AmeriScan: February 11, 2004

Wyoming Court Blocks Yellowstone Snowmobile Restrictions

CHEYENNE, Wyoming, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - The convoluted controversy over snowmobiles in Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks took another turn Tuesday when a federal judge blocked restrictions on the vehicles that were just reinstated by another court.

Judge Clarence Brimmer in U.S. District Court in Cheyenne, Wyoming ruled that the Clinton era restrictions on snowmobiles would cause irreparable harm to companies that rely on snowmobiling in the parks due to lost business.

The final rule restricting snowmobile numbers in the parks was put in place in January 2001 in the waning days of the Clinton administration because critics of the snowmobiles complain that they are noisy and pollute the air with oily fumes.

But the International Snowmobile Manufacturers Association and the BlueRibbon Coalition joined the State of Wyoming in filing a motion for an preliminary injunction to halt the restrictions. The motion asks the court to enjoin the National Park Service from the continued implementation of the 2001 final rule that is presently governing winter recreation in Yellowstone.

Judge Brimmer issued a temporary restraining order against the final rule and ordered the National Park Service to write temporary snowmobile rules for the rest of the 2004 season including use of cleaner, quieter machines.

In December 2003, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington, DC, reinstated the Clinton administration final rule that would phase out snowmobiles in favor of mass transit snow coaches.

Sullivan's ruling overturned a 2001 settlement between the Bush administration, the state of Wyoming, and snowmobile groups. The settlement did not ban the machines but cut their numbers in the parks and required cleaner engines.

During arguments before Judge Brimmer on January 27, Wyoming and the snowmobile advocates brought in witnesses to describe the adverse impacts that have occurred this season as a result of the reductions in snowmobile access and the confusion surrounding the status of snowmobile in Yellowstone Park.

Various business owners and state officials testified that entries to the Park, and associated tourism revenues, are below historical levels since announcement of Judge Sullivan's December decision. The witnesses focused on the loss of jobs and income in the tourism dependent gateway communities surrounding the park, such as Jackson and Pahaska Teepee, Wyoming, and West Yellowstone, Montana.

President of the BlueRibbon Coalition Jack Welch said, "The snowmobile provides the best and most popular method to visit Yellowstone in the winter. While Yellowstone is open to snowmobiling this winter, we hope our renewed efforts in the Wyoming litigation will allow additional families to visit their national park this winter by snowmobile."

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Keep Triple Fence Off the Border, Lawsuit Pleads

SAN DIEGO, California, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - A coalition of local, state, and national environmental groups is suing to force the federal government to find ways of improving border security without a proposed 14 mile, triple fence, which plaintiffs say would destroy popular parks, hiking trails, and wildlife habitat.

Named as defendants in the lawsuit are Attorney General John Ashcroft, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and the U.S. Directorate of Border and Transportation Security.

They are being sued by the The Center For Biological Diversity, San Diego BayKeeper, San Diego Audubon, the Sierra Club, California Native Plant Society, and the Southwest Wetlands Interpretive Center.

"Everyone agrees that we need to tighten up border security, but we should be able to do that without hurting the communities who live nearby," said Jim Peugh from the San Diego Chapter of the Audubon Society, "The plan on the table would destroy the whole mesa along with popular parks and recreation areas."

The planned triple fence has drawn opposition from the cities of Imperial Beach, National City, and Chula Vista and San Diego County, and raised concerns from several state agencies. In October 2003, the California Coastal Commission staff issued a report recommending that the Commission find the project to be inconsistent with the Coastal Zone Management Act because of the availability of less environmentally destructive alternatives.

In response to a 1996 congressional mandate, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) proposed and started to construct a 14 mile border infrastructure system to increase security around a current border fence. The proposed project would involve constructing secondary and tertiary fencing parallel to the existing fence, along with associated patrol and maintenance roads and other related infrastructure. The new fencing would start at the Pacific Ocean and extend 14 miles inland to the foothills of the San Ysidro Mountains.

The plaintiffs say officials behind the project violated the National Environmental Policy Act when they ignored viable, border fence alternatives that would have a less adverse impact on the environment and surrounding communities such as fortifying the primary fence, building fences without accompanying roads, and switch-backing the roads through the canyons.

"The current proposal would create 10 problems for every one it solved," says Bruce Reznik, executive director of San Diego BayKeeper. "INS doesn't want to look at alternatives, but they owe it to the people who have to live here to obey the law and consider less harmful solutions."

In order to create flat roadways between the fences, the government would remove numerous hilltops and fill sensitive canyons, causing a massive loss of sensitive coastal habitat, plaintiffs allege.

Erosion would smother the Tijuana River National Estuary and reduce tidal flushing and harm already endangered wildlife. The development would also destroy popular parks and trails for a region, which has been struggling to keep up with recreation demands of a fast growing population.

The fence would increase flooding for the 25,000 residents of Tijuana, Mexico, the plaintiff groups allege.

"The fact that so many surrounding communities and relevant state agencies have such strong concerns should have been enough incentive for INS to find a better way," Reznik said. "So far, it hasn't been, and so we're left with no choice but to take our concerns to court."

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Hydrogen Fuel Cell Tested for Manufacturing

FREEPORT, Texas, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - For the first time, a U.S. automaker is using hydrogen fuel cells to power manufacturing and buildings. Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, joined by Texas Governor Rick Perry and other dignitaries in Freeport Tuesday to cut the ribbon for new General Motors hydrogen fuel cell test facility.

Inside, hydrogen will be tested as a source of electricity for the Dow Chemical Company's manufacturing facility site. This new facility will conduct field tests to transfer hydrogen into electricity and will demonstrate the viability of fuel cell power generation for chemical manufacturing.

"The Dow-GM transaction typifies the type of creative arrangements that will arise from the new hydrogen economy," Secretary Abraham said. "Not only is this test a first for evaluating the broad industrial use of fuel cell technology, it is the first time a carmaker has used its fuel cell technology to provide electricity and heat for buildings and manufacturing,"

President George W. Bush has called on the Department of Energy (DOE) to develop hydrogen. Over the next five years the DOE has plans to invest $1.7 billion in research and development of hydrogen vehicles and hydrogen infrastructure technologies.

"We are optimistic about the prospects for hydrogen, not just as the transportation fuel of the future, but also for its potential to generate electricity to heat and power our homes and businesses," Secretary Abraham said.

Successful installation of hydrogen fuel cells will give Dow, an energy intensive manufacturer, an additional supply of electricity while reducing emissions. The arrangement will also inevitably drive technological progress in GM's pursuit of cost competitive fuel cell systems.

The initial test will convert hydrogen into 75 kilowatts of electricity, or enough power for 60 homes per year. Ultimately, fuel cells from GM could generate 35 megawatts of power from hydrogen for Dow, equivalent to electricity for 25,000 homes.

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High Plains Aquifer Down By Six Percent

RESTON, Virginia, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - There are some areas on the High Plains where water is being withdrawn from the Oglala aquifer at rates greater than the aquifer is being replenished. In these areas, the aquifer will not be able to sustain withdrawals at current rates in future decades, new research by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has determined.

Underlying portions of eight states, including Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas, the massive High Plains aquifer, also called the Oglala aquifer, spans 173,000 square miles and provides irrigation and drinking water for one of the major agricultural regions in the world.

But USGS scientists have found a six percent decrease in the volume of water stored in the aquifer from the time groundwater pumping began in the 1940s to the year 2000.

Using data collected by the USGS, other federal, state, and local agencies between the years 1920 and 2000 from more than 20,000 wells screened in the High Plains aquifer, USGS scientists determined that the amount of water stored in the High Plains aquifer has declined about 200 million acre-feet, a decrease of six percent.

The change in storage by state ranges from an increase of about four million acre-feet in Nebraska to a decline of about 124 million acre-feet in Texas.

The two states with the greatest amounts of depletion are Texas and Kansas. Water in storage has declined 27 percent in Texas, from about 476 million acre-feet to 352 million acre-feet over the past 50 years.

In Kansas, water in storage has declined 16 percent from about 322 million acre-feet to 274 million acre-feet during the same time period.

"These declines will have a significant impact on the agricultural economy in the region," the agency warns.

The High Plains aquifer provides the water to irrigate crops on about 27 percent of the irrigated land in the United States and withdrawals from the aquifer amount to about 30 percent of the nation's ground water used for irrigation.

Additionally, the aquifer provides drinking water to 82 percent of the people who live within the aquifer boundaries.

"The intense use of ground water has caused major declines in groundwater levels in parts of the High Plains over the past half century. Rates of withdrawal rose rapidly from the 1940s to the late 1970s but have declined or held steady in many areas since that time," said Dr. Robert Hirsch, USGS associate director for water.

The report "Water in Storage and Approaches to Groundwater Management, High Plains Aquifer, 2000," USGS Circular 1243, also includes a state-by-state summary of approaches to groundwater management in the eight states overlying the aquifer. It can be obtained by contacting USGS Information Services at 1-888-ASK-USGS.

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Washington's Hood Canal Smothered By Nutrient Overload

OLYMPIA, Washington, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - Washington Governor Gary Locke and Congressman Norm Dicks, a Washington Democrat, have pledged to help combat the worsening environmental problems in Hood Canal.

Locke and Dicks were joined at a news conference in Olympia Monday by state legislators and representatives of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center at Keyport, the Skokomish Tribe, the U.S. Geological Survey, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, Mason County, the Hood Canal Coordinating Council, and Hood Canal Watershed Implementation Committee, and the Hood Canal Salmon Enhancement Group.

Nutrient pollution entering Hood Canal is the problem as it contributes to the dangerously low levels of dissolved oxygen, which has killed fish and octopi and closed much of the canal to fishing.

Nutrients from human and pet waste, stormwater runoff and fertilizers cause plankton and algae to grow. When the algae dies and decomposes, it robs oxygen from the water that fish need to survive.

Locke's supplemental budget includes $100,000 to fund actions to reduce the nutrient pollution. "I urge our state Legislature to support this funding so we can work with communities on Hood Canal to reduce, if not reverse, key causes of this critical environmental problem," Locke said. "No one wants to see Hood Canal become a dead sea."

In late 2003, Dicks secured $350,000 for the U.S. Geological Survey to continue studying the various causes of the low-dissolved oxygen problem and to help scientists and managers address this issue. In late January, in a federal appropriations bill, Dicks garnered $500,000 for the Puget Sound Action Team to start taking specific steps to help Hood Canal.

"Hood Canal is on life support and we need to begin treatment now to start reviving it," Dicks said. "The scientists working on this urgent problem may not fully understand the relationship between the various causes of the low oxygen levels, but we know that actions we take on the land are contributing to the problem. We need to act now to minimize these impacts."

Branching off from Puget Sound, Hood Canal stretches from the northeast corner of the Olympic Peninsula about 45 miles southwest. Then it does a tight U-turn and heads northeast for another 15 miles.

As part of the Hood Canal restoration effort, the U.S. Navy announced that it would help gather more and better information about the quality of water in the canal.

The treatment plan for Hood Canal will be developed by April 1, when the Puget Sound Action Team completes a "corrective actions plan" requested by Locke. The $500,000 federal funding and potential $100,000 state funding will be directed toward projects along the canal identified in the corrective actions plan, which will focus on sources from the land that people can manage to help stabilize or reduce the low-levels of oxygen.

The Puget Sound Action Team is working jointly with the Hood Canal Coordinating Committee, a body made up of tribal and local government officials from around the canal, to produce the plan. Federal, tribal and state governments are also participating in the formation of the plan, as are other local groups.

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Colorado Drilling Leases Fought on Conservation Grounds

DENVER, Colorado, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - Two conservation groups have filed an administrative protest challenging a recent Bureau of Land Management (BLM) sale of 108,000 acres of oil and gas leases in Colorado. These leases, which allow companies to drill for oil and gas regardless of who owns the land, last a minimum of 10 years and can be extended indefinitely.

The groups claim the BLM is ignoring new information about animals and plants that are struggling to survive across Colorado, including the greater sage grouse, white-tailed prairie dog, and Porter feathergrass, all three of which are currently petitioned for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"Oil and gas drilling has huge impacts to landowners, to clean water and to healthy wetlands, and to recreational opportunities," said Jacob Smith, executive director for Center for Native Ecosystems, one of the protesting groups. "The Bureau of Land Management has to consider these things before it wholesale sells off public resources."

"The drilling leases they are selling basically last forever," said Nicole Rosmarino, endangered species coordinator for the other conservation group Forest Guardians. "The Bureau of Land Management needs to look before it leaps."

Current rules provide almost no protection to private landowners and favor energy development. Companies holding a valid mineral right are only required to give 10 days notice to private landowners before drilling.

"The Bureau of Land Management is trampling the rights of private landowners throughout Colorado," said Jim Fitzgerald, a farmer and private landowner in the HD Mountains near Bayfield, Colorado.

"When they drill on private land, our water wells get hammered, the drill rigs leak, our aquifers are depleted, landowners are harassed by diesel engines that run constantly," Fitzgerald said Monday as the protest was filed.

Oil and gas companies can locate a drilling rig as close as 150 feet to someone's home. Current rules only encourage, but do not require, drillers to reach agreements with landowners, but if an agreement is not reached the oil and gas companies are free to proceed after posting a small bond.

The conservation groups contend that the lease sale is based on outdated research. They claim the Bureau of Land Management has refused to consider critical new scientific research and information about the impacts of oil and gas drilling to water quality, air quality, human health, and impacts to farms and ranches.

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Open Ocean Fish Farming Controversial

MINNEAPOLIS, Minnesota, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - The aquaculture industry is working with federal regulatory agencies to privatize parts of the ocean on behalf of corporate fish farming interests, claims a new report by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a coalition of consumer and environmental groups based in Minneapolis.

Open ocean aquaculture is the practice of fish farming from three to 200 miles off the coast. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, as well as Sea Grant programs and private companies, are now in the process of pursuing open ocean aquaculture development, the Institute's study says.

Currently, there are experimental and demonstration off shore fish operations going on in Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Texas. Fish involved in these projects are high value species - red drum, amberjack, summer flounder, cod, halibut, red snapper and cobia. Commercial operations are already underway in Hawaii and Puerto Rico.

Later this year, the Bush administration is expected to submit an offshore aquaculture bill to Congress that will set up a policy framework for aquaculture operations.

"If the bill is passed by Congress it could green light not only a brand new giant biopolluting industry, but a wholesale privatization of the Continental Shelf and an end to public stewardship over the oceans," the IATP report warns.

Environmental risks associated with offshore aquaculture include fish escapes, transference of disease to wild fish, discharge of sewage, and unsustainable use of marine resources, IATP claims.

But Charles Helsley, open ocean aquaculture researcher with the University of Hawaii, says that to answer those concerns environmental monitoring was made a part of Sea Grant’s support for the Hawaii Open-Ocean Aquaculture Demonstration Program, begun in 1999 offshore of Ewa on the island of Oahu.

Helsley says the project's initial goals were to learn whether or not open ocean aquaculture could be done in Hawaii, if the technology was mature enough to warrant the investment in time and effort to develop a farm, and to determine whether the associated environmental impacts to the seafloor, surrounding water, and other nearby elements such as reefs were sufficiently small to be acceptable to the people of Hawaii.

"We learned that, indeed, it was feasible to grow a local fish in offshore cages, that the technology was mature enough to withstand the rigors of our rough offshore waters, and that the environmental impact was virtually nil," Helsley said.

But environmental impact is not the IATP's only objection to open ocean aquaculture. "By law, the sea and seabed are held in the public trust, and conveyance of exclusive private use rights is not allowed," said Dr. Mike Skladany, IATP's marine and fish conservation director.

"Altering this precedent could open up similar opportunities to a raft of competing corporate interests. Oil and gas drilling, sub-sea mining, abandonment of oil rigs, waste disposal and commercial rocket launching are just some of the activities that would benefit from such a redefinition, and there is mounting evidence that a wholesale privatization of the continental shelf, may be in the offing."

The IATP report calls for a moratorium on commercial open ocean aquaculture development until national aquaculture legislation is adopted and comprehensive, open and transparent regulations are formalized.

There should be a mandatory set of national standards for open ocean aquaculture, IATP says, with permits issued only after rigorous environmental impact statement that is consistent with the requirements of National Environmental Policy Act, and at least a 60 day public comment period. ed.

No part of the water column or bottom-lands anywhere in the three to 200 mile offshore zone should be privatized, leases and permits should be temporary, and renewable only if in compliance with strict environmental regulations covering fish escapees, disease transfer to wild fish, depletion of global fish stocks for farm raised fish feed, and discharges of waste.

Helsley says that the Hawaii demonstration fish farm currently consists of two cages, with a third to be deployed soon. There are now about 300,000 fish on the site most of the time with a daily feed ration of up to 3,000 pounds.

So far, after more than a year of continuous operation, following the two years of episodic operation, there is no evidence of anaerobic sediments or even of any food accumulation beneath the cages, Helsley says.

"We use wild caught fish, and their first generation offspring, as the broodstock," Helsley says. "These are the same fish being used for stock enhancement efforts. Managed in this way, there can be no adverse genetic interaction with the wild fish, even if fish were to get loose."

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Fungus in Woodpeckers' Beaks Crucial to Forest Process

NEW YORK, New York, February 11, 2004 (ENS) - A woodpecker’s beak is a virtual petri dish of fungal spores that play a key role in the decay of dead trees, according to new research by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Arkansas State University.

In their study published in the journal "Condor," the authors examined several species of woodpeckers living in ponderosa pine forests in northern California and Oregon. They learned that over 60 percent of the birds nesting in tree cavities had a variety of wood inhabiting fungi living in their beaks.

These fungi serve a critical role in the decomposition of dead trees, commonly known as snags, and influence how they are used by wildlife.

Unless trees decay, woodpeckers are unable to excavate nest cavities, which are used as nesting sites by a variety of wildlife species.

While some forestry practices on public and private lands allocate a certain number of snags per acre for wildlife use, the recent Bush administration "Healthy Forests" policies calls for removing snags because of their perceived risk in forest fires.

The authors say that more factors need to be taken into consideration than just density or spatial arrangement of the snags.

“Our study shows that woodpeckers are really the architects and landlords of the forest,” said WCS scientist Kerry Farris, the study’s lead author. “Their activities play a key role in how snags decay and are used by other species.”

Woodpeckers initially puncture dead and dying trees in search of bark beetles and other wood-boring insects, a process that creates holes in wood that serve as infection sites for airborne fungal spores.

As the birds return to these holes to feed, or to excavate them further for nesting, they pick up the fungi in their beaks, then help spread the spores by foraging on other dead trees.

“Our research illustrates the numerous agents contributing to the complexity of snag decomposition and eventual cavity generation by woodpeckers,” Farris said. “Forest management could benefit from a consideration of these processes when managing snags on public and private lands.”

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