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A River Revived

Lower Owens revival is the largest river restoration project in the history of the American West

I eased my standup paddleboard onto the placid, crystal clear waters, nary a drop out of place. From where I stood, the barren, sandy shoal was pock-marked with Tule elk spoor, but as soon as my paddle pierced through the royal blue water, the river came to life. A clutch of red-winged blackbirds clung to swaying cattails while a school of brown trout fanned out beneath me. Several western kingbirds fluttered above the shallow water, the river’s easy flow breathing life into a dry, dormant valley.

photo of a wide river running through grassland, mountains in the distance, a figure on a stand-up paddleboardall photos by Chuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more in a photo-essay

The revival of the 62-mile Lower Owens River in California is the largest river restoration project in the history of the American West. Residents of the Eastern Sierra have been waiting for nearly a century for its return, ever since the river was diverted to the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913, and subsequently vanished from the Owens Valley. Finally in December 2006 – under court order – snowmelt from the high Eastern Sierra was redirected into the Lower Owens River, reinvigorating a landscape that had been bone dry for nearly 100 years.

“It’s looking incredibly healthy,” said Mike Prather, outreach coordinator and former president of the Owens Valley Committee. “It looks like the river was shot in the arm with vitamins.”

photo of a kingbird on a branchChuck GrahamClick or tap this photo to view more in a photo-essay

The replenished river is already attracting wildlife. Bobcats, minks, coyotes and ospreys have been sighted, herds of Tule elk are in the vicinity, a great horned owl gazed back at me from its cottonwood perch and as I paddled the river’s easy flow, tree frogs croaked hidden in the thick stocks of reeds. Over 400 bird species have been documented in the Owens Valley since restoration began, and the rejuvenated Lower Owens will become a major stopover for a bevy of migrating bird species. 

Despite the progress, river ecologist Mark Hill, lead scientist at the Ecosystem Sciences Foundation in Idaho, says …more

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Seattle Activists Throw ‘Unwelcome Party’ for Arctic-Bound Shell Oil Rig

Off the coast of Seattle yesterday, Royal Dutch Shell docked the “Polar Pioneer,” an oil rig attempting to make its way up to Alaska’s Chukchi Sea. In response, a fleet of 20 kayaks – manned by local environmental activists and the Duwamish Tribe – rowed out to throw it an “unwelcome party,” defying a 500-foot police and Coast Guard mandated “safety zone” around the rig.

Arctic Destroyer Arrives in Port Angelesphoto by Backbone Campaign, on Flickr

“It’s been an exciting time to work with so many diverse groups and to see people move quickly,” Cassady Sharp of the Shell No! coalition told the Seattle Times. “But at the end of day, nobody wants Shell in Seattle or drilling in Alaska.”

The Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5, which is privately owned and operates under a separate governance structure from the city, is currently leased out to the company Foss Maritime. Since last year, Foss has been pushing for Shell and other fossil fuel corporations to be able to use the space, and promised $13.17 million for the 50-acre deal. When the Obama administration (conditionally) approved Arctic drilling earlier this week, Shell took advantage of the decision by pulling into the port. Seattle’s Department of Planning and Development, however, has rejected a municipal permit for the company to dock and perform maintenance on the rig, with Mayor Ed Murray saying that Shell could face daily fines for failing to comply with city orders.

In a show of some bravado, Foss spokesman Pat Queary told the press that, “The port asked us nicely to not come while the legal thing was being resolved, which they knew we couldn’t do and are not doing.”

The kayaks are part of a multi-pronged strategy to stop the Polar Pioneer, another aspect of which is a lawsuit currently moving through courts, and has already delayed the rig’s advancement north for the summer, when it is scheduled to begin drilling. Linking up in the water, kayakers unveiled a banner reading “Arctic Drilling = Climate Change.”

Rising hundreds of feet above the water, the rig is – to say the least – an eyesore in Seattle’s Elliot Bay. It is also, of course, an unwelcome piece of fossil fuel infrastructure …more

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Why Edward Abbey Still Matters

The author of Desert Solitaire and The Monkey Wrench Gang is branded a misanthrope and a hypocrite. The truth is more interesting.

There seems to be a good deal of interest in Edward Abbey these days. Two new books — All The Wild That Remains  by David Gessner and Finding Abbey by Sean Prentiss — explore the life and legacy of the writer and wilderness firebrand. Next month, they’ll be joined by Abbey in America, a multi-author collection of personal and scholarly reflections on Abbey’s continuing influence (full disclosure: I’m one of those doing the reflecting).

photo of Edward AbbeyPhoto by Mark Klett, 1988 Ed Abbey in Grand Gulch, Utah.

This little burst of attention to Abbey shouldn’t be that surprising. He’s been at the center of conversations (and more often than not, arguments) about wilderness preservation and environmental politics since the publication of his 1968 classic, Desert Solitaire, a captivating mix of nature writing, environmentalist polemics, and autobiographical musings. His raucous 1975 novel The Monkey Wrench Gang, about a group of environmental merry pranksters and saboteurs running wild in the American Southwest, would further cement Abbey’s reputation (for better or worse).

Given that Desert Solitaire is often mentioned in the same breath as Thoreau’s Walden and Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, the renewed interest in the prickly avatar of the desert Southwest makes some sense. But, at the same time, the Abbey renaissance is fighting some newly powerful intellectual and political currents within American environmentalism. 

It boils down to first principles: Abbey’s ideal of wilderness as a realmbeyond the human” was the bedrock of his philosophical approach to the wild. It’s a vision in which the wilderness provides an alternative set of values, an ethos counter to the uniformity, artificiality, and technological control of modern life. The wild provided an opportunity for a type of freedom and experience, he believed, that just wasn’t available in more overtly humanized and technological environments. But appreciation of the wilderness was for Abbey also a deeply moral act, an expression, he writes, of “loyalty to the earth, the earth which bore us and sustains us, the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need—if only we had the eyes to see.”

Beyond the human. It was a foundational belief for Abbey, but many scientists and environmentalists today would argue that it reflects an outmoded, even reactionary image of the wild as we push deeper …more

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Why Is FBI Spying on Opponents of Keystone XL Pipeline?

An interview with the Journal’s Adam Federman

A new report confirms for the first time that the FBI spied on activists in Texas who tried to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. Documents from the FBI reveal it failed to get approval before it cultivated informants and opened its investigation, which was run from its Houston field office. The files document "substantial non-compliance" with Department of Justice rules. The Tar Sands Blockade mentioned in that report was one of the main groups targeted by the FBI. Agents in Houston office also told TransCanada they would share "pertinent intelligence regarding any threats" to the company in advance of protests. We are joined by Adam Federman, contributing editor to Earth Island Journal and co-author of the new investigation published by The Guardian, "Revealed: FBI violated its own rules while spying on Keystone XL opponents." In February, he also revealed how the FBI has recently pursued environmental activists in Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and Idaho for "little more than taking photographs of oil and gas industry installations."

Transcript:

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: A new report confirms for the first time that the FBI spied on activists in Texas who tried to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The report is based on FBI documents obtained by The Guardian and the Earth Island Journal. The documents also reveal that the FBI failed to get approval before it cultivated informants and opened its investigation, which was run from its Houston field office. The files document, quote, "substantial non-compliance" with Department of Justice rules. Much of the FBI’s surveillance took place between November of 2012 and June 2014.

AMY GOODMAN: The Tar Sands Blockade mentioned in the report was one of the main groups targeted by the FBI. Agents in Houston also told TransCanada they would share, quote, "pertinent intelligence regarding any threats" to the company in advance of protests.

For more, we are joined by Adam Federman, contributing editor to Earth Island Journal, co-author of this new investigation that was published by The Guardian. It’s headlined "Revealed: FBI Violated Its Own Rules While Spying on Keystone XL Opponents." In February, he also revealed how the FBI has recently pursued environmental activists in Texas, Pennsylvania, Oregon, Washington and Idaho for, quote, "little more than taking photographs of oil and gas industry installations."

Adam Federman, thank you so much for …more

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Where Have All the Monarchs Gone?

Near-eradication of milkweed in the Midwest threatens survival of the iconic butterfly

My friend and I take to nature and enjoy trips to wildlife areas looking to capture digital photos of the natural world. We ventured out one early morning in the summer of 2013 with cameras packed for a good hour-long drive to federal land on the edge of the Ozark foothills. We could not have asked for a better day at a natural crossroads where northern, southern, and prairie ecosystems meet. Our goal was to find an endangered wonder, the monarch butterfly.

photo of monarch on milkweedPhoto by wplynn, on Flickr Severe depletion of milkweed across the Midwest has been devastating to monarch populations.

Crab Orchard National Wildlife Refuge protects over 44,000 acres of land including wetlands, grasslands, and woodlands in Illinois. It also hosts a wide diversity of flora and fauna, including more than seven hundred plant species. More than 4,000 acres are designated as wilderness and 20,000 acres are set aside as a wildlife sanctuary.

Driving along the many remote roadways within the refuge we spotted black swallowtail and yellow tiger swallowtail butterflies feeding on wildflower plants. Both of us noted, however, that we only saw one monarch fluttering quickly across all the roads we had covered. We had noticed a similar scarcity of monarchs in our own backyards lately, and wondered, “Where have all the monarchs gone?”

We stopped to take a photo of a plant along the roadway that is also disappearing across the countryside, the common pink milkweed plant. Milkweed is essential for the monarch’s existence. Monarchs lay their eggs on the underside of the milkweed leaves, and when the eggs hatch, monarch larvae eat only milkweed leaves. Although milkweed is poisonous to some species, it is not harmful to monarch caterpillars. Instead, the milkweed toxins make the caterpillar poisonous to its predators.

We made the trip to the refuge again the following summer and returned to the same area where we had seen milkweed growing along the roadsides. The plants we found were just 12 inches high, though local varieties can grow to be three feet tall. Many had been mowed down, and there were very few blooms for butterflies to land on. We also located a few milkweed plants in remote areas amongst the rocks and close to the water. Still, there were no monarchs and no monarch eggs. 

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The Green Energy Revolt

Demand for clean energy crosses ideological lines

This story originally appeared in the May 2015 edition of The Progressive.

Debbie Dooley is mad as hell. 

Since 2012, the fifty-six-year-old grandmother and former IT consultant has been waging a fierce grassroots battle against her home state utility, Georgia Power, to make it easier and cheaper for homeowners to install rooftop solar panels. Now, she’s working with allies in Florida to sponsor a ballot initiative that would allow businesses and homeowners there to sell any energy they generate back to the grid. 

photo of Wayne National Forest Solar Panel ConstructionPhoto by Wayne National Forest, on Flickr A quiet revolution in electricity generation is transforming the nation’s energy industry.

But she has run into stiff resistance from the Koch brothers-backed Americans for Prosperity. The group has sent out e-mails to its supporters against the idea and organized a Tallahassee press conference at which the organization’s state director Chris Hudson complained that “requiring traditional utility companies to give their grid space to solar energy will impose a massive cost” on Florida ratepayers. Claims like that have Dooley riled up.

“I am battling the Koch brothers and all of their funded groups because they are giving me problems,” Dooley says in a Southern accent as thick as a humid day. “We have been brainwashed for years by the fossil fuel interests and politicians in the pocket of the fossil fuel industry to believe that green energy is bad. And it’s not.”

This is the kind of impassioned talk you might expect from, say, a Greenpeace campaigner. But Dooley is a dyed-in-the-wool political conservative. In 2009, she was one of the original organizers of the nationwide tea party protests. She’s a co-founder of the Atlanta tea party, as well as a board member of the national group Tea Party Patriots. And she’s a staunch believer in the importance of creating a decentralized and renewable energy system. Under the banner of her “Green Tea Coalition,” she’s brought together the Sierra Club and the Christian Coalition to fight for rooftop solar energy, something that she says is right in line with her conservative beliefs. “I believe in the marketplace and I believe in the free market, and we need to allow innovation to take place,” she says. 

That a grassroots conservative activist would become one of the most effective advocates of renewable energy in …more

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Letter from California

Field notes on a state in drought

This story originally appeared in the June 2015 edition of The Progressive.

This was the year without a winter. 

In January, not a single drop of rain fell in the San Francisco Bay Area, the first time such a thing has happened since recordkeeping began during the Gold Rush. Day after day, the skies were clear and the afternoon temperatures were in the seventies. It was awful. Without any rain or the typical cold winter winds, a thick haze developed over the bay and stuck around for weeks. An orange miasma choked the view from the Berkeley Hills to the Golden Gate, making the sun into a tarnished brass coin. 

photo of effect of drought on Uvas ReservoirPhoto by Don DeBold State and federal water systems allocations are based on water we don’t have.

Meteorologists blamed it on something they’ve dubbed the “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” a persistent wall of high pressure over the Pacific Ocean that pushed winter storms away from the state and kept temperatures so warm that there was little to no snowfall this year below 8,000 feet of elevation. 

Then there’s “The Blob.” For nearly a year, a mass of warm ocean water as much as two to seven degrees Fahrenheit above normal has clung to the West Coast. The Blob — which stretches 1,000 miles from Mexico to Washington State and goes 300 feet deep into the water column — has contributed to the warm winter, and is likely to be a factor in a predicted hotter-than-average summer.

The weird weather has had many strange effects. My friend Victor complains that at his house he can now see the stars at night. Victor and his family live in San Francisco’s Sunset District, on the far west edge of the city, hard against the ocean. Normally this area — dubbed the “Outside Lands” by the first white settlers — is fog-locked much of the year. Now, however, the summer fogs seem less dense, and the recent winters have been infamously cloud-free. “It’s really frightening,” Victor tells me.

• • •

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, essayist, and conservationist Wallace Stegner once wrote: “Aridity, more than anything else, gives the western landscape its character.” West of roughly the 100th meridian, civilization is impossible — physically impossible — without some sort of system to capture and store water. …more

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