For those of us committed to conservation, the Bush administration can't end soon enough -- but to the immeasurable damage they've already caused to the environment, the worst may be yet to come.
Many of us have been expecting that the final months of the administration will see a fire-sale approach to eviscerating environmental protections, particularly the two months between the general election in November and the inauguration, when the political damage to the GOP will be minimal.
But that doesn't mean they can't get a start on that pesky fall housecleaning, as this story from the AP makes clear.
An internal draft of proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act, obtained by the AP, shows that the Department of the Interior wants to scuttle the process under which federal projects - mines, highways, dams - that could harm endangered species and their habitat are subjected to an independent scientific review.
Instead, federal agencies could decide for themselves whether a project would be harmful, whether or not that agency has such expertise, or even has wildlife biologists on staff. Furthermore, it would significantly restrict what constitutes "harm" to threatened species, and would set a short, 60-day limit for comment by wildlife experts - on the off chance they're actually consulted.
The current system requires consultation with either the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service. Although projects are rarely disallowed because of reviews, the process often results in changes that help protect endangered species habitat.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said the move, which would take effect after a 30-day comment period, and without Congressional review, will prevent the use of the ESA as a "back door" attempt to regulate greenhouse gases.
In fact, of course, it's a back-door means of achieving what many conservatives have long sought but failed to get legislatively -- gutting the Endangered Species Act.
And unfortunately, we'll be seeing a lot more of these administrative end-runs around environmental protections in the months to come.
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
Saturday, August 9, 2008
More about the Wales Writing Workshop presently; but I saw a small news item today that took me back to one of the most remote and beautiful places I've ever been.
"Biologists rescued from remote Alaska island after volcano erupts," read the headline on an AP story in the Fairbanks News-Miner yesterday. (I'm indebted, as is often the case, to Lou Carpenter's bird-news site littlebirdiehome.com for posting the report.)
"ANCHORAGE (AP) — Two federal biologists were rescued from a volcanic island just before it erupted, sending a 35-thousand foot ash plume into the air.
"The biologists, who were studying birds, were rescued from volcanic Kasatochi Island in the Aleutians on Thursday. They were rescued by a local fishing boat.
"Official said the escape allowed the unnamed biologists to escape burning flows of gas, steam and ash that reportedly enveloped the island.
“ 'If they had been there, they certainly could have died,' said Stephanie Prejean, U.S. Geological Survey seismologist with the Alaska Volcano Observatory."
In the summer of 2005, I was lucky enough to hitch a ride to Kasatochi on the M/V Tiglax (pronounced Tek-la), the research vessel of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge, which protects most of the Aleutian Islands chain. Kasatochi is a miniature Mt. Fuji, a perfect volcanic cone rising from the frigid Bering Sea waters, green with grass and cupping a deep lake inside its caldera.
The Tiglax, which had picked up me, field guide author David Sibley and several folks from The Nature Conservancy the previous day on Adak Island, 50 miles to the west, crossed the chaotic waters of Fenimore Pass as bright shafts of low sunlight pierced the storm clouds, illuminating rugged island shorelines.
Laysan albatrosses followed our wake, and the boat stirred up flocks of thousands of rare whiskered auklets, which David had come to see – one of the last North American birds he hadn't seen in the wild.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Look closely at that photo. Yes, it's a beautiful sunset, but the important thing is that you're looking into tomorrow. Quite literally.
That's an uncommonly tranquil midnight sunset on the Bering Strait, taken from the beach at Wales, Alaska – the westernmost point of the North American mainland, where it all but kisses Asia.
How close? The small "island" to the right is East Cape, the tip of the Siberian mainland. The larger "island" on the left is really two landmasses in one – Little Diomede, part of the U.S., which lies about 25 miles from land, and a mile beyond that is Big Diomede, which is Russian.
The International Date Line runs between them, so while it was Saturday where I was standing, it was Sunday over in Big Diomede. As I said, tomorrow.
I'm just back from spending a week in Wales, one of the most remarkable places I've ever visited. An Inupiat village at the tip of the treeless Seward Peninsula, it has been home to humans for at least 10,000 years, and the sense of history is palpable, whether it's the finely worked artifacts like harpoon tips and net frames that one can find along the beach; the countless seal, walrus and whale bones that erode out of the bluffs, speaking of feasts millennia old; the pre-Christian human burials scattered on the rocky hillsides above the village; or the huge wooden cross that marks the mass grave of hundreds of victims of the Spanish influenza in 1918.