GAO Report Adds Fuel to the Wildfire DebateWASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - Legal challenges to federal efforts to reduce the threat of wildfires have not had much impact on the Forest Service's ability to carry out its plans, finds a new report released today by the General Accounting Office (GAO).
The report details that more than 95 percent of the 762 hazardous fuels reduction projects reviewed by the GAO - covering some 4.7 million acres of federal forest lands - were ready for implementation within the standard 90 day review period.
The GAO determined that 97 percent of the 762 hazardous fuels reduction projects it reviewed were not challenged by a single lawsuit. In all, 23 projects were litigated in court, and three out of every four Forest Service projects moved forward without any appeal.
Although the report appears to strengthen the argument that the appeals process is not impeding the management of the forests for wildfire, the interpretation of the report's findings clearly depends upon whom you ask.
The GAO's report comes as the House is engaged in a passionate and largely partisan debate over a House bill to reduce the wildfire threats that would limit the appeals process for forest management efforts that address the threat of wildfires.
For supporters of the House bill - "The Healthy Forests Reduction Act" - the GAO's findings are a clear illustration that the appeals process needs the kind of reform the legislation proposes. They say the report shows that environmental groups have consistently held up much needed forest thinning projects through frivolous appeals and legal challenges.
House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, says the study concludes that 52 percent of the appealable thinning projects proposed near communities were delayed by environmental organization appeals in 2001 and 2002.
"This finding is nothing short of appalling, especially when you think of the catastrophic losses suffered in last year's horrific fire season alone," said House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican. "These were not only losses of forest, endangered species, and wildlife habitat - they were losses of human life and family property.
"Fanatics have often been described as people who redouble their efforts after losing sight of their goals," Pombo said. "This study's irrefutable statistics prove that the so-called environmental organizations in America have come to embody such a definition. Clearly, these groups are more interested in preserving a political scare tactic than they are in conserving our forests and the environment for future generations."
But Nevada Senator Jeff Bingaman, a Democrat, says these charges are unfounded.
"A careful, comprehensive analysis of this GAO report makes it plain that a vast majority of forest-thinning projects move ahead without any challenge, and that the 24 percent of projects that are challenged are the most controversial," said Bingaman, who requested the GAO report.
The report validates the view that "the major obstacle constraining our thinning efforts is a lack of federal funding," Bingaman added. "The report also points out that the Forest Service continues to focus its thinning efforts in areas far away from homes and communities, which means that the agency is not doing enough to protect people and property."
Environmentalists say the report does little but strengthen their position that the appeals process works the way it should and that the House bill is trying to fix a problem that does not exist.
The bill's supporters and the Bush administration "continue to blatantly ignore the true facts from the GAO - as well as fire science - on how best to protect communities and lives from wildfires," said Randi Spivak, executive director of American Lands. "They are underestimating the public's ability to see through their transparent agenda that caters to the timber industry and increases risk to communities."
The legislation is expected to be acted upon by the full House as early as next week.
Government Releases State of U.S. Fisheries ReportWASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) handed in its Status of U.S. Fisheries Report to Congress for 2002 on Tuesday, detailing the continuing efforts of the government and the private sector to improve the nation's marine fish populations.
The report indicates there has been incremental improvement in the status of the nation's fisheries, but reveals that there is still a large gap in information about the 932 federally managed fish stocks.
NOAA's Fisheries, the agency tasked with monitoring the nation's fisheries, says in the report that the status of some 695 fish stocks is still unknown, a product of the agency's limited budget and manpower. The agency's efforts are focused primarily on fisheries that are "under the most harvesting pressure," according to the report.
The annual report was mandated by Congress six years ago through the Sustainable Fisheries Act, which directed NOAA's Fisheries and eight regional fisheries management councils to stop excessive fishing, rebuild overfished stocks, minimize the incidental killing of non-target species and preserve sensitive marine habitat.
The report finds 86 overfished stocks, one approaching overfished conditions and 66 subject to overfishing. It notes the agency has 70 rebuilding programs in place.
In 2002, three stocks - the Gulf of Maine haddock, South Atlantic red porgy and Gulf of Mexico gag grouper - were removed from the agency's overfished list. Five species were added to the list - the Georges Bank cod, witch flounder, Cape Cod yellowtail flounder, Pacific whiting, and finetooth shark.
Environmentalists latched onto the report as further evidence that the nation's fisheries are under unsustainable pressure.
"Our oceans are clearly being mismanaged to the detriment of both the fisherman and the marine environment," said Lee Crockett, executive director at the Marine Fish Conservation Network, a coalition of fisherman and ocean conservation groups. "America's ocean management needs to be reformed to ensure healthy ocean ecosystems for the future."
Others argue that NOAA has been hampered by lack of funding and that new conservation measures will take time to produce tangible results.
In the Bush administration's 2004 budget request, NOAA Fisheries received an increase of some $30 million over the 2003 request - but this is a decrease of some $67 million from what was appropriated in 2002.
The administration proposed an increase over its 2003 request of just $6 million for its monitoring and assessment of U.S. fish stocks.
U.S. Renewable Energy Efforts Focused in a Handful of StatesWASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - Although 19 states have acted to increase the nation's supply of wind, solar and other renewable energy resources, but that only five states account for 80 percent of the projected gains, finds a new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).
The UCS report, "Plugging in Renewable Energy: Grading the States" ranks the states for their renewable energy efforts and determines that 34 are failing to recognized the economic, environmental and public health benefits of homegrown renewable energy.
"Renewable electricity can provide future generations with safe and cost-effective domestic energy sources," said Jeff Deyette, UCS analyst and co-author of the new report. "But only five states are carrying the ball for the entire nation. It is time for the federal government to enact a fair national standard to improve our country's energy security and environment."
California and Nevada led the rankings, both having received grades of A- for their commitments to increase the amount of electricity generated from clean and renewable sources. These two states - along with Texas, Massachusetts and New Mexico - account for 80 percent of the nation's projected renewable gains.
"By neglecting renewable electricity, most states are missing out on jobs and economic development, cleaner air and water, and a more secure energy supply," Deyette said. "But the nation is the biggest loser, by leaving renewable electricity development to states and voluntary utility programs."
The progress of the states should be taken in context with the actions of the federal government to embrace renewable energy, which the report finds have been minimal. More than 90 percent of electricity generated in the United States comes from fossil fuel and nuclear power.
The report details that there is "tremendous disparity" in state programs and urges the federal government to set a national renewable electricity standard.
But even absent a national standard, UCS projects that the 19 states that have enacted renewable electricity standards or funds will increase total U.S. renewable energy capacity by 113 percent by 2017. This increase will provide enough electricity for 10.4 million typical homes and eliminate as much carbon dioxide as taking 7.4 million cars off the road.
Drinking Water Associations Oppose Product Liability ImmunityWASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - Two national drinking water associations highlighted their opposition to provisions in House and Senate energy legislation, which the groups say provide product liability immunity to producers of the fuel additives methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) and ethanol.
The House energy bill contains both provisions - the Senate version only contains the ethanol product liability immunity.
Representatives of the Association of Metropolitan Water Agencies (AMWA) and the American Water Works Association (AWWA), which together represent water systems serving approximately 180 million Americans, warn that these provisions would be harmful to public health if enacted.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers MTBE a possible human carcinogen and it is known that it renders water undrinkable due to its foul taste and odor of paint thinner. AMWA and AWWA say that drinking water systems and their customers potentially face billions of dollars in costs to cleanup contaminated supplies and secure new sources of water to replace shutdown wells.
If the MTBE liability immunity provisions are enacted, "producers will have little incentive to clean up contaminated water supplies or cover water systems' costs for cleanup and/or acquisition of new sources of water, such as new pipelines and wells," said Diane VanDe Hei, executive director of AMWA.
"If water systems are denied their day in court to prove this product is defective, the ultimate victims of immunity from liability will be the American people, who will lose their aquifers to contamination and their money to cleanups and new sources of water," said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of the American Water Works Association (AWWA).
Liability immunity supporters say that MTBE use was mandated by the Clean Air Act, and thus the product deserves Congress's protection. But neither the Clean Air Act, nor EPA's reformulated gasoline regulations, require the use of MTBE in any way.
On ethanol, the drinking water groups worry about groundwater plumes that contain the fuel degrade more slowly than those that only contain gasoline.
"Clearly the jury is still out on whether ethanol is environmentally safe," said Tom Curtis, deputy executive director of AWWA. "Questions surrounding ethanol should be answered before Congress gives big business a liability exemption and leaves ordinary Americans holding the bag. We do not want ethanol to become the next MTBE."
New Effort Could Aid Endangered San Joaquin Kit FoxLOS ANGELES, California, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - Environmental Defense, a national conservation group, says it has helped broker an agreement that will conserve vital habitat for the endangered San Joaquin kit fox on private farmland in California. The deal, which involves Paramount Farming Company, was approved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Sacramento.
According to Environmental Defense, Paramount Farming Company is the first agriculture company in the nation to enter into a Safe Harbor agreement to help endangered species. Safe Harbor agreements, first designed in 1995 by Environmental Defense, allow landowners to create or improve habitat for endangered species on their land without fear of new restrictions.
"This Safe Harbor agreement highlights the importance we place on working cooperatively with private landowners," said Steve Thompson, manager of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's California/Nevada office in Sacramento. "We cannot recover this species - or any species - without the help of farmers, ranchers, timber companies and other private land managers."
"We hope this agreement is the first of many in California's Central Valley," Thompson said.
The agreement aims to reduce kit fox mortality and increase the fox's ability to traverse the farm fields safely. Small populations of kit foxes live on grassland to the east and west of Paramount's agricultural fields in Kern County, California.
The foxes are highly vulnerable to coyotes, but under the agreement, Paramount has installed a series of artificial "escape dens" across a portion of its land.
The entrances to these artificial dens are large enough to allow the kit foxes to enter but small enough to keep out the coyotes.
"Safe Harbor programs offer enormous potential for habitat enhancement," said Scott Hamilton, resource planning manager for Paramount Farming Company. "I think we have only just begun to see the benefits that may occur when incentives to enhance habitat and work with regulatory agencies are provided to the private sector."
Animal Rights Group Sues To Stop Maryland From Killing Mute SwansWASHINGTON, DC, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - The Fund for Animals and several Eastern Shore residents filed a complaint in federal court Tuesday challenging the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to authorize Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials to shoot 1,500 federally protected mute swans on the Chesapeake Bay.
Mute swans are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the International Convention for the Protection of Migratory Birds, but the federal permit allows the swans to be killed at any time and in any location of the state.
"The state of Maryland has been given a blank check to kill hundreds of mute swans at any time and any place, without even making a cursory attempt to address individual local problems," said Michael Markarian, President of The Fund for Animals.
The killing of mute swans is only part of a broad effort by DNR officials to reduce the state's population of a species that the state believes is harming the Chesapeake Bay.
State officials say the decision is because mute swans forage on submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which are an important part of the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, providing food and shelter for marine species and improving water quality.
Maryland state officials contend that mute swans are a nonnative species and that the state's current population of 3,600 birds is eating 10.5 million pounds of SAV a year.
A species native to Europe and Asia, mute swans were introduced to estates and parks in the eastern United States beginning in the 19th century. Maryland's population of mute swans originated when five birds escaped from captivity in 1962.
Maryland state officials say scientists believe that the current population is on the verge of an exponential increase in numbers and could reach 20,000 birds by 2010.
But The Fund for Animals believes Maryland is using the mute swan to deflect attention from the more serious and more difficult issues threatening the health of the Chesapeake Bay.
"It may be psychologically soothing for state officials to shoot swans rather than address the real problems facing our Bay - such as the waste run-off from the billions of chickens raised in intensive confinement every year on the Eastern Shore - but it only turns these majestic birds into scapegoats for major industrial polluters," Markarian said.
The Fund for Animals alleges that the agencies failed to conduct even the most basic study of what alternatives are available and how the swan killing program would effect the environment - including the orphaning of baby cygnets during swan nesting season.
Tufts University Tackles Climate ChangeHARTFORD, Connecticut, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - Officials with Tufts University announced Monday that it will be the first New England University to adopt the climate change goals of the Conference of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers (NEG/ECP), an international partnership of states and provinces focused on the environment, economic development, energy and other issues.
The climate change goals, set by the NEG/ECP Conference in August 2001, require a reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2010, and ultimately an emissions reduction of 75 to 80 percent.
Tufts University President Lawrence Bacow made the institution's intent known at the Climate Solutions for the Northeast Conference, an event sponsored by Clean Air-Cool Planet, a regional organization dedicated to finding and promoting solutions to global warming.
"Tufts has long understood the negative environmental impacts of climate change, and we believe it is important to take our environmental responsibilities seriously while also looking for solutions," Bacow said. "At Tufts we strive to couple our scholarship with active citizenship - this commitment is one way we are doing this."
Tufts already has taken a number of significant steps to operate more efficiently on its campuses by reducing the emission of greenhouse gases, including the installation of energy-efficient lighting, room occupancy sensors, vending machine "energy misers," solar hot water systems and front-loading washing machines in existing buildings.
According to Bacow, the university plans to build a new dormitory that will feature photovoltaic panels to power the building, solar-heated water, and other environmentally friendly design features.
At the conference, Tufts received a 2003 Northeast Climate Champion Award from Clean Air-Cool Planet, an award that recognizes institutions of higher education, businesses, and municipalities that have adopted the kinds of policies and actions to address climate change.
Arizona Launches Pilot Project To Reduce Public Exposure to ToxicsPHOENIX, Arizona, May 14, 2003 (ENS) - Arizona state officials have launched a pilot project to reduce public exposure to toxic substances in South Phoenix.
In partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), officials with the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) plan to bring together community representatives, environmental experts and other officials to identify the most problematic toxic pollutants in South Phoenix and then develop a plan to reduce public exposure to those pollutants.
The project builds upon recent ADEQ efforts in South Phoenix such as the cleanup of a 10-acre site contaminated with heavy metals from a former auto shredding facility and the department's increased monitoring and inspection of hazardous waste facilities in South Phoenix.
It is funded by a $270,000 EPA grant and requires an extensive communication and public outreach effort, which state officials believe is key to the project's ultimate success.
"This project will be conducted in full partnership with the community," said ADEQ Director Steve Owens. "Community members will help us define the area of concern and develop strategies to address the toxic substances we target for reduction."
Jack Broadbent, the EPA's Air Division director for the Pacific Southwest office said his agency envisions that "this effort will serve as a model for other communities within Phoenix and throughout the state."
"This project is another opportunity to partner with ADEQ, the county, the city of Phoenix and the community to help reduce toxic exposures from air, waste and water," Broadbent said. "We all have a shared commitment to solving a difficult environmental problem."