- AmeriScan: September 10, 2003 AmeriScan: September 10, 2003

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Interior Secretary Pushes Forest Thinning Plan

WASHINGTON, DC, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton announced three pilot projects on Tuesday to reduce the threat of wildfires on public lands. Norton says the three projects, which are part of the Bush administration's "Healthy Forests Initiative," will remove hazardous fuels from public lands in Utah, Idaho and Nevada.

"We are making substantial progress towards implementing these much needed projects," Norton said. "This is an extraordinary effort by land management agencies to end unnecessary delays associated with routine land management analyses and to create better tools to reduce hazardous fuels in an environmentally sensitive way."

Critics believe the vagueness of the administration's Healthy Forests plan and the broad authority it seeks to give federal agencies will encourage logging of valuable timber, not the underbrush most in need of clearing, and contend the bill's revamping of judicial and environmental reviews cut out the public, are unnecessary and possibly illegal.

But Norton, speaking at the Citizens for a Sound Economy's annual meeting in Washington, DC, said the pilot projects ensure "compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act and collaboration with interested citizens during the project environmental analysis process."

The three projects set for implementation are the Pahvant Interagency Fuels Reduction Project in central Utah, the Interagency Portneuf Fuels Management Project in southeast Idaho, and the Mesquite Hazardous Fuel Reduction project in southeast Nevada.

These projects are the latest of the Interior Department's 10 environmental assessment pilot projects implementing guidance issued by the Council on Environmental Quality as part of the Healthy Forests Initiative. The guidance provides a framework for administratively improving the environmental assessment process to allow for more efficient management of fuels reduction efforts to improve forest, woodland and rangeland health.

The Utah project will reduce hazardous fuels on approximately 14,300 acres along the west side of the Pahvant Mountain Range, in the vicinity of Scipio, Holden, Fillmore and Meadow, Utah. Treatments will begin in the fall of 2003 and are anticipated to be completed by 2008.

The Idaho project will remove fuels from 2,740 acres of federal, state, county, and private land located within a broader 27,000 acre zone to create shaded fuel breaks that will protect the community.

The Nevada project will treat invasive tamarisk along a 10-mile stretch of Virgin River corridor within the wildland urban interface. These treatments will begin in the fall of 2003 and will be completed by 2013.

Critics of the Healthy Forests Initiative have blasted the plan for not targeting lands close to communities - legislation centered on the policy allow for timber removal far from communities considered at risk from fire.

The House passed a bill to fully enact the administration's wildfire policy in May, but the bill has yet to be considered by the full Senate.

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Data Shows GM Corn Planting Rules Widely Violated

WASHINGTON, DC, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - New government data show that farmers' violation of rules governing the planting of genetically modified (GM) pest resistant corn is more widespread than previously thought, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).

At issue is whether farmers are planting required amounts of non genetically modified corn alongside plantings of GM corn. Of particular concern to CSPI, is GM corn modified to contain a gene from a common soil microbe known as Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) to allow it to naturally protect itself against insect pests.

Those "refuges" are planted so that any insects that do develop resistance to Bt corn are likely to mate with those insects that have not - resulting in offspring that will continue to be susceptible.

New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that some 20 percent of farms in ten major agricultural states are not complying with the requirement.

Some 4.2 million acres of Bt corn were planted without the required refuges of 20 percent non-Bt corn, according to the latest data.

Previous government data only indicated the number of noncompliant farms, not the overall acreage. Some 80 percent of the noncompliant acres were planted by large farms.

"It is distressing to see that a relatively easy requirement is being ignored by so many farmers," said CSPI biotechnology project director Gregory Jaffe. "Clearly farmers, the seed industry, and the government are not doing an adequate job of safeguarding the environmental benefits of agricultural biotechnology."

"When huge corn farms do not plant enough of a refuge, it becomes more likely that insects will breed resistance to Bt corn," Jaffe said.

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Administration Rejects Proposal to Expand Michigan National Park

WASHINGTON, DC, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - Michigan lawmakers are keen for the federal government to acquire some 100 acres of land adjacent to the Michigan's Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, but at a Senate hearing Tuesday the Bush administration weighed in with its opposition to the proposal.

Michigan Senator Carl Levin, a Democrat, urged the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to support his legislation to expand the boundaries of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore to include property along the Crystal River. The legislation would authorize the National Park Service to purchase this property from the owners of the Homestead Resort, preserving the land from development.

The land, which would cost some $7 million to $9 million, would "be a huge plus for this boundary of the park," testified Michigan Democratic Senator Carl Levin, who is the sponsor of the bill.

Levin explained that controversy over this parcel of land has raged for more than two decades, but that the developer has reached a temporary agreement to sell it to the Park Service.

"I am encouraged that groups which have been in opposition for two decades are working towards a common goal," Levin said. [This bill] is not only essential to preserving this land for generations to come, but also for ending two decades of contention."

But the Bush administration is not convinced.

It supports efforts to protect the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, an Interior Department official told the Senate panel, but budget constraints bar it from supporting Levin's bill.

"In order to meet the President's Initiative to eliminate the deferred maintenance backlog, we must continue to focus our resources on caring for existing areas in the National Park System.," said Richard Ring, Interior Department associate director for administration, business practices and workforce development." "Therefore, we recommend that the committee defer action on [the bill] during the 108th Congress."

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore encompasses a 35 mile stretch of Lake Michigan's eastern coastline, as well as North and South Manitou Islands.

The park was established in 1970 primarily for its outstanding natural features, including forests, beaches, dune formations, and ancient glacial phenomena. The Lakeshore also contains many cultural features including a lighthouse constructed in 1871 and an extensive rural historic farm district

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Mute Swans Get Temporary Reprieve

WASHINGTON, DC, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - A federal judge has granted a request by The Fund for Animals to preliminarily enjoin the State of Maryland from killing mute swans throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

U.S. District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan granted the injunction Tuesday.

Earlier this month, The Fund for Animals, along with four citizen plaintiffs, filed suit against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton charging that federal officials' decision to authorize the destruction of Maryland's mute swans violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

Federal officials have given approval for eastern states to kill up to 31,000 birds in the Atlantic Flyway over the next ten years, including 525 in the state of Maryland this year.

"Today the court gave a voice to the mute swans and we are pleased with the decision," said Heidi Prescott, national director of The Fund for Animals. "We hope that this will send a clear message to [Maryland] Governor Ehrlich to address the real problems affecting the Chesapeake Bay, such as run off from the chickens raised in intensive confinement on the Eastern Shore."

State and federal officials say the management plan is needed because mute swans are a nonnative species without natural predators.

A species native to Europe and Asia, mute swans were introduced to estates and parks in the eastern United States beginning in the 19th century. Maryland's population of mute swans originated when five birds escaped from captivity in 1962.

There are simply too many of the birds, officials say. In Maryland, state officials are primarily concerned of the birds' consumption of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), which is an important part of the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, providing food and shelter for marine species and improving water quality.

Maryland state officials say the state's current population of 3,600 birds is eating 10.5 million pounds of SAV a year and they believe that the current population is on the verge of an exponential increase in numbers and could reach 20,000 birds by 2010.

In granting the injunction, Sullivan noted that state experts have characterized "the 'bay wide' impact of mutes swans as 'negligible,'" and conceded that the relatively small population of mute swans in Maryland "consumes only 10 percent of the total annual Chesapeake Bay SAV biomass."

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EPA Creates Water Security Division

WASHINGTON, DC, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has formed a new Water Security Division to further protect and safeguard the nation's drinking water and wastewater systems from terrorist acts.

The agency says this new division will continue the work undertaken by the Water Protection Task Force, which was established in October 2001.

"Shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Bush administration strengthened efforts already underway to promote security at America's public water facilities," said G. Tracy Mehan III, the EPA's assistant administrator for water. "We are working closely with our stakeholders coast to coast to provide them with the resources and support they need as they find themselves facing increased responsibilities to protect the water supplies of their customers."

Mehan says that to date the original task force has supported numerous activities to improve security of drinking water and wastewater utilities. The accomplishments of the task force will be enhanced by the Water Security Division, according to the EPA.

The task force has awarded some $51 million in grants directly to large drinking water systems to assist compliance with the requirements of the "Public Health Security and Bioterrorism Preparedness and Response Act of 2002."

That law requires all U.S. water utilities serving more than 3,300 people to conduct vulnerability assessments of local water treatment operations and develop security plans.

Suppliers with at least 100,000 customers had to file these assessments by March 31, 2003. Some critics have said the administration has provided little support for smaller systems, which are less able to absorb the financial burden of such assessments.

The majority of America's water supply is provided by utilities serving less than 100,000 persons.

Mehan says the task force has awarded more than $30 million in grants to the States, tribes, and non-profit organizations to provide tools, training and technical assistance to small and medium drinking water systems as well as wastewater utilities on vulnerability assessments and related security work.

The American Water Works Association says that some $460 million is needed to fund public water system security costs in fiscal year 2004

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Salmon Advocates Move To Restore Skagit Estuary

SEATTLE, Washington, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - Conservationists intend to sue over the killing of Puget Sound salmon in the Skagit River estuary. The National Wildlife Federation and others say the Skagit County Diking District's management of dikes and tidegates are killing the fish in violation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA).

"The facts are compelling," said Paula Del Giudice, center director for the National Wildlife Federation's Seattle office. "The District's dikes and tidegates are choking off the normal tidal estuary that chinook salmon must have to recover in the Skagit River and Puget Sound."

"The salmon are dying because the District is keeping them out of the estuary habitat they need," said Del Giudice said.

The action comes after years of efforts to reach out of court agreements on salmon recovery in the Skagit estuary, Del Giudice says, and the Washington legislature's recent rollback to state law protections for salmon.

The notice, which is required by law, states that a lawsuit will be filed in 60 days unless a settlement can be reached.

The notice describes last year's replacement of a failing tidegate on Fir Island's Dry Slough - a tidegate is a one way culvert that allows agricultural runoff to drain to salt water, but blocks tides from their natural cycles.

Dry Slough was once a critical part of the Skagit delta estuary, but now, like most of the former estuary, is blocked off by an extensive system of dikes and tidegates.

When the Diking District replaced the Dry Slough tidegate last year, it failed to ensure that salmon and water quality would be protected, a violation of the ESA and federal Clean Water Act, according to the notice filed Tuesday.

"The state looked the Skagit estuary problem square in the eye, turned tail, and ran away," said Jack de Yonge, a Skagit County conservationist, sports angler and a natural resources adviser to former Governor Mike Lowry. "The state's failure of leadership on Skagit salmon recovery has brought us to the point where legal action is necessary to bring chinook populations back from the brink of extinction."

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Arizona Keen to Eliminate MTBE From Summertime Gasoline

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week informed Arizona state officials that it has proposed approval of Arizona's revised air quality plan for the Phoenix metropolitan area that eliminates the need for methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) in summertime cleaner burning gasoline.

MTBE raises the oxygen content of gasoline - this makes the fuel burn more thoroughly and reduces emissions. For the past seven years the Phoenix area has been required in the summer months to add MTBE in order to meet a minimum oxygen content requirement in gasoline.

There is little question that it has helped clean up the region's air, but MTBE is a potential carcinogen and has in some cases contaminated drinking water sources.

Arizona officials say the elimination of the oxygen content requirement will expand the range of options for refiners to make cleaner burning gasoline that meets Arizona's performance standards for air quality.

"This approval is good news for Valley residents because it eliminates the health and environmental risks associated with MTBE while giving gasoline producers the flexibility they need to provide economical gasoline that meets our clean air standards," said Steve Owens, director of the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

The use of Arizona Cleaner Burning Gasoline has been responsible for dramatic improvements in the Valley's air quality since 1997.

Its use in the metropolitan Phoenix non-attainment area reduces hydrocarbon emissions by 29 tons per day, nitrogen oxides by seven tons per day and carbon monoxide - during winter months - by 43 tons per day.

But concerns about MTBE contamination of groundwater have prompted California to eliminate it from gasoline and Arizona officials contend that California refiners, which produces some 75 percent of gasoline sold in the Phoenix area, would be loathe to continue blending that fuel with MTBE.

Removal of the oxygen requirement "is critically needed to prevent Arizona from continuing to rely on MTBE, which is being phased out by refineries nationwide," Owens said. "We are hopeful that full approval will be achieved in time to allow the phasing out of MTBE next summer."

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Winemaker Ready to Protect Red Legged Frog

SANTA MARGARITA, California, September 10, 2003 (ENS) - The California red legged frog today received help from an unlikely source - the Robert Mondavi Winery.

Under a habitation protection agreement, the world famous vintner has pledged to restore streamside habitat at its Cuesta Ridge vineyards near San Luis Obispo, providing a safe haven to these rare amphibians. The species is the nation's largest native western frog and was once so common as to be a major food source in the Bay Area and California's Central Valley.

Some 80,000 red legged frogs were consumed annually in the late 1800s and many believe the species inspired Mark Twain's story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County."

Habitat loss and the threat from imported bull frogs have decimated the species from at least 70 percent of its historic range. It was listed as threatened on the Endangered Species Act in 1996.

The concept of the Safe Harbor program was developed by Environmental Defense and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to help private landowners protect critical habitat and endangered species, and currently covers nearly three million acres of private land.

This is first such agreement with "with any landowner in the California wine industry," said Michael Bean, chair of Environmental Defense's wildlife program.

"Our hope is that this agreement will spur other landowners to do similar things," Bean said. "The Robert Mondavi winery is a very prominent, well known leading figure in the California wine industry, and its willingness to participate will be seen by others, I believe, that this is the right thing for landowners to do."

Bean added that two endangered songbirds - the least Bell's vireo and the Southwestern willow flycatcher - also stand to benefit from this agreement.