Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Let the fire sale begin

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.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Kasatochi memories

Sunlight streams through storm clouds near Fenimore Pass in the Aleutian Islands (©Scott Weidensaul)

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.A Laysan albatross crosses the wake of the Tiglax near Kasatochi Island. (©Scott Weidensaul)

We arrived at Kasatochi at 11 p.m., in the dim twilight of an Alaskan summer evening. Two young women, bio-technicians working for the refuge, were living for the summer in a tiny cabin perched on Kasatochi's slope, and while the crew off-loaded supplies for them (including a new stove to replace their broken one, so they could again cook hot food), we watched one of the most amazing wildlife spectacles I've ever seen.

In the gathering dusk, several immense clouds of crested auklets had gathered in the air around the island, waiting for the couple of hours of true darkness, around 2 a.m., when they could safely land without risking attack by gulls and falcons.

The birds whirred in dense masses hundreds of thousands strong, forming ever-shifting shapes like Möbius strips, smoky ribbons becoming balls becoming tendrils, rushing down the water, then swooping high in the air, wheeling and wheeling endlessly while the sea lions roared and the surf boomed.

One of the huge flocks, evading a passing peregrine falcon, swooped low toward the water and engulfed the boat, a roar of rushing wings that gave me, for a minute or two, a sense of what a passenger pigeon flock must have been like. Even after they passed, the air was heavy with the cloying citrus smell of tangerines, a characteristic of crested auklets.

Once it was fully dark, the vessel was kept in black-out conditions, because any light would disorient and attract the birds, with disastrous results. (One fishing boat, unaware of this, famously almost sank under the weight of confused seabirds piling onto the decks by the thousands; you can read a journal article about it here.)

The scientists aboard the Tiglax needed to catch a few birds to collect blood samples, though, so the crew turned on a few dim lights, and we scurried around the decks scooping up Cassin's and whiskered auklets, ancient murrelets and gray, fluttering fork-tailed storm-petrels, which puked up little gobs of pink crustaceans when we carefully lifted them.A whiskered auklet from Kasatochi, caught on the Tiglax for a quick blood sample and then released. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Kasatochi was almost certainly the most remote and empty place I've ever had the privilege of visiting. Sitting in the pilothouse of the Tiglax, Capt. Kevin Bell pointed on his chart to the tiny speck that was Kasatochi. "Draw a circle 500 miles wide, with Kasatochi at the center," he said. "There probably aren't more than a few hundred people in that circle, almost all of them on Adak or a couple of fishing boats."

Kasatochi is the third Aleutian volcano to erupt this summer, along with Okmok and Mt. Cleveland. It gave no warning, going from dormant to full eruption in about 24 hours, the U.S. Geological Survey said.The Tiglax anchored at Ulak Island, near Kasatochi. (©Scott Weidensaul)

A helicopter that was supposed to rescue the biologists developed mechanical problems, according to AP story. A Fish and Wildlife Service boat – presumably the Tiglax – was too far away to help, the AP reported, and calls for fishing boats went unanswered. Finally, fishermen from Adak raced the 50 miles of rough seas to pluck off the biologists, who said the island was shaking violently, and the air smelled like sulfur.

And a little bit like tangerines, I'll bet.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

So far West it's almost East

The Bering Strait at midnight.(©Scott Weidensaul)

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.Walrus bones erode from the bluff above Wales, where people have been living for 10,000 years. (©Scott Weidensaul)

The hundred and fifty or so people who live in Wales today retain a traditional, subsistence lifestyle. Almost every house has musk-ox, polar bear and bearded seal skulls lying about outside. In the middle of the village, the huge curved jaws of a bowhead whale lie next to the dirt street.

I was in Wales at the invitation of Anchorage artists Joe and Catherine Senungetuk, to join them in leading a writing workshop for both villagers and those from outside. Joe, who was born in Wales in 1940, is a noted Inupiat artist and the author of an autobiography about growing up Native in Wales and Nome, while Catherine is an accomplished watercolorist originally from California.Wales, Alaska, on a quiet evening. (©Scott Weidensaul)

This was the second year they'd conducted the Wales Writing Workshop, and of the dozen participants from outside the village (most from Anchorage) there were several veterans of the 2007 venture. We were also fortunate to welcome villagers like Winton Weyapuk, an accomplished poet and prose writer, who joined as their schedules allowed.

Our base of operations was the village community center, which houses a large multi-use room and several tribal offices; some of group spread their bedrolls on the floor, while others bunked with families in the village. Worried that if I snored I'd keep people awake, I pitched a tent just outside, in the lee of the building and a large metal shipping container where supplies are stored – the winds that roar through the Bering Strait can be ferocious, and I figured I'd need the extra shelter.

The community center sits at the north end of the village, hard against tundra and marsh. Dunlin, dowitchers, red-necked phalaropes and western sandpipers were almost always visible foraging in the sedges, and pairs of red-throated and Pacific loons shuttled back and forth from the nearby ocean to their chicks in shallow freshwater ponds just inland.A red-throated loon splashes into the air. (©Scott Weidensaul)

Up the hill toward Cape Mountain, and the weird, jagged hill known as Razorback, we could often see herds of musk-oxen grazing, forced close to the village by grizzlies. The semi-domesticated reindeer herds the village manage, however, had moved off to their summer grazing range – although one generous villager dropped off a reindeer roast for our dinner one evening.

Over the following days, we alternated between writing, roundtable sessions at which we shared our work, and hands-on instruction by noted master bookmaker Susan Share as we learned to fold, cut, stitch and decorate small but increasingly complex books.

But the evening of our arrival was gorgeous – tranquil, with low, golden sunlight bathing the peninsula. At 1 a.m., the village was busier than at noon, with guys reroofing homes and teens playing basketball. Up here, you don't waste a nice day, and this was the first sunshine, they told me, in three weeks. The fact that it was midnight sunshine, barely south of the Arctic Circle as we were, didn't matter.

Some of the workshop participants combed the wide sand beach, which runs for more than 30 miles north of the village along Lopp Lagoon, and onto which storms had cast millions of sea stars, or chatted with villagers trying to catch hundreds of pink salmon jamming the entrance to Village Creek – something the elders said they'd never seen before.

I walked south along the rockier part of the shore, watching king eiders, common murres and pelagic cormorants in the surf, and yellow wagtails and snow buntings feeding on insects by the tide line. Then I headed up onto the flanks of Cape Mountain, staying a cautious distance from the notoriously touchy musk-ox.
Inupiat kids play on "Arctic Arc," a sculpture mirrored by another on the Russian mainland, almost 60 miles west. (©Scott Weidensaul)

As the sun came close to the horizon, a couple of kids were playing on a huge sculpture of an open hand releasing a bird, which dominates the hill above town. A joint project by Michigan sculptor David Barr, who did the hand, and Joe Senungetuk, who did the bird, it mirrors a similar sculpture across the strait on the Russian side - a symbol of friendship between two countries often at odds.

We knew the weather couldn't last, and it didn't – but it was a glorious way to start our time in Wales.

* * * * *

If you're curious what the weather's like in Wales right now, you can take a look via the Wales StraitCam, mounted in a front window of the Kingikmiut School in the village and looking out past the playground onto the Bering Strait; on a rare clear day you can see the Diomede Islands, but don't count on it most of the time. (The webcam is mostly used by villagers now living in Nome and elsewhere to monitor snow depth and sea ice in winter, to judge when best to come back home to hunt marine mammals.)