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A Watery Wilderness

The ocean is the biggest wilderness on the planet. But legal protections are scant.

Note: This article has been modified since its original posting. In addition to directly managing the 13 marine sanctuaries referenced in the article, NOAA co-manages four marine national monuments with the USFWS.   


The waters off the US coastline, the eighth largest in the world, have long been a vital source of sustenance, transport, recreation and inspiration for Americans. It’s hard to stand on the shore looking out in the distance and not experience a sense of wilderness. 

Yet the 1964 US Wilderness Act, which established the framework to protect the country’s wildest places, made no mention of these waters and resources, primarily because 50 years ago we knew little about the importance of our oceans, the complex web of life they support, and the need to protect them.  The general thinking was that due to its sheer size and seemingly inexhaustible resources, the ocean could overcome any environmental disruption. Since then, however, sophisticated technology and research have enabled scientists to better explore and understand the beauty, health, and value of our marine ecosystems.

Stormy Weatherphoto by Adventures of KM&G-Morris, on FlickrStorm over the Atlantic.

What we have learned is that the ocean, covering 70 percent of the planet, is critical to life on Earth. It regulates our climate and produces 97 percent of the planet’s fresh water through evaporation and condensation.  Ocean phytoplankton produce up to three-quarters of our oxygen, and absorb CO2 at up to twice the rate of land-based plants. Our seas provide protein for half the world’s population, and employment and recreation for millions of people.

Yet, there’s much we still don’t know.  As the hunt for Malaysia Airlines MH 370 – lost on March 8 – starkly revealed, the seascape is vast and deep. Scientists estimate that 95 percent of this realm is still unseen by human eyes.

Unfortunately, as with wilderness areas on land, unseen or “untrammeled” doesn’t necessarily mean unharmed. We now also know that human activities have pushed marine ecosystems to critically dangerous limits.

Three-quarters of the world's fish stocks are being harvested faster than they can reproduce; 90 percent of all large predatory fish – including tuna, sharks, swordfish, cod and halibut – are gone. Invasive species, such as the lionfish off the nation’s East Coast, are devastating native species and altering ecosystem …more

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In Seattle, an Ongoing Effort to Save the Region’s Green Spaces

The Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust aims to find a happy balance between development and wildlands protection

Whenever I go back to Seattle after a long time away, I’m struck by how green it is. The streets are lined with trees; there are parks everywhere; and I can see snow-covered peaks to the west, the east, and the south.

Those green spaces – the urban, suburban, and nearby wilds – are important both for people and for wildlife, says Lyanda Lynn Haupt, a Seattle-based author, naturalist, and eco-philosopher. “A tree outside a hospital window – just one tree can speed healing from surgery. One tree outside of a Chicago housing project can increase the attention span and the study habits for a student that lives in that project,” she explains. “Time in nature, even if it’s a small urban green space, makes us smarter, more creative, happier, and healthier.” At the same time, she adds, “creating even a small green space will invite more species diversity into a city.”

Mailbox PeakPhoto by Monty VanderBiltMailbox Peak trail, east of Seattle. The Mountain to Sound Greenway Trust's model of protecting key tracts of land and wildlife corridors and of working with developers could be replicated in many urban areas throughout the United States.

Greater Seattle’s green spaces were hard-won, says Doug Schindler, the deputy director of the Seattle-based nonprofit Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust. In 1991, as the Seattle area’s population started to grow rapidly and exert pressure on remaining undeveloped land, a group of conservationists, business leaders, and nonprofits came together to protect key green spaces and wild areas in three Western Washington watersheds. They started to negotiate and bargain in order to preserve a greenway that stretches from the Cascade Mountains in the east to the Puget Sound in the west. The aim of the project, according to the trust’s mission statement, was to find a “long-term balance between people and nature.” This model of protecting key tracts of land and wildlife corridors and of working with developers to find ways to incorporate green space in new developments could be replicated in many urban areas throughout the United States, thus ensuring access to nature for generations to come, Schindler says.

If anything, the threats to greater Seattle’s remaining green spaces have been growing over the years. Seattle is the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the United States, according to the 2013 census. That said, the …more

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In Conversation: Darren Aronofsky

Hollywood director wrestles with Alberta’s “out of whack” tar sands on a trip with the Sierra Club and Leonardo DiCaprio

Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky just returned from an excursion to see up close and personal the Alberta tar sands, and judging by his response to how oil companies are impacting the environment, this unregulated part of Canada sounds more like the Wild West than the Great White North. Aronofsky – who directed and co-wrote the $135 million, 138-minute Paramount Pictures adaptation of the Biblical tale of Noah – made the expedition way up yonder with a Hollywood superstar and prominent conservationist.

In this candid conversation conducted by phone shortly after his return to New York City, Aronofsky presents a compelling eye witness account of how the Alberta tar sands extraction impacts the environment and the health of First Nations communities in the region. In his thick Brooklyn accent Aronofsky – who helmed 1998’s Pi, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2008’s The Wrestler, and who earned an Oscar nomination for directing 2010’s Black Swan (for which Natalie Portman scored the Best Actress Academy Award) – also discusses celebrity activism, how he expresses eco-consciousness in his art, kindergarten, caribou, the Keystone Pipeline and more.

Tell me about your trip to Alberta.

The whole idea of the trip started maybe two, three years ago when I was researching Noah. While looking at the story of Noah we realized that in Scripture there was this big environmental message about how man had destroyed the world, and that part of the reason for the destruction of the world was because of not taking care of creation. So when we started researching, we started looking at the modern day and looking for places that were the worst polluted places on the planet. My partner is actually from British Columbia and she started telling me about the tar sands and they became a big influence on the visual look of the prediluvian world.

photo of men standing and talking by the shores of a lakephoto by Nico TaverniseDirector Darren Aronofsky (right) talking with Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune watch.

At the same time I’d just met Michael Brune [executive director] at the Sierra Club. I was talking to Michael about possibly shooting out there. We talked about taking a trip up there. It didn’t happen during the making of [Noah]. But we …more

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US Forest Service Moves to Start Clearcutting in Rim Fire Area

Massive logging proposal threatens many spotted owls, currently thriving in the fire-affected acres of Stanislaus National Forest

The US Forest Service issued a draft decision yesterday for a massive post-fire logging project in the Stanislaus National Forest portion of the 2013 California Rim Fire, which covered 257,171 acres on the national forest and Yosemite National Park. A final, signed decision on the proposal is expected this afternoon. 

regenerating underbush in California Rim Fire areaPhoto by Chad HansonA carpet of lupines covered this large high-intensity fire patch in the Rim Fire area this spring, showing that forest is regenerating naturally.

The draft decision proposes over 37,000 acres of intensive post-fire logging, which would remove the majority of the rarest and most ecologically valuable habitat resulting from the fire on the Stanislaus National Forest: “snag forest habitat” created by high-intensity fire in mature conifer forest. (Forty one percent of the Rim Fire area was comprised of non-conifer vegetation, such as grassland and foothill chaparral, and most of the forest area burned at low/moderate-intensity, wherein only a portion of the trees were killed). 

This would include essentially clear-cutting 95 percent of the snags (standing fire-killed trees) in

19,462 acres of the fire area. An additional 17,706 acres of “roadside” logging is planned along roads, including old logging roads, which are not maintained for public use (and many of which are closed roads, long since decommissioned). Much of this would be clearcut too, including live, healthy, mature, and old-growth trees, which would be removed by the thousands, for no credible public safety benefit, based upon profoundly vague criteria that allow just about any tree to be cut.

Because the Forest Service has closed most of the Rim Fire area to public access, and because the agency is not marking trees before they cut them along roads, there is no accountability. 

The Forest Service would keep 100 percent of the revenue from selling the timber from our federal public lands to private logging companies. Most of these funds would be used to pay Forest Service staff to implement future post-fire logging projects, under the “Salvage Sale Fund.”  

As I have reported previously in Earth Island Journal (see here and here), the Forest Service has repeatedly claimed over the past year that the Rim Fire damaged and destroyed the forest, using this as a justification to propose one of the largest commercial logging projects in the history of the national forest …more

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Can A Drive-Thru Really Be Green?

LEED certified buildings can’t negate the emissions from a long line of idling cars

There’s a rainwater catchment system on the roof of my west Florida neighborhood’s Dunkin’ Donuts outlet, collecting water to irrigate the restaurant’s own landscaping. There are electric car charging stations, for those Tesla owners who aren’t afraid to get a little powdered sugar on the upholstery. There is carpool-preferred parking, which is really available to anyone but might at least make single-car drivers feel a little guilty for parking there. The building features reflective and permeable hardscapes, to minimize the heat island effect and to help recharge the aquifer after a rainstorm. There is efficient LED lighting, and low- or no-flow fixtures in restrooms and kitchen sinks. The whole place was built with recycled materials. The works.

McDonalds Drive ThruPhoto by Skip SteuartCars idle while waiting at a McDonald's drive-thru in Virginia.

Now, I haven’t yet seen an electric car parked in front of one of the charging stations, but the water-saving features and the reflective, permeable hardscapes are particularly appropriate in urban Florida, where decades of aggressive population growth has put tremendous strain on our water resources, and where acres of blacktopped parking lots make already-challenging summers nearly unbearable.

You don’t see a lot of fast food restaurants like this, especially here in the Sunshine State. Scratch that — you don’t see many buildings like this here, period. As you might expect, the owners of this particular store are pursuing LEED certification. It’s the second Dunkin’ Donuts outlet in my city to be constructed using green building materials and methods.

But despite these efforts, the building is fundamentally at odds with concepts like sustainability and smaller carbon footprints and a cleaner environment generally. That’s because the building’s design includes a drive-thru window, which means it’s specifically designed to attract and accommodate lines of idling cars spewing toxins and greenhouse gases into the air. Which seems like a strange thing for a green building to do.

How long do drivers sit in the drive-thru, drumming their fingers on the steering wheel, waiting for their toasted bagels with cream cheese and their iced coffees? The industry average wait time is three minutes per car, from order to pickup. That translates to nearly 20 grams of pollutants emitted per car, on average, per visit — about the same as driving for a mile and …more

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Can Trophy Hunting Save the Endangered Markhor Goats?

A controversial program in Tajikistan tests the idea

The sun was beginning to fade in the frigid evening sky. It was the end of a long day of counting the endangered wild goats of southern Tajikistan. Known as the markhor, these goats are distinguished by their Merlin-esque beards and twisting, towering horns. The rare goats are difficult to spot amid the crags and gulches of the Pamir Mountains, but conservationist Tanya Rosen Michel's is practiced at the art, and she eventually honed in on them.

Turkmenian markhorPhoto by Marie HalelSome conservationists believe that protecting the snow leopard and its prey, the Turkmenian marcher goat would require some form of hunting.

Michel is the snow leopard program coordinator for Panthera, a wildcat conservation group that was surveying the markhor with help from the Tajik Committee on Environmental Protection, the Forest Agency and Academy of Sciences, and the German Development and Cooperation Agency. The March survey was an effort to understand how the markhor population affects those of its primary predator, the equally endangered snow leopard.

The tally this year totaled 1,300 markhor – the highest count in more than two decades. In the 1990s, the population plummeted to a tenuous 350 animal due to a civil war that devastated livestock and fueled poaching. After the war, as normal food sources rebounded and local conservation efforts were enacted to protect the markhor, their numbers began to rise. So, too, did snow leopard sightings.

As Michel peered through her scope, she noticed the herd, which had been casually grazing on grass, tapping the cold ground feverishly and crowding together. Scanning the landscape, Rosen spotted the source of distress – a snow leopard tiptoeing towards the heard in hopes of meal. For almost half an hour the snow leopard attempted stealing upon the herd from different angles. It then lay down behind a juniper tree in hopes of calming the herd, which sensed the predator's presence. Without success, "the ghost of the mountains," turned tail and faded into the fog.

It is clear to Michel and her colleagues that the fate of these two animals is intimately linked. Snow leopards cannot thrive without the markhor – and the markor cannot thrive without a concerted human effort at conservation. Michel also realized that it was going to take a sizeable, and perhaps counterintuitive effort, to defend both species. To protect the snow …more

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Federal Judge Overturns Kaua‘i GMO, Pesticide Regulatory Law

Ordinance 960 preempted by state law, says ruling; appeal likely

A federal judge yesterday overturned Kauai’s new law regulating the transgenic seeds industry on the Hawaiian island, ruling that it was preempted by state law and was therefore invalid. The ruling is a setback for activists and citizens fighting to protect local residents and the environment from exposure to the heavy doses of toxic pesticides that the biotech companies use on their fields year round.

A GM corn field in KauaiPhoto by Ian UmedaA GE corn field in Kaua‘i. Community activists and Kaua‘i residents impacted by pesticide exposure from genetically engineered crop fields promise to keep the fight going.

“Obviously I would have preferred a different ruling…  I will recommend to my client that we appeal to a higher court,” Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said in an interview Monday evening. The legal nonprofit has intervened in the case to defend the county’s law.

The Kaua‘i County law, Ordinance 960, was passed in November after surviving a veto by Kauai Mayor Barnard Carvalho. The law, which received widespread support within the community, requires agricultural companies and large farms to disclose the type and volume of pesticides they are spraying and the location of their genetically modified crop fields. It also requires the companies to set up buffer zones between fields growing GM crops and public places like schools, hospitals, and parks.

The four global pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations that have large operations on the island — Pioneer-DuPont, Syngenta, and Agrigenetics Inc (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical), and BASF Plant Science — had challenged the new law in federal court, arguing that it arbitrarily targets GE seed farming operations on Kaua‘i and tries to regulate activities over which counties have no jurisdiction.

Ruling on the lawsuit yesterday, US Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren concluded that the pre-existing Hawai‘i Pesticide Law preempted the Kauai ordinance and that only state government had the authority to regulate the seeds companies.

“This decision in no way diminishes the health and environmental concerns of the people of Kaua‘i,” Judge Kureen wrote in his decision. “The Court’s ruling simply recognizes that the State of Hawaii has established a comprehensive framework for addressing the application of restricted use pesticides and the planting of GMO crops, which presently precludes local regulation by the County.”

The biotech companies issued a joint statement yesterday saying they were pleased with judge’s decision.


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