The 2015 Humana Challenge Championship was still up for grabs as the last group, containing the sole leader, Bill Haas, came down the 18th fairway on the Arnold Palmer Private Course at PGA West in La Quinta.
Waiting, watching and keeping loose on the driving range were five players, including Idyllwild’s Brendan Steele, who had finished their rounds tied at 21 under par—one shot behind Haas.
“The tournament’s definitely not over from my perspective,” Steele said as he waited for more than an hour to see if his 21-under total would get him into a playoff. “With the water on the last couple holes, anybody can make a bad swing at any time, so you just kind of hang out and see what’s happening. I can’t act like, ‘Hey, I did a good job, but it’s not enough, and I’m going to go home.’ I’ve got to be ready, just in case anything does happen.”
However, the jailbreak playoff was not to be, as Haas battled to a final-hole par and took home the $1 million-plus paycheck.
Meanwhile, fan favorite Phil Mickelson finished in a tie for 24th place, 7 shots off the lead—and it seemed the weekend was just what he needed. As he wound his way around the three courses, he seemed relaxed and unconcerned. For the first three days, he played a convivial and charming host to the amateur players in his group. Whether regaling them with amusing anecdotes or generously offering helpful tips, Mickelson seemed to be at ease.
“I’ve got some things to improve on, but it was a good week to kind of build a foundation (and) work on my game,” Mickelson told the media after his last round. “We had great weather. That allows you to work on the fundamentals and get the swing basics down without having to fight the elements, without getting into bad habits.”
How does the 2015 season ahead look to these two players?
“I’ve been feeling really, really good, shooting good scores at home,” Steele shared. “I know that doesn’t always translate, but I’m just seeing a big difference in my game.”
Meanwhile, Mickelson said he was excited for the upcoming year.
“I feel I’m ready to go, ready to get started,” he said. “It was a good week to get the year started. Now we’ll see the next two weeks if I can get that fine-tuning done and shoot the low scores I need.”
Scroll down to see several photos from the Humana Challenge.
The fame that El Gato Classic founder Eddie Elguera’s skateboarding career gave him led, in part, to a drug and alcohol addiction in the early 1980s. (For more on the El Gato Classic, see the main story.)
He retired from the sport, and then became a born-again Christian before eventually returning during the boom of vert-skating in the 1980s. He opened the Rock Church, where the slogan is, “Loving people to life.”
Elguera was not shy about discussing his fall into drug use.
“Basically, when you’re at the top, and you have people throwing money at you, the opportunities are there for people who want to give you drugs and give you alcohol,” he said. “It’s so important to have a good structure around you that helps you to bounce wisdom off of. I was focused for the first two years, and I wouldn’t allow things to come in like that, because I knew what my goal and purpose was. But I didn’t have the big picture, so I dropped off the map.”
After retiring from skateboarding and taking a job at a fast-food restaurant, he had an encounter with a woman who turned him on to teachings from the Bible.
“This lady came in and just began to share the gospel about God and Jesus Christ,” he said. “That day, I gave my life to God, because she said, ‘You will never find fulfillment in skateboarding or drugs, and you’ll only find it in Jesus Christ. God will use you and find you’ll have purpose in life.’ I accepted the Lord; I started going to church. That was back in 1983, and in 1986, God began to speak to me about starting to skateboard again.”
“It was great to get back into it after a six-year hiatus. I was afraid because of not being at the top any more, but at the same time, I knew it was for a greater purpose. I got back into the competition scene, and pretty soon, a friend asked me to come and share my story at a youth group, and then a couple more, then I had a skateboard ministry where I went around to different churches and shared my story.”
Christian Hosoi, who will also be appearing at the El Gato Classic, recalled Elguera’s Bible-study meetings at skateboarding events. Hosoi also had drug problems and served a prison term after being arrested in 2000 at the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii after attempting to transport more than a pound of crystal meth. He became a born-again Christian while in prison. Hosoi is currently the outreach pastor of the Sanctuary Church in Orange County.
“(Eddie) is a great example of what a man of God can be,” said Hosoi. “He’s a businessman and a professional skateboarder. We’re both still professional skateboarders. I’m a pastor at the Sanctuary Church, and he’s a pastor at The Rock. We still get gnarly; we still get rad; and we still hang out with all of our friends who do crazy things, but we just love people. I love his saying, ‘Loving people to life.’”
There are two eclipses in October 2014!
The first is a total lunar eclipse, in the predawn hours of Wednesday, Oct. 8. You’ll want to set your alarm when you turn in for the night on Tuesday.
Here are the times for the various stages of the Oct. 8 lunar eclipse for the Pacific time zone, with the moon’s position in Palm Springs.
- Moon enters umbra at 2:15 a.m. (moon’s azimuth is at 227 degrees; altitude is 52 degrees).
- Total eclipse begins at 3:25 a.m. (245°; 41°).
- Deepest eclipse is at 3:55 a.m. (251°; 35°).
- Total eclipse ends at 4:24 a.m. (256°; 29°).
- Moon leaves umbra at 5:34 a.m. (267°; 16°).
During totality in Palm Springs, Uranus (magnitude 5.7) should be visible in binoculars nearly 1 degree to the left or lower left of the center of the eclipsed moon. A medium to high power telescope reveals the planet’s disk, 3.7 arcseconds across.
October’s second eclipse is a partial solar event, in the afternoon on Thursday, Oct. 23.
A solar eclipse can be viewed indirectly, by looking at a projected image. Take a postcard or 3-by-5-inch index card; puncture a small pencil point hole in the center of the card; and allow the projected image of the sun to fall on a second white card, held 3 or 4 feet away, in the shadow of the first card. You can improve the view by using a long cardboard box: Cut a large hole at one end, and cover that hole with the first index card with the small puncture hole. Then tape a sheet of white paper inside the box at the opposite end, to serve as a screen.
You can also stand in the shade of a tree and look for projected images of the eclipsed sun, on the ground or on a sheet you have spread on the ground, or on the side of a light-colored building. Try this method a few days before the eclipse, at the same time of day, and look for round projected images of the full disk of the sun.
Groups organizing a solar eclipse watch can also order a quantity of solar eclipse viewers for participants. Both hand-held safe eclipse viewers and eclipse glasses (to be worn like regular eyeglasses) are available from Rainbow Symphony. Both styles are identically priced and employ the same filter materials. The minimum quantity for those items is 25, at 85 cents each, with bigger discounts for larger quantities. To order, go to www.rainbowsymphonystore.com, and click on eclipse shades.
The viewers can be kept for use during future eclipses! In the next 10 years, there will be three more solar eclipses visible from California. These filters can also be used to check for sunspots; very large ones would be visible through the filter.
In Palm Springs, the eclipse on Thursday, Oct. 23, begins at 2:12 p.m., as the moon’s disk makes first contact with the upper right edge of the sun’s disk. Greatest eclipse for Palm Springs occurs at 3:31 p.m., as the moon’s disk covers the upper right portion of the sun’s disk—45 percent of the solar diameter, or 33 percent of the disk area. The eclipse ends at 4:41 p.m., as the moon’s disk makes last contact with the upper left edge of the solar disk.
During the eclipse in Palm Springs, the sun will be sinking through the southwestern sky, at an altitude ranging from 38 degrees at the start of the event, to 15 degrees at the end.
Robert C. Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.
Most researchers studying grizzly bears are from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or university ecology departments, not biotechnology companies.
Still, Kevin Corbit, a senior scientist at the Southern California-based biotech firm Amgen, spends his days in a lab in Pullman, Wash., analyzing bear blood. He leaves the actual touching of the 700-pound predator to the capable handlers and their trusty anesthesia. Corbit chuckles as he reflects on his work: “I guess it’s not logical to study bears with a biotech job.”
Maybe it is logical, though, judging from a study he recently published, in collaboration with Washington State University’s Bear Center. With the goal of developing a better long-term treatment for human obesity, Corbit strayed from the status quo of testing mice and rats, which aren’t great predictors of human response. Instead of trying medications on rodents, he decided to examine the genetics of grizzlies and their metabolism. The bears were the perfect fit: Before hibernating each year, they become extraordinarily obese.
In the new study, Corbit and his colleagues discovered a natural state of diabetes in bears that not only serves a real biological purpose, but also is reversible. The bears’ bodies effectively turn up or down their responsiveness to the hormone insulin—much, Corbit says, “like a dimmer switch.” The bears are at their fattest in the late summer, sometimes consuming more than 50,000 calories and gaining up to 16 pounds in a day. But despite the weight gain, they’re at their least diabetic. Their insulin dial is turned up, which helps them store fat for seven months of hibernation.
When the bear hibernates and needs to live off its fat stores, it turns its insulin responsiveness way down. The animal becomes, in human terms, like a Type 2 diabetic, and insulin-resistant. Yet the bear is actually losing, rather than gaining, weight. Year in, year out, despite the extremes of fall gorging, then foodlessness for the entire winter, the bear’s blood sugar remains consistent. It stays healthy thanks to PTEN, a unique genetic mutation (that appears in only some humans) that allows for the insulin dimmer switch.
In addition to pointing out that diabetes is a natural and temporary condition for grizzlies, the research shows that the dominant theory that human obesity and diabetes go hand-in-hand may need rethinking.
Corbit is already thinking about what this could mean for how people are currently treated for the condition. “I worry that giving people insulin over the long-term may end up hurting them,” he says. While injecting insulin in the bloodstream can bring down high blood sugar, it also prevents the breakdown of fat, which leads to cardiovascular problems and other serious medical issues. An alternative treatment for obesity, Corbit thinks, could lie in discovering how exactly grizzlies use the PTEN gene to control their insulin levels.
Ultimately, Corbit wrote in a New York Times op-ed last winter, drug development could take a hint from “millions of years of evolutionary experimentation.” Through unique genetic mutations, animals have evolved in ways to overcome conditions that continue to afflict humans. The new grizzlies research is just one example of how we can learn from them.
“Nature has figured it out,” he says.
Now he just needs to find a way to translate thousands of years of evolution into a treatment for obesity. Slumbering grizzlies may have brought Corbit closer than ever.
This article originally appeared in High Country News.
The full moon occurs on Sunday, Aug. 10, at 11:09 a.m. The moon passes perigee—221,765 miles from Earth, the closest approach of the year—at the same hour.
But this “supermoon,” visible at dawn and dusk on that date, is not the brightest moon of 2014, because of the phase effect, which makes the moon’s brightness decrease sharply when it’s a few degrees away from being exactly 180 degrees from the sun. You can duplicate this effect one night by standing between a stationary bright-light source and a highly reflective road sign, so that the shadow of your head is cast upon the sign. Note how the sign really lights up around your head’s shadow, giving the shadow a brilliant “halo.” However, if you take a step or two to left or right, you’ll notice how quickly the road sign fades away.
August's full moon passes four to five degrees north of Earth’s shadow center, causing the moon to set after sunrise and rise before sunset on Aug. 10. Further, the timing of the full moon, during the daytime, places the moon widely northwest of the Earth’s shadow at sunrise, and northeast of it at sunset.
Even with the moon not as bright as could be, there are no truly dark skies between dawn’s first light on Aug. 8 and nightfall on Aug. 14. This fact will largely spoil this year’s Perseid meteor shower, which would otherwise be at its best in the predawn darkness hours of Wednesday, Aug. 13.
If you’re outdoors that morning as twilight brightens, watch for Jupiter rising in the east-northeast, 5 degrees to the lower left of Venus. Venus goes east against background stars by 1.2 degrees per day compared to Jupiter’s 0.2 degrees; watch their separation narrow by about 1 degree daily.
Don’t miss the spectacular pairing of Venus and Jupiter on Monday, Aug. 18, within 0.4 degrees. Five days later, on Saturday, Aug. 23, the old crescent moon joins the brilliant planets in a beautiful scene.
Evening planets: Find the planets Mars and Saturn in the southwest at nightfall, and compare them in brightness and color to each other; to bluish Spica, to their lower right; and to reddish Antares, to Saturn’s left. The stars will twinkle noticeably.
Watch the Mars-Saturn gap shrink until they’re 3.4 degrees apart on Aug. 25, and then widen to 5.0 degrees apart by Aug. 31. The moon will appear near these planets on Aug. 31.
Robert C. Victor was a staff astronomer at Abrams Planetarium at Michigan State University. He is now retired and enjoys providing skywatching opportunities for school children in and around Palm Springs.
From Thursday, Feb. 13, through Sunday, Feb. 23, Modernism Week will take over the Coachella Valley with an overwhelming number of events celebrating midcentury architecture and design.
We’ve scoured the calendars, and here are five happenings that caught our eye. For a complete list of events, visit www.modernismweek.com—and do so soon, as many of the events will sell out, if they have not already. (As of our press deadline, tickets were still available for these events.)
Modern Mambo! At Caliente Tropics
Caliente Tropics will celebrate the opening of Modernism Week with—what else?—a mambo party! From 8 to 11 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 13, enjoy a Havana-themed party featuring DJ Alf Alpha; cocktails by Ultimat Vodka; chocolate treats by Godiva; and great food from the fine folks Crave. Tickets are $150; visit www.modernismweek.com. Caliente Tropics is located at 411 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs; 760-327-1391.
Modernism Week After Dark at the Purple Room
Gary and Joan Gand—you probably know them as the Gand Band—have put together an impressive schedule of music at the Purple Room during Modernism Week. On Friday, Feb. 14, the Gand Band will perform a “Motown to Memphis” show featuring Tony Grandberry. The following night, they will be joined by special guests to re-live the music from the iconic 1967 Monterey Pop Festival. On Tuesday, Feb. 18, the Blue Hawaiians will perform on Surf Rock night. Costs vary. For a full itinerary, visit www.purpleroompalmsprings.com, or call 760-322-4422. The Purple Room is located at 1900 E. Palm Canyon Drive, in Palm Springs.
Never Built Palm Springs
From 1 to 3 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 15, the Saguaro Palm Springs will host a panel discussion led by Erin Feher, editor of California Home+Design. Panelists include Sidney Williams of the Palm Springs Art Museum; Lance O’Donnell of o2 Architecture; Jennifer Siegal of the Office and Mobile Design firm; and others. The topic of the discussion: the Palm Springs that “could have been.” Panelists will address a series of proposed projects that were—as the title of the event says—never built. Tickets are $15—or for $30, enjoy the talk after brunch at Tinto. Head to www.modernismweek.com for tickets. The Saguaro Palm Springs is at 1800 E. Palm Canyon Drive; 760-323-1711.
Showing of ‘Mid Century Moderns: The Homes That Define Palm Springs’
At 1 p.m., Monday, Feb. 17, the Horizon Ballroom at the Hilton will host a screening of the film Mid Century Moderns: The Homes That Define Palm Springs. The movie examines the homes of the Alexander Construction Company, which designed homes in Twin Palms, Vista Las Palmas and the Racquet Club Estates. It also takes a look at the Alexander Homes, which have never been shown on public tours. Tickets are $12; get them at www.modernismweek.com. The Hilton is at 400 E. Tahquitz Canyon Way, in Palm Springs; 760-320-6868.
Hugh M. Kaptur: Gentle Giant of Desert Design
The Palm Springs Public Library will feature a free lecture by Matt Burkholz on Hugh M. Kaptur, the architect who will be in the spotlight this year during Modernism Week. Kaptur was one of the youngest of the now-renowned midcentury modernist architects, and was a major force in the Coachella Valley’s architecture world, designing 200 residences, commercial and recreation centers, hotels and other structures. Seating is first-come, first served for the lecture, which begins at 10:30 a.m., Saturday, Feb. 22; library doors open at 10 a.m. The Palm Springs Public Library is located at 300 S. Sunrise Way; 760-322-7323.
- modernism week
- modern mambo
- dj alf alpha
- purple room
- gand band
- tony grandberry
- blue hawaiians
- never built palm springs
- erin feher
- california home+design
- sidney williams
- lance o'donnell
- jennifer siegal
- o2 architecture
- office and mobile design
- mid century moderns: the homes that define palm springs
- hugh m kaptur
As all eyes in the West turn to the skies for relief from 14 years of “mega-drought,” as Gov. Jerry Brown put it when he declared a drought emergency in January, this is as good of a time as any for those of us in the West to ask: “How did we get caught between a rock and a dry place, and what, if anything, can we do about it now?”
To answer that question, we have to go back to the boom-boom years of America’s dam-building. No politician in the West was a bigger believer in the transformative power of impounded water than Arizona’s favorite son, Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater. Goldwater was the Bureau of Reclamation’s biggest booster in Congress when the agency proposed mind-boggling water projects to tame the mighty Colorado River.
Never mind that the Hoover Commission, in a report commissioned by Congress, warned in 1951 that the Bureau of Reclamation would bankrupt the nation with senseless dams and irrigation projects, while holding future generations of Americans hostage to unpaid bills and unintended consequences.
At a time when Goldwater and the Bureau of Reclamation were enjoying a Golden Age of water projects, their chief nemesis was an environmental crusader named David Brower. Brower, president of the Sierra Club and founder of the Earth Island Institute, single-handedly led the fight against building Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River. And lost. He called that defeat “the darkest day of my life.”
Time and old age have a way of bringing people to their senses. Toward the end of his life, Goldwater took political positions that left most of his libertarian allies scratching their heads in bewilderment. Is Barry going senile? Did somebody poison his soup?
No, Goldwater’s public epiphany came about when PBS aired Cadillac Desert, a series based on Marc Reisner’s eponymous book. In the third episode, when Goldwater and Reisner were discussing the adjudication of the Colorado River, the silver-haired Goldwater looked out across the sprawling megalopolis of Phoenix and asked, “What have we done to this beautiful desert, our wild rivers? All that dam-building on the Colorado, across the West, was a big mistake. What in the world were we thinking?”
That admission reverberated across the high mesas of the Southwest like summer thunder. A few months later, when Brower and I talked over lunch, I asked him, “What did you do when Goldwater said it was all a big mistake?”
He cackled and then let out an expletive. “I reached for the phone and called (Goldwater), and I said, Barry, let’s do the right thing: Help me take out Glen Canyon Dam. He said he would! Then he died a few months later.”
Brower died a few months after that.
Taking out Glen Canyon Dam would not have altered today’s water crisis in the Southwest, but it would have made a resounding statement. It would have said: “Wild rivers rock.” It would have said, “We should have left well enough alone.”
We can’t go back to that America any more than we can return to the days before the Civil War, or to the Indian Wars, and fix things. We’re stuck with the aftermath of those decisions, many of them poorly informed, unwise or downright bad. And, sadly, as the Hoover Commission warned 63 years ago, the consequences will be with us for generations to come.
The Colorado River, though, is a special case. It has always been a special case—now more than ever. The drought that grips the Southwest today is the worst in 1,250 years, say some experts, and it shows no sign of releasing its grip. No doubt, the region’s leaders despair over vanishing options. The Bureau of Reclamation has announced it may start rationing water to downstream states by 2015. And no climate model is predicting rain.
What in the world were we thinking?
Paul VanDevelder is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Portland, Ore., and is the author of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America’s Road to Empire through Indian Territory.
The crowd on the Arnold Palmer Private course was pretty thin during the first two days of last weekend’s Humana Challenge Golf Tournament. In fact, during Thursday’s first round of play, only Canadian Mike Weir attracted a sizable fan following—composed mostly of his snowbird countrymen and women.
But during Saturday’s third round (Jan. 18), the crowd was noticeably larger. One of the largest galleries was following the U.S. pro pairing of Zach Johnson (arguably the hottest golfer on the tour) and Keegan Bradley (winner of the 2011 PGA Championship major title).
Along for the ride in the foursome: Coachella Valley amateur competitors Ralph Hemingway and Ed Michaels.
“I’ve played the last eight years with the (Bob) Hope Tournament and now the Humana,” Ralph Hemingway told me after his round. “And right now, I’d say the format of the Humana is the best of any of the pro-ams I’ve ever played at.”
The traditional pro-am format for decades had three amateurs playing with one PGA Tour pro in each foursome, and the tournament stretched over five days and 90 holes of competition.
“This is the second year that they’ve changed to a four-day, 1-on-1 (pros and amateurs) format. And being able to play with a different pro each day is just fantastic,” explained Hemingway. “You talk to the pros. … They felt like an oddball with a pro and three amateurs. Now they’ve got another pro to walk with, and somebody in the same tee box.” (Amateur competitors play from a tee box closer to the hole than the pros do.)
Back in the days of the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the tournament was known for the multitude of entertainers and celebrities who showed up to play as amateurs—attracting lots of star-gazers to the fairways.
“People would come to watch the celebrities … not the golf, just the celebrities,” Hemingway recalled. “People with the tournament ask me quite a bit if I miss the celebrities, and I said I really don’t. Celebrities are celebrities. I’m not really a celebrity nut anyway. They can play their game, and I’ll play mine.”
Does he plan on going back to play in the 2015 Humana Challenge?
“Oh sure, I’ll be there,” said Hemingway. “No doubt about it. I’ve played in the Dinah Shore and the Frank Sinatra, and I keep coming back to the Humana. They’ve done a lot of great charity work, and that’s a real factor.”
One last question for Hemingway: Is he related to Ernest?
“Yeah we’re fourth-cousins, and I have a collection of first-edition printings of all his books.”
Scroll down to see a few shots of Hemingway in action.
On Thursday, Jan. 16, President Bill Clinton took a break from a series of conferences and meetings held this week here in the Coachella Valley—dealing with health initiatives and economic development—to join legendary golfer Gary Player and PGA Commissioner Tim Finchem at the official opening ceremony of the 2014 Humana Challenge Golf Tournament.
Afterward, he spent a few hours at the Arnold Palmer Private Course in La Quinta talking with some of the professional golfers and fans in attendance.
"President Clinton and I have been friends for 30 years," said Marjorie Seawell, vacationing here from Denver, after she spoke with the former president at some length. "I got to know him first in the National Governors Association, and we became fast friends. Every time we find ourselves in the same place, we try to get together. He's a special friend."
The Clinton Foundation held its annual Health Matters conference in La Quinta earlier this week.
Regarding his involvement with the tournament, President Clinton said during a nationally televised interview with the Golf Channel, "When we started this, Commissioner Finchem asked me if I would work with him to try to help salvage what was the old Bob Hope golf tournament—both for Bob’s memory, who I knew for the last 20 or so years of his life, and for the community that has done so much work and has raised so much money for charity with the help of the PGA Tour and the players."
He recalled an anecdote that Bob Hope shared with him. "He told me, ‘The only thing I ever did, even after I gave up golf, was that I walked an hour a day. And sometimes because I worked at night, it was at midnight. And sometimes because I was in London and it was raining—I took rubber boots.’ You’ve got to have something to do come rain or shine.”
Regarding his ongoing commitment to the Humana Challenge Golf Tournament, President Clinton commented, "We really work hard here. So does our sponsor, Humana, and I give them a lot of credit. They participate in our conference, and this year, we got another $11 million committed, and we’ve got enough money committed in the United States to touch 50 million more people with after-school programs for kids who need help and support. We’re trying to build a culture of wellness in America and make it a part of what we do.”
They’re as common as U.S. House bills repealing Obamacare, but far more successful: Earthjustice v. BLM. WildEarth Guardians v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife. Natural Resources Defense Council v. EPA.
They’re lawsuits brought by conservation groups against federal agencies when, environmentalists say, the agencies fail to enforce the law. A polluted river falls through the cracks; a species in peril remains unprotected; a Clean Air Act deadline for air-quality standards passes without action.
Sometimes, federal lawyers fight back all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, as in Massachusetts v. EPA, the blockbuster 2007 case that forced the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon dioxide as a pollutant. Other times, they surrender and hammer out the details of a settlement.
Some of those agreements represent conservation milestones: In the 1990s, scores of environmental groups settled cases with EPA over water pollution from diffuse sources; the agreements hatched hundreds of plans to clean up polluted lakes, rivers and beaches. In 2011, WildEarth Guardians got the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to agree to a six-year plan for protecting imperiled plants and animals with Endangered Species Act listings, establishing a systematic process to address the decade-long backlog of petitions.
None of these settlements have rewritten any laws; only Congress can do that. Instead, they’ve refined and put teeth into existing legislation. Still, they rankle industry and its conservative allies. In recent years, House Republicans, aided by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have likened “sue-and-settle” agreements to mob tactics. Former Arizona Rep. Ben Quayle, introducing a bill to address the issue, told Congress the settlements amount to “backroom regulation” that robs environmental policy of “transparency and fairness.”
Quayle lost his seat in the 2012 elections, but his Sunshine for Regulatory Decrees and Settlements Act lives on: A new version was recently approved by the House Judiciary Committee. Meanwhile, legislators in 12 states, including Arizona, Utah and Wyoming, have filed two Freedom of Information Act requests, demanding all EPA documents pertaining to settled lawsuits between citizen groups and the agency. The EPA rejected the first request as too broad, so the states requested documents “that discuss or in any way relate to” communication anyone in the agency’s 16 offices had with any of 17 nonprofits concerning atmospheric haze. The EPA rejected the second request, too, citing legal precedent that says the law “was not intended to reduce government agencies to full-time investigators on behalf of requestors.” Rather than narrow the request, on July 16, the states, led by Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, sued.
Eric Biber, a University of California at Berkeley environmental law professor, suspects federal regulators do sometimes welcome environmentalist pressure to enforce neglected laws. “Sometimes, an agency wants to do something but not take the political hit for it,” he says. If you have a settlement agreement in place, and Congress calls you into an oversight hearing, “You can say, ‘If you want a different outcome, change the law.’”
But the dynamic isn’t unique to environmental groups. “A lot of these lawsuits went in the other direction during the (industry-friendly) Bush administration,” Biber says. Earthjustice lawyers complained in 2003 of a “sue-and-settle pattern” when timber companies sued the government for access to northern spotted owl habitat. The settlement would have increased old-growth logging fourfold if environmental groups hadn’t fought it––and won.
“It’s increasingly used as a tool on both sides,” Biber says.
It should be noted that neither the Sunshine Bill in the House nor the document requests themselves allege collusion. Any such accusation would be fantastical, says John Walke, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council who has also litigated for both the EPA and industry. “Attorneys at the EPA uphold the interest of the United States government. They litigate vigorously, and that’s true whether they’re being sued by environmental groups, industry or states and cities.”
Only in public statements and press releases do lawmakers promote the notion of a secret environmentalist conspiracy within federal agencies. “If the EPA is making backdoor deals with environmental groups to push their agenda on the American people while bypassing the states and Congress,” Pruitt said in a press release, “we need to know.”
Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead’s spokesman, Renny McKay, is more circumspect: “We’re concerned about the practice,” he says. “We’re trying to verify whether this concern is valid or not.”
Walke thinks that’s a little “like submitting a request to the IRS to reveal a campaign to torture puppies. The value of the lawsuit is the PR value of leveling charges for which there are no facts. When the lawsuit is quietly dismissed later, they won’t care.” The message is out.
A similar dynamic unfolded when solar technology startup Solyndra went bankrupt after receiving a $550 million loan guarantee from the Energy Department, launching a congressional investigation into possible conflicts of interest. The dustup yielded nothing and ultimately faded—but not before damaging Obama’s renewable energy campaign.
It’s still worth asking, though, whether taking federal agencies to court and forcing settlements is the best way to enforce—or roll back—environmental laws. In a better world, would another process accomplish the same goals? Biber doubts it: “Unless you pass a law saying people can’t sue to enforce the law, I don’t know if you can avoid having the problem.”
Says Walke: “The most obvious alternative would be for agencies to be funded adequately by Congress to carry out the law. In the meantime, we live under a system that’s governed by a rule of law. And that law that anoints citizens with the right to hold government accountable.”
This story originally appeared in High Country News.