AmeriScan: June 18, 2004

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Lightning Fires Test Firefighters in Utah, New Mexico

BOISE, Idaho, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - The community of Brookside, Utah was evacuated Thursday in advance of the Dammeron Complex Fire. Burning in grass, brush, pinyon pine and juniper, fire officials say the flames were leaping 300 yards ahead of the front line and small fires were combining into a larger one. This lightning fire covers several hundred acres, but fire managers could give no precise number.

The largest, longest lasting and most expensive fire so far this year is the Peppin Fire in New Mexico's Lincoln National Forest. Six miles northeast of Capitan, the blaze has now blackened 64,488 acres of forested land and destroyed 12 houses. Steep terrain, poor accessibility, heavy fuel loading, prolonged drought and high winds are major concerns, firefighters say. Large islands of fuel inside the fire's perimeter continue to burn.

The Peppin Fire has so far cost $6.9 million to fight, but fire crews say they now have it 95 percent contained. “The winds generated by the thunderstorm passage yesterday gave our lines a good test,” said Operations Section Chief Jay Northcott on Thursday. “Our lines passed the test.”

Started by lightning on May 10, the Peppin Fire now has a perimeter about 80 miles long and encompasses 100 square miles of land. Suppression efforts have lasted almost a month, yet there have been no serious firefighter injuries.

“The conditions on these mountains are extreme relative to firefighter safety,” says Safety Officer Stu Herkenhoff. “There are a number of hazards out there, from rocks to rattlesnakes. It is a testament to the fire management teams and firefighters to maintain such an impressive safety record.”

For public safety reasons, all forest service lands on West Mountain and Capitan Mountain will be closed to the general public. These areas are bounded by Highway 246 on the west and north sides of the mountains, and Highway 380 on the south side of the mountains.

While the Peppin Fire is expected to be completely contained by Sunday, fire crews and rehabilitation crews will be in the area for some time. With a risk of flooding in some of these areas, the closure will remain in effect throughout the monsoon season. This closure by the Lincoln National Forest does not apply to private property holders and residents of the areas.

Very high to extreme fire indices are reported today in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.

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Oversight of Transgenic Plants, Animals Sought in New Bill

WASHINGTON, DC, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - A bill introduced in the Senate Wednesday would require a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) review of all genetically engineered foods and an environmental review to be conducted as part of the safety approval process for genetically engineered animals.

The Genetically Engineered Foods Act, introduced by Senator Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, would create a transparent process to inform and involve the public as decisions are made about the safety of all genetically engineered foods and animals.

Presently, genetically engineered foods are screened by the FDA under a voluntary consultation program. Durbin's legislation would make this review program mandatory and strengthen government oversight.

"Genetically engineered foods have become a major part of the American food supply in recent years, and many of the foods we consume now contain genetically engineered ingredients," said Durbin. "These foods have been enhanced with important qualities that help farmers grow crops more efficiently. However, they have also raised significant concerns as to the safety of these foods and the adequacy of government oversight."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) "strongly backs" the Durbin bill, saying that today companies can market transgenic foods without even informing the Food and Drug Administration.

"Although the United States is the world leader in producing genetically engineered foods, it is the only developed country where those foods can be marketed to consumers without government approval," said Gregory Jaffe, director of CSPI’s biotechnology project.

"The Durbin Bill gives the federal government the authority to ensure that genetically engineered crops and animals are safe before they are eaten without burdening the biotechnology industry with an unnecessarily costly and lengthy regulatory process."

In May, CSPI released the report, "Sowing Secrecy The Biotech Industry, the USDA, and America's Secret Pharm Belt," which addresses the controversial practice of using genetically engineering to produce drugs or industrial chemicals in food crops. The Durbin Bill would prevent commercialization of such crops until FDA has conducted a thorough assessment of their potential food-safety risks.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now takes the position that genetically engineered crops are substantially the same as conventional crops, so no special government testing or oversight is necessary.

Durbin's bill would make scientific studies and other materials submitted to the FDA as part of the mandatory review of genetically engineered foods available for public review and comment. Members of the public could request a new review of a particular genetically engineered food product even if that food is already on the market.

The FDA has a mandatory review process in place that is used to review the safety of genetically engineered animals before they can enter the food supply. This bill would provide the FDA with additional powers to regulate the potential environmental impact of genetically engineered animals.

Durbin cited a survey conducted by the Pew Initiative on Food and Biotechnology, which found that 89 percent of Americans support a mandatory pre-market approval process conducted by the FDA to ensure the safety of genetically engineered foods.

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Easing of Pesticide Rules Draws Congressional Protest

WASHINGTON, DC, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - A letter signed by 66 members of the House of Representatives urges the Bush administration to withdraw proposed regulations that the lawmakers warn would undermine the Endangered Species Act and negatively impact endangered wildlife, farmworker safety, and human health.

Spearheaded by Congressman Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat, the letter asks Interior Secretary Gale Norton and Michael Leavitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to halt a proposal limiting public and scientific participation in the approval of pesticide use.

The proposed rule change would allow the EPA to approve pesticide use without consulting the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about potential harms to imperiled species, and give the chemical industry special participation rights not shared by the public or the workers who are exposed to these chemicals. Such consultations are required under the Endangered Species Act for the benefit of plants and animals, but Grijalva says they also benefit workers.

“The proposal is particularly troubling to me because it seeks to remove one of the most effective mechanisms for imposing constraints on the use of harmful pesticides,” said Grijalva. “The easing of these restrictions on pesticides would be particularly harmful to the public health of farm workers and their families.”

The EPA estimates that pesticides poison 10,000 to 20,000 agricultural workers each year. Buffer zones around spray areas designed to protect nearby species provide critically needed protections to farm workers and their children who live near and play in treated farms and orchards.

“It is our responsibility as members of Congress to speak out against the Bush administration’s agenda to dismantle the laws and regulations that protect our environment and our public health,”said Grijalva. “These proposed regulations are a step backward for both wildlife and farm worker protections."

California conservation groups support the Congressional letter, released Monday. California groups are concerned that the proposed regulations would threaten Endangered Species Act protections being sought throughout the state for the California red-legged frog in a matter currently pending in Federal District Court in San Francisco.

"The Bush administration prefers to pad the chemical industry's pocketbook at the expense of the California red-legged frog, worker safety, and human health," said Brent Plater, staff attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, who brought the case to protect the California red-legged frog from illegal pesticide use.

Plater says consultations among agency experts are "essential" before approving pesticide use "because scientists from around the country have recently discovered that the impacts of pesticides on imperiled species are compounded by the presence of predators and other environmental stressors, factors that can only be adequately assessed in conjunction with biologists from federal wildlife agencies."

In similar proceedings, the Federal District Court in Seattle ruled in 2002 and 2004 to protect endangered salmon from illegal pesticide use, responding to evidence that pesticides pollute salmon streams and that the Bush administration had failed to protect the species.

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Tanker Engineer Pleads Guilty to Oily Discharge in Maine

PORTLAND, Maine, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - The chief engineer for a tanker ship has pleaded guilty to his role in concealing overboard discharges of bilge waste contaminated with oil through false log books and statements designed to deceive the U.S. Coast Guard.

Chief Engineer Jarnail Singh worked aboard the M/T Aral Sea, which is owned by Harike Shipping, Inc., and operated by Tanker Pacific Management Pte Ltd.

The government’s investigation began on May 21, 2004, when members of the U.S. Coast Guard Marine Safety Office discovered waste oil in the overboard piping of the tanker during a routine inspection in Portland, Maine.

The chief engineer of the ship was asked about the operation of the ship’s Oil Water Separator, a piece of pollution prevention equipment required by the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL).

MARPOL and U.S. law limit the oil content of discharges from ships to not more than 15 parts per million. The oil water separator is required equipment that is supposed to prevent discharges with greater concentrations of oil.

Singh told the Coast Guard that the separator was working properly and he did not know how oil got into the overboard piping.

But Coast Guard investigators learned that while the vessel was at sea, Singh had directed that the separator be “tricked” by running fresh water through a sensor designed to stop discharges containing oil instead of using a sample of the actual discharge.

To hide the trick, Singh gave investigators a falsified Oil Record Book, a log required by MARPOL and U.S. law in which all discharges are to be accurately recorded.

Singh now faces a maximum penalty of up to five years in prison, a fine up to $250,000, and probation for up to three years.

“The integrity of the vessel inspection process, designed to protect the waters of Maine and the world, must be ensured through the swift prosecution of those who lie to the Coast Guard,” said Paula Silsby, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine.

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New York Buys Globally Rare Pine Barrens for Preservation

ALBANY, New York, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - The state of New York has purchased an additional 60 acres of land in the Core Preservation Area of the Central Pine Barrens Preserve on Long Island. The property, in two separate parcels, is located in the Hamlet of Westhampton in the Town of Southampton, Suffolk County.

"The Long Island Pine Barrens are a critical natural resource that protects the region's drinking water supply and provides important open space and habitat for birds and other wildlife," Governor George Pataki said Wednesday.

The governor has set the goal of preserving one million acres in New York state by 2010. The total amount of open space preserved by the Pataki administration is 780,000 acres, roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island. This total includes approximately 6,700 acres in the Long Island Pine Barrens.

The 60 acres were purchased by the state for $1.77 million using money from the Environmental Protection Fund. The newly preserved lands are covered with rare dwarf pine trees and are adjacent to state and county preserve lands.

The dwarf pine plains are a unique ecosystem covering a small part of the core of the Pine Barrens - about 2,350 acres - found only on Long Island. These plains are prime habitat for the largest and densest population of buck moths in New York state.

The coastal barrens buck moth is a species of special concern in New York and imperiled globally. The properties also contain nesting areas for the prairie warbler and brown thrasher.

As Senate sponsor of the Pine Barrens Protection Act, State Senator Kenneth LaValle expressed satisfaction with the purchase. "I am extremely passionate and committed to the protection and preservation of the environment within the First Senate District. The Pine Barrens Protection Act has been an invaluable resource to the East End in its ongoing efforts to protect our groundwater and preserve open space."

Long Island's Central Pine Barrens consists of more than 100,000 acres within the central and eastern portions of Suffolk County that includes parts of the Towns of Brookhaven, Riverhead and Southampton.

The center of this area contains pitch pine and pine-oak forests, coastal plain ponds, marshes, streams and provides deep flow recharge to the aquifer from which Long Island draws much of its drinking water.

This region contains one of the greatest concentrations of endangered, threatened and special concern plant and animals species in New York state. Acquisition of parcels within the Core Preservation Area of the Central Pine Barrens Preserve is a high priority in the New York State Open Space Conservation Plan, which guides the state's acquisition efforts.

Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy said, "Yesterday we announced that the County and Brookhaven Town secured 330 acres along the Carmans River Corridor. It is essential that we act now to preserve these open spaces before they succumb to the bulldozer."

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California Rancher Agrees to Removal of Flashboard Dams

SANTA ROSA, California, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - California steelhead are becoming so rare that if a tractor runs over a streambed, killing 34 juvenile fish, state and federal authorities take action.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) entered into a settlement agreement with a local rancher earlier this week to help protect steelhead listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The settlement is in lieu of a hearing before an administrative law judge.

The agreement was reached between NOAA Fisheries and James Soper, the operator of Hedgpeth Ranch, after an estimated 34 threatened Northern California juvenile steelhead were killed in House Creek, a tributary of Gualala River, in May of 2002.

An investigating team from NOAA Fisheries Office for Law Enforcement, California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG), and biologists from NOAA Fisheries Office of Protected Resources in Santa Rosa, determined the steelhead mortality occurred when a tractor was used to remove woody debris from behind two flashboard dams on the ranch.

The tractor made numerous passes through House Creek, damaging the streambed and killing young steelhead in the tractor’s path.

Soper has taken full responsibility for the Endangered Species Act violation, and has agreed to allow NOAA Fisheries to remove the two flashboard dams in House Creek, which have been in place for decades. Removal of the dams should improve the habitat for steelhead there, fisheries officials say.

“Mr. Soper’s cooperation in reaching this settlement will go a long way towards preventing the future loss of steelhead in the area, as well as enhancing the habitat of steelhead in House Creek,” said Amanda Wheeland, enforcement attorney for NOAA Fisheries.

The removal of the dams will be completed once public funds have been obtained. The settlement also includes a $150,000 penalty, which will be suspended provided Soper does not commit a future violation of the Endangered Species Act within the next 10 years.

Flashboard dams, known as seasonal dams, have been used by many communities, farmers and others to create an upstream lake for recreational activities such as boating, swimming, irrigation and livestock watering.

Because seasonal dams alter the natural flow of small rivers and streams and create artificial barriers to fish passage, they can harm salmon and steelhead and their habitat.

Each year hundreds and possibly thousands of these structures are erected throughout Northern California’s watersheds. There is an ongoing effort by NOAA Fisheries, CDFG, and the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office to remove all illegal seasonal dams from salmon and steelhead streams in Sonoma County.

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California Sea Otter Numbers Up Again

MONTEREY, California, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - Threatened California sea otters were found in record numbers during the 2004 spring survey, but more males than females are recovering, so the species may not yet be firmly on the path to recovery, wildlife officials and conservationists say.

The spring survey took place from May 6 to 21, from Point San Pedro in the north to Rincon Point in the south. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), California Department of Fish and Game's Marine Wildlife Care and Research Center, Monterey Bay Aquarium, and many experienced volunteers cooperated to count the animals.

Observers tallied a record-high total of 2,825 California sea otters. The 2004 total marked the second consecutive year the threatened population has shown an increase in numbers, up 12.8 percent over the 2003 total of 2,505 otters.

Hunted to the brink of extinction for its fur, the California sea otter was listed as a threatened species by the federal government in 1977.

A revised version of the Southern Sea Otter Recovery Plan released in April 2003 says that this population is at "extreme risk" from habitat degradation from oil spills and environmental contaminants, entanglement in fishing gear, shootings, boat strikes and other human activities.

Specific plans and actions to address most of these risks have not been developed, but still the otters are recovering.

“The latest three year running average of the three most recent spring counts is up 9.8 percent, to 2,490 sea otters,” said survey organizer Brian Hatfield, a USGS biologist in California.

The use of three year running averages in assessing trends is the approach recommended by the Southern Sea Otter Recovery Team to reduce the influence of any counts in a given year that are unusual or uncertain.

For the southern sea otter to no longer be considered threatened under the Endangered Species Act, a three year running average count of at least 3,090 sea otters would need to be sustained for three consecutive years.

The recent increase in sea otters has not occurred across all segments of the population evenly. “Most of the recent increase has been in areas dominated by male sea otters,” said USGS scientist Jim Estes. “Numbers of reproductive females have remained roughly stable for the past decade, or perhaps even longer.”

While encouraged by the high count, the scientists have not yet fully assessed what this means for the recovery of the southern sea otter.

Defenders of Wildlife cautioned that biologists need time to better understand the long-term declines for this population."The 2004 results are good news, and even better on top of 2003, but 2003 also saw record sea otter mortality and slow scientific progress on figuring out why the species is still in such precarious shape," said Jim Curland, marine program associate for Defenders of Wildlife.

"This small increase can’t be seen as a sign that the sea otter is out of danger yet. We’re still struggling to understand how disease, entanglement in fishing gear, and other threats have kept this popular animal on the brink over the last three decades."

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Bering Sea Mammoths Last to Go Extinct

FAIRBANKS, Alaska, June 18, 2004 (ENS) - A small island about 300 miles west of the Alaska mainland was likely the last refuge of woolly mammoths, large cousins of today's elephants, that are now extinct. New research conducted on radiocarbon dated samples shows that mammoths were alive on St. Paul, one of the five islands in the Bering Sea Pribilofs, long after other mammoths were extinct.

In an article in the June 17 edition of the journal "Nature," R. Dale Guthrie, professor emeritus at the Institute of Arctic Biology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, says that when mammoths on the mainland of Alaska and other Bering Sea islands died out during the extinctions at the end of the Pleistocene era - about 11,000 years ago - those on the Pribilofs survived.

"During the last glacial maximum, when the sea level was about 120 meters below its current level, what are now the Pribilofs were simply uplands connected to the mainland by a large, flat plain," Guthrie said. A glacial maximum is the position and time period of greatest advance of a glacier.

Using accelerator mass spectrometer radiocarbon dating, water depth plots, and sea transgression rates from the Bering Sea, Guthrie found that the mammoths became stranded on the Pribilof Islands about 13,000 years ago during the Holocene sea level rise after the last glacial maximum.

The mammoth tooth fossil that Guthrie analyzed is the first record in the Americas of a mammoth population surviving the Pleistocene era.

"Woolly mammoths became extinct on the mainland about 11,500 radiocarbon years ago," Guthrie said.

"Radiocarbon-dated samples from St. Lawrence Island show similar dates of extinction to the mainland," explained Guthrie, "but a sample from St. Paul dates to only 7,908 radiocarbon years old, into the mid-Holocene, which is much later."

At that time St. Lawrence Island was part of the Alaska mainland and presumably subject to the same extinction pressures as the mainland, but St. Paul had been an island for about 1,500 years.

The mammoths were able to survive on St. Paul as long as the island provided enough grazing forage and there were enough animals to prevent inbreeding pressures, Guthrie said.

At its present size of 36 square miles the island is too small to sustain a permanent mammoth population. St. Paul became that size about 5,000 years ago, so mammoths likely became extinct before then.

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