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Life on the American Prairie Reserve

Ranchers and researchers collide in an ambitious effort to convert Montana ranchland to a 3 million-acre wildlife refuge

A pickup truck stops within a dozen feet of us. We are sitting at a round dining room table inside the house watching the truck through the sunlit window. Two men step out and take a few steps forward and I lunge down the carpeted stairs to meet them at the door. We say hello and are all in a jolly mood. The two men, like us in the house, have probably just finished work for the day. They asked whether the Holzheys were around and I realized they were looking for the family that used to live here. I had moved in about three weeks ago with a crew of five other young people to collect data on the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a private wildlife refuge that is buying out ranchers to aggregate more than 3 million acres of land and create a fully functioning prairie ecosystem. We were all, ranchers and researchers alike, on the front lines of the change that is happening in this sparsely populated and tree-less stretch of land in northeastern Montana. 

American Prairie ReservePhoto by Morgan Cardiff When fully realized, the American Prairie Reserve will include 3 million acres of land, making it significantly larger than Yellowstone National Park.

I think the two men may have known that the Holzheys had already sold their ranch, but perhaps the family had left more suddenly than anticipated. The men said they had come to talk a little shit to their friends (perhaps for selling out, now that I think about it), but instead found the family gone and the land silent and stripped of machinery. Six young scientists, sprawled comfortably in the family's former residence, must have been a sight to them. One of the men asked what we were doing there, and when I told him that we were collecting data for the APR, his face lost all signs of the joking mood that he had come with. The men said goodbye and departed with a somber air.

When fully realized, the APR will be significantly larger than Yellowstone National Park and much more remote. The project has been described by National Geographic as an American Serengeti, and has been in the works in various forms, by various organizations, since the 1980s. With over 305,000 acres acquired so far, the …more

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Greed and Resistance in Sarawak’s Rainforest

In Review: Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafia

A version of this review appeared in The Huffington Post 

Sarawak, the Malaysian province on the island of Borneo, has long been one of the six world regions with the highest biodiversity. An average hectare of Sarawak rainforest contains more tree species than all of Europe. The local Penan communities have names for more than 1,300 of the plants they live with. The forest is also home to orangutans and tree leopards, hundreds of bird species, and frogs that can glide up to 20 meters through the air.

Deforestation in SarawakPhoto by Waxk Land is cleared for oil palm in Sarawak.

The greed and corruption of a small clique are now turning Sarawak’s rainforests into a monoculture of oil palms and hydropower reservoirs. Money Logging: On the Trail of the Asian Timber Mafiaa gripping new book by Lukas Straumann, the executive director of the Bruno Manser Fund, documents the local politics, international complicity, and desperate resistance in the struggle over one of the world’s last paradises.

At the heart of Sarawak’s deforestation sits one man: Abdul Taib Mahmud, the politician who has ruled the island province for more than 50 years as a minister, chief minister, and now governor. Starting in the 1960s, Taib handed out valuable logging concessions to his friends and family without any checks and balances. Within his first six years in power, the powerful politician handed out concessions for an area almost the size of Belgium to his family members and associates.

The bribes which changed hands for the concessions allowed Taib to invest in a business empire at home and abroad, engage in a lavish lifestyle, and pay for generous election hand-outs. In his book, Money Logging, Lukas Straumann estimates the fortune of the Taib family at $15 billion. The family empire includes industrial and banking conglomerates in Sarawak, a stake in 400 businesses overseas, and iconic properties in San Francisco and Seattle.

Cutting down rainforest is not a sustainable business model, and the loggers of Sarawak soon lost patience with slow-growing secondary forests. Since the 1990s, they have increasingly turned deforested areas into oil palm plantations – vast monocultures that were completely devoid of any other trees or animals. By 2005, oil palm plantations covered 42,000 square kilometers in Malaysia – more than the land area of …more

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As Environmentalists, We Need to Make “Ananda” Central to Our Lives

This holiday season let’s embrace the joy without which the universe would cease to exist

Driving during a downpour on the morning of December 12, my daughter Lucilla said: "Some of my friends think that this rain has ended the drought and I told them they are mistaken."

We live in California. She is six.

We discussed the state of the reservoirs and the need to build the snowpack, both of which she had tried to articulate to her friends already.

2 Kids by WallPhoto by Vince ScottMy daughter made me realize all over again that what the environmental movement needs is more beauty and playfulness and joy.

Seeing her level of understanding, I just felt so, so, so proud.

She knew it was snowing in Boulder, Colorado where her older brother, Vincent, lives. She asked if that would help. I suggested that that snowfall might not feed into our watersheds, though a subsequent conversation elsewhere led to the thought that if we drink Colorado River water … it might. The key thing emphasized: the importance of the snowpack in the Sierras. She thought about that the rest of the way to school.

I saved the conversation about groundwater recharge for another day.

Then, later that evening she said: "So in the mountains in California where there is a snowpack, they build snowmen, right?"

Me: "Yes."

Her: "So when the water in the snow melts and comes to the reservoirs and into our pipes… are we going to have, you know, scarves and hats and mittens and carrots and raisins or coal coming with the water?" 

Her charm unleashed a cloudburst of happiness in my heart. Oh Lucilla.

For me personally it has been a tough year. The environmental job that I adored for over a decade has been grant funded and my last day was December 1.   The father of my young children reunited with me for 36 hours in September and well, that’s story that does not end with a rainbow. I guess I share the array of heartbreaks of most human beings; griefs both unique and familiar. Underneath it all is the steady drumbeat of the things I know and have not found a way to resolve: ocean acidification, plastic detritus in the marine food chain, climate change, destruction of rainforests, crashing fisheries, the list of recent and pending species extinctions, groundwater depletion, the anticipated impacts of fracking upon water quality.  The need for environmental restoration is just so …more

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In Celebration of John Muir

The American legend’s legacy is especially relevant to today’s environmental movement

Born in Scotland, raised in Wisconsin, John Muir is considered the father of our National Parks system, called by many "America's greatest idea" and later adopted around the world. He was a founder and guiding spirit of the Sierra Club, one of our largest and most effective environmental organizations. An author, naturalist, advocate, and friend of such prominent Americans as Teddy Roosevelt, Fredrick Law Olmsted, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, he achieved enormous fame and recognition. An institution in California, where he spent much of his adult life, Muir's name adorns a National Monument, a Pacific beach, a Sierra pass, a 14,000-foot mountain, a Wilderness Area and the spectacular 220-mile John Muir Trail, running from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney. Schools, parks, and playgrounds also bear his name, and his home in Martinez, California is a National Historic Site.

John Muir Photo courtesy University of Washington, Taber & BoydWith the clear exception of his early racism, which warrants continued criticism,
Muir is anything but out-of-date.

Contra Muir

But for some scholars, Muir has outlived his relevance. Just before a recent conference on Muir's legacy at the University of California, Los Angeles, historian and professor of sustainability Jon Christensen told the Los Angeles Times that "Muir's legacy has got to go. It's just not useful anymore. Muir's a dead end. It's time to bury his legacy and move on." In Christensen's view, Muir was a nature advocate whose use of Biblical language and focus on pure wilderness now appeals only to older white Americans and not to California's diverse population, which needs urban nature and clean air more than it does "awe-inspiring parks" and protected wild lands. The LA Times reported that, “critics also said Muir's vision of wilderness is rooted in economic privilege and the abundant leisure of the upper class." The most serious charge was that Muir was racist toward Native Americans.

Christensen's comments, in particular, brought forth a torrent of angry letters and online comments. Many readers thought him arrogant and felt he was being provocative with the sole intent of attracting publicity. As I read the article, I too, felt the heat of anger rising inside. How dare these "scholars" dishonor Muir's memory? As I mulled on the controversy, I began to realize that, above all others, Muir's ideas and ideals ultimately shaped my values and my future …more

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Sandra the Orangutan is a Person, Rules Argentine Court

In landmark judgment, court says that the 28-year-old Great Ape has the right to be free

Sandra, a 28-year-old orangutan who lives in a zoo in Buenos Aires, Argentina is now the first animal to be legally recognized as a person.

In a landmark judgment last Friday, an appeals court in Argentina declared that the Sumatran orangutan, who has been held captive at the zoo for 20 years, should be recognized as a nonhuman person with the right to freedom. The court ruled that Sandra, who was born in captivity in Germany in 1986, be released to an animal sanctuary in Brazil where she can live out the rest of her life in relative freedom. (Since she was born in captivity, Sandra doesn’t have the skills to survive in the wild.)

Rubi the OrangutanPhoto by Albuquerque BioParkRuby (not Sandra), a female orangutan at the ABQ BioPark Zoo in Albuquerque. Many scientific studies have shown that orangutans and other Great Apes have complex cognitive abilities as self-awareness and autonomy.

The ruling was based on a habeas corpus petition filed on Sandra’s behalf in November by the Association of Officials and Lawyers for Animal Rights (AFADA), which claimed that it was unjustified to confine an animal with “proven cognitive capability.”  (Habeas corpus cases are based on the legal principle that requires that an imprisoned person, or an individual who is unable to personally appear in court — for example, a severely disabled person or infant — be allowed to make a plea in court via lawyers.)

The ruling “opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories," the association’s lawyer, Paul Buompadre, was quoted as saying in the Argentine daily, La Nacion. The zoo has 10 days to seek an appeal.

Indeed, the court’s decision is a big win for the animal rights movement since it’s the first time that a court has agreed that a nonhuman animal with complex cognitive capabilities is entitled the basic right to life and liberty — rights usually considered exclusive to humans. Many animal rights activists believe hat recognizing highly intelligent and sentient animals — like the Great Apes, dolphins, whales, and elephants — as legal persons would help protect them from held captive in fun parks and zoos or be subject to invasive experiments in laboratories.

The …more

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The Most Important Environmental Stories of 2014

The good, the bad, and the ugly of the year that was

The calendar is about to flip over once again, meaning it’s time for the obligatory roundup of the most important environmental stories of the past year.

This list is mostly subjective — my own personal picks, filtered through my own lens. But I did reach out to a several dozen environmental activists and thinkers to tap into the wisdom of the crowd. I asked folks to give me their suggestions not necessarily for the “biggest” news as measured by headlines or page views or likes, but for the most important stories. That is, happenings likely to have an impact on ecosystems, politics, economy, and culture beyond 2014.

Not surprisingly, climate change and energy once again dominate the list. But there was also some important news in wildlife conservation and loss, forest protection, and politics. Without further ado, here’s my list of the top 10 most important environmentally related stories of 2014.

1. Obama Finally Acts on Power Plant Emissions

a power plant spewing smokePhoto by Mario GoebbelsIn June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions.

President Obama has been a reluctant warrior when it comes to the environment. In his first term he focused on dealing with the biggest financial meltdown and recession in a generation, and then passing his signature health care reform. Now, hamstrung by an oppositional Congress, he’s found that one of the issues on which he can use his executive authority to make real progress is climate change.

In June, Obama’s EPA announced draft rules to slash carbon pollution from power plants, the largest source of US greenhouse gas emissions. Once finalized in 2015, the rules are expected to slash power plant emissions by 25 percent by 2020 and 30 percent by 2030 (from a 2005 baseline). Fossil fuel interests are attempting to challenge the rules in court, but the administration’s actions rest on solid legal footing. In a landmark case in 2007, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that “greenhouse gases fit within the [Clean Air Act’s] capacious definition of an air pollutant.” Here’s how Sierra Club ED Michael Brune described to me the importance of the rules for a story I wrote for The Daily Beast: “This is the kind of leadership that we’ve needed for a long time. And the …more

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A Chronicle of Edward Abbey and Radical Environmental Movements

In Review: Wrenched

The new film Wrenched, by filmmaker ML Lincoln, explores the life of environmental writer and activist Edward Abbey and the direct action environmental movements that he helped to inspire. Rather than focusing purely on Abbey himself, Lincoln told me in our correspondence about the film that, “Wrenched is about his actions.”  Lincoln, a longtime activist herself, worked on the film for over seven years and interviewed 40 people, including many of Abbey’s long-time friends and associates. This is her second feature length documentary, and follows her 2007 film Drowning River about the loss of Glen Canyon underneath the Powell Reservoir in Arizona.

 Glen Canyon DamPhoto by Mark Stevens, on FlickrThe construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon had a significant impact on the maturation of Edward Abbey’s worldview.

Wrenched excels at exploring the origins of direct action environmental movements in the United States, and particularly Abbey’s environmental activism in the Southwest.

In doing so, the film delves into Abbey’s early life and his emergence as a writer and activist, including his involvement in anti-war activism during the Second World War and the beginning of the nuclear age. This period was critical to the formation of his perspectives on the terrifying destructive power of industrial capitalism at the middle of the twentieth century. The film also touches on two events significant in the history of the Southwest that were also central to the maturation of Abby’s worldview: The construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and subsequent drowning of Glen Canyon, and the Central Arizona Project, through which Colorado river water was diverted to Arizona’s desert cities, pumped by coal from the Black Mesa plateau.

In the film, Abbey’s own participation in direct action, or “night moves” as he describes them, are explored in the context of his writing, his activism, and the movements that he helped to inspire. The film gives a rough history of the origins of Earth First!, the radical environmental group that that was inspired by Abbey’s writings. It examines several instances of state repression in the 1980s and 1990s, and highlights FBI infiltration, instigation, and, as some would say, entrapment, related to the so-called Arizona 5, a group of Earth First! members arrested for conspiracy to sabotage nuclear power plants. The film also describes the …more

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