Archive | May, 2011

Forest rule receives national interest

Forest rule receives national interest

As the public comment period on the Forest Service proposed planning rule came to an end last week, newspapers around the country provided extensive coverage of the concerns brought forth by the public and weighed in on the proposed rule through editorials.  Some clips and highlights are provided below.

From The Los Angeles Times:

Hundreds of conservationists, scientists and federal lawmakers have called the proposed new rules a big improvement but say it’s crucial that the Forest Service go several steps further in spelling out protections for watersheds and wildlife to ensure that the national forest system remains a bulwark to guarantee healthy wildlife populations and clean water.

“We have always maintained that our federal lands, our public lands, should be the front lines of healthy landscapes. They should be the front line of species conservation,” Jamie Rappaport Clark, former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director, now with the Defenders of Wildlife, told reporters in a briefing organized by the Pew Environment Group. “But the rule is actually far weaker than the almost 30-year-old rule it would replace.”

From The AP:

. . . Jamie Rappaport Clark, a Defenders of Wildlife executive and former U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service director . . . said forest supervisors being given unprecedented discretion under the new rules need strong standards and guidelines to resist the political pressure they regularly face in making decisions on managing their lands.

Opinion piece from The Olympian:

The Forest Service is proposing a new set of management rules. The new proposal has some laudable features. It acknowledges the crucial importance of maintaining federal forests in good ecological condition. And it’s full of sound concepts and helpful guidance for managers.

Where the rubber meets the road, though, it falls naively short.

It fails to deliver the kind of strong direction that saved Washington’s forests the last time around. Instead, it leaves the tough choices to local decision makers. It counts on them to make the right call no matter how much pressure they’re under from commercial interests and politicians, how little time and budget they have to track down and learn the relevant facts and science.

That’s not the kind of uncertainty we need for these forests. We need to take harmful options off the table. We need strong rules that will keep local agency officials out of trouble. We need something we can rely on to restore and maintain thriving fish and wildlife populations, clear-running rivers, and old growth forests.

Editorial from The Santa Fe New Mexican:

Suddenly, science’s role is reduced; the managers of 155 national forests and grasslands still will need to nod in its direction — but may feel free to ignore scientific findings as they consider industrial impact on clean water, fish and wildlife habitat and endangered-species protection. Hint, hint: If a developer sells a bill of goods about his project’s economic impact, well maybe biologists’ and geologists’ concerns about environmental effects aren’t that important after all …

Editorial from The Missoulian:

The proposed rule contains a number of changes, many of them word substitutions whose importance may be difficult to discern without deeper research. What, for instance, are the ramifications of re-naming “indicator species” to “species of concern” when it comes to endangered species management? Or of placing greater emphasis on the impacts of climate change? Or of emphasizing the importance of science in decision-making??

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Are the Feds Getting ‘Smart From the Start’ with Renewable Energy?

In releasing its new report, “21st Century Government:  A Simpler, Smarter Regulatory System,” the Obama administration highlighted its “smart from the start” approach to large-scale renewable energy development on public lands. While the Obama administration has made progress – more than any previous administration – in advancing clean energy development, it is essential that lessons learned from initial efforts to develop renewable energy be used to develop a smarter approach moving forward.

In reality, the administration’s efforts to promote clean energy development have not been as smart as they could and should be. And they have been slow to start. In all fairness, oil the oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year diverted enough energy and expertise among key agencies in the federal government, including the White House, to slow progress on the clean energy front. You can see the irony, of course, since building a clean energy economy is essential to reducing our oil dependency. But that excuse is gone now, and the Obama administration is focused on accelerating responsible renewable energy development.

But the slow progress in clean energy development can’t be blamed solely on the Obama administration. A real roadblock to clean energy development has been the lack of certainty that Congress will commit essential funding for renewable energy projects. For years, Congress has shown consistent support for oil and gas companies. Last year, for example, it gave nearly $4 billion to the oil industry in tax breaks and incentives. In contrast, there’s never been this same long-term commitment to renewable energy. Short-term stimulus funding provided a needed boost for clean energy research and development. But compared to the permanent “incentives” for oil and gas development, the time-limited, support for renewable energy projects is totally inadequate.  Grants and loan guarantees for renewable energy projects will run out again the end of this year. And this is bound to bring about another rush to get projects done, which leads to hurried planning and analysis of impacts on water, wildlife and the environment.  Only the Congress can fix this problem, as the administration has encouraged them to do.

For its part, the U.S. Department of the Interior is working to put in place a process for solar development that would get good projects done faster and more cost effectively.  We’re urging the Interior Department to make the program truly Smart from the Start. That means starting with good planning and project siting. Developing projects in areas where conflicts with wildlife, wild lands, and other important natural and cultural resources are minimal — making the probability of success that much higher — is clearly smart.  Even better, these projects should be close to transmission lines (or places where transmission lines are likely to be) so that the power generated can be delivered without having to build new, expensive transmission corridors. This is smart, too.  And even better would be to recycle landscapes that have already been damaged like old mines or worn-out farm lands – that way a solar power plant can give new life to already degraded lands and minimize impacts on pristine places and wildlife habitats.

Of course, not all impacts can be avoided in all places, so a means to mitigate unavoidable impacts is needed as well. BLM policy is to protect sensitive wildlife and improve habitats for threatened and endangered species. Smart planning, especially if done at a larger, landscape level, instead of on a project-by-project basis, can improve the likelihood that impacts can be avoided, minimized and mitigated where necessary.

Finally, if a means can be found to do much of the environmental review and analysis ahead of time for the places best-suited for clean energy projects, it would help speed up planning, permitting and construction. This isn’t complicated either. It simply requires coordination between government agencies, developers and other stakeholders. That way we can ensure that any unanticipated and  unintended impacts of a project are identified early and minimized and mitigated.

The Obama administration is on the right track in proposing to be Smart from the Start as it encourages clean energy development and promotes a clean energy economy. But to be successful and smart, it needs to keep things simple. Put projects in the right places, mitigate any unavoidable impacts, and streamline the processes required to ensure that clean energy gets permitted and built in an environmentally sound and efficient way. That’s a 21st century strategy based on old-fashioned common sense.

Posted in Renewables0 Comments

Restored Marsh

Why We Need a Broad-scale Approach to Adaptation


Restored Marsh

Restored Marsh: Area inside stakes used to be open water. Photo: Noah Matson

Two years ago I had the opportunity to visit Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on the Eastern Shore of Maryland with a few other Defenders colleagues.  The refuge, at over 27,000 acres, is one of the largest protected areas in the state, and is famous among birders and local residents for its large concentrations of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds, bald eagles, and is also home to the endangered Delmarva fox squirrel.  Since the 1930’s, however, Blackwater has lost over 8,000 acres of marsh from a combination of sea level rise, subsidence, and the impact of invasive nutria that eat marsh grass and contribute to erosion.

We met with refuge staff who took us out on the refuge in airboats to see first-hand the marsh, the marsh loss, and the marsh restoration the refuge had implemented.  The refuge had experimented with using a dredger to spray mud onto former marsh to raise the marsh bed, followed by planting marsh grasses to stabilize the soil.   Through these projects the refuge has restored 20 acres of marsh, and that marsh has remains today, over a decade after the restoration was completed.  A success story.

But the refuge continues to lose 300 acres/year.

So with that restoration success story in mind, the refuge staff have an audacious proposal: barge or pipe mud and soil from the dredging of the Baltimore harbor approach channel in the Chesapeake Bay to the refuge to repeat the marsh restoration on thousands of acres, a cost of over a billion dollars.

Two hundred miles south from Blackwater lies the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, also a low-lying coastal refuge facing the impacts of sea level rise.  Alligator River is mostly made up of “pocosin”, a type of forested wetland found in the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina.  The refuge, along with surrounding refuges, is home to the only wild population of endangered red wolves in the world.  There, refuge staff, the Nature Conservancy and other partners are implementing adaptation measures to slow coastal erosion and salt water intrusion to protect the refuge’s forests and marshes.  Most projections of sea level rise put a large portion of the refuge under water in the next 50 years.

If I was the refuge manager for Blackwater, Alligator River, or any of the over 160 coastal national wildlife refuges in the country, I would probably be thinking about similar adaptation strategies to stem the impacts of sea level rise on the place I was sworn to protect.  But the impacts of climate change force a different focus, and a different scale of thinking.  As stewards of protected areas and wildlife populations, we have to ask – why does it matter if Blackwater or Alligator River goes under water?  What are our conservation goals and how are they affected by the impacts of climate change and where, given those impacts, should we target scare conservation dollars?

For Blackwater, which was established primarily for migratory birds, the real question is how will sea level rise impact migratory bird habitat throughout the Chesapeake Bay, not only at Blackwater.  It may be cheaper to restore or create new habitat elsewhere in the Bay, for instance closer to the available dredge material from the Baltimore Harbor approach channel.  These are questions an individual refuge manager cannot answer alone.

For Alligator River, while important for migratory birds, its critical importance to biodiversity conservation is providing habitat for endangered red wolves.  The loss of over half the refuge in the coming decades will have a significant impact on the red wolf population.  So the question for managers is will we have a viable population of red wolves with this loss of habitat?  Regardless of the answer to that question, the recovery plan for the red wolf calls for the establishment of three populations, and with the impending impacts of sea level rise on the only existing population, there should be renewed emphasis on establishing the two additional populations.  Again, these are decisions an individual refuge manager cannot make alone.

Wildlife and natural resources climate change adaptation forces us to take a broad-scale view.  Before zeroing in on the impacts of climate change on a particular place, we need new mechanisms and institutions to help policy makers, managers, and scientists work together to understand how wildlife and habitats will respond to the impacts of climate change regionally and across jurisdictional boundaries.

The Obama administration has launched a number of initiatives that hold some promise for achieving this goal.  The Interior Department is establishing Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, or LCCs, to bring partners together to better understand landscape-scale resources and challenges like climate change.  LCCs have been hampered, however, by competing agency missions and confusion over the LCCs’ unique role compared to other programs.  The administration is also crafting a National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.  The National Strategy is an opportunity to call for broad-scale assessments and planning for adaptation to assist local managers in making strategic adaptation decisions.

Protecting Blackwater, Alligator River, and all of our refuges from the impacts of climate change is important.  But we should do so in the context of addressing the much bigger task before us, figuring out how to make entire systems of wildlife and habitat resilient to climate change.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife, National Wildlife Refuges0 Comments

Phenology and Climate Change

You have probably seen it, maybe in one newspaper or another.  Or maybe you heard it on the radio, or noticed it yourself.  It’s happening everywhere: timing of natural events is changing.  Many studies have documented the phenomenon: Miller-Rushing and Primack (2008) [used historical data on 43 plant species in Massachusetts to show that they are currently flowering an average of 7 days earlier compared to the second half of the 1800’s.  Parmesan (2006) wrote a comprehensive account of such changes in various organisms, and also changes in species ranges and in important ecological interactions of species, all of which are linked to climate change.

The periodic cycles through which plants and animals go is called phenology.  Over thousands of years, organisms have had their phenology defined and established through natural processes and environmental cues such as temperature changes.  Many of the organisms dependent on temperature changes to guide their phenology also developed some close relationships with other organisms essential for their survival, such as food plants or prey.  If the timing is off, due to factors such as climate change, those relationships will be affected, and the organisms may experience stress.  The Edith butterfly is a well-known example where climate change was a factor contributing to a density decrease and eventual local extinction of populations (although it was not the only factor at play).  According to Parmesan:

“The relationship between climate and survival of E. editha is typically mediated not by direct effects of temperature or precipitation on the insect, but by their indirect effects on timing of the butterfly’s life cycle relative to that of their host and nectar plants. […] The gradual warming and drying trend in southern California has likely led to a steady shortening of the window of time in which the host is edible, causing increased larval mortality in these southernmost populations.”

Of course, there has always been variation in timing for many natural events that are brought about by cues other than sunlight or photoperiod.  Temperature and humidity vary on a yearly basis, as exemplified by a warm winter or an unusually cold one.  However, there has been a conspicuous and proven pattern towards warmer temperatures in our recent past, and in spite of year-to-year variability, it has become clear that it is getting warmer earlier than it used to.  Maybe you and I don’t notice it, but those ultra-sensitive organisms, which perfected their phenological timing over thousands of years, certainly do.  And if they happen to be dependent on another organism whose phenology has not responded to increased temperatures in the same way, well, you get the picture. 

Unlike phenotypic changes, whereby organisms change their physical and/or structural appearance in response to climate change – and which can help a species adapt to climate change in the long run, because they are genetically based – phenological changes are just an immediate response with no adaptation value to be carried from generation to generation.  They can lead a species to endangerment, and eventually even to local extinction, if essential interactions are not kept correspondingly.  Therefore, we see that climate change not only can affect species directly, but also indirectly, in many and complex ways. 

It’s happening everywhere, and it is due to climate change.  There are many ways to detect important phenological changes, and there are various efforts underway that involve local communities.  See how you can help at the USA National Phenology Network website.

Posted in Climate Change, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Defenders submits formal comments on Obama’s forest rule

Today our staff has submitted a full set of comments to the Forest Service on the National Forest Management Act planning rule, which we have been blogging about for several months now.  Our comments provide workable fixes to the proposed rule’s primary problem areas, mainly in the areas of assessment, species diversity management, and monitoring, which are the key components of adaptive, science-based land management planning and decision-making.  We provide the agency with meaningful recommendations to better align the rule’s aspirations with its words.  Generally, we offer suggestions on how to better facilitate adaptive management and effective decision-making.  In many cases this requires clarification and better prescription of process.  We do not feel that enhanced clarity in any way detracts from the ability of the rule to facilitate efficient planning, in fact we strongly believe that clarity and prescription of process ensures that the rule will be applied as it is intended.

We offer clear suggestions for improving the critically important diversity provisions.  The agency has proposed a management strategy that is strong in concept, yet poor in design.  Our recommendations to improve the design include:

1)  Clarifying that the purpose of the coarse-filter species diversity protection is to provide for the long-term persistence of individual species

2)  Providing “focal species” with a more robust role in validating the resiliency and health of ecosystems

3)  Prescribing a process to identify and develop targeted plan components for species of conservation concern

4)  Clarifying the definition of a “viable population” of a species of wildlife

5)  Providing a means to determine when conditions outside the authority of the agency make it impossible to meet the rule’s species diversity requirements

Similar recommendations are made for other key areas of the rule – including climate change, watersheds, and public process – with the intent of giving this rule the structure that it will need to long remain the cornerstone of forest planning and management.

Read the full letter on our website.  You can also read a statement regarding the proposed rule and the close of the public comment period from Defenders’ Vice President, Jamie Rappaport Clark, and media stories from around the country.

Posted in National Forests, Public Lands0 Comments

Sand dune lizard

Pearce to defund lizard and prairie chicken listing

Last month, Representative Pearce of New Mexico sent a letter to the House Appropriations Committee asking it to deny funding to list the sand dune lizard (Sceloporus arenicolus) and the lesser prairie chicken (Tympanuchus pallidicinctus) under the Endangered Species Act.  Both species are candidates for listing and have been assigned a listing priority number of 2 out of 12, meaning that the need for listing is extremely high.  Pearce believes that the Fish & Wildlife Service needs to more thoroughly explore voluntary conservation options, such as candidate conservation agreements, before resorting to listing.  To that end, his request does not restrict funding to implement candidate agreements.  You can read more about Pearce’s letter in Defenders’ press release here.

The proposed funding restriction has several problems, including that it has no official end date.  So with the threat of listing far into the future (and perhaps never to materialize), will oil and gas developers truly be motivated to enter into candidate agreements?  After all, although some landowners enter into agreements primary to conserve candidate species, others primarily seek to reduce the regulatory burdens from an eventual listing.  Unless Pearce specifies a timeframe for lifting the funding restriction, we are unlikely to see enough new candidate agreements to reverse the decline of either the sand dune lizard or the prairie chicken. In fact, since 2004, when the lizard was placed on the candidate list, only six private landowners and four oil companies have enrolled in candidate agreements within the lizard’s range.  The Service believes that “there are hundreds of oil and gas operators in the range of the dunes sagebrush lizard, and participation throughout the majority of the dunes sagebrush lizard habitat would be necessary for the conservation of the species.”

Sand dune lizard

Posted in Imperiled Wildlife, Public Lands, Southwest0 Comments

Ecosystem Services Payments: Opportunities and Challenges

A new report written by Defenders of Wildlife in conjunction with the U.S. Forest Service Pacific Northwest Research Station discusses the opportunities and challenges related to ecosystem service payments.  One of the most challenging issues in environmental policy today is how to create incentives for private landowners to participate in conservation efforts that protect biodiversity and prevent forest and farm lands from being lost to development. No single regulation, government incentive, tax program, or other tool operates at the scale that is necessary to accomplish this goal. To improve how we approach biodiversity conservation, market-based payments for ecosystem services could be used in conjunction with other policies to create better incentives.

Ecosystem services are the benefits human communities enjoy as a result of natural processes and biological diversity. Some of these services are already recognized and sold into established markets. Timber, food, fuel and fiber are all examples of services with recognized economic value. Yet there are other services produced from healthy, functioning landscapes that are not well recognized in current payment structures, providing little or no incentive for landowners to maintain them. These services include sequestering or storing carbon in trees and soil, providing fish and wildlife habitat, filtering water, and reducing damages from natural disasters. In addition, most programs pay landowners to protect or restore a specific service rather than the suite of services produced from well-functioning ecosystems. Various incentive programs need to be better integrated or new programs need to be developed that recognize the value of ecosystem protection.

Bundling and stacking payments for ecosystem services offers a promising option to improve landowner compensation while also delivering better ecological outcomes. Rather than being compelled to focus on one particular attribute or a discrete portion of regulated services as current programs and markets do, landowners should be able to benefit from the multiple services, both regulated and voluntary, their land is producing on a broader, landscape scale. To be both ecologically and economically effective, payments, at a minimum, need to address multiple values, function at the landscape scale, and minimize transactions costs.

Posted in Pacific Northwest, Paying for Conservation0 Comments

dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.