest piece provides a valuable entrée into thinking more critically about scientized reporting, where and how the data gets drawn, and the human-made imperfections inherent to science.

Scientized reporting often fails to appreciate the nature of the regulatory science process. It’s not about proving with absolute certainty that there is, or isn’t harm. Rather, because there are gaps in scientific knowledge, assessors look at whether …more

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Fighting Fossils, Letting Go of Regulatory Law

Oregon county embraces a community rights approach to challenge local liquefied natural gas terminal

US fossil fuel exports are on the rise. The fall in global oil prices has bolstered already determined efforts to lift the 1975 ban on US crude oil exports. And as hydrofracking operations continue to expand, the industry is scrambling for regulatory approval to build a network of pipelines and terminals to transport natural gas around the country and worldwide.

Natural Gas ExportsPhoto by chesapeakeclimate, on Flickr Activists protest the Cove Point natural gas terminal. In Coos County, OR, some activists are embracing a community rights approach to block the proposed Jordan Cove terminal.

Fossil fuel proponents jump through regulatory hoop after hoop, papers are pushed, and studies are conducted. Throughout this process, concerned citizens are assured by government agencies that projects will follow the law. They are told that if any endangered species habitat is destroyed, it will be preserved or created elsewhere. That any harm done by ripping pipeline through communities and wilderness, or planting a terminal in a fragile estuary, will be properly mitigated. Then, if all I’s are dotted and T’s crossed, permitting approval often follows. Final decisions over authorization generally take place behind closed doors.

At Cove Point, Maryland, Jordan Cove, Oregon, and elsewhere, prospective exporters of domestic liquefied natural gas (LNG) have been wading through this process for years.

Activists opposing the terminals have jumped through the regulatory hoops, too. Writing public comments, projecting toxin levels, measuring harm — desperately appealing to language regulatory agencies can understand.

Despite tremendous public opposition and countless arguments to the contrary, last fall the Cove Point terminal expansion received Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approval. In Oregon’s Jordan Cove, FERC has given a tentative green light that is conditioned on the completion of other pending permit applications.

Jordan Cove activists are working tirelessly to stop the project. I spoke with one such activist, Jody McCaffree of Citizens Against LNG, an Oregon group opposing the Jordan Cove terminal through the regulatory process. She listed a slew of regulatory nightmares facing the terminal — its problematic proximity to an airport runway; the number of people who would receive second degree burns should a tanker explode; the terminal’s vulnerability to tsunamis; and the oyster farms that would be impacted, to name a few. Pointing to the egregious nature of the terminal, McCaffree expressed …more

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Star Wars, Hawaiian Style

Indigenous activists take on Northern Hemisphere’s biggest telescope

The Big Island of Hawaii is often in the news because of the active Kilauea volcano. However, an eruption of another sort at the dormant 13,796 foot-high Mauna Kea is thrusting Hawaii back into the headlines. This explosion of activism has been triggered not by TNT, but by “TMT,” the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, the Northern Hemisphere’s largest, most advanced optical telescope, which is slated to be built on the summit of the Aloha State’s highest peak. This 184 foot-tall, 18 story-high, eight acre, $1.4 billion construction project has sparked a wave of occupations and protests by Native Hawaiians, environmentalists, and their allies, stretching from Hawaii to California.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto provided by TMT Observatory Corp An artist's rendition of the proposed TMT project (located in the lower left-hand corner), as well as existing telescopes on Mauna Kea.

The Constellations’ Collision Course

Opponents have flocked to Mauna Kea to stop construction of the telescope and adjacent conservatory, staging acts of civil disobedience and causing a PR nightmare that has taken the TMT International Observatory LLC, a multinational conglomerate, by surprise. Last October, protesters disrupted the star-crossed project’s groundbreaking ceremony atop Mauna Kea. Across the Pacific, demonstrators gathered in Palo Alto, CA, outside the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, which has pledged $200 million to fund the controversial project.

Later, protesters setup roadblocks to prevent equipment and machinery from reaching Mauna Kea’s summit to continue construction. On April 2, 31 protesters, known as the Mauna Kea 31, were reportedly arrested for trespassing, blocking work vehicles, and disobeying an officer. Those arrested included longtime campaigners Moanikeala Akaka, 70, a former trustee with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs (a State agency overseeing indigenous matters), and James Albertini, 68.

So far, the protests have been successful. “[As of] April 21, we are in ‘stand down,’” Sandra Dawson, TMT Manager of Hawaii Community Affairs, said via a conference call to Hilo, Hawaii (with a Honolulu-based Becker Communications publicist on the line). “TMT has agreed to halt construction temporarily while stakeholders are talking about different ideas for moving forward…. Governor [David] Hige asked if we would halt construction for a period and we agreed. Then we met with him again and we said we’d continue the construction halt for a period of time while people pursued conversations.” According to Dawson, only one-and-a-half days …more

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Former Orca Trainer John Hargrove on the SeaWorld ‘Facade’

Blackfish star slams the marine entertainment giant for ‘disgusting’ treatment of whales

During his 12 years as an orca trainer at SeaWorld, John Hargrove became increasingly concerned about the impacts of captivity on the whales he cared for. After leaving his job at SeaWorld, Hargrove became a powerful force in the campaign against whale captivity with his appearing in the documentary Blackfish and the recent release of his book Beneath the Surface, which chronicles the dangers of captivity to orcas and trainers alike. Hargrove recently sat down with Mark Palmer, David Phillips, and Mary Jo Rice at Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project for an interview. Here is the transcript, which originally appeared on the Dolphin Project website.

SeaWorldPhoto by John ‘K’, on Flickr Orcas perform at the San Diego SeaWorld park.

Mark Palmer: We’re here with John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld trainer of orcas — he spent 12 years there and with various orcas from around the world. He’s also the author of the new book Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish. So welcome, John. You worked with SeaWorld for twelve years, plus an additional two years in France, training orcas. You became a senior trainer — tops for SeaWorld and one of the top people in the organization — so I would like to ask: What do you think of SeaWorld today?

John Hargrove: Well, I have a radically different opinion of SeaWorld today than I did in the beginning, which was when I started in ’93 at the age of 20. I guess the best way to phrase it is that at the end of the day, SeaWorld really is a facade.  What you believed it would be as a child, and even at the beginning of your career; it’s not about that. It’s not about what’s in the best interest of the animals, it’s what’s in the best interest of the company and making profit. And once you come to that full realization, combined with seeing the damaging effects of killer whales in captivity — something in you changes.

Mark: Why do you think captivity is wrong for orcas?

John Hargrove: I don’t like the idea, really, of captivity for any animals, especially for entertainment purposes, but especially when you’re dealing with an animal like an orca. Their intelligence, their social skills, their family units, and their size — I mean, there are so many factors involved that just make these horrifically sterile, small …more

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Obama Pushes Climate Action on Earth Day Visit to the Everglades

'Folks don't have time' to wait in south Florida, where sea level rise threatens wildlife and local drinking water

By Tom McCarthy

President Barack Obama used an unusually picturesque appearance at Everglades National Park on Wednesday to draw attention to an ugly problem that he said was threatening the well-being of people in south Florida and around the world: climate change.

President Obama EvergladesOfficial White House Photo by Pete Souza President Barack Obama and US Park Service rangers view a small alligator during a tour at Everglades National Park, Florida, on Earth Day 2015.

The president appeared in rolled-up shirt sleeves at a lectern above an obscenely green sawgrass marsh to send a message that “climate change can no longer be denied” and “action can no longer be delayed.”

“In places like this, folks don’t have time, we don’t have time, you don’t have time to deny the effects of climate change,” Obama said. “Folks are already busy dealing with it.”

The White House arranged the event to mark Earth Day, the annual celebration of the planet begun in 1970. The Everglades is a 1.5 milion-acre estuary in southern Florida that boasts hundreds of unique species and serves as an essential buffer and filter between inland freshwater stores and the salt waters of the Gulf Stream and ocean beyond.

The sea level is estimated to have risen a foot in south-east Florida since 1870, and is projected to come up another 9 inches to 2 feet in the next 45 years, according to the Washington-based World Resources Institute. The drinking water of up to one-third of Floridians is threatened by encroaching seawater in the Everglades, according to White House figures.

“If we take action now, we can do something about it,” Obama said. “This is not some impossible problem that we cannot solve. We can solve it.”

In making its environmental pitch in Florida, the White House failed to find a local partner in Governor Rick Scott, a climate change skeptic. Scott was invited to meet Obama on the tarmac as the president arrived, but he declined, deputy press secretary Eric Schultz said.

Obama took a dig at Republicans in Congress who refuse to acknowledge climate change, including Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, who earlier this year brought a snowball to the Senate floor to illustrate how cold it was outside. “2014 was the planet’s warmest year on record,” Obama said. “Fourteen of the 15 hottest …more

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In Conversation with Antonia Juhasz

Five years later, the Gulf of Mexico is struggling to recover from the BP disaster, and the oil companies appear to have learned very little, author says.

Antonia Juhasz was already on the oil beat well before the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout. Her 2006 book, The Bu$h Agenda: Invading the World, One Economy at a Time, shined a spotlight on corporate globalization, with a particular focus on the oil industry. In 2009, she wrote The Tyranny of Oil: the World’s Most Powerful Industry – And What We Must Do to Stop It. So when BP’s Macondo well blew out in April 2010, Juhasz was uniquely situated to cover, and stick with the story. In 2011, she published Black Tide: the Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill. Last year, she was the only journalist to accompany researchers in a submarine to check on the deep-sea site of the spill. I spoke with Juhasz for the radio program Making Contact on May 31 – three weeks before the fifth anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

Andrew Stelzer: So, we're speaking just about five years after the Gulf Coast BP spill. Paint a picture for us. How’s it look down there environmentally, and also in terms of the human and economic impact? Has the area recovered?

Antonia Juhasz: The area certainly hasn't recovered. It’s hard to paint one picture, though, of the Gulf of Mexico. I think most people don't appreciate how big of an area we're talking about: five states, the ninth largest body of water on the planet, an enormous economically diverse and rich area, a hugely populated area of people and wildlife. And so there’s sort of every impact that you can imagine.

Gulf Oil Spillphoto by David Rencher, on FlickrFlyover of the Deepwater Horizon site with the US Coast Guard on May 19 2010

There are areas of extreme economic devastation, extreme environmental devastation, places where the amount of oysters that come in from the dock is 75 percent less than it was before the oil spill; communities of fisher-folk that haven't recovered at all or are just gone from the Gulf of Mexico; people in areas with extreme human health consequences. And then there are areas that are recovering, that are economically recovered, and people whose health has recovered.

You can go and see beautiful beaches. You can also go and see beaches with oil tarballs. Basically, you've got …more

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