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Listening to the Old People, the Land, and the Long Future

Why Bears Ears deserves to be declared a national monument

A coalition of five Native American tribes has been advocating the designation of a 1.9 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument on culturally significant land in southeast Utah, a proposal that has generated considerable controversy within the state. There is speculation that President Obama will designate the monument under the Antiquities Act before leaving office.

The Canyon Country — in the Four Corners States of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado — can make us shout out in excitement but, even more fundamentally, it is a place that slows us down and inspires our contemplation, reflection, and wonderment.

How do the plants in this rocky, arid landscape make it? How long did it take to make that hole, that arch, across the way? All the other impossible red rock formations, how were they made? Out on the tip of a mesa, how far am I seeing? 80 miles? A hundred? More? Down in the red rock side canyons I find inspiring villages, granaries, kivas, and petroglyphs and pictographs left by the Old People — the Ancestral Puebloans. Those societies were there for thousands of years. How could they have made it for so long in this unforgiving setting?

photo of a canyonphotograph © Stephen Trimble / www.stephentrimble.netCedar Mesa is part of the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, and is a sacred landscape to several Native American Tribes. It contains some 56,000 archeological sites.

While more needs to be done, large expanses of the Canyon Country land have been protected. The Canyon Country holds world-renowned national parks, among them Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Monument Valley, Zion, and the Grand Canyon itself — all federal public land, open to all. This is the largest concentration of parks and monuments in the world, mostly a result of the Antiquities Act of 1906, when Congress granted presidents the unilateral right to create national monuments by a stroke of a pen.

The Antiquities Act quickly took root in the Canyon Country. In 1908, Theodore Roosevelt came to the Grand Canyon and declared that 800,000 acres would become the Grand Canyon National Monument. “Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now,” the president exhorted from the South Rim, “You cannot improve on it.” Ever since, the Antiquities Act has remained a foundation stone of American conservation policy.

After World War II, interest in the Canyon Country accelerated. Congress made Canyonlands a national park in 1964. Capitol Reef and Arches, both originally created …more

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Obama Bans New Oil and Gas Drilling in Arctic, Atlantic Oceans

Decision will be difficult for successors to reverse

Barack Obama has permanently banned new oil and gas drilling in most US-owned waters in the Arctic and Atlantic oceans, a last-ditch effort to lock in environmental protections before he hands over to Donald Trump.

Obama used a 1953 law that allows presidents to block the sale of new offshore drilling and mining rights and makes it difficult for their successors to reverse the decision.

photo of oil rigPhoto by Backbone Campaign, FlickrA rig docked in Seattle last year en route to the Arctic to explore for oil. Climate activists, including a flotilla of kayakers, tried prevent its departure.

However, Obama’s ban — affecting federal waters off Alaska in the Chukchi Sea and most of the Beaufort Sea and in the Atlantic from New England to the Chesapeake Bay — is unprecedented in scale and could be challenged by Trump in court.

The president-elect has vowed to unleash the country’s untapped energy reserves and exploit fossil fuels. He has previously questioned the science of climate change, threatened to tear up the Paris climate agreement and appointed climate-change deniers in his cabinet.

This has led to a scramble from environmentalists calling on Obama to impose whatever regulations and executive orders he can to protect his climate legacy.

Tuesday’s move came in a joint announcement by Obama and the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, who also put a moratorium on new oil and gas leasing in its Arctic waters, subject to periodic review.

Obama, currently on holiday in Hawaii and with only a month left in office, said in a statement: “These actions, and Canada’s parallel actions, protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth. They reflect the scientific assessment that, even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.”

“By contrast, it would take decades to fully develop the production infrastructure necessary for any large-scale oil and gas leasing production in the region — at a time when we need to continue to move decisively away from fossil fuels.”

In 2015, just 0.1 percent of US federal offshore crude production came from the Arctic. A Department of Interior analysis shows that, at current oil prices, significant production in the …more

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Climate Justice Under Trump

If we’re both smart and lucky we may be able to slingshot into a mobilization that we wouldn’t otherwise have been able to achieve

Was it Al Gore who began the climate-movement tradition of incessantly quoting Winston Churchill? In any case, “We are entering a period of consequences,” and that’s a fact. But rather than rush beyond “consequences” to even darker conclusions, let me make a few claims.

John KerryPhoto by Chris Bentley/The GroundTruth ProjectUS Secretary of State John Kerry addressing the COP22 climate talks in Marraksh, one week after the Trump's election. US leadership in climate negotiations has not been an unambiguous force, and there are many people around the world who would object even to the term.

Trump’s Election Did Not Cost Us 2°C

Before Trump there was Paris, and its celebrated goal of “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C” while pursuing efforts “to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” So here’s a question: When Dave Roberts, one of America’s key climate bloggers, posted a post-election reaction piece called “Trump’s election marks the end of any serious hope of limiting climate change to 2 degrees,” was he right?

I say he wasn’t.

Note that there’s a bit of nuance in Roberts’ argument. Here’s how he described the strategy that, in his view, Trump’s election had blown out of the water:

“The truth is, hitting the 2-degree target (much less 1.5 degrees) was always a long shot. It would require all the world’s countries to effectively turn on a dime and send their emissions plunging at never-before-seen rates.

It was implausible, but at least there was a story to tell. That story began with strong US leadership, which brought China to the table, which in turn cleared the way for Paris. The election of Hillary Clinton would have signaled to the world a determination to meet or exceed the targets the US promised in Paris, along with four years of efforts to create bilateral or multilateral partnerships that pushed progress faster.

With steady leadership, the US and China would exceed their short-term goals. Other countries would have their willpower fortified and steadily ratchet up their commitments. All this coordinated action would result in a wave of clean energy innovation, which would push prices down lower, which would accelerate the transition.”

Is this a more or less accurate telling? I think it is, though it’s also radically incomplete. For one thing, “US leadership” has not been an unambiguous force, and there are many people around the world who would object even to the …more

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In Search of the Balkan Lynx

An effort to save a critically endangered wildcat is bringing together nations once divided by ethnic conflict

The Balkan Lynx, a subspecies of the Eurasian Lynx, lives predominately in eastern Albania and western Macedonia with smaller populations in Kosovo and Montenegro. Researchers believe there are 35 to 40 individuals remaining mostly in Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia. The Balkan Lynx, classified as critically endangered,  by the International Union on the Conservation of Nature, has been on the brink of extinction for almost a hundred years.

Balkan Lynx in snowPhoto by courtesy of the Balkan Lynx Recovery ProjectA 2015 camera trap photo of a Balkan lynx in Mavrovo National Park, Macedonia.

Ethnic and religious conflicts in Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Albania left thousands dead and millions displaced. In recent years though, with the formation of the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program, the four countries have been cooperating in attempts to ensure the lynx’s survival.

These medium-sized nocturnal wildcats are elusive and shy animals. They might be living near human habitations with people not noticing or being aware of their presence for years. They are individualistic and a territorial species, occupying large tracts of lands. The home range of an adult male lynx usually varies from 100 to 400 square kilometers. Their main prey is roe deer and occasionally chamois and hares. Lynx only move to fresh terrain if these are directly connected to their existing ones, differing from wolves, for example, who will settle into completely new areas. Unbroken stretches of country and plentiful food are preconditions for the survival of lynx.

In 2010, the first lynx was radio-tagged and named Marko. Since then, ecological and environmental agencies in the Balkans have been working together within the Balkan Lynx Recovery Program to monitor the lynx, promote sustainable hunting and game conservation, raise public awareness, and strengthen cooperation in local communities.

Last fall, I took a plane bound for the land of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes with the simple hope of possibly seeing one of these rare felines.

I arrived in Gusinje, Montenegro by a bus from Dubrovnik, Croatia. A lynx had been spotted near Gusinje in the Nacionalni Park Prokletije — a 16,630 hectare national park located in the border region between Montenegro and Albania. I found a group of local hikers that didn’t mind me following them up into the mountains on a regular basis and shared my desire to be one of the few humans to spot a lynx.

Boris (I never knew his last name) was the leader of the hikers, or at least …more

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Searching for Fantastic Beasts

Cryptozoologists explore remote corners of the world looking for evidence of fabled species

Dragons, werewolves, yeti, trolls, and sea serpents — these are just a few of the mythical creatures that cause havoc in 1920s-era New York in the recent film based on JK Rowling’s book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

In Rowling’s fantastical story, the mythical creatures escape from another dimension through a magic briefcase, making their way into our universe. But could there be some realism behind the storyline? After all, there are some people who believe there really are weird and wonderful animals living, unbeknown to western society and mainstream science, in remote places all over the world.

photo of komodo dragonPhoto by Gary Ullah, FlickrThe Komodo dragon, once believed to be a mythical creature, is a large lizard found on several Indonesian islands.

Cryptozoology is the study of hidden animals, and cryptozoologists are the researchers who spend their lives looking for them. Over the last fifteen years, new species of deer, rat, civet, and countless lizards and insects have revealed themselves to mainstream science. Explorers have even found skeletons of tiny hobbit-like humans. Cryptozoologists, however, believe that other, larger creatures, are out there, too.

Could prehistoric marine reptiles exist in lakes all over the Northern Hemisphere? Are leopards and pumas really hiding out in the English countryside? Do huge hounds, far more terrible than any dog or wolf, lurk in the remote North American wilderness? Cryptozoologists say they just might.  

Cryptozoology, however, is not recognized within academia. Where scientists wait for unequivocal evidence to emerge before drawing conclusions, cryptozoologists are prepared to speculate based on anecdotal accounts. Within mainstream fields, the study of hidden animals is often considered fantasy, folklore, mythology, or pseudoscience.

As might be expected, many cryptozoologists disagree. “I’ve read thousands of accounts, spoken to hundreds of eyewitnesses and I’m telling you, these creatures are really out there,’ says Richard Freeman director with the Centre for Fortean Zoology in the United Kingdom, an organization that studies, researches, and looks for unknown animals.

Freeman’s first expedition as a cryptozoologist, in 2001, was to find a giant snake said to inhabit the inland waterways of East Asia. Locals called it the Naga. “It was up to sixty feet long, as thick as a barrel with a green and black sheen, according to eyewitnesses,” Freeman says. 

He explains that snakes like this evolved 65 million years ago during the Cretaceous period, and in Australia survived into the ice age. Freeman says that there have been sightings …more

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Tens of Thousands of Snow Geese May Be Dying Along the Pacific Flyway 

Wildlife officials en route have no way to identify live birds exposed to toxic Berkeley Pit water in Montana

Every Halloween, birders gather at Montana’s Freezout Lake, about an hour’s drive from Great Falls. It’s an overwhelming spectacle: Up to 300,000 snow geese gather to rest after a night-long, nonstop flight of at least 400 miles from Alberta or Saskatchewan in Canada. After Freezout, there’s still about 1000 miles left before the  snow geese reach their destination, the Sacramento Wildlife Refuge in California.

Snow geese flyingPhoto by eflon/flickrThis year, the weather tricked tens of thousands of snow geese into delaying their flight south.

This year, the weather tricked tens of thousands of them — autumn was warm out West. They stayed up north a little too long. By the time the snow geese reached Freezout, the lake had lived up to its name. It had iced over. Exhausted and thirsty, the massive flock pressed on until they spotted what looked like a safe refuge. A little past dinnertime on November 28, the tired geese descended through a swirling snowstorm. They landed on the toxic soup that’s slowly filling the largest Superfund site in the United States: Butte, Montana’s Berkeley Pit, a massive hole in the ground that once used to be a copper mine.

The Pit is hard to miss. It’s a mile long, a half mile wide, and 1700 feet deep. The water in the Berkeley Pit covers 700 acres, a surface area about 4/5ths the size of New York City’s Central Park. It’s 900 feet deep, and getting deeper by the day.

Thousands of migrating geese perished in the Pit in the first few hours. Where is the rest of the flock of perhaps 8,000 birds? Did they survive? Did they die nearby, or farther down the Pacific Flyway? Is there a protocol to track critical incidents that might affect birds, animals or humans? How — and how quickly — did people react?

Birdwatching: 24/7, 365

 “Employees tried urgently to keep the birds from landing,” said Mark Thompson, environmental affairs manager for Montana Resources, a company that, since 1985, has mined old tailings for copper and molybdenum, an element that’s used in glass furnace electrodes and in the petroleum industry. “Our manpower was out there all night.” Thompson paused to consider the sheer number of snow geese that overwhelmed their efforts. “The water was covered with white birds.”  For the workers, Thompson said, the battle was personal. They were trying to save the birds, but they also were attempting to fend off another public relations disaster.

It’s not the …more

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EPA Confirms that Fracking Can Contaminate Drinking Water

Agency walks back findings in earlier report, says that hydraulic fracturing can impact water 'under some circumstances'

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has released its widely anticipated final report on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, confirming that the controversial drilling process indeed impacts drinking water "under some circumstances." Notably, the report also removes the EPA's misleading line that fracking has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."

"The report, done at the request of Congress, provides scientific evidence that hydraulic fracturing activities can impact drinking water resources in the United States under some circumstances," the agency stated in a media advisory.

photo of frackingPhoto by WildEarth GuardiansThe EPA's final report on the impacts of hydaulic fraturing on water resources concluded that fracking can, in fact, impact drinking water in the US.

This conclusion is a major reversal from the EPA's June 2015 pro-fracking draft report. That specific "widespread, systemic" line baffled many expertsscientists and landowners who — despite the egregious headlines — saw clear evidence of fracking-related contamination in water samples. Conversely, the EPA's top line encouraged Big Oil and Gas to push for more drilling around the globe.

But as it turns out, a damning exposé from Marketplace and APM Reports revealed last month that top EPA officials made critical, last-minute alterations to the agency's draft report and corresponding press materials to soft-pedal clear evidence of fracking's ill effects on the environment and public health.

Thomas Burke, EPA deputy assistant administrator and science advisor, discussed the agency's final report released Tuesday.

“There are instances when hyrdofracking has impacted drinking water resources. That's an important conclusion, an important consideration for moving forward," Burke told reporters today, according to The Hill.

Regarding the EPA's contentious "national, systemic conclusion," Burke said, "that's a different question that this study does not have adequate evidence to really make a conclusive, quantified statement."

In the new report, the authors heeded the EPA's independent Science Advisory Board's advice to review the "widespread systemic impacts" line from the June 2015 draft study. The final 1,200-page report omits that line.

"Scientists put that language in the draft report, and scientists made the decision not to include it in the final report based on feedback from the Science Advisory Board and their interpretation of the available science," Burke explained.

The Science Advisory Board also took issue with how the draft report inexplicably omitted three critical fracking-contamination cases — Dimock, Pennsylvania; Parker County, Texas; and Pavillion, Wyoming.

As Pavillion rancher and affected landowner John Fenton testified last year, "When EPA launched its national study of fracking's drinking water …more

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