Wilderness Wednesday: Journey Through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Arctic regufe coastal plain

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune this week will embark on a journey through the winding rivers in one of our nation’s greatest wilderness icons, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Joining him will be composer, writer, musician and 2014 National Geographic Emerging Explorer Paul D. Miller, known as DJ Spooky; and Rue Mapp, Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, a national and social network designed to help re-reconnect African Americans to nature.

The only refuge specifically designed for wilderness purposes, the Arctic Refuge is home to spectacular scenery and some of our most beloved wildlife, including polar bears, caribou and birds from all 50 states. The group will share stories with the Gwich’in residents of Arctic Village, then raft through the Brooks Range on the Aichilik River all the way to the Arctic Ocean, and there they will meet with the Inupiat people in the village of Kaktovik to learn more about their sacred connection with the land and wildlife.  The journey will be a testament to both the enduring legacy of the Wilderness Act but also the ongoing need for it, as they will float through a landscape protected for future generations in the Mollie Beattie Wilderness area, but end up in one of the areas most threatened by oil and gas exploration— the coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge.

Right now the Porcupine Caribou Herd is traveling through the Aichilik River region, according to reports in the field. The caribou herd is nearly 170,000 animals strong, and each year they migrate 1,500 miles from their wintering grounds in Interior Alaska and Canada, to the coast of the Beaufort Sea, and back.  On our trip we’re hoping to see the caribou herd as it heads to the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge—the crown jewel of the refuge. These caribou come to the coastal plain each year to birth their young, and they’re far from alone. Millions of birds nest of the coastal plain and it's where polar bears den their young.

Over the past fifty years the Wilderness Act has protected nearly 110 million acres of public lands for all Americans to enjoy. Worthy in their own right, these lands also provide clean air and water for communities, provide landscapes for wildlife, help fight climate disruption, and contribute to the $646 billion outdoor recreation economy.   Wilderness areas provide opportunities for people to reconnect with the outdoors and with each other in an increasingly disconnected world.

Follow their trip online.  

Trading Human Rights for Timber

 

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Siakor gives his account of illegal logging in DC.

Earlier this month, environmental activists from Liberia and Peru came to the U.S. to share first-hand accounts of illegal logging, the destruction it brings to their communities and forests, and what we can do to bring the harmful practice to a halt.

Speaking at a series of lectures in Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, including Senate and House briefings on Capitol Hill, Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor of Liberia and Julia Urrunaga of Peru highlighted the Lacey Act, a historic piece of U.S. legislation and the most effective tool we have to stop illegal logging and associated trade.

 

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Silas Kpanan’Ayoung Siakor

Siakor is a local hero and a global award-winning figure. In 2006, he received a Goldman Prize, the world’s largest prize honoring environmental activists, after risking his life to expose that Liberian
President Charles Taylor used proceeds from illegal logging to fund civil war. As founder of the Sustainable Development Institute in Liberia, he still works to rally grassroots activists to empower communities and expose corrupt environmental practices.

Julia Urrunaga, Peru Director for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), also works to bring forest crime to the light of day. In Peru, she helps to give voice to locals and promote policies that help eliminate illegally sourced timber and forest products from global markets. After years of investigation, Urrunaga and EIA released “The Laundering Machine,” a report uncovering illegal logging and timber laundering throughout the Peruvian Amazon.

Across the world, criminals are taking advantage of otherwise unprotected forests with illegal logging, engaging in illicit activities along the way. The illegal logging process begins when companies and crime syndicates cut trees without authorization, launder them with counterfeit or mismatched permits, and send them to unsafe sawmills. Eventually, the timber or wood products are then shipped, with none the wiser as to where it came from or what was sacrificed to make your coffee table. 

Continue reading "Trading Human Rights for Timber" »

BLM Decision Keeps Dirty Fuels in the Ground

Gunnison sage grouse_BLMphoto courtesy BLM

The Obama Administration is on a roll lately. First, the President proclaimed the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks a National Monument, and then the EPA proposed ambitious new standards for carbon emissions from power plants. Just a few days ago, the Denver Post reported that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued a moratorium blocking oil, gas and coal leasing on 800,000 acres of public land in southwestern Colorado and eastern Utah.

This land is home to the Gunnison sage grouse, a type of bird that lives in southwest Colorado and southeast Utah. Due to habitat loss, the population of Gunnison sage grouse has been reduced to approximately 4,500 – about one-tenth of its original size.

The moratorium described in the BLM memo prevents agency officials from offering and selling new leases, and requires that land-use plans be updated. Given that almost a quarter of our country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions currently originate from federally managed oil, gas, and coal production, keeping dirty fuels in the ground is a major part of addressing climate disruption.

As outlined in a recent report by the Sierra Club, developing just a few of the major potential sources of carbon pollution under our public lands, could dramatically alter the world's climate and more than negate other positive climate action.  Decisions, like that of the BLM, to keep these dirty fuels in the ground are a necessary piece of an effective climate strategy.

BLM’s decision protects our nation’s open spaces from fossil fuel extraction, safeguards vital habitat for the Gunnison sage grouse, and moves the country in the right direction on climate. We applaud the agency's recognition of the importance of protecting America’s wild legacy – and urge BLM and the Fish and Wildlife Service to aggressively protect the greater sage grouse and its habitat in 2015.

We hope President Obama continues this trend with more decisions that move our country further away from fossil fuels - such as withdrawing plans to allow offshore drilling and leasing in the Arctic Ocean.

-- by Marni Salmon, Our Wild America campaign representative

Marine Sanctuaries and the Future of Our Ocean

 

Johnston AtollJohnston Atoll National Wildlife (courtesy Jim Maragos/USFWS)

On Tuesday, President Obama announced his proposal to expand a marine sanctuary in the Pacific Ocean, a move that could double all of the world’s protected ocean.

By using his executive authority to add protected areas to the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, the President intends to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary in a threatened expanse of the south-central Pacific Ocean. According to The Washington Post, the existing protected areas in the monument may be enlarged by nearly 700,000 square miles. The plan will not be finalized before the White House consults with outside groups, including environmentalists and the fishing industry.

“The Pacific Remote Islands Monument is an important part of the most widespread collection of marine life on the planet under a single country's jurisdiction,” describes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The monument includes seven small islands controlled by the U.S. and some of the most diverse coral reefs in the central Pacific. Protections would extend 200 miles offshore of each of the islands, blocking fishing and other tampering activities in these pristine ecosystems.

Many endangered species of fish, crustaceans, turtles, and marine mammals in need of protection exist in this unique ecosystem. It is only the latest of the President’s efforts to safeguard natural environments, though his first major step for marine conservation.

Continue reading "Marine Sanctuaries and the Future of Our Ocean" »

Congaree National Park Adds New Wilderness

Congaree national parkPhoto courtesy Mark Kinzer

On May 29th, the National Park Service designated 6,690 acres in South Carolina’s Congaree National Park as protected wilderness. This is only the second time since 2009 that any new wilderness has been designated anywhere in the country. The first time was Congress’s protection of Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes wilderness in March of this year.

Generally, only Congress has the power to create wilderness areas but in this case, under a special law, the administration was given that authority.  

Credit for this great news about Congaree is given to the work of the National Park Service. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, the President said that in the face of Congressional inaction, he would act to protect public lands. This action is one more example of the administration acting on that promise.

Located southeast of Columbia, SC, Congaree features the largest old-growth bottomland hardwood forest in the southeastern U.S. The Congaree River, Wateree River, and some smaller tributaries converge in the park and flow through the floodplain, making the region a depository for nutrients that allows nearly 90 species of trees to flourish abundantly in the region.

Continue reading "Congaree National Park Adds New Wilderness " »

Kick Nature-Deficit Disorder to the Curb: Celebrating Great Outdoors Month

NM hike

Just for kicks, I googled fear of outside this morning. My search turned up 187 million results. For comparison's sake, I then googled fear of death and fear of the unknown, fears I thought were fairly common. To my surprise, there were only 84.7 and 73.5 million hits, respectively, and when combined, still fewer results than my first search. While the findings of my quick internet inquiry will probably never hit the annals of any reputable science journal, there is a growing body of evidence that America is becoming increasingly sedentary and spending a lot of time indoors (you can find the facts on the Children & Nature Network's site).

June is Great Outdoors Month, and there is no better time to kick Nature-Deficit Disorder to the curb. So, let me share ten ways to get outside and celebrate the outdoors this month.

Continue reading "Kick Nature-Deficit Disorder to the Curb: Celebrating Great Outdoors Month " »

Obama's Gift to Us in the Land of Enchantment

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell - Photo by Meghan KissellOn Wednesday, May 21, President Obama gave a gift to all Americans, proclaiming nearly 500,000 acres of the Organ Mountains- Desert Peaks range as our nation's newest national monument.  Home to wildlife, cultural and historical treasures, the Organ Mountains tower 9,000 feet tall just east of the southern New Mexico town of Las Cruces.  This unique natural treasure is now permanently protected thanks to more than ten years of hard work by the people of Las Cruces joining with groups such as the Sierra Club.

Last Friday, I joined the Las Cruces community to host Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell on a high school field with the Organ Mountains as a backdrop. I was struck by the great diversity of supporters in the crowd of over 700. Tribal and religious leaders, local business owners, ranchers, farmers, hunters, backcountry horsemen, Sierra Club volunteers, elected officials, local artists…this is the embodiment of land conservation in the twenty-first century.

Our public lands get protected when people are brought together by their common love for a place that embodies their community's pride and identity. State and federal public servants are valuable partners in a common cause to steward our lands, water, and wildlife. Creating strong community-based efforts to protect special places makes old land-use conflicts melt away.

The President has now designated eleven new national monuments, totaling over 750,000 acres of priceless historic, cultural and ecological treasures. Over the remainder of his Presidency, he can designate another four million acres of our nation's most breathtaking landscapes as national monuments.  Places such as the Boulder White Clouds in Northern Idaho, Berryessa-Snow Mountain in Northern California, and public lands surrounding Canyonlands and Grand Canyon National Parks in Utah and Arizona. Each of these places has strong support by diverse coalitions of community leaders and is ready for new monument designations.

Our national monuments, national parks, wilderness, and other federally-protected public lands are places where we come together as a nation, to share experiences, forge new friendships, and reaffirm our connection to the great outdoors.  President Obama couldn't have said it any better when he signed the proclamation for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, "I have protected millions of acres of public lands…and I am not done yet!" 

TAKE ACTION: Join me in thanking President Obama and Secretary Jewell!

-- Dan Chu, director of the Sierra Club Our Wild America campaign

Illegal Utah ATV ride underscores need for protecting public lands

Atv.jpg.662x0_q100_crop-scaleThis weekend a group of protestors embarked on an illegal All-Terrain-Vehicle ride through Utah's Recapture Canyon. The event was billed as the next showdown in a series of challenges to our public lands and government, a sort of continuation of the failed Sagebrush Rebellion of the 1970s and 80s.   

As with the situation with Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy (who owes the federal government more than $1 million in grazing fees - fees that all the other ranchers in the area pay), protesters conveniently ignored the fact that access is actually allowed in the canyon, just not with motorized means in part because two men created an illegal recreational vehicle trail through the canyon, destroying Native American artifacts and sacred sites in the canyon.

While the protesters' intent may have been to take a stand against federally managed public lands, the event actually served to underscore the need for protecting our country's cultural and natural treasures on public lands.
 
Our public lands belong to all of us. We all share a responsibility to protect these lands for their great beauty and rich history. Every American is part owner of our national parks, national monuments, and other public lands - including Recapture Canyon. They are managed so that everyone can share use and access in different ways. Yet this weekend, the irresponsible actions of the anti-public lands protesters prevented a group of veterans and Navajo faith leaders from participating in a healing event sponsored by the Sierra Club and the Bureau of Land Management in Recapture Canyon. These illegal protesters infringed on the rights of other Americans who legally own and use our public lands - in this case on the rights of those who have fought to defend places like this.   

Despite the rhetoric, breaking the law and crushing important archeological and cultural sites is not patriotic. Ask the veterans who were supposed to be a part of the healing ceremony; they know about patriotism.

The true motivation for much of the effort to "take back" public lands is not actually a love of country, but a love of money and the real force behind selling off our public lands is not the Cliven Bundys of the world, but well-funded, big industry like oil, gas and coal. Behind their populist message is the truth that the only access these special interests really care about is their own.

Efforts to seize federal public lands and lease or sell them to the highest bidder, both locally and in Congress, are not at their heart about improving the visitor experience, but about avoiding environmental protections that would prevent damaging mining, drilling, fracking, and logging. And while a handful of private corporations would benefit from exploiting our public resources, Americans would pay the cost in lost recreation opportunities, degraded water and air quality, and the forfeit of a sustainable outdoor economy. Simply put, a few gain a lot and everyone else loses.

We cannot allow special interests to usurp our public lands under the guise of patriotism and states' rights. America's public lands are some of our country's greatest attributes and are a vital part of both our history and our future. We should not allow special interests to run roughshod over the uniquely American idea of holding places in trust for all Americans. We should all be able to explore, enjoy and pass on to our children the public lands that are our shared heritage.

-- Dan Chu, Director of the Sierra Club's Our Wild America Campaign. Note: Above photo is a stock image of an ATV, not an image from the illegal protest.

The National Climate Assessment and Our Arctic Future

StevenKazlowski_LEP_000261

We all remember being a kid and playing connect the dots. As adults we can connect the dots on climate change in the Arctic, and when we do we can see a pretty bleak picture taking shape.  A new piece of that picture came into focus today with the release of the National Climate Assessment, the nation's foremost comprehensive, peer-reviewed analysis of the impacts of climate disruption, which tells us that climate change is happening now and it is primarily caused by human activities. The report also draws the link between climate change and extreme weather and the threats to human health, infrastructure and potential impacts to wildlife across the country.

This is just the most recent dot in a picture that started to take shape on March 24, when with little fan-fare and little notice from anyone except polar bears, specialized scientists, and total Arctic nerds -- the Arctic sea ice hit its annual maximum extent and began melting; where it will stop nobody knows. This year was the 5th smallest maximum sea ice recorded extent, another low in the recent string of record setting ice minimums. Taken together with the shrinking thickness of the ice, the story is even more alarming. More than half of the Arctic sea ice has vanished over the past 30 years. 

As the sea ice melt began, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report examining the impacts climate change has on our current and future environment and what we must do to prepare. The report found that climate disruption is already occurring on every continent and in every ocean. Our leading scientists are telling us that we must act now to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption.

Continue reading "The National Climate Assessment and Our Arctic Future" »

House attempts (once again) to thwart the ESA

Wood_Bison                                                                                      Wood Bison, photo courtesy of USFWS

The House Committee on Natural Resources met earlier this week to markup several bills that would obstruct the Endangered Species Act (ESA).  HR 4315, HR 4316, HR 4317 and HR 4318 were proposed by Chairman Doc Hastings, Congresswoman Cynthia Lummis, Congressman Neugebauer, and Congressman Huizenga, respectively, and  make what they claim are “smart and sensible” updates to ESA, making the scientific and the legal aspects more transparent to the public. Unfortunately, the actual verbiage of these bills relays a much more nefarious effect.

The four bills fit into two sections, the first dictates operational rules on the scientific reports used for ESA assessments, and the second applies restrictions to citizen enforcement of ESA. These proposed bills strip away not only the credibility of the research community, but they also greatly reduce citizens’ right to seek counsel and petition. Congressmen DeFazio openly critiqued the package of bills, “[it’s] so absurd on its face I don’t even know why we’re considering this!” where Congressman Lummis argued that ESA has been invalidated for years.

So what about this reform is so absurd, if they’re meant to be “common sense” bills?

HR 4315 and HR 4317 would require U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service to post online what is defined by Congress as “the best available science.” While Sierra Club is a longtime advocate of using the best available science, the crippling effects of this mandate are twofold. This process would overburden the resources of all four agencies; and thereby waste taxpayer money and overextend agency resources. Where Section 6 of ESA includes the participation of the states, this bill elevates all state provided research as the “best available;” giving way for duplicative and inferior research to inundate the agencies. 

New Jersey Congressman Holt’s response to this bill was poignant, “Surely we don’t think that the members of Congress are better at evaluating the best available science than actual scientists…”  (Said humbly by the committee’s only physicist.)  The combination of these bills would undermine the quality of scientific research that agencies use to implement ESA, as well exhaust the agencies with excessive regulations.

The second set of bills, HR 4316 and HR 4318, would dismantle the ability of citizens to seek counsel by limiting the award given to successful litigants; this would stall the effective ESA litigation by requiring each and every cost associated with law suits be cataloged and published.  Here, Congressman Huffman pointed out that ESA suits make up barely 1.9% of all litigation and that these bills are based on the fabricated myth that these types of suits pad the wallets of environmental agencies and organizations.

Now what exactly is common sense about adding cumbersome regulations for multiple institutions? Which wastes more taxpayers’ dollars: the litigation fees or heavy expenditure of agency resources? Although these bills passed the House Committee, they, like so many Endangered Species Act reforms bills before them, will only be ignored and abandoned by the Senate. Thus, the ESA will be allowed to thrive as the one of the nation’s most effective environmental protection laws. 

--Lauren van Vliet, Federal Policy Public Lands intern


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