AmeriScan: May 9, 2003

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Conservation Banks Supported By Interior Department

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - The Interior Department released federal guidelines Thursday to promote conservation banks, which are lands acquired by third parties and managed for specific endangered species and protected permanently by conservation easements.

Some environmentalists offered the Bush administration rare praise for the move, which they say will ensure greater consistency in developing this a new and valuable conservation tool.

"Conservation banking can turn endangered species into assets rather than liabilities, encouraging private investment for conservation," said Robert Bonnie, an Environmental Defense economist who has helped establish conservation banks in the Southeast. "This guidance will make the process clearer, more consistent, and more attractive, to potential participants."

First authorized by the state of California in 1995, conservation banks are properties dedicated to conservation of endangered species or their habitats in order to compensate for future losses of those same species or habitats. Conservation bank owners receive credits for the conservation commitments that can be used or sold to third parties to mitigate the impact of future development projects elsewhere.

"This is a hallmark event in the 30-year history of the Endangered Species Act," Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks Craig Manson said Thursday.

Manson explained that the new guidance helps ensure that banks operate with consistency, providing both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the bankers a common set of rules and directions and a higher level of market predictability and stability, all of which are fundamental to accelerating the development and use of banks to meet mitigation demand while providing mutual benefit for people and endangered species.

The guidance covers a dozen and a half areas of bank operations, including design and function of a conservation bank, definition of service areas in which they can operate, the relation of banks to species recovery plans, criteria for use of conservation banks, issuance of bank credits and the use of bank credits to meet mitigation requirements.

"The California experience has shown that conservation banks provide the highest level of long-term protection for threatened and endangered species and have assisted in the implementation of recovery efforts," said Craig Denisoff, vice president of the National Mitigation Banking Association. "Banking also presents opportunities for private landowners to get economic value for property with endangered species habitat."

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Congressional Auditors Criticize Management of Burnt Lands

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - Neither the U.S. Forest Service nor the Interior Department can determine the effectiveness of their actions to help burnt lands stabilize and recover, according to a new report released this week by the General Accounting Office (GAO).

The Forest Service and the Interior Department spend millions for emergency stabilization and rehabilitation treatment plans for federal lands impacted by wildfire.

Congress asked the GAO to assess the agencies' implementation of these programs, identify the costs and types of treatments and determine whether these are effective. The investigative arm of Congress reviewed 421 emergency stabilization and rehabilitation plans the agencies developed and funded in response to the 2000 and 2001 fires.

For these programs, the Forest Service allocated $192 million and the Interior Department some $118 million. These treatments include seeding, fencing, installing soil erosion barriers, and road and trail work.

In its report, the GAO determined that neither agency has much of an idea how effective their treatment plans have been or whether the money was well spent.

"The departments require that treatments be monitored, but they do not specify how and the type of data to collect or analyze for determining effectiveness," according to the GAO.

"The departments have stressed the need to systemically collect and share monitoring data for treatment decisions," the GAO reports. "Yet neither has developed a national interagency system to do so."

The GAO recommends that both agencies specify procedures to monitor treatment effectiveness and develop an interagency system to collect and share monitoring data.

Some seven million acres of the nation's forests were impacted by wildfire in 2002.

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House Bill Would Exempt Military Gardens and Golf Courses

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - An amendment to a bill passed by the House Resources Committee this week exempts military gardens, lawns, pools and golf courses from water conservation measures designed to protect rivers and endangered species.

The House Resources Committee voted 21 to 15 along party lines to tack the amendment - authored by Representative Rick Renzi, an Arizona Republican - onto a bill that addresses military training issues. The bill, called the "National Security Readiness Act of 2003," removes much of the military's responsibility for complying with the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

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. Critics have blasted the bill for putting the military above the law and some say this amendment shows that its supporters are using the issue of military training and readiness to roll back environmental protection.

"It is unbelievable," said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. "While the rest of the nation is focused on national security, Renzi wants to exempt golf courses, gardens, and swimming pools from environmental laws."

The amendment exempts "use of water, from any source, for human purposes of any kind, including household or industrial use, irrigation, or landscaping."

Suckling says this exempts the military from taking responsibility for water pumping that impacts the environment on and around the nation's military bases and facilities.

The concept of altering the Department of Defense's environmental responsibility has many state officials, environmentalists and public health groups worried - the military is one of the nation's biggest polluters and 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.

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Watchdog Group Asks BLM To Justify Nevada Office Makeover

WASHINGTON, DC, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - A public employee watchdog group wants to know who is paying for a complete office redecoration at the Bureau of Land Management's (BLM) field office in Winnemucca, Nevada.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has asked the Department of Interior Office of the Inspector General to determine the source of funds for the "purchase of matching furniture for the entire 120-person staff and whether employees improperly billed program accounts, such as fire control and range management, for the time they actually spent boxing files, moving furniture and otherwise facilitating the office makeover."

The BLM, a federal agency that controls 261 million acres of public land in 12 Western states, is part of the Interior Department.

"According to employees, this redecoration has diverted funds, disrupted operations and prevented people from doing their jobs in what is supposed to be a public agency," said PEER executive director Jeff Ruch. "While BLM employees deserve nice, functional furniture, employees say that what they had worked just fine - this makeover was apparently done for a manager's ego, not the office's efficiency."

PEER is a national environmental alliance of local, state and federal resource professionals.

BLM employees informed PEER that the new furniture is estimated to cost between $350,000 to $500,000 and that they believe the money to pay for the office makeover are being diverted from range conservation and fire management funds.

PEER reports that in order to make way for the new furniture employees at the Winnemucca office have been told "to pack up their files, move out old furniture, and find a way to keep busy out of the office while the three week refurnishing is completed."

In the interim all 120 employees in the Winnemucca field office have access to only two phone lines and a total of six computers terminals clustered in a conference room, BLM employees told PEER.

The BLM's Winnemucca field office is responsible for federal lands encompassing 8.5 million acres in northwestern Nevada, an area larger than the state of Maryland. BLM holdings in this region include the Black Rock Desert Region and the Great Basin.

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New York Recovers $9.4 Million in Superfund Cleanup

ALBANY, New York, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - New York State has obtained cleanup reimbursements worth $9.4 million from 31 companies that disposed of toxic waste in the Croton Point Landfill - a toxic state Superfund site in Westchester County.

"This toxic waste site, located directly on the Hudson River, could never have been cleaned up promptly by the state without a funded state Superfund program," said New York Attorney General Spitzer.

"The state must have the ability to move ahead with toxic cleanups. If not, the Croton landfill would have been leaching contaminants into the Hudson River for years. Cases like this underscore the need for the legislature to refinance Superfund immediately."

The Croton Point Landfill covers 115 acres on a peninsula that juts a mile into the Hudson River, adjacent to the Croton train station. A county park was established on part of the landfill. The landfill was operated by Westchester County from 1928 until 1986 and accepted waste from scores of industries up and down the Hudson Valley.

It was cleaned up in the mid-1990s by capping the site, collecting the landfill gas and water pollution that were being discharged by the landfill, and imposing restrictions to prevent future uses of the site that would interfere with the effectiveness of the cleanup.

New York state officials tracked down information on many of the industries that generated the waste and the private waste haulers who then dumped the waste at the landfill.

Spitzer said that the recovery of $9.4 million was accomplished by the state working closely with the companies that generated and disposed of waste at the landfill without the need for a lawsuit.

Money recovered in the Croton Point Landfill case is deposited in the state Superfund where it will be used to help clean up other toxic sites.

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Pesticides Are a Drifting Concern

SAN FRANCISCO, California, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - Current air regulations are not addressing the health risks of pesticides that drift in dangerous quantities far from where they are applied, say members of the Californians for Pesticide Reform.

In a report released Wednesday, the coalition details how 80 to 95 percent of airborne movement of hazardous drift prone pesticides are ignored by current regulations, putting many of hundreds of thousands of Californians at risk.

"Pesticides in the air are often invisible and odorless, but like secondhand cigarette smoking, inhaling even small amounts over time can lead to serious health problems, especially for children," said Susan Kegley, staff scientist with the Pesticide Action Network North America (PANNA).

"Although they may not be aware of it, urban residents, school children, suburban dwellers and farmworkers across the state are breathing air containing unsafe levels of toxic pesticides."

The report, "Secondhand Pesticides: Airborne Pesticide Drift in California," finds that for four of the six commonly used pesticides evaluated, their concentrations in the air at significant distances from fields greatly exceeded the "acceptable" short term levels set by federal and state agencies for both children and adults.

According to the coalition, more than 90 percent of pesticides used in California are prone to drifting away from where they are applied and 34 percent of the 188 million pounds of pesticides used in the state in 2000 were highly toxic to humans.

It criticizes regulators for defining drift too narrowly by only regulating spray drift that occurs during and immediately after an application. The report says that for 45 percent of the pesticides applied in California, the concentrations in the air peak between eight and 24 hours after an application starts.

"Eliminating use of toxic drift prone pesticides is the way to stop the drift problem at its source," said Anne Katten of the California Legal Rural Assistance Foundation.

State and federal agencies should phase out the use of these pesticides, Katten said, and "dramatically boost their support for growers to transition to sustainable agriculture."

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California Campus Embraces Solar Power

HAYWARD, California, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - This summer the Haywood campus of California State University will receive one of the largest solar energy systems in the United States, capable of delivering 30 percent of the campus' peak electricity demand during the summer months.

The 1.05 megawatt solar electric system will be the largest of its kind at any university in the world - and one of the largest, according to PowerLight Corp., which will build and install the system.

"It will enable us to generate our own power, especially during the summer months when electricity prices are the highest and the grid is most constrained," said campus spokesman Richard Metza. "The system will give the university a hedge against the fluctuating costs of energy and related supplies and will lower annual maintenance costs and increase the life of the buildings."

The university's $7.11 million solar system, covering more 10,000 square feet, will feature both rooftop and ground-mounted installations. Half the cost will be paid through a rebate from the California Public Utilities Commission that will be provided to the university through Pacific Gas and Electric.

The solar rooftop array will be installed on three of the university's largest buildings and the ground-mounted solar tracking system, which captures up to 30 percent more energy than fixed systems by following the sun, will be installed in an unused field.

It will generate roughly 1,450,000 kilowatt hours annually, producing enough electricity in the daytime to power more than 1,000 homes. Construction is expected to be completed on the campus buildings by July 2003.

"With this solar electric installation, Cal State Hayward (CSUH) will have a cost-effective, reliable, non-polluting system that we're told will reduce our electricity bill by $200,000 annually, and contribute to the region's overall environmental health," said Norma Rees, CSUH president. "We hope to set an example for the entire CSU system, as well as universities across the country."

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Army Ants Have Fought Evolution for 100 Million Years

ITHACA, New York, May 9, 2003 (ENS) - Army ants have not evolved since the time of the dinosaurs, according to research by a Cornell University entomologist. The common scientific belief that army ants originated separately on several continents over millions of years is challenged by the research, which indicates the army ant has not changed in some 100 million years.

"Biologists have wondered why army ants, whose queens can not fly or get caught up by the wind, are yet so similar around the world," said Sean Brady, a Cornell postdoctoral researcher in entomology, whose study was conducted while he was doctoral candidate at the University of California-Davis. "Army ants have evolved only once and that was in the mid-Cretaceous period."

Brady studied the DNA of 30 army ant species and 20 possible ancestors within the army ant community.

Army ants have three key characteristics: the ants are nomadic, they forage for prey without advance scouting, and their wingless queens can produce up to four million eggs in a month.

"Essentially I built a genetic family tree," he explained. "Then I took that family tree and looked at its genetic tree rings to postulate what happened in the past."

Brady found that all the species share some of the same genetic mutations, which led him to infer that they evolved from the same source. His research indicates that the ants evolved only once - some 100 million years ago.

Brady's paper, "Evolution of army ant syndrome: the unique origin and long-term evolutionary stasis of a novel complex of behavioral and reproductive adaptation," has been published on the Web by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.