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AmeriScan: April 7, 2004

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Conservationists Battle Utah Wilderness Deal in Court

WASHINGTON, DC, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - The settlement brokered a year ago by the Bush administration and the state of Utah regarding wilderness designation should be ruled invalid, conservationists said in a brief filed Monday with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

The Wilderness Society, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Arizona Wilderness Coalition, and other conservation groups have asked the court to toss out the settlement, arguing it violates federal land management laws and is the product of organized complicity, rather than a fair, negotiation.

The groups contend the April 11, 2003 settlement effectively prohibits the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from ever again looking for or protecting wild lands as Wilderness Study Areas on over 150 million acres of public lands throughout the West.

The settlement stems back to a suit by Utah against the Interior Department in 1996 over a BLM reinventory that identified three million more acres in the state that qualified for wilderness protection than the agency's inventory in the 1980s had detailed.

Although their legal case was largely rejected by the courts, the state renewed its challenge in March 2004 and the Bush administration brokered a settlement that revokes BLM's authority to conduct wilderness inventories in any state or to establish new Wilderness Study Areas (WSAs) in any state.

The settlement also revokes the Wilderness Inventory Handbook, which is a set of guidelines for BLM managers to assess wilderness protections for federal lands affected by proposed resource development, and it disallows the use of a 1999 comprehensive statewide BLM reinventory of Utah's public lands.

Memos and personal correspondences that the Interior Department - released to The Wilderness Society after a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit had been filed - show that BLM had nearly completed secret settlement negotiations just one day after Utah raised claims that were the focus of settlement.

Those documents, which have been filed with the court, also show that the BLM surrendered to Utah on claims that the state had not even raised and that Utah had already lost before the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

"The Interior Department not only gave Utah every single thing they asked for in the lawsuit, Interior even gave them things they had not asked for and could not possibly have won because of a prior ruling in the case," said Jim Angell, an Earthjustice attorney representing the groups.

The wilderness settlement has been used to push through a succession of oil lease sales in Utah and Colorado within areas considered for protection.

In addition, while planning for new oil exploration in the Red Lake Wilderness Study Area, the Wyoming BLM recently confirmed it will not consider information submitted by conservation groups about the wilderness character of the lands because of the settlement.

"Through this settlement, the Interior Department reversed a quarter century of agency policy in a manner that conflicts with every other agency's interpretation of law, and they did this in less than two weeks using an intentionally deceptive process," said Stephen Bloch, attorney for Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which is also representing the groups in the legal challenge. "That is not the way we are supposed to create policy in this country, and it is already having a devastating effect on our public lands in Utah and across the West."

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Special Counsel Stays U.S. Park Police Chief Dismissal

WASHINGTON, DC, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - The Office of Special Counsel has obtained a stay protecting U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chambers from any adverse action for 45 days while it investigates her case.

At the end of 45 days, the Special Counsel will decide whether to seek to return Chambers to her job.

Chambers has been on paid administrative leave and forbidden to work since December 5, 2003 - a few days after she gave an interview to a "Washington Post," reporter in which she spoke of low staffing levels at the National Park Service.

Park Service Deputy Director Donald Murphy placed Chambers on administrative leave, stripped her of law enforcement credentials, and imposed a "gag order" barring her from granting any further interviews.

Murphy proposed to dismiss Chambers from her post, prompting the U.S. Park Police Chief to request relief from the Office of Special Counsel on January 29.

The Office serves as a referee of federal civil service rules. It has obtained a promise from the Department of Interior to withhold any adverse action against Chief Chambers for 45 days or until the Special Counsel finishes its investigation of the matter.

Nothing would preclude the Department from returning Chief Chambers to active duty as Chief of the U.S. Park Police at any time.

"The only thing Chief Chambers wants is to go back to work," said Jeff Ruch, executive director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, which is part of the Chambers legal defense team. "If the Special Counsel does not expeditiously resolve this matter, Chief Chambers will take other legal steps to force the issue."

After its investigation, the Special Counsel will decide whether to petition the civil service court, called the Merit Systems Protection Board, to order Chambers restored.

"The treatment that Chief Chambers has endured is an abomination," Ruch said. "Unless Chief Chambers is vindicated, honesty in public service will require a profile in courage."

Organizations representing both current park police officers, the Fraternal Order of Police, District of Columbia Lodge #1, and retired officers, the Retired United States Park Police Association, have come out in support of Chambers.

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Experts: Columbia Basin Irrigation Must Balance Salmon Needs

WASHINGTON, DC, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - Additional permits for water to be diverted from the Columbia River for farm irrigation should be granted only if the withdrawals can be stopped if river flows become critically low for endangered and threatened salmon, according to a federal panel of experts.

In a report released last week, the committee of the National Academies National Research Council warned that salmon are at increased risk during periods of low flows and high water temperatures, conditions that are most likely to occur during the summer months when demand for water by farmers is greatest.

"Whether or not to issue additional permits is a decision to be made by the public and policy-makers, but if the withdrawals are allowed, there should be enough flexibility to halt them if river conditions become too severe for the salmon," said Ernest Smerdon, chair of the committee that wrote the report, and retired vice provost and dean, College of Engineering and Mines, University of Arizona in Tucson.

The report was requested by the Washington State Department of Ecology, which asked for an evaluation of the effects of additional water withdrawals of approximately 250,000 acre-feet to 1.3 million acre-feet per year. The latter amount is roughly the volume sought in currently pending applications for additional water withdrawals.

An acre-foot is the quantity of irrigation water that would cover an acre to a depth of one foot -- equal to 325,851 gallons.

Over the course of the 20th century, salmon runs on the Columbia River dwindled from around 16 million per year to only 1 million per year.

Numbers have rebounded slightly in recent years, mainly because of favorable conditions in the Pacific Ocean, to which young salmon migrate before returning upstream to spawn.

The committee reviewed many competing scientific hypotheses and models that attempt to explain the effects of various environmental conditions on Columbia River salmon.

There is no scientific consensus on which environmental factors pose the greatest threat to salmon, the committee said, but scientific evidence does show that when extremely low flows or excessively high water temperatures occur, pronounced changes in salmon migratory behavior and lower survival rates can be expected.

Because the Columbia River basin extends across seven states, many Indian reservations, and one Canadian province, the committee urged the jurisdictions involved to convene a forum for documenting and discussing the potential effects of proposed water diversions.

Making decisions about diversions on a case-by-case basis without considering the basinwide cumulative effects will contribute to degraded conditions for salmon, the committee said.

Several water management approaches being considered by the state's department of ecology were reviewed by the committee.

It recommended against any conversion of current water rights to so-called uninterruptible status - an approach in which a farmer gives up rights to a certain volume of water in exchange for a guaranteed minimum level of water every year - because this method would decrease flexibility in times of low flows or high water temperatures.

The committee also found the department's market-based proposals appealing because the trading of water rights could lessen the need for further water diversions.

The committee stressed that regardless of the approaches it chooses, the department of ecology should adopt the principles of adaptive management, where decisions are made and adjusted based on continuous scientific experimentation and monitoring.

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Frogwatchers Fear Bush Pesticide Proposal

WASHINGTON, DC, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - A proposal by the Bush administration to allow the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine on its own whether pesticides will jeopardize threatened and endangered species poses a severe risk to the 21 amphibian species protected under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), conservationists say.

The administration says its proposal revamps a broken regulatory process while maintaining protection for wildlife.

Under the law, the EPA is currently required to consult with the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to ensure that pesticides approved by the agency are not likely to adversely affect listed species - or their critical habitat.

But almost no consultations have been completed in the past decade - an indication that the process is broken, according to the administration.

Under the new proposal, if the EPA determines a formal consultation is required, it could directly or indirectly involve the wildlife agencies, which under the law would make the final determination.

Rather than let the agency off the hook, critics say, the administration should ensure EPA carries out the required consultation.

Hundreds of pesticides are up for registration review by EPA in 2004, many of which could impact the more than 1,200 species protected by the ESA - in particular amphibian species.

Pesticides have been implicated as a potential factor responsible for the declines of some amphibian populations, including declines of the threatened red-legged frog, the mountain yellow-legged frog and the Yosemite toad in California. Developing amphibian larvae can also become more vulnerable to parasites and predators through exposure to certain pesticides.

According to the EPA, some 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are applied annually to crops, lawns, golf courses and other areas throughout the United States.

"Amphibians like frogs and toads have porous skin that makes them especially sensitive to chemical changes in their environment, especially pesticide usage," said Amy Goodstine, National Wildlife Federation's (NWF) Frogwatch Coordinator.

Some 4,000 families, children, scout troops, retirees and other "frogwatchers" participate in Frogwatch USA, a frog and toad monitoring program managed by the NWF in partnership with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The NWF says there are some 3,500 registered frogwatching sites in all 50 states.

"Frogs are great indicators of the health of their habitat, including environmental threats such as pollution, destruction of wetlands and global warming," said Goodstine. "Frog health can tell us a lot about how the environment is affecting them."

The federal wildlife agencies are seeking public comment on their proposal, which can be found here: http://endangered.fws.gov/consultations/pesticides/

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Loggerhead Turtles Nesting Earlier

ORLANDO, Florida, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - Loggerhead sea turtles along Florida's Atlantic coast are laying their eggs about 10 days earlier than they did 15 years ago, according to a study by researchers at the University of Central Florida (UCF).

The researchers say global warming is the cause of the change.

From 1989 to 2003 - as near-shore ocean temperatures increased by some 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit - the median nesting dates for loggerheads gradually became earlier, according to John Weishampel, a UCF associate professor of biology.

In 2003, half of the turtles' nests were laid before June 19, compared with before June 29 in 1989.

The earlier nesting dates raise several questions that need to be addressed in future studies, Weishampel said, including whether the turtles' food supplies -- crabs, shrimp and other invertebrates -- will be as plentiful earlier in the season and whether the hatchlings are less likely to survive if they are born earlier.

Additional studies, which will be conducted by UCF and other agencies, could lead to recommendations that governments change some of their regulations to protect sea turtles, Weishampel said.

"Some of the management practices that have been in place -- such as lights out at certain times of the year and whether or not you are allowed to drive on the beach during certain times of the year -- could be affected," Weishampel said.

Loggerheads are classified as a threatened species by the federal government. Biologists fear the turtles could go extinct within 30 years unless habitat is protected and longline fishing -the major threat to thes species - is banned worldwide.

The turtles' fertility and the ratios of male to female hatchlings also could be affected by earlier nesting, according to the researchers, because the sex of hatchlings depends on the temperature of the sand.

The UCF researchers analyzed data from about 25 miles of beaches in Brevard and Indian River counties where thousands of loggerhead turtles nest every year.

Some 25 percent of loggerhead nests in the United States are on that stretch of beach between Florida's Sebastian Inlet and the southern boundary of Patrick Air Force Base.

From 1989 to 2003, the average near-shore ocean temperature in May in that area increased from 76.3 to 77.7 degrees Fahrenheit, or from 24.6 to 25.4 degrees Celsius.

An increase of that size is significant enough to affect animal behavior such as nesting and migration habits, the researchers say. The findings of the UCF study will be published in the journal "Global Change Biology."

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California Commission Opposes Offshore Oil, Supports Wetlands

SACRAMENTO, California, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - The California State Lands Commission voted Monday to send a letter to President George W. Bush reiterating its position of support for a moratorium on new oil and gas development off the coast of California.

In April 2003, the Bush administration announced it would not appeal a court decision that upheld California's right to ban oil and gas exploration in federal waters off the central coast of California.

At its meeting Monday, the commission announced the return of an oil and gas lease from Union Oil Company.

The return of this lease will place 5,650 offshore acres at Point Conception in Santa Barbara County into California's Marine Sanctuary guaranteeing that no further oil and gas development may occur.

"This is another step taken by the State Lands Commission to protect California from offshore oil and gas development," said Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante. "I look forward to the day when the California coast will be free from all such development."

The commission also voted Monday today to grant the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service a lease for the construction of the Bolsa Chica Wetlands Project.

The project will restore 880 acres of oil fields to their natural wetlands habitat and will act as a haven to fish and wildlife. The restored wetlands will also serve as a recreation site for visitors and residents of Huntington Beach, California.

In addition, the commission announced the lease of a state-owned beach to the city of San Clemente.

The lease is for the construction and maintenance of a public beach facility that will use an existing railroad under-crossing to provide wheelchair access to the beach.

"As Chair of the California State Lands Commission, I am committed to preserving our coastline and natural habitats for future generations," said State Controller Steve Westly. "[These] votes are an important step in protecting California's natural resources from the harmful effects of oil drilling."

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$32M Settlement Will Clean Oyster Bay Superfund Site

NEW YORK, New York, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - Twelve defendants - six corporations and six individuals - have agreed to to fund and perform the cleanup at the Liberty Industrial Finishing Superfund site in Oyster Bay, Nassau County, New York. The defendants will design, implement and fund the cleanup of the property and pay for oversight of the cleanup activities by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), all at a total estimated cost of $32.8 million.

During the Second World War, and through 1957, the site was used by predecessors of two of the defendants - Coltec Industries and Goodrich Corporation - and by wartime agencies of the United States for the manufacture of airplane parts in support of the war effort.

From 1941 to 1948, the United States owned a portion of the site and was also involved in operations at the site during World War II. The site was used from 1957 to 1984 as an industrial park for a variety of operations, including metal plating and finishing, and fiberglass product manufacturing.

The site became contaminated with hazardous materials resulting from these industrial operations.

Announcing the settlement March 31, Roslynn Mauskopf, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, said, "This settlement represents a cooperative remediation effort, and a major commitment by private parties as well as the United States to right the wrongs of the past."

Previous cleanup activities at the site included removal of contaminated soil and sludge from industrial waste disposal basins, removal of PCB contaminated soil and debris from other areas at the site, and installation of separate treatment systems to remove organic and inorganic ground water contamination.

On March 28, 2002, the EPA selected the current cleanup plan for the site that includes excavation and off-site disposal of more than 73,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil. Crews will collect, treat and dispose of contaminated ground water off-site. In addition, the defendents will pay for the off-site disposal of contaminated sediments from a pond in the Massapequa Preserve.

EPA Regional Administrator Jane Kenny said, "Once the property is cleaned up, Oyster Bay plans to transform a large portion of this hazardous waste site into new public parkland for the community." The cleanup will allow redevelopment of a 15 acre portion of the site as an addition to the Town of Oyster Bay's Ellsworth Allen Park.

The total cost of cleanup activities at the site, past and future, will exceed $46 million. The responsible parties will paying more than 90 percent of those costs.

Public Input Welcome on Double Crested Cormorant Plan

OKEMOS, Michigan, April 7, 2004 (ENS) - Federal officials are seeking public comments on a proposal to reduce damage associated with double-crested cormorants in Michigan. The large fish-eating birds nest in colonies and roost in large numbers - the current population in North America is estimated at two million birds, nearly 70 percent of which are in the interior population.

They can cause localized, but sometimes significant, negative impacts on resources such as commercial aquaculture, recreational fisheries, vegetation, and the habitat of other colonial nesting birds.

The birds have benefited from a reduction in eggshell-thinning pesticides, increased protection under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and abundant food resources on their breeding and wintering grounds have caused cormorant numbers and distribution to increase greatly in the last 30 years.

The species is widespread throughout the Great Lakes and about 115,000 pairs currently nest there.

Currently there are 48 known double-crested cormorant breeding sites in Michigan, and biologists believe about 30,000 breeding pairs nest in the state.

Conflicts with human and natural resources, including real or perceived impacts on commercial aquaculture, recreational fisheries, vegetation and other colonial waterbirds that nest with cormorants, led to a decision by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to develop a management strategy for the species.

The environmental assessment (EA) developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services program and the Fish and Wildlife Service considers five alternatives - written comments will be accepted through May 5.

In the EA, the agencies proposes to implement an Integrated Wildlife Damage Management approach to reduce damage associated with double-crested cormorants to property, aquaculture, natural resources, and public health and safety on all lands in Michigan where a need exists, a request is received, and landowners grant permission.

Last October, the Fish and Wildlife Service issued regulations that allow more flexibility in the control of double-crested cormorants where they are causing damage to aquaculture stock and public resources such as fisheries, vegetation and other birds.

The regulations establish a public resource depredation order allowing state wildlife agencies, tribes and Wildlife Services in 24 states, including Michigan, to conduct cormorant control for the protection of public resources. Without these depredation orders, agencies and individuals would not be able to control cormorants without a federal permit.

Agencies acting under the order must have landowner permission, may not adversely affect other migratory bird species or threatened and endangered species, and must satisfy annual reporting and evaluation requirements.

The Fish and Wildlife Service says it will ensure the long-term conservation of cormorant populations through oversight of agency activities and through regular population monitoring.

The proposed action in Michigan would include implementation of the public resource depredation order issued by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The other alternatives considered involve more restricted roles for Wildlife Services in controlling cormorant populations.

More information about the proposal can be found at http://midwest.fws.gov/nepa.

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