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“The Road to Ambler” Would Scar Alaska’s Brooks Range

Proposed route through wilderness area would pave way for new mines

If Alaskan Governor Sean Parnell gets his way, an industrial road through Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve is in our future.

Parnell has called for “Roads to Resources” in his efforts to subsidize development in Alaska – in this case, the development of new mines. As The Wilderness Society details in its report, Easy to Start: Impossible to Finish by Lois Epstein, these mega-projects are fiscally irresponsible and rarely achieve even their basic objectives. And, in the process, they do serious harm to intact ecosystems. 

Brooks Range, Alaskaphoto by Terry Feuerborn, on FlickrBrooks Range, Alaska

No wonder many Alaskans – including Native communities – are opposed to the proposed Road to Ambler. Rural villages in the region have spoken out against the road, with six individual communities and the Tanana Chief’s Conference passing resolutions opposing the project during the past year.

The Road to Ambler is not a new, innovative idea. The State of Alaska tried once already to push it through, in the mid-1980s. The project died because it was financially unfeasible and rural communities didn’t want the road.

The road being proposed now would slice 220 miles through the Brooks Mountain Range that anchors the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve. The National Park Service touts this park and preserve as “premiere wilderness,” a vast landscape of intact ecosystems that do not contain any roads or trails.

The Road to Ambler would grievously harm the area. It would:

  • Cross nearly 200 streams and rivers;
  • Require the construction of 14 major bridges, some over federally designated Wild and Scenic rivers;
  • Disrupt Native Alaskan traditional lands and hunting grounds; and
  • Threaten human health if gravel containing the region’s naturally occurring asbestos is used.

But it would do much more, and probably much worse, harm than just its construction.  The road is intended to allow mining companies to access massive sulfide deposits in the area.  If these mines are developed, it is highly likely they will produce acid mine drainage. Acid mine drainage destroys critical fish habitat and can be an ongoing problem for hundreds or thousands of years after mining is completed.

So …more

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Earth Day: Now about as Green as St. Patrick’s Day?

From epic day of citizen action to marketing gimmick in just 40-odd years

It probably has something to do with the fact that I’m one of the last sentimentalists standing in this ironic age, but I’ll admit that I get a little misty eyed when I think about the first Earth Day.

Do you remember it? Can you imagine it? On April 22, 1970 some 20 million Americans in cities and towns across the country turned out for a coordinated day of action to express their desire for a society that would live more conscientiously with this one and only planet. People picked up trash on beaches and in streams, they planted gardens, they organized and attended environmental teach-ins, they marched and chanted and sang. The whole thing was thought up a US Senator, Gaylord Nelson, and organized by a scrappy group of twenty-somethings. Elected officials had no choice but to stand up and get involved. At the Earth Day demonstration in Manhattan, New York Mayor John Lindsey told the crowd: “Beyond words like ecology, environment, and pollution there is a simple question: Do we want to live or die?”

black and white photo of a crowd scene in a broad avenue in a cityphoto by tommy japan on FlickrFifth Avenue in New York on Earth Day in 1970

I myself don’t remember (I wasn’t born yet), and can only imagine such a thing. Which is probably why I think of that first epic day of environmental activism in sepia-hued tones. To me it all seems sort of incredible – the scale (20 million people!), the involvement from the political establishment, the fact that it led, relatively quickly, to achievements like the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, and Endangered Species Act.

There are a lot of things that compete with Earth Day for the claim to have sparked the environmental movement: the fight over Hetch-Hetchy reservoir 100 years ago, the campaign to protect the Grand Canyon from dams, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the oil spill off Santa Barbara (which did, indeed, inspire Senator Nelson). Still, there’s no question that the organic outpouring of citizen energy that was Earth Day helped to mold an emerging worldview into a real political force.

I might have come late to the party, but Earth Day also molded me. I remember clearly the very large, and very hopeful, Earth Day celebrations in 1990 marking the twentieth …more

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Oyster Beds Still Empty Four Years After Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill

Gulf communities and wildlife still reeling from the damage, but BP ends cleanup efforts

Four years ago, on April 20, 2010, the United States suffered the greatest oil spill in American history. With the explosion of a British Petroleum (BP) offshore oil rig, five million barrels (roughly 206 million gallons) of oil were released from the Deepwater Horizon oil well into the Gulf of Mexico. Eleven rig workers lost their lives, and immeasurable damage was wrought on coastal communities and wildlife.

photo of oyster shells in a huge stackphoto by faungg on Flickr

Four years later, many Gulf communities are still coping with the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and scientists are still struggling to understand the long-term impacts of the spill on birds, marine mammals, fish, and aquatic invertebrates. At least one long-term impact is as clear as day: the ongoing devastation to the Louisiana oyster industry.

“Every day is touch and go,” says Al Sunseri, president of New Orleans-based P & J Oyster Company. “I never would have thought that four years later things would be as challenged as they are right now. I’ve seen hurricanes, and other challenging times [like] fresh water from very high rivers, and a number of different things, and this is like no other disaster that we’ve had affect our business. This is an unnatural disaster.”

Historically, Louisiana has led the country in oyster production; in an average year the state supplies roughly one-third of all oysters throughout the United States. In 2009, the year before the spill, Louisiana produced 14 million pounds of oyster meat. Since the spill, things have changed dramatically. Although Louisiana continues to be a leading oyster producer, oyster production dropped by half in 2010, to 6.8 million pounds. And according to a recent study by the National Wildlife Federation, when compared to other Gulf states, Louisiana’s oysters have experienced especially high mortality and low spat recruitment since the spill.   

Aside from overall ecosystem harm, the spilled oil directly affected oysters in at least two ways. According to a recently released federal report, Gulf oysters – as well as oyster eggs, sperm and larvae – were exposed to oil and oil dispersants following the spill, which can cause death and impair reproduction. Oysters, which require brackish water to survive, also took a huge blow from the immediate post-spill responses. Following the spill, large volumes of water were released from …more

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Film Review: A Fierce Green Fire

Rousing PBS documentary covering 50 years of environmentalism to honor Earth Day

Mark Kitchell’s 1990 Oscar nominated documentary Berkeley in the Sixties covered the campus activism that disrupted the House Un-American Activities Committee’s hearings, launched the Free Speech Movement, fought the police at People’s Park, and inspired student spokesman Mario Savio to declare: “There comes a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part … You’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop.” Now Kitchell is back with another stand up and cheer nonfiction film about a different movement: Environmentalism and its eco-warriors who, as Savio put it, “indicate to the people who run it, the people who own it, that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”

black and white photo of a crowd watching smoke and flames consuming a burning riverphoto courtesy A Fierce Green FireFrom the film: the Cuyahoga River on fire.

Like a classical Greek drama, Kitchell’s well-crafted and briskly paced A Fierce Green Fire has a five-act structure, as each segment focuses on different aspects and leaders of the environmental movement over the past half a century, with narration by a prominent artist or activist. The title is derived from a section in environmental philosopher Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac in which he describes his ecological awakening after shooting a wolf while working as a US Forest Service Ranger: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”

The documentary – which will air Tuesday, Earth Day, on PBS stations nationwide – opens with a stirring montage of idyllic nature, followed by ecosystem despoliation and devastation, such as mountaintop removal coal mining in West Virginia. Scenes of global activism appear, including NASA scientist Jim Hansen getting busted at the White House for protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and of Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai declaring: “We will shed blood for land!” This riveting, rapidly cut sequence is set to the pulsating beat of the Chamber Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today.”

Oscar-winning actor and activist Robert Redford – who is also a Natural Resources Defense Council trustee and honorary board member of the Mikhail Gorbachev-founded Green Cross – …more

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Oregon’s Klamath River Basin One Step Closer to Historic Dam Removal

Deal among Native Americans, farmers, ranchers and fishermen marks a triumph for cooperation.

Oregon’s Klamath River Basin has nearly completed an improbable, 15-year journey from community-wide hostility to a hesitant but tangible reconciliation. A decade ago, the river basin was known for being the epicenter of the nation’s most contentious fight over water rights, a place where farmers and ranchers faced off against Native Americans in a long-running, violence-tinged stand-off. Now the region is on the brink of winning approval for a three-part settlement that takes into account the water needs of all its constituencies– farmers, ranchers, Native Americans, commercial fishermen, and the severely damaged Klamath River itself.

Klamath Riverphoto by Joyce cory, on FlickrThe Klamath River

Representatives of all those groups – including environmental organizations professing to protect the river – support the package, whose final component was announced on March 5. That’s particularly stunning since south central Oregon, home to most of the basin’s farmers and ranchers, is Tea Party country, where many people think taking down a working dam is blasphemous. The settlement would set in motion the dismantling of four functioning, though obsolescent, hydroelectric dams that block the passage of salmon through the river. The dams’ demolition would constitute the world’s biggest dam removal project.

The settlement’s last remaining hurdle is formidable. The deal must get legislative approval – and new authorizations of roughly $250 million for river restoration and economic development – from a divided Congress. If that happens, the Klamath, instead of symbolizing enmity, could end up standing for the triumph of inclusiveness and cooperation, and the recognition that a river’s health can be something to unite around.

In the meantime, the river is a mess. Thanks to mining, logging, irrigation, and above all, the dams, some salmon species have disappeared, and all others are a fraction of their pre-European numbers. Each summer algae blooms turn water in the four reservoirs a fluorescent green, so toxic that human contact is forbidden, sometimes from the dams all the way downstream 190 miles to the river’s mouth.

The March 5 agreement reels in the last holdouts to a basin-wide pact, 400 or so upper basin ranchers whose 100,000 cattle feed largely on pasture irrigated by Klamath tributaries. The cattle damage the Klamath’s tributaries in numerous ways, from trampling the river banks where water-cooling, erosion-dampening vegetation would otherwise grow to promoting chemical-laden agricultural runoff …more

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California Game Commission to Consider Whether to Protect Gray Wolf

It is only a matter of time before wolves re-establish themselves in the Golden State

Gray wolves are no strangers to the Golden State. Their majestic howls echoed through our forests and rolled out into our Great Central Valley before European settlers pushed west. But, like in so many other areas throughout the West, as California’s human population grew, its wolf population shrunk drastically.

Wolves were driven from the lands they had called home for centuries – hunted, trapped and slaughtered, painted not as the great icons that they are, but as the vicious caricatures of folklore. Eventually, by 1925, gray wolves could no longer be heard anywhere in the state, and could be found only in small, scattered populations throughout the rest of the country.

Grey Wolf 223photo by Sakarri, on FlickrGrey wolf

Fortunately, people began to realize that America’s forests and canyonlands were missing wolves, that ecosystem health was declining in their absence, and that we were in danger of losing one of our country’s most iconic species.

In 1967, the federal government recognized wolves as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Since then, wolf recovery has been an inspiring story of native species reintroduction and of the beauty and benefits that have come from the hard-won battle to see wolves return to the places where they once roamed freely.

Now, as the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposes to remove Endangered Species Act protection for wolves throughout much of the country, gray wolves are once again at risk. Delisting would short-circuit wolf recovery in the Pacific West and would effectively mean giving up on one of our country’s most important and iconic species.Fortunately, California has an opportunity to play a meaningful role in helping the gray wolf continue to recover in the coming years — if state officials can summon the political will to do so.

Today the California Fish and Game Commission will decide whether to establish state protection for gray wolves under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Such protection will be essential to wolf recovery in California, especially in the event of federal delisting.

While gray wolves certainly deserve to be listed as endangered under the CESA, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife has recommended that the Fish and Game Commission not do so. Department staff bases their decision on the claim that currently there are no wolves in California. But …more

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Environmentalists Could Win the Keystone XL Battle and Still Lose the War

Will the KXL fight be environmentalists’ Vietnam?

The Vietnam War might seem irrelevant to the environmental movement’s five-year effort to stop construction of the Keystone XL pipeline that, if approved by President Obama, would bring tar sands oil from Alberta to the Texas coast for refining and shipment overseas. But the more I look at the situation, the more I see worrisome similarities. Both American war planners and environmental movement leaders made the same strategic mistake: conceptualizing transportation as a single fixed conduit that could be readily shut down with decisive consequences for the entire conflict.

photo of a tropical mountain scene, forest and trailphoto by Nathan Nelson on FlickrThe Central Highlands of Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

From 1965 to 1972 American civilian and military war managers launched a massive aerial bombardment campaign against North Vietnam’s transportation system. If the “Ho Chi Minh Trail” leading from North Vietnam into Laos and from there into South Vietnam could be severed, then Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army forces would run of supplies and replacement troops. For the American strategists, it was as if the Ho Chi Minh Trail was the Vietnamese equivalent of an interstate highway with complex entrances and exits, bridges, and other vulnerable choke points. Just as air strikes by jet fighter-bombers would surely cripple American highways and bring our economy to a halt, a few thousand bombing attacks against the Ho Chi Minh Trail would end the war. Or so the “thinking” went.

Although this image of the Ho Chi Minh trail resonated with American sensibilities, no single roadway by that name existed. Instead, a vast network of modest roads – some medium-sized, some small, some tiny – and many different river crossings, camouflaged fuel dumps, and truck parks comprised the Ho Chi Minh Trail. This network could not be bombed out of existence, not by a few thousand air strikes or even a few hundred thousand. By the end of 1967 the Central Intelligence Agency quit making recommendations on bombing targets, convinced that no level of attack against the transportation system could stop supplies moving south.

Like the Americans’ image of the Ho Chi Minh Trail as a single superhighway, the environmental movement has conceptualized Keystone XL as the single path for Alberta tar sands oil, a 1,179-mile conduit capable of shipping 830,000 barrels a day. If Keystone can be stopped, then …more

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