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You may never have heard of Izembek National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, but it is a place of global importance. At the very southwestern tip of the mainland, it is vital to the survival of virtually the world’s entire population of emperor geese and Pacific black brant, as well as other bird species from multiple continents. It’s also important habitat for caribou, brown bears and marine mammals.

But if the Trump administration gets its way, the roar of diesel engines will soon drift across this landscape as bulldozers scour a new road across the fragile tundra.

Development here would set a terrible precedent for all the places across America that Congress has designated as wilderness areas—the highest level of protection for public lands. If a road is built through Izembek, what would prevent acts of future destruction in our Joshua Tree National Park, Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness or Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park?

In January, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke signed an agreement to transfer about 500 acres of high-value habitat within Izembek and its designated wilderness to the King Cove Corp., which has long sought to build a road connecting the communities of King Cove and Cold Bay. Zinke’s move dovetails with the Trump administration’s goal of selling off and giving away federal lands for development.

The for-profit King Cove Corp. was established by the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which allowed such corporations to select lands to be managed for the benefit of shareholders. The corporation has advocated for the road for decades because of its potential to boost commercial fishing and seafood processing. Last year, independent Alaska Gov. Bill Walker sent a letter to the Trump administration describing a purpose of the road as the “movement of goods and people between King Cove and Cold Bay.”

In recent years, however, the purported purpose of the road has changed: Proponents started selling it as a “lifesaving” measure for ambulances to drive the more than 40 miles from King Cove to the jet-capable runway in Cold Bay. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates that, even in good weather, such a trip would take 90 minutes to two hours.

There are alternatives, but the King Cove Corp. and its supporters have rejected every single one of them. The corporation was given a taxpayer-funded, multi-million-dollar hovercraft that could successfully transport ambulances across the bay—less than 27 miles—in just minutes, but it chose to give it away to the nearby community of Akutan, which used it for a couple of years to transport mail and seafood workers. The corporation also was not interested in a proposal to start a marine ferry, something that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined would be more than 99 percent dependable.

King Cove will accept only a road, even though it would destroy wilderness on an isthmus containing a biologically rich lagoon. This was the first area in America to be recognized as a “wetlands of international importance” by the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty for conserving wetlands.

The road would set a precedent that threatens all wilderness areas and undermines bedrock environmental and conservation laws, including the Wilderness Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Wildlife Refuge Improvement Act and the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act. Worst of all, the residents of King Cove would not be made any safer; the gravel road would be unreliable, given the fierce storms of winter.

In a 2013 letter to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, Pete Mjos, a longtime physician with the federal Indian Health Service and medical director for the Eastern Aleutian Tribes, wrote, “With all due respect to my many friends and former patients in King Cove, I submit that the proposed road is the Great Irony—that construction of this road to ostensibly save lives, and for health and safety, in reality poses grave dangers, and is a very real threat to life itself.”

This January, nine environmental and conservation groups, including The Wilderness Society, filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Zinke’s land exchange with the King Cove Corp., arguing that it violates the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

These groups will not be silent as the Trump administration attempts to destroy wilderness and sell off our public lands for development. I hope all Americans support our efforts to preserve places like Izembek National Wildlife Refuge for future generations, and for all those species whose survival depends on wild places remaining wild.

Jamie Williams is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is president of The Wilderness Society, which works to permanently protect 109 million acres of wilderness.

Published in Community Voices

One week after the presidential election, on a summery November day, I phoned Denver-based climate activist Jeremy Nichols.

Nichols has pressured the government to keep its fossil-fuel reserves in the ground, with some success: In January, the Obama administration put a moratorium on federal coal leasing, something unimaginable during the heady drilling years of Bush and Cheney. I called to ask what Nichols expected from the next president. He remarked on the unseasonably warm weather, then lamented, “I’m going to yearn for the George W. Bush days.”

Environmentalists have good reason to worry about President-elect Donald J. Trump. In 2012, Trump tweeted that climate change was a “concept” ginned up by the Chinese. Now, he’s appointed a prominent critic of climate science and policy to oversee the Environmental Protection Agency’s transition. On his new website, Trump promises to grease the permitting skids for fossil fuel production, end the “war on coal,” support renewable energy and scrap the Clean Power Plan. At the same time, he professes a commitment to “our wonderful natural resources.”

The energy industry is delighted. “I think what we’re looking for right off the bat is simply having an administration that is not openly hostile to us,” says Kathleen Sgamma, of the Western Energy Alliance.

Meanwhile, conservationists expect to spend the next four years defending their Obama-era gains. But Obama’s environmental achievements are considerable, and Trump can’t vanquish them with a snap of his fingers. Many power plants have already taken steps to rein in toxic mercury emissions and pollutants that cloud parks and wilderness with brown haze. Obama’s clean car rules have already stood up in court. So far, Obama has designated 27 national monuments—more than any other administration—and the new president has no clear legal authority to erase those protections.

Still, the carbon-cutting Clean Power Plan, one of the president’s most significant accomplishments, is in peril. And the rarely used Congressional Review Act allows Congress to weigh in on any rule finalized after May 30 of this year, according to a Congressional Research Service estimate, by giving it 60 days in session to pass something called a “joint resolution of disapproval.” If the president signs the resolution, the rule is nullified, and agencies are forbidden to issue similar rules.

Here are some of the Obama administration’s achievements and Trump’s position on them, if known, and explain how Trump could attempt to undo them.


Federal Coal Leasing Moratorium

What Obama did: In January, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a “secretarial order” directing the department to stop leasing federal coal reserves, pending a review of the program. Environmentalists like Nichols had pushed for this, arguing that leasing federal coal was inconsistent with Obama’s climate goals, and that the program didn’t deliver fair returns to taxpayers.

Trump’s take: One of the few specific promises Trump has made is to lift the moratorium.

Trump’s options: Trump’s administration can scrap the moratorium with the stroke of a pen—the same way the Obama administration created it.


BLM and EPA Methane Rules

What Obama did: Both the EPA and Bureau of Land Management finalized rules this year to limit the amount of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, vented or flared by oil and gas drilling. The rules would limit those emissions at both new and existing facilities and funnel additional royalties to taxpayers, who don’t currently earn revenue on methane that’s burned as waste.

Trump’s take: We don’t know. However, Trump has positioned himself as a staunch ally of the industry, which vigorously opposes the rules. The BLM’s rule, finalized on Nov. 15, was met immediately with an industry lawsuit. Oklahoma Republican Sen. Jim Inhofe, who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, released a statement saying he looks forward to helping the new administration rescind the rules.

Trump’s options: Congress could use the Congressional Review Act to ask Trump to nix the rules, or include language in appropriations bills temporarily prohibiting the agencies from using funds for implementation or enforcement. Whatever happens, Erik Schlenker-Goodrich, of the Western Environmental Law Center, notes that waste prevention is a core principle of federal oil and gas law, and says his group will continue to ensure that BLM fulfills its legal obligations.


Oil and Gas Leasing Reforms

What Obama did: In the early days of the George W. Bush administration, The Wilderness Society’s Nada Culver says, you had to visit BLM field offices in person to keep tabs on oil and gas lease sales. Coordinates for parcels up for auction were posted, but you had to map them yourself and protest within a short window. As public-land drilling intensified, encroaching on places like Dinosaur National Monument, environmentalists protested more and filed more lawsuits. The result, says Culver, frustrated everyone: Environmentalists felt that the BLM put too little thought into leasing, and some offices became burdened with multi-year backlogs, a burden for industry.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar sought to break the gridlock by increasing public participation and including more upfront planning. Public comment periods now precede lease sales, and the BLM is starting to give citizens more insight into its thinking before it drafts management plans. Master leasing plans, which try to resolve conflicts between industry and others ahead of leasing, are another product of Salazar’s reforms.

Trump’s take: We don’t know. Trump has promised to “lift restrictions” on energy development on public lands, but the Western Energy Alliance says it’s hard to know exactly what that means. Litigation still bogs down leasing and protests continue, Sgamma says, pointing to a WildEarth Guardians lawsuit challenging all leases sold in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming since the start of 2015. She hopes for changes that speed up leasing and permitting.

Trump’s options: The reforms were created through memoranda issued by Salazar, and they could be changed in the same fashion. But whether the new administration will do so is anyone’s guess. Culver notes that the reforms have been incorporated into BLM’s management handbooks, and that reducing public involvement could be politically tricky. “It’s going to be hard to say, ‘Never mind; don’t pay attention to that man behind the curtain making all of the oil and gas decisions.’” Culver contends that there aren’t that many restrictions on development anyway; the market is the primary limiting factor.

Nichols expects some change: “I think we will see Interior move to limit BLM’s discretion to reject leases,” he says.


Waters of the U.S. Rule

What Obama did: This supremely wonky rule allows the feds to regulate pollution in small and intermittent wetlands and streams under the Clean Water Act.

Trump’s take: Trump has promised to eliminate what he calls a “highly invasive” rule, opposed by energy companies, agriculture groups, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many Republicans, who say it represents an egregious expansion of federal regulatory power.

Trump’s options: Since the rule is currently tied up in court, Trump could let the legal system decide its fate. It’s likely to end up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which may soon tilt in the GOP’s favor. He could also ask the court to send the rule back to the EPA for revision. However, that process would be open to public comment and ultimately to more litigation.


Offshore Oil Leasing

What Obama did: On Nov. 19, the Obama administration finalized its five-year plan for offshore oil leasing, which determines where leases will be offered through 2022. It canceled proposed lease sales in the Arctic Ocean and put the Atlantic and Pacific coasts off-limits to new leasing.

Trump’s take: We don’t know, but industry groups and Alaska Republicans aren’t happy, and an “infuriated” Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to fight the decision.

Trump’s options: The new administration could write a new plan, but probably not quickly. Obama’s plan was developed over two years, and industry interest in Arctic drilling has cooled amid low oil prices. Shell abandoned its exploratory efforts in the Chukchi Sea in 2015, citing disappointing results.

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor for High Country News, where this story first appeared.

Published in Environment

Last month, California’s Mojave and Colorado Deserts, along with the neighboring San Bernardino Mountains, became home to three new national monuments—Castle Mountains, Mojave Trails and Sand to Snow—thanks to President Barack Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act.

Together, these new monuments protect 1.8 million acres of desert and mountains. These new monuments will help preserve the ecological integrity of a region under tremendous pressure from two of the country’s fastest-growing urban regions, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. By connecting existing protected areas, plants and animals will have a better chance to move to cooler and wetter climates as our deserts become hotter and drier due to climate change. These new monuments will help to ensure that California’s magnificent deserts and neighboring mountains are healthy and whole for years to come.

The monuments also protect a region that’s brimming with stories of the diverse people who’ve made their homes here.

Castle Mountains provides an important buffer between an old gold mining site and the Mojave National Preserve. Prospectors first flocked to the Castles in 1908. The boomtown of Hart grew from nothing to 1,500 people in just a few months. Today, the site is barely perceptible: One can find just a chimney, tin cans and memories. When Interstate 40 was completed in 1973, the busy roadside services of US Highway 66 in Mojave Trails disappeared overnight. Proprietors simply walked away from their cafes, service stations and motels. Now these remnants of history are slowly turning to dust, even as this lonely stretch of the “Mother Road” attracts tourists from all over the world. Black Lava Butte and Flat Top Mesa in Sand to Snow host village sites that are thousands of years old. Numerous petroglyphs, pictographs and grinding stones found there offer a glimpse into the life of Native Americans before contact with the Spanish.

However, the creation of these new national monuments is just the beginning. As communities across the desert rightfully celebrate the designation of these monuments, the exciting work of making them more than lines on a map begins. Local elected officials, business leaders, tribes, recreational interests, conservation organizations and others should join together to ensure that adjacent communities such as Barstow, Needles, Morongo Valley and Desert Hot Springs, along with tribes such as the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and the Fort Mojave tribe, receive the full economic, educational and recreational benefits of the newly protected public lands.

Advocates for the new monuments have long highlighted the economic benefits that conservation would provide, and there are numerous studies to support this. However, without proper signage, well-marked trail-heads, adequate parking areas, strategically located front-country campgrounds and good maps, it will be difficult to attract visitors. To realize true economic benefits, it will take infrastructure improvements, marketing and personnel. There must be a significant financial investment, through a public-private partnership.

The Bureau of Land Management, in particular, is going to need an official partner to raise funds for things like the construction of visitor centers, campgrounds, wayside exhibits and signs, as well as the less-exciting, but no-less-important expenses, including operating costs and funding for education and interpretive programs. This new partner organization could work with groups that have existing relationships with the BLM and the Forest Service, like the Mojave Desert Land Trust and The Wildlands Conservancy, in three areas: education, stewardship and recreation. Local schoolchildren need educational resources, and there should be interpretive programs for visitors and locals alike. Stewardship programs can connect people to their public lands, help to build and maintain infrastructure, restore damaged ecosystems, and advance knowledge through citizen-science projects. Finally, we must ensure that the multiple recreational activities permitted in these monuments are carried out responsibly, without damage to natural habitat and in respect of the sacred sites of local tribes, through programs that teach and promote responsible use of our shared natural resources.

Diversity is increasing in the desert, just as it is across the nation, but California’s deserts have always been diverse. Of course, Native Americans have been here for thousands of years. Even in small, isolated railroad and mining towns, residents came from remarkably diverse backgrounds. For example, during Amboy’s heyday in the 1930s and ’40s, along Route 66 in Mojave Trails, a Greek and a Chinese immigrant each owned and operated a café, motel, gas station and garage. Hopi and Navajo railroad workers lived in town and maintained the line. Mexican Americans made up the majority of students in the Amboy School. (To learn more about the history of the Mojave Desert’s mining and railroad communities check out Joe de Kehoe’s book The Silence and the Sun.)

Ensuring that we draw Southern California’s kaleidoscope of races and cultures to enjoy these new monuments is no simple task. It will require having a workforce that reflects diversity, and the creation of an environment for visitors where cultural differences are honored and embraced. To get there, we’ll need conservation leaders who reflect our diverse communities. Fortunately, there are numerous examples of training programs that draw participants from diverse and often underserved communities throughout the Southland. One example is the San Gabriel Mountains Forever’s Leadership Academy, a rigorous program that’s training a new generation of conservation advocates who better reflect the makeup of our nation.

If we want visitors to these new monuments to be as diverse as the communities near them, we have to roll out a multicultural welcome mat. We will have to address issues of access. There must be adequate and affordable transportation and a welcoming environment, including bilingual interpreters, campgrounds that can handle multi-generational visitors, bilingual signage and information, and gender-neutral restrooms to serve both families and the transgender community. Partnering with organizations like Outward Bound Adventures and the Sierra Club’s My Generation Campaign, both of whom are already working in the Coachella Valley, could help break down barriers, economic and cultural, to greater visitation by people of color.

The secretary of the interior, whose department includes the BLM and National Park Service, agrees. Secretary Sally Jewell recently signed an order in honor of the memory of Doug Walker (a long-serving member of The Wilderness Society’s governing council) that will increase access to public lands by youth and young adults who are “disadvantaged and under-resourced.”

Finally, it all has to start by reaching out to diverse communities to ensure that there is maximum participation in the creation of the general management plans that will guide the three new national monuments. We also must include diverse user-groups: Equestrians, off-highway-vehicle users, hunters and conservationists all have interests that must be addressed. Sooner rather than later, listening sessions should be organized throughout the desert and mountain area—something both the BLM and U.S. Forest Service have expressed their determination to do.

All of this will take years to accomplish. However, I’m hopeful that when the first anniversary of these new monuments is marked in February 2017, all stakeholders will see that significant progress has been made. I’m also sure the future of these monuments will be inclusive, reflecting the very best tendencies of Southern California and the nation.

Mati Jatovsky is the California desert representative for The Wilderness Society and a former park ranger interpreter. He lives in Joshua Tree. 

Published in Community Voices