AmeriScan: June 23, 2003

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Forest Service Broke Law to Allow Grazing

SAN FRANCISCO, California, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - A federal judge ruled Friday that the U.S. Forest Service broke the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and several other laws by allowing livestock grazing on the North Fork of the Eel River in California's Six Rivers National Forest.

Judge Phyllis Hamilton of the U.S. Federal District Court for the Northern District of California ruled on a lawsuit filed in December 2001 by the Environmental Protection Information Center, the Center for Biological Diversity, and Native American elder Coyote Downey. It alleged Forest Service violations under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Rescissions Act and the Administrative Procedures Act.

The North Fork Eel River was designated in 1981 as a wild river under the Federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The remote, 15 mile watershed is one of three major forks of the Eel River, with its headwaters in the Hettenshaw Valley.

On January 19, 1981, the Secretary of the Interior approved the Governor of California's application to designate the 15 mile segment of the North Fork Eel as a federal wild and scenic river under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The act provides that the Forest Service must administer it primarily to protect and enhance its outstandingly remarkable values, which include water quality, recreation and vegetation.

The area at issue has a Mediterranean climate with cool wet winters and warm dry summers. Precipitation in the basin is approximately 50 inches a year.

Through a permit system, the Forest Service allowed livestock grazing on five allotments that include, border upon, or are adjacent to the North Fork Eel River. The plaintiffs argued that grazing was against the law because it was not consistent with the protection of vegetation.

"My people have always been the caretakers of the river," said Downey. " The entire headwaters of the Eel River ecosystem is our ancestral homeland and needs to be protected for the children."

Cynthia Elkins, programs director of Environmental Protection Information Center, called the ruling an important victory for the future of the river's steelhead trout. "We are hopeful this ruling will spur the Forest Service to protect this magnificent place."

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Wildfire Still Threatens Mt. Lemmon Area

TUCSON, Arizona, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - Firefighters continue to encounter high winds and dry conditions as they try to contain the raging Aspen fire that has destroyed 12,000 acres and more than 250 houses and structures near the vacation hamlet of Summerhaven, Arizona.

Even with slurry bombers, helicopters and more than $two million, firefighters were meeting stiff resistance in the vicinity of Mt. Lemmon, north of Tucson. The fire is about five percent contained, as Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, who declared a state of emergency last week, saw when she visited the scene Sunday by helicopter.

The fire is moving about two miles a day in remote areas, according to CBS affiliate News5 in Phoenix. The cause of the Aspen fire is still under investigation.

Summerhaven residents have not been allowed back into the area. Representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will be conducting damage assessments as soon as it is safe to move into the burned area.

The lack of fuel reduction treatments conducted on National Forest lands outside of Summerhaven illustrates the shortcomings of the Bush administration's Healthy Forests Initiative, say officials of the Center for Biological Diversity in Tucson.

They charge that Coronado National Forest, which administers the land surrounding Summerhaven, has tried to implement prescribed burn and thinning treatments in the vicinity.

Claiming funding problems, the U.S. Forest Service was only able to treat 200 acres last year in the vicinity of the village. Summerhaven residents circulated a petition demanding treatment of a defensible perimeter around the community. According to the schedule of proposed actions, a key Forest Service project to reduce hazardous around the community has been on hold since October 2001 due to lack of funding.

"The facts are clear. Forest Service science shows the most effective way to protect homes is to thin small trees and brush near homes and communities," said Todd Schulke, forest policy director for the Center for Biological Diversity. "We need to get enough money to these communities as fast as possible so they have the resources to protect themselves."

The Forest Service continues to receive substantial sums of money from President Bush and Congress for timber sales that log large and old growth trees in remote backcountry areas, the center says.

Logging projects are being planned and implemented that log rare old growth habitat adjacent to the Grand Canyon, warns the Center for Biological Diversity, despite the fact that there are no communities within 20 miles of the area.

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PG&E Bankruptcy Settlement Requires Riparian Upgrades

WASHINGTON, DC, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - A settlement agreement announced yesterday between Pacific Gas and Electric and the California Public Utilities Commission commits the company to protect habitat along the rivers it has dammed and to step up its commitment to clean energy technology.

The settlement, part of a broader agreement crafted to help Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) remove itself from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, drew cautious approval from environmental and recreation advocates in California. It will be reviewed at a series of public hearings before the Bankruptcy Court and the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC).

PG&E has the largest portfolio of privately owned hydropower projects in the nation, with 174 dams that generate almost 4,000 megawatts of electricity. The operation of these dams largely determines the ecological health and recreational opportunities available in 16 river basins in California.

Although PG&E's dams are privately owned, rivers are public resources. Hydropower dam operations affect the survival of endangered species, the availability and quality of river recreation, the prosperity of outdoor and travel oriented businesses, and the reliability of municipal and irrigation water supplies. In addition, many PG&E hydropower projects are located on National Forest lands, where they operate virtually rent free.

"While we still need to read the fine print carefully, this agreement is a significant step towards resolving years of controversy and litigation about the future ownership and operation of PG&E's hydro system," said Chuck Bonham, an attorney for Trout Unlimited and chair of the California Hydropower Reform Coalition.

"It appears far superior to the prior plans of reorganization in the bankruptcy proceeding," Bonham said. "We applaud PG&E and the PUC for their efforts to settle this matter rather than continue to litigate at very substantial expense."

The agreement includes several steps intended to restore PG&E to financial health, including future rates that will enable the utility to pay back creditors, cover the costs of generation, transmission, and distribution, and to pay a reasonable rate of return to investors when feasible.

PG&E also pledged to buy or secure conservation easements on approximately 140,000 acres of habitat in the watersheds of rivers it has dammed and to fund the establishment of a new nonprofit corporation to support research, development, and investment in clean energy technology.

"The implications of this agreement go far beyond stock prices and electric bills," said Steve Rothert with American Rivers. "The agreement appears to chart a course out of bankruptcy without putting river protections and recreational access on the chopping block."

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Preble's Jumping Mouse Gets Habitat Protections

WASHINGTON, DC, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - Over its own objections, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has designated 31,000 acres of critical habitat along rivers and streams in Wyoming and Colorado for the endangered Preble's meadow jumping mouse.

The designation includes river and stream reaches and adjacent areas in the North Platte and South Platte rivers. The critical habitat designation defines the width of designated critical habitat as a distance outward from the river or stream edge as defined by the ordinary high water mark varying with the size of the body of water.

While going ahead with habitat designation, the agency announced its frustration over having to deal with lawsuits like the one that forced designation.

"In 30 years of implementing the Endangered Species Act, the service has found that the designation of statutory critical habitat provides little additional protection to most listed species while consuming significant amounts of conservation resources," the announcement states.

"The service's present system for designating critical habitat is driven by litigation rather than biology, limits our ability to fully evaluate the science involved, consumes enormous agency resources, and imposes huge social and economic costs."

The agency said that protection of habitat is necessary to save species, but that, in most circumstances, the designation of critical habitat has not helped many listed species while costing valuable conservation resources.

"We have been inundated with lawsuits regarding critical habitat designation, and we face a growing number of lawsuits challenging critical habitat determinations once they are made," the agency says. "These lawsuits have subjected the service to an ever increasing series of court orders and court approved settlement agreements, compliance with which now consumes nearly the entire listing program budget."

The Preble's meadow jumping mouse is found along the foothills in southeastern Wyoming and south along the eastern edge of the Colorado Front Range to Colorado Springs.

Though the species is still found in Wyoming and northern Colorado, the Preble's has not been found in Denver, Adams, or Arapahoe Counties in Colorado since at least 1991 and is believed to have been extirpated from these areas as a result of extensive urban development.

The proposed rule was published on July 17, 2002, and a number of public hearings followed. The final rule becomes effective July 23.

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EPA Announces Grants to Turn Brownfields Green

WASHINGTON, DC, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Christie Whitman has announced $73.1 million in funds to clean up areas known as brownfields.

The grants are being made available from the Small Business Liability Relief and the Brownfields Revitalization Act. Applications came from communities located in 37 states and seven tribes. The agency announced that 176 applicants were selected to receive awards.

A brownfield site is an abandoned or idle property where expansion or redevelopment may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.

In January 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the Brownfields Revitalization Act, which authorizes up to $250 million in funds annually for brownfields grants, including up to $50 million for the assessment and cleanup of low risk petroleum contaminated sites. It provides incentives to clean up more than 450,000 abandoned and contaminated waste sites in the United States.

"These grants will help turn neighborhood eyesores into community assets, restoring hope and creating opportunity for the people who live nearby," Whitman said.

"Every acre of reclaimed brownfields saves 4.5 acres of greenspace," Whitman said. "And every greenspace created, on average, has doubled the value of surrounding properties."

The assessment grants are used to inventory, characterize and conduct planning relating to one or more brownfield sites or as part of a community wide effort. The 2002 law expanded the definition of what is considered a brownfield, so communities can focus on sites contaminated with petroleum as well as lands scarred by mining.

Since the beginning of the brownfields program, EPA has awarded 436 assessment grants totaling more than $120 million.

Redevelopment approaches have included the conversion of industrial waterfronts to riverfront parks, landfills to golf courses, and rail corridors to recreational trails.

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Washington State Wants to Capture and Relocate Elk

OLYMPIA, Washington, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - Citizens will get a chance to offer opinions and share facts about a proposal by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife to augment the dwindling North Cascades elk herd with 50 animals from the Mount St. Helens area.

Under the relocation proposal, wildlife biologists would capture a total of 75 to 100 elk from the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area in the next two years and transport them to several release sites along the South Fork of the Nooksack River. Between 40 and 50 of the animals would be relocated this September or October.

"These public meetings help us ensure that there are no fatal flaws in the proposal, and offer a forum for ideas to increase the success of the project," said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Director Jeff Koenings.

"Public input and review guided us in developing the North Cascades Elk Herd plan," he said. "And we want to continue that public process with additional input and review as we move forward to implement the plan."

The North Cascades herd, which ranges between Mount Baker and the Skagit River Valley, has declined from more than 1,700 elk in 1984 to about 300 animals, making it the smallest of the state's 10 elk herds. The herd management plan sets a population objective of 1,450.

Hunting was stopped in the mid-1990s in some areas, including the locations where the elk would be released. Although loss of habitat, especially in low elevations, has taken a toll on the herd population, restoration efforts in recent years by volunteers, and private, state and tribal entities have improved habitat conditions, the agency says.

Supplementing the North Cascades herd could bring the elk population back to harvestable levels within five years, the agency thinks, as opposed to the 20 or more years required without augmentation, according to wildlife biologists.

Mount St. Helens elk, the proposed source of animals for the North Cascades herd, have increased markedly after the mountain's eruption in 1980. While the blast created prime elk habitat over a large area, maturing trees have gradually reduced the amount of available forage.

In recent years, elk have died from winter starvation in the Mount St. Helens Wildlife Area, where up to 400 animals winter. Several years ago, 79 animals died in a particularly harsh winter; this year's toll was about a dozen animals.

To improve winter conditions for the St. Helens herd, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) and volunteer groups have been working to increase forage by planting and fertilizing forage vegetation and removing invasive Scotch broom.

The number of elk contemplated for relocation from the Mount St. Helens herd is not large enough to adversely affect the overall herd population, according to wildlife biologists.

The $50,000 cost of the relocation would be shared jointly by WDFW and participating treaty tribes.

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Groups Decry Alaska's Return to Aerial Wolf Killing

ANCHORAGE, Alaska, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski has signed into law a bill that again allows private citizens to shoot wolves from the air over tens of thousands of square miles in areas of Alaska approved for predator control by the Alaska Board of Game.

The legislation overturns two statewide ballot measures in 1996 and 2000 that banned public, same day airborne wolf shooting in any form for any reason, including predator control.

Same day airborne wolf hunting, also known as "land and shoot," is the practice of spotting wolves from a plane and then landing and immediately shooting them from the ground.

Environmental groups condemned the legislation. The practice is controversial even among hunters, many who consider the practice unsportsmanlike, unethical and nearly impossible to regulate and can lead to many other violations of hunting regulations such as chasing, herding and harassing wolves.

"Governor Murkowski has clearly caved in to pressure from the most extreme elements of the commercial hunting lobby by failing to veto a bill that he has consistently called objectionable and unacceptable," said Joel Bennett, senior Alaska representative for Defenders of Wildlife.

"This action will once again plunge the state into controversial airborne wolf killing that could lead to tourist boycotts that are sure to damage Alaska's fragile economy," said Bennett. "No matter how the state tries to minimize it, Alaska will be an aerial shooting gallery in the eyes of the nation."

In signing the legislation, Governor Murkowski disregarded voters' support for statewide ballot measures in 1996 and 2000 that banned public, same day airborne wolf shooting in any form for any reason, including predator control.

"Neither the Governor nor his one sided appointments on the current Board of Game seem to care about what is acceptable to a majority of Alaskans," Bennett said.

A provision in the law that removes the Commissioner of Fish and Game from the final review and approval process before a predator control program is implemented also bothers Defenders.

"This is a drastic erosion of executive authority that Governor Murkowski had strongly objected to earlier," said Bennett, "but he is now condoning by signing the bill into law."

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Settlement Keeps Dune Area Open to Off Road Riders

OCEANO, California, June 23, 2003 (ENS) - Oceano Dunes will stay open to off road vehicles until at least 2004 under the terms of a settlement announced today between off road organizations and environmental groups.

The Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area is a sand dune complex that is geologically unique and has become a popular playground for off road enthusiasts. Home to three federally threatened species, the Western snowy plover, California least tern and steelhead trout, the dune area has been recognized by scientists, conservationists, government agencies, and the public as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California.

In November 2001, the Sierra Club filed suit against California State Parks for not having a Habitat Conservation Plan, which would put the agency in violation of the Endangered Species Act. The suit asked to close the park to campers, motor vehicles, equestrian, bicyclists and pedestrian use.

The settlement will provide State Parks some time to complete its Habitat Conservation Plan, which is scheduled to be finished in 2004. The settlement calls for an interim, temporary beach closure to milepost six to protect the Western snowy plover until the Habitat Conservation Plan is approved.

"We could have lost the entire park, and once it is gone we would never get it back," said Jim Suty, president of Friends of Oceano Dunes, an off road enthusiast organization.

"Although the settlement does result in a temporary expanded beach closure, it enabled us to get the lawsuit dropped entirely," said Suty. "This now gives us the opportunity to get out of the defensive mode and start aggressively fighting to give the park back to the people."

The agreement will take effect after the July 4 holiday.

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