How nature keeps us grounded in a world turned upside down

The spread of the coronavirus over the last few weeks has left millions of people suddenly fearing for their jobs and livelihoods. Companies teeter on the edge of bankruptcy and mass layoffs have thrown employees into a state of panic about how they’re going to make it through this crisis and still be able to put food on the table. And to make matters worse, with shelter-in-place orders locking down parts of the U.S., many of us now find our involvement with the outside world limited to a small number of “essential activities.”

Alongside grocery shopping and obtaining medical supplies, some local authorities are listing hiking as one such activity – and rightly so. At this moment of chaos and uncertainty, getting out into nature is more vital than ever. Read more ›

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase – A local tragedy with global consequences

Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments are revered by archaeologists and outdoor enthusiasts from all over the world, and sacred to the Native American tribes whose ancient burial sites, cliff dwellings and petroglyphs are among the countless thousands of cultural and archaeological treasures that lie undisturbed across the windswept wilderness of southern Utah’s canyon country. When President Clinton gave Grand Staircase-Escalante the status of National Monument in 1996, and Obama bestowed the same protections on Bears Ears a decade later, it was an acknowledgement that some places are simply too important to be tarnished by human development.

The Trump administration has taken a different view. In December 2017, in the biggest single rollback of land protections in U.S. history, the administration reduced the size of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by nearly half, and Bears Ears by 85 percent, putting around 2 million acres of land up for grabs by energy companies and other commercial interests. The administration’s final plan for these lands, completed in February this year, gives the go-ahead to oil and gas drilling and coal and uranium mining, opens new routes to off-road vehicles, and greenlights the removal of ancient pinyon and juniper forests to allow for the expansion of commercial cattle grazing, all but guaranteeing the destruction of thousands of vulnerable historical artifacts and natural features. Read more ›

Trump’s latest pointless and irresponsible federal budget proposal

Presidential budgets are usually nothing more than symbolic gestures of intent, released into the world with no real expectation that they’ll make it through Congress or be followed through in actual spending. In Trump’s case, while this has so far held true (his budgets have never been adopted in totality), they give a good sense of how we can expect to see the administration using administrative action to circumvent Congress in the coming year. This being the case, the FY2021 budget released this week paints a bleak picture of the future of America’s public lands.

Under the proposed budget from the Department of the Interior, captained by former oil industry lobbyist David Bernhardt, the Bureau of Land Management would lose around $144 million compared to its FY20 budget; the Fish and Wildlife Service would lose $265 million and the National Park Service around $581 million. The Land and Water Conservation Fund – America’s most important federal conservation program – would see its funding slashed by $470 million (97%). (The LWCF’s 2020 funding was already only a fraction of the full amount to which the program is entitled.)

Other highlights include cuts of $47 million from wildlife habitat management; $30 million from deferred maintenance (for context, the national parks have a deferred maintenance backlog totaling nearly $12 billion); $30 million from resource protection and maintenance (including $11 million from disused mine lands and hazardous materials cleanup); $29 million from sagebrush conservation; $24 million from aquatic habitat management; $11 million from rangeland management; $10 million from threatened and endangered species; $6 million from national monuments and national conservation areas; $3 million from cultural resources; and $1.6 million from wilderness management.

Elsewhere, the budget would slash funding for numerous federal environmental programs. The EPA would see its budget cut by 26% – including a nearly 50% reduction in research and development funding, from $500 million to around $280 million – and 50 of its programs cancelled. The administration’s attacks on science would get a major boost, with cuts of $300 million and the elimination of hundreds of research jobs from the U.S. Geological Survey.

The typically cavalier attitude toward environmental protection on display in this budget leaves few federal environmental programs unscathed. The energy industry, on the other hand, unsurprisingly wins big, with millions of extra dollars provided for fossil fuel development on public lands, including $195.5 million for the BLM’s oil and gas activities, $19 million for its coal management program and nearly $30 million for its various other energy projects.

In sum, it’s hard to imagine a government spending plan that would more readily unite conservationists against the administration. Given that Congress never pays any attention to Presidential budgets anyway, it’s perhaps best to read this as another attempt to foment division in a country that desperately needs the opposite in order to be able to address the environmental challenges it faces.

He know windmills very much

An expert weighs in on the horrors of clean energy:

“I never understood wind… I know windmills very much, I have studied it better than anybody. [T]hey are manufactured, tremendous — if you are into this — tremendous fumes and gases are spewing into the atmosphere. You know we have a world, right? So the world is tiny compared to the universe. So tremendous, tremendous amount of fumes and everything.”

Donald J. Trump, cosmologist and windmill expert (via The Hill)

New Report: Protecting the Places We Love: How the Land and Water Conservation Fund Supports Outdoor Recreation in Nevada

Environment Nevada State Director Levi Kamolnick and I have spent the last few months working on a report on the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) and its importance for land preservation and outdoor recreation in Nevada. Funded by our friends at the Western Conservation Foundation, the report was released last week as a joint publication by Environment Nevada and Frontier Group. Here’s the intro (you can download the full report here – and check out my blog on the LWCF on the Frontier Group site) Read more ›

The Battle for the Tongass

Sprawling across 16.7 million acres of southeastern Alaska, the Tongass National Forest has been described as the “crown jewel” of America’s National Forest system. The largest of the country’s national forests, this spectacular landscape is home to some of the last surviving old-growth temperate rainforest on the continent, as well as numerous species of rare and imperiled wildlife. The Washington Post reports that President Trump has instructed Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to open it up to industrial-scale logging.

The battle for the Tongass has been going on for decades. With large tracts of the forest already decimated by years of publicly-subsidized old-growth logging, the 2001 Roadless Rule banning road construction and timber harvesting in 58.5 million acres of national forest across the country ensured that nearly 10 million acres of the Tongass would be protected. With 5.7 million acres already designated as permanent wilderness, this meant that the majority of the forest would be off-limits to logging. In 2016, the Obama administration was set to end old-growth logging in the Tongass altogether, with plans to phase out the practice within 16 years.

The logging industry has fought these protections every step of the way, and in President Trump they have found an enthusiastic ally. Trump has pushed hard for changes to allow timber companies to operate more freely in federally-owned forests, including measures to expedite the permitting process and reduce the role of scientific oversight and public input in decisions over proposed logging and road-building projects across 193 million acres of forest nationwide.

Alaska’s leaders have long argued that the Roadless Rule should not apply to their state. Last April, Alaska filed a petition with the Forest Service requesting an exemption from the rule to allow logging in the areas of the Tongass it’s supposed to protect, including some of the last remaining old-growth trees – some more than a thousand years old. It now appears that widespread public opposition to the plans has been ignored and the logging industry is a step closer to realising a longstanding ambition.

Logging of old-growth forests has devastating impacts on biodiversity, wildlife habitats and the numerous benefits these forests provide. If the destruction of the Tongass goes ahead, America stands to lose some of its last surviving coniferous old growth woodland, and with it, crucial habitats for brown bears, Alexander Archipelago wolves, Sitka black-tailed deer, Northern Goshawks and other species, including the wild salmon on which local fishing communities depend, and which make the Tongass a renowned fishing destination that brings millions of tourist dollars into Alaska every year.

Like all old-growth forests, the Tongass plays a critical role in providing the clean water essential for healthy fish and wildlife populations as well as several communities in the region. Old-growth woodland provides natural water filtration and nutrient cycling, regulating stormwater runoff and cleansing the soil of pollutants. Soil erosion caused by logging and other human activities leads to increased quantities of nutrients, sediment and other pollutants making their way into rivers and streams, which can be devastating for fish and other aquatic species. Fish populations can be deprived of oxygen when nutrient levels in water become excessive, and can also suffer due to the increased water temperature caused by loss of the shade provided by dense old-growth trees.

The damage wrought by the destruction of the Tongass will extend far beyond Alaska. Forests are among the most powerful weapons we have for mitigating the effects of climate change, and this one is especially vital. Known as America’s “climate forest”, the Tongass stores hundreds of millions of tons of carbon – 8 percent of the total carbon stored in all U.S. forests. The proposed logging would transform this bastion of carbon sequestration into a carbon emitter (60 percent of the carbon stored in a tree is released by logging and manufacturing). An analysis of long-term USFS proposals to log 43,000 acres of old-growth and 262,000 acres of young-growth forest in the Tongass estimated that this would be equivalent to putting an additional 4 million vehicles on Alaska’s roads and keeping them there for a century.

Exempting the Tongass from the Roadless Rule will come at a huge cost to Alaska and the global climate. But it could also set a dangerous precedent, leading to further exemptions that would place large areas of protected woodland elsewhere in the country under threat. In 1999, more than 1.6 million people submitted comments on the Roadless Rule, 95 percent of them in support of it, reflecting a widespread desire for greater protections to safeguard America’s forests. A recent survey commissioned by Pew Charitable Trusts indicates that this sentiment has not gone away, with 75 percent of those polled expressing support for the rule. Were it up to the American people, the battle for the Tongass would have ended long ago. As it is, Americans must once again rally to ensure that this ancient forest, and others like it, remain for future generations to enjoy.