AmeriScan: May 7, 2003

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Judge Rejects Federal Salmon Plan

PORTLAND, Oregon, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - A federal court rejected a federal agency plan to protect endangered wild salmon and steelhead from dams on the Columbia and Snake Rivers, finding it falls far short of meeting the requirements of the Endangered Species Act.

The ruling came after a legal challenge mounted by some 17 conservation and fishing organizations, who sued the National Marine Fisheries Service in May 2001 because the plan the agency had released in December 2000 ignored the negative affects of dams on the endangered fish.

The coalition believes this has opened a great opportunity to develop a new plan that will be more effective in protecting wild salmon and steelhead.

"By rejecting the administration's salmon plan because it lacks scientific credibility, the door is open to fashioning a plan based on sound science that will save salmon and help build a sound economic future for all the region's people - farm, rural, Tribal and urban," said Mark Van Putten, president of the National Wildlife Federation.

"We hope this administration will take an honest look at what is really needed to restore wild salmon in the Snake and Columbia River basin and invest in the future economic opportunities that a restored river resource could offer," Van Putten said.

The court found that the federal plan improperly relied on actions that may not ever occur to make up for the mortality caused by the federal dams. The federal plan called for only small changes in federal dam operations and relied heavily on voluntary restoration actions by other federal and non-federal entities.

"We are not so rich that we can afford to lose our wild salmon or so poor that we must keep the Snake River dams that are killing them," said Carl Pope, executive director, Sierra Club. "The court's ruling reminds us that we cannot pretend to have solved a problem that we have not yet really addressed."

Twelve salmon and steelhead populations are imperiled throughout the Basin and all Snake River salmon are either listed under the Endangered Species Act or have already gone extinct.

"Salmon and fishing communities have long borne the weight of bad federal decisions," said Glen Spain, NW regional director, Pacific Coast Fishermen's Federation. "What the court said is that the federal government should go back and get it right this time, before both the salmon and the fishing communities that once depended upon them all go extinct."

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Bush Plan To Link Mexican Power Plants to U.S. Grid Ruled Illegal

SAN DIEGO, California, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the Department of Energy and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Environmental Policy Act by failing to fully analyze the potential impacts of decisions to issue permits for the construction and operation of transmission lines linking power plants in Mexico to the U.S. electric grid.

The transmission lines would connect plants being built three miles south of the border, in Mexicali, Baja California, to an electric substation in Imperial County, and California consumers.

"This is an important victory for the U.S.-Mexico border region," said Bill Powers of Border Power Plant Working Group, the plaintiff in the case. "There is an increasing trend to build power plants in Mexico to supply the United States with energy, and this decision establishes that our federal government must first analyze all potential environmental impacts and consider alternatives with environmental safeguards instead of just issuing permits as requested by the energy corporations."

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed by President Richard Nixon in 1969, orders the federal government to consider the environmental impact of it actions, consider alternatives and inform the public of its assessments and decisions.

Judge Irma Gonzales, of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of California, ruled the decision not to prepare an environmental impact statement was illegal because there was substantial controversy over the project's impacts on air and water resources.

Gonzales ruled that the evidence, for example, demonstrated that the project could have a significant impact on the Salton Sea by increasing the salinity of that sensitive water body.

The ruling found that the agency's environmental analysis was inadequate because it failed to consider the cumulative impacts to air and water, or the impacts of carbon dioxide or ammonia emissions. In addition, the BLM failed to evaluate a sufficient range of alternatives to the proposed project.

The court determined that the Department of Energy did an environmental assessment before issuing the permits to build the transmission lines, but their study ignored the impacts of the power plants even after the U.S Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advised them to include such consideration.

"This decision sends a strong message to the Bush administration that any attempt to expedite permits for the importation of energy to the United States from power plants being constructed just south of the border in Mexico, without first complying fully with US environmental laws, will be rejected." said Julia Olson, attorney with Wild Earth Advocates.

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Court Denies Intervention of Foreign Tuna Companies in Label Suit

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - A federal judge ruled has against a request by Mexican and Venezuelan tuna industry representatives from intervening in the lawsuit over the Bush administration's revisions to the "dolphin safe" tuna label.

Environmentalists sued to prevent the administration's revisions, which they contend weaken the label's standards.

On December 31, 2002, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce Donald Evans issued changes to the standards in order to allow Mexico and other nations the ability to label their canned tuna as "dolphin safe" even though they use fishing practices that rely on chasing and netting dolphins to catch the tuna that swim beneath.

The judge issued a preliminary injunction in April, which temporarily halts the proposed changes to the definition.

Conservationists say more than seven million dolphins have been killed by this fishing technique since the 1950s.

In the ruling issued Tuesday, Judge Thelton Henderson decided that the economic interest of Mexican and Venezuelan tuna industries in selling tuna in the United States was not sufficient to allow their entering the case, and that the Bush administration was adequately representing their interests.

"We believe the Mexican and Venezuelan tuna industry have already had too much political influence on the Bush Administration," said David Phillips, director of Earth Island Institute's International Marine Mammal Project.

"Their only interest is in selling tuna in the US, and they know they cannot sell it here unless they falsely claim it is 'Dolphin Safe,'" said Phillips. "Judge Henderson rightly has kept them out of the case due to their lack of any scientific or environmental interest."

Earth Island Institute is one of nine environmental groups that have challenged the Bush administration's proposal.

The decision means that the case will proceed to trial more quickly, according to Josh Floum of San Francisco's Holme Roberts & Owen, lead counsel for all of the plaintiffs.

"The judge properly recognized that economic interests alone do not allow Mexican and Venezuelan fishing companies to intervene in this case," Floum said. "The statute at issue is about protecting dolphins and providing truth in labeling for the American consumer.

"It is not about advancing commercial fishing interests," Floum said. "This is particularly true because the United States fleet is truly 'Dolphin Safe,' and our foreign counterparts should be held to the same standard."

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Environmentalists Urge Senate To Reject Bush Nominee

WASHINGTON, DC, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - A coalition of more than a dozen environmental groups is urging the members of the Senate Judiciary Committee to oppose the nomination of Carolyn Kuhl to a lifetime seat on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

The committee is set to vote tomorrow on whether to recommend Kuhl's appointment to the Ninth Circuit, which is a key court in the legal fate of federal environmental and other safeguards in nine Western and Pacific states. Kuhl, a former Justice Department lawyer under President Ronald Reagan, is a current Los Angeles County judge.

The groups say their opposition stems from hostility shown by Kuhl to public rights and access to the courts, as well on her inaccurate Judiciary Committee testimony, and her misleading responses to written questions from Senators. In particular, the groups cite that Kuhl has challenged the Supreme Court's precedent on associational standing, a longstanding legal interpretation that enables organizations to protect the rights of their members in court.

"Protecting our air, water, and natural resources has always depended heavily on citizen action," said Glenn Sugameli, senior legislative counsel for Earthjustice. "Ms. Kuhl's record indicates that she would stand in the way of environmental protection by seeking to limit the public's access to the courts."

Environmentalists are also concerned by Kuhl's role as a state judge in seeking to nullify an important part of the California law that protects the public from strategic lawsuits against public participation or SLAPP suits.

Anti-SLAPP suit laws protect individuals who speak out about pollution and other issues from the intimidation and costs of being sued by the polluter, by requiring the polluter to pay attorney fees and costs of anyone it improperly sues.

"The Senate has confirmed well over 100 of the Bush administration's lifetime nominees to federal courts without opposition from environmental or other groups. We had to oppose Carolyn Kuhl, however, because of her particularly egregious anti-environmental record," said Sugameli.

"Those concerns are aggravated by her attempts to mask how she tried to slam the courthouse doors in the face of the public by launching a frontal assault on well-settled precedent that gives the public access to courts," Sugameli said.

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House Panel Approves Military Exemptions Bill

WASHINGTON, DC, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - The House Resources Committee approved a bill today that would grant the Pentagon broad exemption from the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Supporters say the bill continues to protect endangered and threatened species, but affords the military the flexibility it needs to properly train and prepare its forces.

Yet critics believe the measures gut both laws, which have been critical in protecting the nation's threatened and endangered species.

"It is a free pass for federal agencies to drill, log, mine, dam, or drain pretty much anytime, anywhere, and says it is just too darn inconvenient to worry about habitat for endangered wildlife while they are doing it," said Rodger Schlickeisen, president of Defenders of Wildlife. "They are laying down a bogus smokescreen about national security to launch a sneak attack on the Endangered Species Act and other laws that protect wildlife and people."

The exemptions in the bill, titled "The National Security Readiness Act," are more far reaching than the exemptions the Bush administration has requested in its plan that seeks relief from five major environmental laws, including the ESA and MMPA. The Bush administration believes these laws are compromising the military's training and readiness, even though there are already provisions for case by case exemptions in all five laws.

The bill approved today only addresses the ESA and MMPA. The Department of Defense manages some 25 million acres of land with 300 threatened or endangered species.

Authored by California Representative Elton Gallegly, a Republican, the bill would amend the ESA to require the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service to designate critical habitat for endangered species only if it were deemed "necessary." Critics say this effectively gives the Bush administration broad discretion to eliminate critical habitat altogether.

On military lands, the bill eliminates designation of critical habitat on all lands "owned or controlled" by the military, where some of the best habitat remains for more than 300 species on the brink of extinction.

For the MMPA, critics say the bill also goes far beyond what even the military requested and amends the law to allow more actions by any party - not just the military - that could harm or injure marine mammals without oversight by federal wildlife agencies, public comment, monitoring or mitigation.

The bill - and the concept of exempting the military from environmental laws - is "a cynical bid to put the Pentagon and all federal agencies above the law," said Schlickeisen, who noted that a report from the General Accounting Office released in June 2002 that found the Pentagon had failed to show any evidence that environmental laws had compromised military readiness.

The report detailed that although there were additional costs from compliance, some of this is because the four branches of the military seldom collaborate on training exercises.

Despite the passage of today's bill, the proposals to exempt the Pentagon from environmental laws has drawn sharp criticism from state officials, health and environmental groups.

A recent poll by Zogby International finds more than four out of five likely voters say that government agencies should have to follow the same environmental and public health laws as everyone else.

The poll finds that two out of three Republicans and "self-described conservatives" oppose exempting the military from environmental laws.

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Audubon Ready To Aid the Texas Quail

AUSTIN, Texas, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - The Texas chapter of the Audubon Society is preparing a new initiative to boost the state's dwindling quail population.

The program, called the Audubon Texas Quail Initiative, will be launched statewide this Fall and will focus on restoring mixed grassland habitat essential to the survival of the state's native Northern Bobwhite and Scaled Quail species.

A grant from the Houston Endowment Inc is funding the program, which is a "holistic approach to this recovery effort," according to Jesse Grantham, Audubon Texas' director of bird conservation.

The program will allow the organization to "build a powerful stewardship base that will benefit not only quail, but also the myriad of other species of wildlife that use mixed grassland habitat," Grantham explained.

Conservationists have been alarmed a recent decline in populations of Texas quail, which have been an important part of the state's culture for the past 100 years.

Not only do their declining numbers indicate a tenuous existence for quail, Grantham explained, but this mirrors the drop of many other bird populations that rely on grasslands, including Loggerhead Shrike, Eastern Meadowlark, Henslow's Sparrow, and the endangered Lesser Prairie Chicken.

Quail rely on grassland ecosystems that consist of lush grasses with a native woody cover of varying heights and thickness.

Development, agriculture and ranching on grasslands have caused the loss of habitat for the quail and allowed increased invasion by undesirable plant species, and degradation of the soil and water quality.

To restore grasslands for the quail, Audubon expects to enlist the aid of more than 20 private landowners, as well as organizations like Texas Parks and Wildlife, and the Welder Wildlife Foundation. More than 90 percent of land in Texas is privately owned.

Grantham said that pilot restoration areas will include the coastal prairies, as well as the Brownsville area, and the upper east corner of the panhandle along the Canadian River.

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Wisconsin Officials Watching Exotic Algae

MADISON, Wisconsin, May 7, 2003 (ENS) - Wisconsin state officials and researchers have set up an initiative to monitor an exotic blue-green algae that has been migrating northward in the United States and has been detected in Madison area lakes over the past few years.

The algae, Cylindrospermopsis raciborskii, or "Cylindro," was originally identified in Brazil and in recent years has been found in several southern states as well as in Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Ohio.

Wisconsin officials say they are not sure how the alga arrived in Wisconsin, but say it could have been transported here by a migratory bird or by hitching a ride on boats, boat trailers or other water-recreation gear from infested waters.

Starting in late July and extending through September, Department of Natural Resources and University of Wisconsin water quality experts will collect additional water samples from the Madison lakes, and DNR staff will also collect them from selected nutrient-rich lakes in southern Wisconsin.

"While this species of blue-green algae has also been found in other Midwestern states, this is the first time we have seen what may be characterized as 'bloom densities' in Wisconsin and we'd like to find out how widespread it is," said Bob Masnado, who serves as DNR's lead representative on a state and local team of environmental and health experts involved in monitoring the algae.

Masnado explained that blue green algae are common in Wisconsin lakes and can reach concentrations during summer that cause smelly, nuisance blooms on the water's surface that make swimming and other water-recreation unappealing. Some of these algae can produce natural toxins that are short lived but may pose health risks to wildlife, pets, livestock and even humans if they are present in high concentrations.

Little is known about Cylindro and its effects, Masnado said, although it is receiving an increasing amount of attention from scientists throughout Europe, Australia, and the United States. He explained that the available scientific literature suggests Cylindro differs from other blue-greens in that it may produce more toxins more frequently than the blue-green algae species commonly found in Wisconsin lakes.

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