AmeriScan: January 17, 2002


FLAGSTAFF, Arizona, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - The National Park Service has agreed to revisit its management plans for 277 miles of the Colorado River and 1.1 million acres of proposed wilderness within Grand Canyon National Park.

Four conservation and boating groups today announced the settlement of a lawsuit over a stalled public planning process for management of the Colorado River and proposed wilderness within the park.

"The settlement is a victory for all people who care about the Grand Canyon," said Willie Odem, former president of the Grand Canyon Private Boaters Association. "It allows the public to regain their voice concerning the future of the Grand Canyon."

The settlement, filed in federal court in Phoenix, Arizona, resolves a lawsuit filed in July 2000 by the conservation groups and four individuals. The plaintiffs had challenged former park Superintendent Rob Arnberger's February 2000, decision to abandon work on a wilderness plan and a revised Colorado River management plan which the park had begun in 1997.

The settlement includes a list of issues the Park Service must address in the renewed planning process, such as the use of motorized boats and helicopters to transport river passengers in proposed wilderness and ways to improve access to the river for non-commercial boaters.

"This agreement is vital to preserving over 100 years of river running tradition," said Jason Robertson, access director for American Whitewater. "Citizens deserve a fair shot at a self guided wilderness quality float trip through the Grand Canyon and a quarter century wait for a private boater permit is unreasonably long."

The settlement commits the Park Service to restarting the Colorado River Management Plan within 120 days and completing the plan in 2004. Although conservation groups pressured the park to merge the river plan with the park's 1998 Draft Wilderness Management Plan, the Park Service retained the option to prepare these plans consecutively.

"The Colorado River forms the backbone of the park's 1.1 million acres of proposed wilderness" said Kim Crumbo, an individual plaintiff in the lawsuit and the park's former wilderness coordinator. "We feel strongly that the river and wilderness management plans should be combined into one cohesive document. To do otherwise does not make sense because river issues are tied directly with wilderness issues and vice versa."

Randall Rasmussen, program manager for National Parks Conservation Association, said the settlement is "significant because all the parties to the lawsuit - conservation and private boating groups, the Park Service, and commercial river outfitters - agree it is important to restart a public planning process now."

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NEW YORK, New York, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - A new report charges that a long overlooked flaw in the science behind genetic engineering raises serious questions about the safety of genetically engineered foods.

In a review of scientific literature, biologist Dr. Barry Commoner argues that the bioengineering industry, which now accounts for 25 to 50 percent of the U.S. corn and soybean crop, relies on a 40 year old theory that DNA genes are in total control of inheritance in all forms of life.

According to this theory, which Commoner calls the "central dogma," the outcome of transferring a gene from one organism to another is always "specific, precise and predictable" - and therefore safe.

Commoner summarizes a series of scientific reports that contradict that dogma. For example, last year the $3 billion Human Genome Project found there are too few human genes to account for the vast inherited differences between people and lower animals or plants, indicating that agents other than DNA must contribute to genetic complexity, Commoner says.

The central dogma claims a one to one correspondence between a gene's chemical composition and the structure of the protein that it produces, Commoner explains. But under the influence of specialized proteins that carry out alternative splicing, a single gene can give rise to a variety of different proteins, resulting in more than a single inherited trait per gene.

As a result, the gene's effect on inheritance cannot be predicted from its chemical composition alone, which defeats one of the main purposes of both the Human Genome Project and biotechnology, Commoner says.

Commoner's research sounds an alarm concerning the processes by which agricultural biotechnology companies modify food crops. Scientists assume the genes they insert into these plants always produce only the desired effect, with no other impact on the plant's genetics.

But recent studies show that the plant's own genes can be disrupted in modified plants. Such outcomes are undetected because there is little or no governmental regulation of the industry, Commoner charges.

"Experimental data, shorn of dogmatic theories, point to the irreducible complexity of the living cell," Commoner warns, "which suggests that any artificially altered genetic system must sooner or later give rise to unintended, potentially disastrous consequences."

"Genetically engineered crops represent a huge uncontrolled experiment whose outcome is inherently unpredictable," Commoner concludes. "The results could be catastrophic."

"Dr. Commoner's work challenges the legitimacy of the agricultural biotechnology industry," said Andrew Kimbrell, director of the Center on Food Safety. "For years, multibillion dollar biotech companies have been selling the American people and our government on the safety of their products. We now see their claims of safety are based on faulty assumptions that don't hold up to rigorous scientific review."

The study, reported in the February issue of "Harper's Magazine," is the first publication of a new initiative called The Critical Genetics Project, directed by Dr. Commoner in collaboration with molecular geneticist Dr. Andreas Athanasiou, at the Center for the Biology of Natural Systems, Queens College, City University of New York.

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SEATTLE, Washington, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - The United States could double the recycling of beverage containers while saving money, suggests a new study carried out with support from the beverage industry and environmental groups.

The report, "Understanding Beverage Container Recycling: A Value Chain Assessment," includes data gathered by researchers who often work for the beverage industry, under the lead of R.W. Beck and Franklin & Associates. Beverage industry leader Coca-Cola sponsored and participated in the study along with Waste Management Inc. and other industry stakeholders.

"These findings have the potential to break the historic impasse between environmentalists and the beverage industry on bottle bills," said Bill Sheehan, executive director of the GrassRoots Recycling Network (GRRN), which worked alongside beverage industry and government representatives on the Multi-Stakeholder Recovery Project (MSRP) that carried out the study. "We found ways to achieve the environmental performance that we want along with the cost savings that industry wants."

The report shows that when deposit systems are designed to use revenues from the sale of recycled materials and unredeemed deposits - deposit money left in the system by consumers who do not return their containers - these revenues offset program costs.

"We are encouraged that some major corporations now agree we have a problem - 114 billion beverage containers wasted annually - and are willing to work toward a solution," said Pat Franklin, executive director of the Washington DC based Container Recycling Institute and a participant in the in the MSRP. "The report shows we can recover those containers with financial incentives - deposits - and keep the costs down."

The study is the first accomplishment of a project called Businesses and Environmentalists Allied for Recycling (BEAR), which is working under Global Green USA to pursue a "fact based approach to public policy making."

"While cost effective deposit/return systems don't take us to GRRN's goal of zero waste immediately," Sheehan noted, "they create the infrastructure that encourages producers to move to more sustainable beverage container design and management systems, such as the use of refillable bottles and recyclable materials."

CRI and GRRN see the next step as working with industry to structure a modified deposit/return proposal that takes advantage of these cost savings, and working with industry in test states to establish or improve optimal deposit systems. Ultimately, CRI and GRRN think that a national bottle bill will be needed to harmonize beverage container recycling across the United States.

More information on model deposit systems is available at:

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GLOUCESTER, Massachusetts, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is accepting bids from Northeast U.S. commercial fishermen who are willing to give up their fishing permits for cash.

Letters explaining the bidding process have been mailed to all holders of federal limited access groundfish permits, and bids will be accepted until February 19, 2002. This is the second buyout of its kind in the region, but it is on a more limited scale and only affects permits.

"The buyout program is strictly voluntary," said Jack Terrill, administrator of the program. "All limited access groundfish permit holders are eligible to submit a bid."

The new program aims to reduce the number of groundfish limited access permits, targeting those that have little or no history of groundfish landings. This prevents vessels with those permits from increasing groundfish harvests in the future, as populations of these species are rebuilt.

All permits specify a number of days that can be spent at sea harvesting groundfish, based on their fishing histories. Almost two-thirds of the fleet can fish for 88 days; about another third can fish for more than 88 days, and the average is 130 days.

In 2000, about 36 percent of the days that could have been fished were used by the permit holders. Since 1997, the use of fishing days has shown small increases each year, both across the fishing fleet and among vessels that spent some time pursuing groundfish.

From 1996 to 1998, a federal buyout program worth $25 million removed 79 of the most proficient vessels from the groundfish, or multispecies, fishery and retired 463 other permits held by those vessels. After determining that the fishing capacity of remaining permit holders still outpaced the stock's ability to sustain itself, Congress appropriated an additional $10 million to further reduce the number of groundfish limited access permits.

"Unlike the last buyout program, this one will require surrender of the groundfish permit only," Terrill said. "It does not involve giving up a vessel or other valid state and federal fishing permits."

Fishers who take buyout offers will not be able to use groundfishing histories to qualify for subsequent federal groundfish permits.

"Since participation is voluntary, we really don't know ahead of time how many permits will be removed through the program, or what the average payout will be," Terrill said. "The system includes a way for us to cap acceptable scores."

Details on the program and the application process can be viewed at:

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SPOKANE, Washington, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - Utility company Entergy Corporation and the Pacific Northwest Direct Seed Association (PNDSA) have combined efforts to help reduce global warming through new farming practices.

The letter of intent signed by the two groups this week calls for participating farmers in the PNDSA to implement new direct seed agricultural techniques in the Pacific Northwest.

Traditional agricultural practices, in which top layers of soil are turned over and exposed, allow carbon that is sequestered in the soil to be oxidized and released into the atmosphere. The new direct seed technique involves cultivation and fertilization using no till, direct injection methods that leave the soil undisturbed and avoid the associated CO2 emissions.

Emissions of CO2 are also eliminated by reducing the amount of fossil fuel burned in farm equipment during the period of the agreement. Carbon sequestration in soils and reduced emissions of greenhouse gas pollution help slow the buildup of these gases in the atmosphere.

Entergy will receive credit for carbon dioxide (CO2) and emissions reductions achieved through direct seed agriculture, which will help offset CO2 emissions from the company's power plants in the United States. The direct seed project is expected to reduce more than 30,000 tons of CO2 emissions over a 10 year period.

"This project will allow farmers to make conservation investments that will pay off for them, as well as for the planet's future," said Karl Kupers, vice president of the PNDSA and lead for negotiations on behalf of PNDSA.

PNDSA and Environmental Defense, a national environmental group, also have a cooperative agreement to investigate and encourage the adoption of environmentally beneficial farming practices. In May 2001, Entergy became the first U.S. utility to announce a commitment that the company would take voluntary action to stabilize its domestic greenhouse gas emissions, and work with Environmental Defense to develop a long term target to achieve additional reductions.

"Entergy is undertaking a number of internal and external projects to reduce emissions and achieve its greenhouse gas target," said Dr. Marty Smith, Entergy's climate program coordinator. "In addition to helping reduce emissions, this project affords Entergy the opportunity to make a contribution to the advancement of a new and more environmentally sound method of agriculture."

Environmental Defense economist Dr. Zach Willey added, "These new farming practices will help protect the environment and our nation's soil resources in a sustainable manner. The project can show how best to improve farming practices and can give farmers incentives to join the fight against global warming."

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WASHINGTON, DC, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - The National Marine Fisheries Service has released new regulations designed to streamline the designation of essential fish habitat (EFH).

Final regulations published today will implement the EFH provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The regulations provide guidelines for fishery management councils to identify and conserve necessary habitats for fish as part of federal fishery management plans.

The regulations also establish coordination and consultation procedures to be used by NMFS and other federal agencies to protect habitats identified as EFH.

"Fish populations around the country are experiencing the effects of lost coastal wetlands and seagrass beds, dammed rivers, contaminated sediments, and diminished water quality," said NMFS assistant administrator Bill Hogarth. "The essential fish habitat provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Act were developed to prevent future habitat problems before the finfish and shellfish that depend on healthy habitats suffer further declines."

The final rule replaces an interim final rule that has been in effect since January 1998. NMFS held five separate public comment periods while developing the regulations, and held more than 20 public meetings and workshops.

In the final rule, NMFS makes changes to the regulations based on thousands of written public comments and almost four years of experience implementing EFH through the interim rule. The revised regulations provide clearer standards for the councils to use in identifying EFH, additional guidance to help councils evaluate whether fishing activities may adversely affect EFH, and clearer procedures for federal agency consultations with NMFS on actions that may impact EFH.

"The objective of the EFH program is to conserve and enhance the habitats that support sustainable fisheries and contribute to healthy ecosystems," Hogarth said. "Through this rule, [NMFS] and the councils will work together with federal and state agencies, industries, fishery groups, conservation groups and the general public to help stop the disappearance and degradation of fish habitats. This important rule brings us together in support of healthy fish populations and habitats for future generations."

Congress added the EFH provisions to the Magnuson-Stevens Act in 1996. The eight regional fishery management councils and NMFS have identified EFH using the best scientific information available for each of the species managed under 41 fishery management plans across the nation.

The councils and NMFS will use the final rule to revise and refine the EFH designations as additional information becomes available regarding the habitat requirements of federally managed fish species. The final rule will also guide the designation of EFH for species managed through any new fishery management plans.

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AMHERST, Massachusetts, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - An unusual community of microoganisms living deep below the surface of the Beverhead Mountains of Idaho may hold the key to understanding how life could survive on Mars.

Derek Lovley, head of the microbiology department at the University of Massachusetts, and Francis Chappelle of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), detail their findings in today's issue of the journal "Nature."

"The microbial community we found in Idaho is unlike any previously described on Earth," said Lovley. "This is as close as we have come to finding life on Earth under geological conditions most like those expected below the surface of Mars.

"Life requires water and an energy source," Lovley explained. "The primary energy source for life on earth is sunlight. Plants convert sunlight energy to organic matter that other organisms then use for fuel. On Mars and other planets or moons in our solar system on which life might exist, liquid water is only available below the surface where there is no sunlight. So, if there is life, it must sustain itself with alternative energy sources."

"This study demonstrates, for the first time, that certain microorganisms can thrive in the absence of sunlight by using hydrogen gas released from deep in the Earth's surface as their energy source," concluded Lovley.

Geologists and microbiologists have searched for at least a decade for a community of microorganisms on Earth that could survive on hydrogen, somewhere underground, away from sunlight. Chappelle explained that he chose the Idaho site for the study because it provided geological conditions most like those expected on Mars.

"The water deep within these volcanic rocks has been isolated from the surface for thousands of years. It is devoid of measurable organic matter, but contains significant amounts of hydrogen," said Chappelle.

Lovley added, "The microbial community found at the Idaho site is remarkably similar to what geochemists have postulated might be found below the surface of Mars, based on what they know of Martian subsurface chemistry. Now that such a community has been discovered, we can use it to test hypotheses about hydrogen based subsurface life, and use these findings to develop strategies for searching for similar microbial communities on other planets."

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TUCSON, Arizona, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - The Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan (SDCP), which governs development in Pima County, Arizona, has been awarded this year's national Outstanding Planning Award from the American Planning Association (APA).

Five decades of steady growth in Pima County stressed the need for effective planning that would protect critical habitat and endangered species in the region, as well as sustain economic expansion. Bringing planning to a level not seen in the nation heretofore, Pima County planners have taken steps to meet their challenges and rise above them, the APA says.

The SDCP represents the most advanced state in the evolution of conservation planning in the U.S., the association says. The SDCP will be honored at APA's National Planning Conference on April 16.

"The SDCP has taken conservation planning to the next level by integrating ecosystems, economic growth, cultural resources and development," said Bruce Knight, chair of APA's Awards Jury. "This is an excellent model of creative planning that shows growing communities how to balance our built and natural environments."

The growing Tucson region will use the SDCP to manage growth while protecting valuable biological and cultural resources and providing dedicated open space. The planning process brought together divergent interest groups to work together to create a balanced and fair approach to planning and decision making.

Hundreds of participating agencies, citizens and organizations contributed thousands of hours to meetings and workshops. The effort included planners, scientists and resource experts from Pima County and local governments, the University of Arizona, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Land Management, Natural Resources Conservation Services and The Nature Conservancy.

A citizen led steering committee of 84 members held more than 400 public meetings, while regional public land use panels have more than 250 members.

The groups have developed a plan for an interconnected system of conservation lands to provide long term protection for more than 50 of the most sensitive plant and wildlife species in southern Arizona. Early results of the SDCP include the designation of the Ironwood Forest National Monument and the completion of studies supporting the establishment of the Las Cienegas National Conservation Area.

On December 18, the Pima County Board of Supervisors adopted the 2001 Updated Comprehensive Plan, which includes policies, directives and land use designations that support the goals and conservation lands system of the SDCP.

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MCMURDO STATION, Antarctica, January 17, 2002 (ENS) - A team of Antarctic researchers has borrowed the skills of Weddell seals to gain new insights into two little known fish species.

Fieldwork by an eight member team at McMurdo Station provides a rare glimpse into the habits of two important southern ocean species, the Antarctic silverfish and the Antarctic toothfish, which is prized by commercial fishing fleets. It could also have wider applications in studying other species that thrive at great depths, the researchers say.

To obtain the images and data, Lee Fuiman of the University of Texas at Austin, Randall Davis of Texas A&M University, Galveston, and Terrie Williams of the University of California, Santa Cruz, equipped 15 Weddell seals over the course of three Antarctic summers with a video camera, infrared LED's and data recorders to track both their movements from their breathing holes through the water and their interactions with their prey.

The cameras and other equipment are retrieved when the seal returns to a breathing hole in the ice.

"This use of a marine predator as a guided, high speed sampling device for its midwater prey provided clarification and new insights into the behavior, interactions, and ecology of species that have been especially difficult to study," they write in the online version of the journal "Marine Biology." The paper will appear in print in the March edition of the publication.

"This new information expands the base of knowledge of two of the most important fish species in Antarctica and indicates that some existing notions about their distribution and behavior may need to be revised."

Much that is known about these key fish species comes from a variety of indirect evidence such as trawl catches, catches on hooks and from the stomach content of predators. But the camera and data recorders allowed these scientists to accompany the seal as surrogates on their hunts and to record firsthand what the seals and their prey were seeing and doing.

For the silverfish, this meant that the majority of the 336 fish were observed at depths greater than 160 meters (524 feet), with a few being watched at a depth of 414 meters (1,358 feet). In the case of the toothfish, most encounters began at about 180 meters (590 feet).

The team's findings shed new light on the behaviors of the two species. For example, the researchers now believe, based on the seal cam data, that the silverfish migrate from deeper to shallower water using ambient light, even in the absence of a sunset during the Antarctic summer, as a cue.

Although their data were gathered in Antarctic waters, the seal cam technique "could be used to study other pelagic and deepwater fishes and invertebrates that are otherwise impossible to observe in their natural environment," the researchers say.