The World's Most Ambitious Disaster

September 08, 2014

I've long known how wasteful, destructive, and dangerous the process of extracting oil from tar sands is. To get one barrel of oil, you have to dig up four tons of dirt and rock. Beautiful old-growth boreal forest becomes a wasteland. And that single barrel of oil? It creates three times as much climate pollution simply to produce it as a barrel of conventional crude.

So, yes, I knew that tar sands were bad news. That's why I was willing to go to jail for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline. But it's impossible to really comprehend the brutal reality of tar sands mining without seeing it firsthand.

I spent four days in Alberta with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky and First Nations leaders. We met with officials from Suncor Energy, one of the companies most involved in extracting tar sands, and walked through the dismal wreckage of what the company calls a "reclaimed" area. We took a tour of the massive open-pit mines that spread across the landscape, and received a sobering briefing from Erin Flanagan at the Pembina Institute. We also visited with leaders from the Athabasca Chipewyan and Mikisew Cree First Nations, whose communities have been devastated by the immediate environmental consequences of tar sands extraction.

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First Nations communities downstream of tar sands operations have suffered a higher than normal incidence of rare and deadly cancers. Photo: Niko Tavernise

The tar sands are the most outsized example I can imagine of misspent energy and ingenuity. About a fifth of tar sands oil is extracted using open-pit mines -- some of the largest strip mines on Earth. But the other four-fifths of the oil is extracted with an even more dangerous process. Basically, they pipe in natural gas, which you can think of as clean energy's antithesis. They then burn that fuel to generate steam to liquefy and extract the bitumen. The bitumen then gets separated and "upgraded" using massive amounts of water and, frequently, toxic chemicals.

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There is no dirtier, more inefficient way to get oil than by tar sands mining. Photo: Niko Tavernise

As part of this process, the boreal forest is fragmented, cut down, or completely obliterated. And all of this happens before the bitumen is diluted (more toxic chemicals) and then piped under high heat and intense pressure up to a thousand miles or more to where it's refined and stuffed into our cars and trucks. It is immense, complex, and at a scale that arguably dwarfs any other industrial activity on the planet. When you see it happening, you can't help but be impressed by the scale and audacity of the whole crazy process.

What a waste -- not just of forests, habitat, energy, air, water, health, and our climate. What a waste of human talent. Watching all this, I found myself contemplating how much could be achieved if all of this effort, ingenuity, and engineering prowess were instead directed toward developing clean power? What if, instead of extracting oil by brute force using mining trucks and shovels the size of apartment buildings, these engineers and technicians were designing better wind turbines or perfecting advanced battery storage? Why go to so much trouble to do something so difficult and so destructive when you could invest the same effort into something positive that can literally save the world and power it to boot?

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Tar sands mining destroys entire landscapes. Photo: Niko Tavernise

Maybe it's just a question of human nature. History is filled with examples of those who stubbornly clung to old paradigms even when it was against their own best interest. Of course, the better way of doing things eventually wins out. But in the case of tar sands and other carbon-intensive, extreme energy-extraction methods, we simply can't afford to wait any longer for common sense to prevail. Not if we want to stop climate disruption.

That's why it is so important that, as a society, we increase the pressure on our leaders to take action right now to advance clean energy solutions and to resist the temptation to drill, mine, and frack as if there were no consequences and no tomorrow.

In a couple of weeks, on September 21, I will be marching along with thousands of Sierra Club members and so many others in New York City. The People's Climate March will be the biggest climate demonstration in U.S. history. The march will include a "Tar Sands Bloc" of people affected by tar sands at every stage -- from First Nations communities in the north to refineries in the south and along the pipelines and train routes in-between. There'll be blocs of families with young children, gatherings of clean energy advocates, and much more. We'll be calling on President Obama other world leaders to take more-significant action to curb carbon pollution. Join us, and take a stand where you stand.

Because we're starting to move in the right direction toward clean energy. We are already building an economy based on clean energy that is creating more jobs than building pipelines or stripmining forests for oil. We're replacing power plants, switching to wind and solar, and improving fuel efficiency. It's not fast enough, nor at the scale that we need -- yet -- but momentum is building. Every day, smart people are coming up with new ideas and innovations. But just think what we will accomplish once our civilization commits all of its genius to making this transformation happen and stops working overtime to prolong the use of fossil fuels.

Forget about "if we can put a man on the moon" analogies. Any society that can conceive of and execute something as recklessly ambitious as tar-sands mining should find the transformation to a clean-energy economy to be a walk in the park.

See you in NY. Please RSVP and find out more about the People's Climate March here.

Landmark Victory in Fight Against Coal Exports

August 19, 2014

Years ago, the conventional wisdom was that going up against the coal industry was a losing proposition. After all, there was a reason the industry was called "King Coal." But after a decade in which more than 180 proposed coal plants were defeated or withdrawn -- and an additional 170 coal plants have been or will soon be retired -- dirty coal's size, power, and influence is rapidly diminishing. And this week's defeat of a proposed export terminal in Oregon will only accelerate that trend.

This is good news. When the Oregon Department of State Lands (DSL) rejected a permit for Ambre Energy to build a coal export terminal on the Columbia River at Boardman, Oregon, the winners weren't Ambre and its deep-pocketed financial backers. Victory went to the families, doctors, tribal nations, businesses, and local, county, and state-level leaders from across Oregon and the entire Pacific Northwest who have come together to form the nation's largest movement to stop coal exports.

But there's more work to be done. Even as global demand for coal falls and its financial picture continues to dim, coal export companies want to build two other export facilities in Washington State. Millions of tons of coal would travel by rail in open-top cars from the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana to both terminals.

These mile-long trains would spew coal dust along rail lines, snarl traffic in communities along the route, and create lengthy delays for the passengers, goods, and services that rely on already-congested train lines. (Just this month, a transporter of refrigerated goods from Washington State to the rest of the country ended its express rail service, citing poor railway performance.) Once Powder River Basin coal reaches the export facilities, it would be shipped overseas to be burned, and return to our shores in the form of mercury contamination, air pollution, and acidifying oceans. In a relentless drive for profits, Big Coal is willing to risk the health and safety of individuals, families, and communities across the American West.

But the DSL's August 18 rejection of the permit for the Morrow Pacific project at Boardman makes it clear: coal exports are not in the best interest of the Pacific Northwest or anywhere else on our coasts.

The reason for the decision is clear -- there is no way to transport coal that will do no harm to communities and natural resources near the facility. Knowing of those impacts, a broad, deep coalition of Oregonians and other Northwesterners united in opposition to Ambre's project.

We're on a roll. From the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf of Mexico, communities are rolling up the welcome mat to coal exports. Just last week, hundreds of people showed up to a city council meeting in Gretna, Louisiana, asking them to reject coal exports in their community.

But the fight is far from over. The DSL's rejection of the Morrow Pacific permit is a major blow to Ambre, but the company will undoubtedly continue to search for new ways to try and push their dirty and troubled project forward.

We can't let up until we have stopped every single coal export facility. Big Coal's window of opportunity is closing. To date, the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign and a broad coalition of organizations have retired one third of the nation's existing coal-fired power plants. But we have to keep fighting coal export terminals if we want to keep Powder River Basin coal in the ground. This week, it's worth pausing to celebrate how much we've accomplished against such powerful opponents. But our work is not nearly done, so let's keep organizing!


Who's Cool?

August 12, 2014

For the eighth year in a row, Sierra magazine has dedicated a big chunk of its September/October issue to higher education. So why is the "Cool Schools" issue such a big deal? I'll give you a hint: It's not because of the schools.

Over the last few years, I've spoken to many different audiences about how clean energy is going to change our world -- I never get tired of talking about it. And people seem to appreciate hearing the good news that we're already well on our way to a future without fossil fuels. But one particular audience always leaves me with a net surplus of energy -- and that's college students. I don't know if it's because young people have always been passionate about social issues or because our planet's future is especially important to the people who'll be spending the most time there, but young people seem to possess a singular fervor for making the world a better place.

So, although the "Cool Schools" sustainability rankings of universities around the country are interesting in and of themselves, their most important function is to foster accountability. Colleges and universities should be leading the charge on sustainability and the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. When they don't, students will be the first to speak up.

Here's how the Sierra Club is going to help them do that. Tomorrow, the Sierra Student Coalition will launch a new Campuses for Clean Energy campaign. Its goal is to build on the growing student-led movement around the country calling on school administrations to demand enough clean energy from their utility providers to power campuses with 100 percent renewable energy. Universities are often some of the biggest energy users, which means they're well positioned to put significant pressure on utility providers.

Universities can apply pressure in other ways, too, such as divesting from fossil-fuel companies. Sierra's "Cool Schools" issue examines a partial but significant victory along those lines: Stanford University's decision to divest from coal-mining stocks. The U.S. currently has more than 400 student-led campaigns to persuade institutional investors to divest from fossil-fuel stocks.

In addition to committing to renewable energy and divesting from dirty fuels, colleges and universities can use their influence to advocate for statewide policies that will bring more clean energy online. Given the current inertia in Washington, D.C., such campaigns will be crucial for years to come.

Regardless of how "cool" they may be, though, colleges and universities are still institutions, and institutions tend to accumulate quite a bit of inertia of their own. You can't say the same, thank goodness, for their students. The issue may be called "Cool Schools," but really it's awesome students whom we're counting on.

Who Needs Clean Water?

August 08, 2014

With a couple of decisions in 2001 and 2006, the Supreme Court managed to break the Clean Water Act by calling into question what Congress meant by "the waters of the United States." The existing law had been working just fine for almost 30 years. When the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, about two-thirds of America's lakes, rivers, and coastal waters were unsafe for fishing and swimming. Before the Supreme Court waded in, that number had been cut in half.

That still left about a third of America's waters polluted, and yet the Clean Water Act could no longer be counted on to do its job. Overnight, millions of wetland acres and stream miles had lost protection. Good news for condo developers; bad news for wetlands.

Thus began a long and painstaking effort by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers to fix what the Supreme Court had broken. The result is a proposed EPA rule to clarify which wetlands and streams in the U.S. are covered under the Clean Water Act. This new rule would restore protection to most, though not all, of the waterways previously covered.

Frankly, clean water should be a no-brainer. Our wetlands, lakes, and streams aren't a luxury -- they're a necessity. We rely on them for flood protection and control, surface water filtration, and groundwater recharge. The health of our families, our environment, and our economy all depend on this critical resource. Today, 117 million Americans get their drinking water from public systems that rely on seasonal, rain-dependent, and headwater streams that are now at risk of pollution.

Believe it or not, though, some polluters and developers want to stop the restoration of these clean water protections. Some polluter pals in Congress even tried to tack on legislative amendments that would have ordered the Army Corps of Engineers not to recognize or enforce any change in federal jurisdiction over water pollution.

Sometimes you have to ask yourself: "What are they drinking?"

Let's get this thing fixed! Send a message to the EPA in support of its proposal to protect America's streams and wetlands from dangerous pollution!

A Historic Week for Clean Air and Energy

August 04, 2014

Wow! I was confident that people would turn out to support the Environmental Protection Agency's Clean Power Plan at last week's public hearings in Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Denver, and Washington, D.C., but I wasn't counting on a success this big. Advocates for clean air and cleaning up carbon pollution made their voices heard with both passion and eloquence. The opposition showed up, but they really couldn't compete with the notion that clean energy will cut costs, create jobs, clean up our air and water, and give us a shot at stabilizing our climate. All week long, the hearings confirmed the broad support we've seen from all kinds of people since the day the EPA announced its plan.

The diversity of the voices demanding action was especially impressive. In Denver, for instance, testifiers included a retired Air Force Captain who literally wrote the book on the national security implications of climate disruption, local clean-energy business owners, some kids from New Mexico who sang a song in support of the Clean Power Plan (lots of kids at these hearings!), representatives from the ski and winter sports industry, and tribal leaders from across the West.

In Washington, my friend the Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus was just one of many faith leaders (including quite a few evangelicals and conservative Christians) who spoke eloquently about our responsibility as stewards of God's creation.

And everywhere: People showed up because they believe it's long past time our nation gets serious about the pollution that's disrupting our climate.

But you don't have to take my word for it. You can see for yourself what' happened and who testified by checking out the Sierra Club's Storify page.

Successful as it was, though, last week only marked the first steps of a much longer journey toward our goal of ending carbon pollution from coal- and gas-fired power plants and accelerating the transition from dirty fuels to clean energy. The good news is that the way the EPA has structured its plan -- with each state required to develop its own plan for meeting the guidelines -- tilts the field to our advantage. The Sierra Club not only is the largest environmental organization in the country; we're also the one with the most grassroots organizing muscle. That means we can push hard to make each state's plan both smart and effective, with as much clean energy and energy efficiency as possible.

One last thing to remember about these hearings: Most opposition to the plan has come from the usual suspects -- the same voices that have opposed every attempt to curb pollution for the past 40 years. But some people at the hearings, those whose livelihood depends on the coal industry, are sincerely afraid for their jobs. The truth is that coal jobs have been in trouble for a long time, and the Clean Power Plan, at most, will only hasten the inevitable. But we still have a responsibility to hear those voices -- and to make sure that in the rush to clean energy we don't leave those folks behind. We've already shown how to do that in Washington State, where we worked with municipalities and utilities to ease the transition from coal plants by ensuring that workers are transferred to other energy jobs. As in Washington State, we need to make sure that the transition to clean energy isn't made on the backs of workers and their families.

Overall, though, last week's hearings look like cause for celebration. The Clean Power Plan is not perfect and needs to be strengthened, but it is the most significant piece of President Obama's Climate Action Plan. And it's off to a rousing start. We'll see bumps along the way, I'm sure, but the path to clean energy, clean air, and climate action has never looked brighter.  

Couldn't make it to one of the hearings? We still need your voice! Please submit your comment to the EPA here.

Idaho at Its Best

July 23, 2014

Last year, about 900,000 people marveled at the majestic old-growth redwoods of Muir Woods. But if President Theodore Roosevelt had not saved those trees by declaring a national monument, people would be admiring a municipal reservoir rather than the majestic Cathedral Grove.

The importance of national monuments was on our minds as we headed to the final stop on our family tour of special places that the Sierra Club is working to protect. If it happens, the proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument in Idaho will be one of the biggest conservation achievements of the Obama administration. At 572,000 acres, it would be more than 1,000 times larger than Muir Woods. Just east of the Sawtooth Range in the Northern Rockies, the proposed monument's boundaries include the largest still-unprotected roadless wilderness in the U.S. outside of Alaska. This is Idaho at its best: stunning beauty, clear water, and rich wildlife habitat.

With three young kids and a long weekend, we knew that experiencing more than a fraction of this mountainous wilderness -- where Idahoans love to hike, mountain bike, backpack, ski, hunt, and fish -- would be impossible. What we did get to see, though, was spectacular.

We drove from our campground on the Big Wood River (just north of Ketchum) into the southern tip of the proposed monument. The last ten miles along a dusty Forest Service road brought us to the trailhead for our final family hike of the trip.

Road to Fourth of July Lake

The road to the mountains. See more pics and updates from our trip here.

Hiking to lakes seems to be a recurring theme on this trip, and the short trek to Fourth of July Lake rewarded us with yet another sparkling alpine gem. Lakes and mountains go together really well, don't they? Retreating glaciers carved hundreds of lakes into these mountains.

Fourth of July Lake

Sebastian hangs with Matt Kirby, from the Sierra Club's Our Wild America campaign, at Fourth of July Lake.

This scenic, remote, and rugged landscape is beloved by locals and visitors alike. It's a national treasure, and (not counting the odd mining company) nobody wants to see it despoiled. And yet despite many years of effort by both concerned citizens and enlightened politicians, the U.S. Congress has stubbornly refused to move on legislation that would provide proper wilderness protection for these lands.

That failure by Congress means that it's up to President Obama to ensure long-term protection for these pristine mountain ranges. The Sierra Club's Idaho Chapter is part of a broad coalition of local groups that support a monument proposal that reflects the many ways people love to experience this wilderness. Whether we are hikers, backpackers, or sportsmen -- we all know that protection for these mountains can't wait. A new national monument would ensure wise management of recreational access, while creating a lasting sanctuary for people, fish, and wildlife.

After my first taste of what the proposed Boulder-White Clouds National Monument has to offer, I needed to see more. So, early on Saturday, I headed back up the highway to the Smiley Creek Airport (actually, a well-mowed grass strip) and squeezed myself into the backseat of a small plane for a flyover. From above, the mountains and canyons looked as wild and inviolable as they have for millennia. Yet without long-term protection, they have an uncertain future.


A bird's-eye view of the proposed monument.

President Obama has stepped up the pace of his national monument designations during his second term and, as I heard him say at the signing ceremony last May for the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument, he's not finished yet. Here, in the heart of Idaho, is one of the last and greatest unprotected jewels of American wilderness. You can help us convince President Obama to save it.

Let President Obama know that you think Boulder-White Clouds deserves to be our next national monument. You can tell him the Brune family sent you. 

G and Dad

"Anywhere So Beautiful"

July 21, 2014

No matter how much I love my job, being away from Mary and the kids while I travel for work is always tough. Even on a fantastic trip like the one I took to the Arctic last month, I constantly catch myself wishing they could be there to see it with me.

That's why these two weeks of summer are the best of both worlds. I get to meet fantastic Sierra Club volunteers from all over the Northwest, learn about the work they're doing, and see the beautiful places that inspire them. Plus, I get to do it with the whole family. Believe me, that makes up for a lot of budget and policy meetings.

After a brief layover in Seattle with relatives, we and our three junior explorers set off for the Cascades again, this time to the little town of Index, Washington -- on the North Fork Skykomish River. Index was once a mining and lumber town, but today outdoor recreation drives the local economy. In fact, every year, direct consumer spending on outdoor recreation adds $22.5 billion to Washington State's economy and supports more than 226,600 jobs.

We reached Index by lunchtime and hung out with locals and some great folks from the Sierra Club's Washington State Chapter at a riverside BBQ hosted by the Outdoor Adventure Center. Rafting and kayaking are a major attraction here. Thousands of people come here for some of the best whitewater in Washington. Although we didn't have time to do any rafting ourselves, the kids got in some practice on dry land.


Future rafters Genevieve and Olivia. See more pics and updates from our trip here.

Although only an hour's drive from Seattle, Index is a gateway to the Wild Sky Wilderness, which was created by Congress in 2008, after a long, hard-fought campaign that had strong local support but kept getting derailed by anti-environmental legislators from other states. Wild Sky is Washington State's newest wilderness, and it's already extremely popular.

One thing we couldn't help but notice was the railroad trestle that crosses the Skykomish here, which led to the subject of oil trains. People here and throughout the Northwest are understandably worried that, sooner or later, a big increase in oil shipments by rail will lead to disaster. It doesn't inspire confidence that this same trestle bridge across the Skykomish was the site of a seven-car derailment in 1981.

After lunch, we headed for our first family hike in Washington, which started at a trailhead only about a dozen miles from Index. Together with some of our new Sierra Club friends, we hiked about two miles to Barclay Lake, which is nestled right on the edge of the Wild Sky Wilderness but still in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. The gently rolling trail was perfect for a family with kids, and the lake itself was gorgeous -- clear and cold (as my kids and I can personally attest), with steep, rocky Mt. Baring looming over us like a fortress.

The dozens of vehicles parked at the trailhead testified to the popularity of both the trail and the lake -- and we saw lots of other families as we hiked. Like the Wild Sky Wilderness itself, Barclay Lake is a great example of what the Sierra Club calls "Nearby Nature." Although it's great that we can protect remote wilderness areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, it's also important that we have more accessible wild places where a young family from, say, Seattle, can enjoy hiking, camping, and all kinds of outdoor recreation. Our family had a great time.

We also had a fantastic time camping and hiking in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, which was created by Congress in 1976 and includes more than 700 lakes and mountain ponds scattered across more than 300,000 acres of the Cascade Range. We enjoyed another family-friendly but longish hike to one of those lakes (Talapus) through Douglas fir, cedar, and western hemlock. However, we may have overtaxed the endurance of our youngest explorer. 


Getting carried up and down hills can be exhausting!

Like the smaller Wild Sky Wilderness, parts of the Alpine Lakes area were logged and mined before finally being protected. Interestingly, the bills that protected each of these wilderness areas were both signed by Republican presidents: Gerald Ford and George W. Bush. President Ford actually acted against the advice of the Forest Service. He supposedly made up his mind after spending an hour with Washington State's governor (a fellow Eagle Scout) admiring the photos in a book called The Alpine Lakes. "Anywhere so beautiful should be preserved," Ford said. What a great example of the personal prevailing over the political.

By the way, that coffee-table book, which saved hundreds of thousands of acres of wilderness, was coauthored by my friend (and former Sierra Club Northwest representative) Brock Evans, who's still out there fighting the good fight to this day.

And there's still plenty to fight for. The west side of the North Cascades has more than 250 miles of eligible wild and scenic rivers, along with over 350,000 acres of federally owned, unprotected wildlands. Unfortunately, politicians who share President Ford's opinion are in short supply these days -- especially in Congress. But though political tides may shift, you can be sure that Sierra Club folk will not only be exploring and enjoying these wild lands but also working hard to protect them.


Our next stop: Idaho and the Boulder-White Cloud mountains.


Here's Waldo

July 15, 2014

Does doing something two years in a row qualify as a "family tradition"? If so, this is shaping up to be a great one. Once again, my wife Mary and I have packed the tent, the camping gear, the bug spray, and, oh yeah, our ever-intrepid kids into the minivan for a two-week road trip to explore some of the wild and beautiful places that the Sierra Club is working to protect. Last year, we visited the Southwest, so this time around we're taking a northern route through Oregon, Washington, and Idaho.

In Oregon, our first big stop was at a place that I'm happy to say has already been protected for more than a century: Crater Lake National Park. The blue water looked as amazing as when gold prospectors stumbled upon it in 1853. It's the deepest lake in the U.S., with incredibly clear water.

But our first major destination for this part of our trip was actually a little further north in the Cascades, where there's a cluster of lakes that includes the Oregon's second-largest and second-deepest natural lake. Waldo Lake isn't as famous as its bigger cousin. In fact, until 1969, the only way to reach it was on foot or horseback. That's part of what makes it special, though. Apart from three Forest Service campgrounds, it's completely undeveloped, and its water is incredibly clean -- among the purest lake water in the world.  


At Waldo Lake with Olivia and Genevieve. See more pics and updates from our trip here.

Waldo Lake and much of the surrounding area are managed as roadless wilderness by the U.S. Forest Service. To ensure that this part of the Cascades remains wild and beautiful, though, permanent protection is needed. When we arrived at Waldo Lake, we got to meet a few of the people who are working together to make that happen.

The Oregon Chapter's Juniper Group, which encompasses most of central and eastern Oregon, is running a first-class "Keep Waldo Wild" campaign. It's been led since 2010 by David Stowe, who has written a beautiful account of what inspired him to start the campaign. David, as well as Juniper Group chair Gretchen Valido and Oregon Chapter chair Larry Pennington, were among the local folks who came out to show us "their" lake.

My favorite thing about this campaign is how the local Sierra Club has reached out to other wilderness users. The unspoiled, old-growth forests around Waldo Lake are also popular with mountain bikers and trail runners, who don't want to see it logged or overrun by motor vehicles any more than we do. So the Keep Waldo Wild campaign is based on an innovative National Conservation Area model that's previously been used on BLM lands. It will establish new wilderness as well as multiuser conservation areas that still provide strong environmental protections.

That's how we were also able to meet Woody Starr, the chair of the Central Oregon Trail Alliance (COTA), which is one of the mountain biking organizations that have endorsed the Club's plan for protecting Waldo Lake. Life isn't always fair, however. Although five-year-old Sebastian showed off his newly acquired bike skills on a forest trail, I'm the one who scored the cool COTA bike jersey.

From Waldo Lake it was on to the Eugene area, where we hiked Mt. June with inspiring Sierra Club volunteers Cathy Corlett, Gordon Levitt, Bill Sullivan and Mike Brinkley. They were showing us the Hardesty Wildlands, which the Oregon Chapter's Many Rivers Group is working to protect. Like the area around Lake Waldo, these are Forest Service-managed lands, which means that more than 6,000 wilderness-quality acres are still at risk of being logged.

When we reached the summit of Mt. June and looked across the forested ridge to Mt. Hardesty, I gave silent thanks for the volunteers who work nights and weekends, for months and years at a time, to secure permanent protection for places like this. Oregonians, and all of us, are fortunate to have these beautiful wild places to visit and enjoy. May we never forget that keeping them safe doesn't happen by accident.

Our next stop: the Evergreen State and the Wild Sky Wilderness!

Look What You Did!

July 11, 2014

I returned from the Arctic last week, and the beauty and peacefulness that I experienced there still occupy my dreams. Sure, the grizzly we encountered in our camp the first night has a starring role, but mostly it's the grandeur and sublime tranquility that were so captivating.

I knew the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was big, but I didn't really comprehend how big until we flew into it. For miles and miles and miles on end, we passed over one mountain, broad valley, and watershed after another. Such an expanse of untouched wilderness was inspiring, humbling, and breathtaking all at once.

Could there be any better way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wilderness Act than to explore (in my case, for the first time) the most completely wild place in the United States? If you want to be as far as possible from any human trail, road, or settlement, then this is where you come. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 19.6 million acres, of which eight million are designated as a federally protected wilderness area.


(See more trip pics from me and my awesome traveling companions here.)

It's not called a wildlife refuge for nothing, either. This is as north as North America gets, but animals ranging from shrews to grizzlies call it home, along with more than 160,000 free-roaming caribou. Every year, the Porcupine caribou migrate 1,500 miles to their calving grounds on the coastal plain by the Arctic Ocean. That's like walking from Boston to Miami. It may be the greatest wildlife spectacle in North America.

I wondered whether we would see the Porcupine herd, but not for long -- there must have been a thousand caribou in the grassy valley where our plane set us down. After exploring in the valley under the midnight sun, we spent the rest of the week rafting down the Aichilik River to the coastal plain, winding up at the shore of the Arctic Ocean.

What a trip. Along the way, we saw wilderness at its wildest, with the Brooks Range looming at our backs and golden eagles, tundra swans, long-tailed jaegers, and even snowy owls watching from above. Just like the caribou, though, we were making another kind of journey -- from the part of the Refuge that is safe from oil and gas drilling to the part that is not.

The coastal plain of the Refuge, where the caribou give birth to their calves each year, has an odd name: Area 10-02. When the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was expanded in 1980 as part of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, proponents of oil and gas drilling insisted on adding a section (10-02) to the bill that mandated an inventory of potential oil and gas resources. How much oil is there? No one can say for sure, other than that it's not enough to affect global market prices. Undoubtedly, it would have a devastating effect on the caribou and other wildlife.

It would be easy to lose count of how many times during the past four decades we've come close to losing the fight to keep oil companies from invading the coastal plain. It's been a near thing way too many times. Yet we've always managed to keep the drills at bay -- and by "we," I mean the millions of Americans who've signed petitions, contacted their representatives, and otherwise played a part in, first, creating the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and then in making sure that the oil companies stayed out.

That, above all, is what kept going through my mind as I marveled at this wilderness. Just look at what we did, together! Somehow, we've kept all of this safe. We all should be proud of that.

When at last we reached the shore of the Arctic Ocean, we had another surprise.  We'd hoped we might be able to venture onto the frozen sea and perhaps climb an ice ridge. Instead, waves lapped at the shore, with only a few isolated small icebergs offshore -- a reminder that the climate in Alaska is warming more rapidly than anywhere else in North America. A decade ago, the sea ice would definitely have extended all the way to the shore.

(One more reason to be in New York on September 21 for the People's Climate March.)

Our visit to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge ended at the Inupiat village of Kaktovik (pop. 293). None of the local people I talked to were in favor of drilling, either offshore or on the coastal plain. Their main concern was to ensure they would continue to be able to do subsistence hunting to provide for themselves. None of them wanted the oil industry to move into the Refuge.

If that ever were to happen, we don't have to wonder what it would look like. West of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge lies the largest oil field in North America -- a sprawling complex of oil wells, gravel roads, air strips, gravel pads, and equipment-storage sites that covers an area the size of Rhode Island. And as usual, where there is oil, there are oil spills. The largest was in 2006, when a corroded BP pipeline ruptured and leaked about 267,000 gallons of oil.

Could that happen in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Yes, as long as there's still money to be made from selling oil, and as long as the status of the coastal plain remains in limbo. The current U.S. House of Representatives would happily turn the coastal plain into a Chevron parking lot -- as long as oil companies could still erect their drilling rigs.

We can never let that happen. So until the coastal plain is truly protected once and for all, we all need to keep up the fight. Join the millions who've helped keep this wilderness wild: Ask the Obama administration to do everything it can to establish a lasting legacy by protecting the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

A Day for Women and the World

July 10, 2014

At the most basic level, the cause of climate disruption is obvious: a rise in heat-trapping gases in our atmosphere because we are burning so much coal, oil, and natural gas around the world. But this basic cause and effect aspect of climate disruption is only part of the equation. The problem is not simply what we are doing; it's also how many of us are doing it. Population growth has had -- and will continue to have -- a big effect on our climate.

Want to know how big? Take this POP Quiz, created with our partners at Population Connection, to test your population smarts. Here's a hint if you're taking the quiz: In the last two decades alone, global population has gone from six to seven billion people. At the current pace, our planet could have 11 billion people by 2050.

Although developed countries like the U.S. are still responsible for the majority of wasteful fossil fuel consumption, developing nations, where most of the population growth is happening, are where consumption is increasing the fastest. For such countries, essential resources like water are scarce, and modern family-planning resources are even scarcer. An estimated 222 million women in those nations would like to be able to plan the spacing and timing of their children but don't have the education, access, power, religious, or cultural permission to use a modern method of family planning.

When women have more children, more closely together, it creates additional challenges -- such as providing food and water for their larger families. In many cases, women spend up to a quarter of their day -- six hours -- just finding and collecting water for their families. Often, they need their children to help them gather water, which keeps young boys and girls out of school and perpetuates the cycle of poverty.

To make matters worse, the climate disruption caused by many decades of wasteful resource and fossil fuel consumption in developed countries like the U.S. disproportionately affects people in developing countries, who have far fewer resources to cope with disasters. Women and children fare worst of all: They are 14 times more likely to be killed during a natural disaster than men are.

This senseless cycle needs to end, for the sake of women, children, and our environment. Tomorrow is World Population Day. What better time to take action so that all women -- both here and the world over -- have access to the family-planning resources they need? Yes, it's essential that we curb climate pollution to limit climate disruption, but we can never truly have a healthy planet unless we provide support for healthy women and families.

Join our Google hangout tomorrow with Population Connection, Population Action International, Blue Ventures, and Representative. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) to learn more.

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