Archive | October, 2011

Using Nature to Restore the Gulf

A prestigious Gulf Coast Ecosystem Restoration Task Force’s new Preliminary Strategy offers a positive message for damaged Gulf Coast ecosystems.  The Task Force, which includes heads of Interior and Environmental Protection Agency, eloquently confronts an ongoing ecosystem catastrophe which threatens the safety of New Orleans and the nation’s oil infrastructure, as well as crucial wildlife habitat.  With funding scarce, the Preliminary Strategy needs to focus on its proposed restoration of Mississippi River flows to efficiently achieve triple benefits:  1) restoring coastal wetlands, 2) shrinking the dead zone out in the Gulf, and 3) restoring island beaches.  Although other remedies are discussed, restoring Mississippi River sediments offers the only economically feasible solution to each of these three problems.

To its considerable credit, the Preliminary Strategy would use “natural river processes of sediment and freshwater distribution” to reverse the destruction of coastal wetlands around the Gulf.   Much of the Mississippi River and its load of sediment would be diverted back to the Delta’s coastal wetlands where it once flowed.   As reported earlier, hundreds of billions of dollars of business assets are increasingly at risk due to an ongoing loss of Delta wetlands, with 2,000 square miles of wetlands lost so far.

The use of natural river processes, described above, also will help shrink the dead zone–our second co-benefit—as well as restore the Delta’s coastal wetlands.  Levees currently direct Mississippi River flows far out into the Gulf where they contribute nutrients and sediment that cause the dead zone.  Diverting river water back into the Delta’s vast coastal wetlands offers by far the most budget smart action proposed by the Task Force.  It simultaneously restores coastal wetlands and shrinks the dead zone.  The Preliminary Strategy supports nutrient management on farms, as well, to address the dead zone, but this can draw on existing, conservation programs for farmers that already are well funded.

The Preliminary Strategy’s focus on river processes for delivering sediment also offers the only economically feasible, long term mechanism for restoring the natural flow of sand to island beaches that are disappearing in the Gulf—our third co-benefit.  Once again, nature can address a hundred years of damage caused by past manipulation of river flows.

Pumping dredge material is offered as an alternative for adding sand to islands, but pumping sand in the current Gulf system is an uphill battle.  A Louisiana proposal for restoring wetlands behind islands would spend a half billion dollars pumping sand onto islands and restore only enough wetlands to address a few weeks of coastal wetland loss.  Pumping sand to locations where recent storms removed sand offers, at best, a temporary remedy and fails to solve root causes of the problem.

The Preliminary Strategy provides a timely vision and focus for solving some extremely important human safety, economic, and wildlife problems.  Yet, one proposed action, pumping sand, is much less able to deliver results.  Money is scarce, so success will require smart use of each restoration dollar.  This means restoring river flows to secure wetland, dead zone, and island benefits all at once.

Posted in Paying for Conservation0 Comments

Fresh Ideas for the 2012 Farm Bill: The REFRESH Act

Fresh Ideas for the 2012 Farm Bill: The REFRESH Act

Senator Lugar’s (R-IN) recently introduced REFRESH Act makes some broad changes to the Farm Bill as we know it and gets it (mostly) right on two counts: conservation compliance and streamlining programs.

The REFRESH (Rural Economic Farm and Ranch Sustainability and Hunger) Act was introduced in the Senate on October 5, 2011. Lugar’s Indiana colleague Marlin Stutzman (R) introduced the bill in the House. The reform-minded bill makes $40 billion in cuts to many of the major farm bill titles over the next 10 years. The cuts don’t come just from eliminating programs but from re-thinking some deeply entrenched agricultural policies and combining programs for greater efficiency.

Of the changes that the REFRESH Act (the Act) makes to current farm bill conservation provisions, two of those changes align with the conservation principles Defenders and 55 other organizations endorsed at the end of September. The first of those changes requires that participants in the bill’s revenue loss protection program (ARRM) comply with conservation measures such as swampbuster and sodbuster. This is a promising change noted in the bill summary but the language in the actual bill appears to be weaker than the summary suggests. The bill language limits ARRM payments for just the first five crop years on acreage that was planted by tilling native sod. While this is an important first step in re-establishing conservation compliance measures, the measure should be much stronger to ensure that producers receiving subsidies meet basic conservation requirements.

The second piece of the Act that matches the conservation principles mentioned above is conservation program consolidation. Lugar’s bill consolidates four easement programs into a program focused on protecting land for multiple conservation purposes. Working lands programs are similarly consolidated. This consolidation will make programs easier to access for landowners and will reduce the administrative burdens on USDA, meaning our conservation dollars will be spent more effectively. Part of the funding for these consolidations come from a reduction in the acres enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Savings from reductions in CRP are targeted towards enrolling land in the new easement program, as well as to providing technical assistance to landowners. These changes promote long-term conservation over short-term CRP contracts.

The conservation program reforms in the Act are not perfect. The changes would result in an 18% reduction in conservation program funding and targeting of priority resource concerns could be strengthened by providing more specifics and less reliance on the states.

Senator Lugar is known for introducing “sweeping reforms” to the farm bill that don’t pass but with budgetary concerns looming, Congress may actually have to take ideas found in the REFRESH Act seriously. And at first glance, at least some of these ideas seem like a good place to start.

Posted in Agriculture0 Comments


Minnows in the Marsh: The Gulf’s Canary in the Coal Mine?

Several weeks ago, researchers published a seminal study on how the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has harmed fish in coastal marshes.  To date, most studies on wildlife affected by the spill focus on acute and direct effects.  But equally important are sub-lethal effects, such as impaired reproduction and embryonic development, which are far more difficult to observe.  Indeed, sub-lethal effects are “critically important for predicting longterm population-level impacts of oil pollution,” according to the researchers.


The study tracked the effects of oil from the Deepwater Horizon spill on Gulf killifish (Fundulus grandis) during the first 4 months of the spill.  At one of the study sites, researchers found that although sampled water and fish tissue did not show abnormally high levels of oil, there were “significant biological effects” on the fish and an increased risk of health problems.  For example, juvenile fish had genetic evidence of exposure to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which can lead to cardiac impairment in adulthood.  The researchers also found that the spill contaminated marshes at a time coinciding with “the spawning season for many marsh animals, including killifish, and reproductive effects are predictive of long-term population-level impacts from oil spills.”

This study has several important implications.  It shows that although seafood from the Gulf of Mexico may be safe for human consumption, affected wildlife may continue to suffer population declines.  As a result, it could be a long time before the public is “made whole” again following an oil spill, as required by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.  Last year, we had questioned whether the government was properly assessing how the spill may have harmed many coastal marsh species.  In particular, we saw no evidence that the protocols created to assess natural resource damages resulting from the spill were comprehensive enough to cover the Saltmarsh topminnow (Fundulus jenkinsi), a species endemic to Gulf marshes and now being considered for listing under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, in part because of the spill.  It’s easy to lose sight of these inconspicuous, non-iconic animals, which is why this recent study is especially important.

Another underappreciated aspect of the Gulf spill is that if it results in species being listed under the Endangered Species Act, the public and other business will bear the cost of listing and recovering the species, as well as complying with the restrictions of the act generally.  This cost should be shifted to the companies responsible for the spill as part of the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process.

Journal reference:
Andrew Whitehead, Benjamin Dubansky, Charlotte Bodinier, Tzintzuni I. Garcia, Scott Miles, Chet Pilley, Vandana Raghunathan, Jennifer L. Roach, Nan Walker, Ronald B. Walter, Charles D. Rice, and Fernando Galvez. Science Applications in the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Special Feature: Genomic and physiological footprint of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on resident marsh fishes. PNAS, September 26, 2011 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1109545108

Gulf Killifish. Credit: USGS

Saltmarsh Topminnow. Credit: Joseph R. Tomelleri

Posted in Fossil Fuels, Imperiled Wildlife0 Comments

Government’s Role in Renewable Energy Goes Well Beyond Financing

Government has often played a big role in providing financial support for many categories of energy production, providing capital and tax breaks to help nascent industries gear up to enter the market place. And it’s quite rational to question whether this role should continue, particularly for energy sectors that have benefitted from those government subsidies and tax breaks and are now well established, such as oil, gas and ethanol.

Ironically, all of the recent focus on federal loan guarantees and the bankruptcy failure of Solyndra has overshadowed the much bigger role that the federal government plays as an energy supplier, providing access to oil, gas, coal — and now renewable sources like solar, wind and geothermal energy — on public lands and in our coastal waters. You can also add to that the role that government plays in providing for the transport of energy from points of production to the places where that energy will be used as reflected in the Obama administration’s announcement last week of 7 pilot energy transmission projects. In terms of lands and resources affected – including financial, cultural, and natural resources – energy generation and transmission on federal lands is a much bigger deal.

Currently, the Obama administration is aggressively promoting the development of onshore solar, wind and geothermal resources and is planning for the development of wind resources off the Atlantic coast. Thus far, 34,000 acres of public lands have been permitted for solar development and thousands more acres are proposed for wind and geothermal development. Last week’s announcement of proposed transmission lines would affect approximately 2,500 miles of mainly public lands creating the equivalent of a 4 lane highway nearly long enough to stretch coast to coast, but instead crossing large sections of America’s wild landscapes. That’s not to say that renewable energy generation and transmission aren’t needed. The better question is simply this : “Are these projects being built in the right places and under the right conditions?”

Controversy over the impacts of energy development on public lands and resources is long-standing. This controversy is often made worse by an antiquated system for acquiring development rights on public lands, a failure to give adequate consideration to wildlife and important natural resources in project planning, and by past and present administrations’ haste in trying to fast-track poorly sited projects that have been in the pipeline for some time.

Despite long established environmental laws and processes designed to insure careful evaluation of the environmental impacts of proposed energy development on federal lands prior to project approval, a number of the fast-tracked projects have done a poor job in this regard. Poorly sited energy development can generate significant adverse impacts upon sensitive or imperiled wildlife and sever important migratory routes and corridors. Improperly sited generation and transmission projects can also adversely affect threatened and endangered species and hasten the demise of species not now listed but under consideration.

If the federal government is to continue supporting energy development and transmission by making publicly-owned and managed lands and waters available – and it’s hard to imagine how that is likely to change – then it must put real safeguards in place to avoid, minimize and mitigate significant effects to natural and cultural resources. Renewable energy – the fastest growing energy sector, according to the U.S. Energy Information Agency — is no exception. Current efforts to site and develop renewable energy sources, including transmission facilities, highlight the need to significantly improve the process for project siting. Lands leased for energy development over the past several years have often been controversial because an inadequate effort was made up-front to locate such projects to low conflict areas. And while many solar and wind projects continue to move ahead, the costs and consequences for wildlife and the environment of these projects could have been substantially reduced or avoided through better “up-stream” planning.

The same is true for transmission. The public’s perception of the administration’s announcement to improve coordination and expedite permitting for transmission lines will be greatly influenced by the company that it keeps – in this case the 7 “pilot projects” that were announced simultaneously with the new process for expediting transmission line permitting. At least one line, the Susquehanna to Roseland line, has been dubbed by opponents as the “superhighway for coal” and would move largely coal-generated power from the coal fields of Pennsylvania through the Delaware River corridor and New Jersey Highlands to users on the coastline.

Other pilot project lines are located in areas where conflicts with wildlife and important natural resources are already known. The proposed Gateway West Transmission Line is likely to cross through approximately 235 miles of lands already designated by the State of Wyoming to protect the sage grouse – a candidate for ESA listing — fragmenting important habitat for the species. The present alignment of the Sun Zia transmission line in New Mexico and Arizona raises similar concerns for its impact on biodiversity in the fragile desert ecosystems of the southwest.

Some of these concerns may be fixable as the projects undergo belated review and analysis through the permitting process. The work of the proposed Rapid Response Team for Transmission (RRTT) could be helpful in this regard if, in fact, the RRTT provides the means to facilitate improved analysis of the impacts of alternative routes for each line, better access to data associated with wildlife consultations and environmental reviews, and is a means to engage the agencies involved in a dialogue with stakeholders that leads to permitting that avoids significant conflict altogether or reduces unavoidable conflicts to the maximum extent possible. The presumption that producing and transporting clean, renewable energy is an adequate rationale for ignoring significant impacts on biodiversity needs to be challenged. While climate change is widely recognized as the greatest global threat to humankind and nature, there is no need to sacrifice important wildlife, threatened and endangered species and their habitats for the sake of getting poorly sited renewable energy projects built. It is a false choice not unlike the false choice that some would argue Americans need to make between producing jobs and protecting the environment.

Through smart planning, thoughtful analysis and improved coordination, renewable energy generation and transmission can be directed to places with high energy potential and minimal environmental conflicts. For example, the EPA and the Arizona BLM have taken inventories of brownfields, abandoned farmlands and previously disturbed lands that fit this category. And the BLM is now working on a strategy to guide future renewable energy development to these and other low conflict zones. This is a strategy that could actually accelerate permitting and development by providing developers, investors and conservationists with the environmental information and certainty they need to support utility-scale renewable energy and transmission projects.

Clearly, the status quo is unacceptable. Continuing to fast track renewable energy projects on sites regardless of the environmental values of the affected areas will only produce conflict, prolong project analysis, and delay permitting. As a result, some poorly sited projects are likely to be challenged where their impacts are too great or simply cannot be mitigated. A more thoughtful and rational approach – one that attempts to guide projects to places where conflicts with wildlife and other resources are low – will work better. This kind of approach is desperately needed if our public lands and coastal waters are to continue to produce energy, sustain local economies, and generate jobs for thousands of Americans, without sacrificing irreplaceable habitats for increasingly threatened wildlife and wild land resources.

Posted in Renewables0 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.