Environmental News

When Nature Calls in the Backcountry, It’s a Problem for Parks

For one day each September in Washington State’s Olympic National Park, if you see a helicopter overhead, it’s probably not retrieving an injured hiker. Most likely, the chopper is carrying barrels full of excrement. 
Like many parks, Olympic National Park has struggled to manage ever-increasing numbers of visitors—the national park system as a whole saw 313 million visitors in 2018, up from 281 million in 2010—as well as what those visitors leave behind. Managing the increasing volume of human waste in the backcountry, far from plumbing and flush toilets, is a particular challenge. “I think it’s one of the biggest issues . . . right now in the park,” says Larry Lack, trail program manager at Olympic.
Often, backcountry visitors are left to find their own spots to squat, but “especially in the high country . . . it’s a really fragile plant community. [When] people are wandering all over trying to find a place to go, they’re causing damage that can take decades to heal,” Lack says.
Pit toilets—large holes in the ground covered by a wooden “throne”—are the most common, low-maintenance answer to this problem, but on Olympic National Park’s coast, privy spots come at a premium. The beaches here are part of the largest wild coastline in the contiguous US, and many contain important Indigenous archaeological sites. The popularity of some areas requires new holes every two or three years. “We can’t keep digging holes as fast as they fill up,” says Lack. On top of that, it’s unclear how long it takes, once buried, for the contents of these holes to decompose—an old Forest Service guide from 1995 suggests it can take years, even decades. Dave Conca, Olympic’s cultural resource program manager, says he wouldn’t want to set a shovel in the same place for at least half a century. 
To alleviate the impact of pit toilets, Olympic has installed eight self-contained vault toilets at the most popular backcountry spots. While these toilets are convenient for visitors and help prevent damage to delicate park soils, they have their own maintenance issues. Personnel regularly hike 10, 18, or 30 miles and thousands of feet of elevation to clean the toilets, replace vaults, or ready them for removal.
What does it take to remove a vault full of human waste? The 35-gallon barrels, which weigh around 200 pounds, must be maneuvered by one or two park workers to hidden locations where visitors won’t see them. Later, they’ll have to be moved again—often hundreds of yards away—to a spot where a helicopter has enough clearance to fly them out. 
But helicopters are expensive (Glacier National Park spends $20,000 a year just to empty the vaults from two remote chalets) and a safety risk. The fact that Olympic has managed to narrow down its helicopter flights for this purpose to a single day a year is a feat in itself. “It’s one day of helicopter use but multiple days of prep time and getting ready and hiking time to stage,” Lack explains. People have to be ready at each backcountry site as well as on the ground near the pumper trucks to clean vaults. “It’s a huge operation.” 
Some parks have begun to explore alternatives to both pit and vault toilets. Tara Vessella, wilderness field coordinator at Rocky Mountain National Park, realized digging endless holes for pit toilets at popular backcountry campgrounds wasn’t going to work. “After the second or third time I dug a hole, I said we can’t do this anymore. This isn’t responsible use, and it isn’t sustainable.” 
This led her to Geoff Hill, the founder and owner of Seattle-based Toilet Tech. Hill has a PhD in human waste management and saw the problem of backcountry toilets firsthand while researching for his thesis. He learned about a working design for a special kind of toilet in France and Switzerland, which he’s since imported and started selling.
The basic design for Toilet Tech privies is this: Rather than urine and feces combining into a single hole, gravity funnels the pee off to the side, just below ground. “We’re really trying to promote biomimicry,” he says. “Every mammal pees on the surface of the earth, and that’s the primary nitrogen and phosphorus nutrient for life in general.” 
While urine runs off, poop collects on a conveyor belt. When the visitor is finished, they press a foot lever a handful of times and send the waste into a separate pile. (One park has taken to calling them “poopscalators.”) A second model takes it a step further, encouraging soil bugs to eat away at dung by carefully managing the pile and further reducing the amount of mass that has to be hauled out.
At Rocky Mountain National Park, park officials have installed seven of Hill’s toilets. Their first hasn’t been emptied for three years, and they don’t expect to empty it for another two. Since 2013, Hill has sold 230 toilets for both public and private uses. Zion National Park and Mount Rainier National Park have at least one installed, as do several of British Columbia’s provincial parks and Oregon’s Smith Rock State Park.
But these high-tech privies still have drawbacks. The toilets are expensive up front—Hill estimates the conveyor system on its own costs $4,100, and a complete system runs about $20,000—a lot of money for cash-strapped parks. While Rocky Mountain’s visitation numbers have grown by 42 percent since 2012, funding hasn’t kept pace. “Our budget, the way we describe it, it’s been flat or eroding over the last 10-plus years,” says the park’s public affairs officer, Kyle Patterson.
Regular maintenance is also necessary for the Toilet Tech designs, such as checking and clearing a urine filter, and despite plenty of signage, people still treat the toilets like, well, crap. In the first month the pee-less wonders were installed at Rocky Mountain National Park, someone dumped their Mountain House backpacking meal in the toilet, which froze and clogged one of the filters. More recently, someone poured hot ash in a toilet and melted some of its parts. 
Even so, the toilets are making a difference for park employees. “They’ve made our life a lot easier,” Vessella says.
But clearly technology can’t be the only solution. In parts of Rocky Mountain National Park, particularly those heavily used by climbers, officials are requesting (but not requiring) that visitors use waste bags to pack out their own poop. 
In other words, it’s worth trying to stretch the mantra of Leave No Trace to include backcountry facilities too. “It might be putting toilet paper in your pocket versus burying it,” Vessella says, or moving faster at the end of a hike when you know you’ve gotta go so you can hit a real commode. “That extra thought process of how your actions affect everyone else could really be a place to start.”

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Terry Tempest Williams on “Erosion”

Terry Tempest Williams remembers the morning of November 9, 2016, all too well. The social and environmental justice crusader and author of The Open Space of Democracy and Finding Beauty in a Broken World (among many other classics of environmental literature) stepped outside of her home in Castle Rock, Utah, went to the banks of the Colorado River, and began journaling her reflections on the previous night’s seismic election. As Williams, now 64, attempted to make sense of the shock of our new political landscape, she wrote about being a writer without words, struggling to find them. “I am trying to shape my despair into some form of action, but for now I am standing on the cold edge of grief.”
The words Williams wrote that morning formed the basis of Erosion: Essays of Undoing (FSG 2019), reviewed in Sierra’s November/December print edition. The lyrical book’s central question is familiar to any environmentalist alive during the Anthropocene: How do we find the strength to not look away from all that is breaking our hearts?
Williams’s previous work demonstrates her knack for writing about the intricacies of a specific ecosystem or animal while simultaneously crystallizing universal truths about the human condition. And while most of the essays in Erosion indeed focus on recent environmental damage, they’re also about the ways in which individual lives wear away. In heartbreaking particulars, the book parses the suicide of the author’s older brother, Dan. Prior to his July 2018 death, he’d expressed that the undoing of decades of environmental regulations had left him bereft of all hope.
Last fall, Williams stood before thousands on stage at the Bioneers conference in San Rafael, California, and spoke about how all environmental issues are inherently matters of social justice. During a radio interview afterward, Williams graciously fielded questions from the Bioneers production team, as well as from Sierra. She spoke candidly and generously about grief, love, the limitations of democracy as we now know it, and about how environmental racism is more often than not the result of bad storytelling. 
BIONEERS: Do you feel inspired by what you’re seeing in response [to the 2016 election]?
Terry Tempest Williams: I certainly think that what had been hidden has been exposed. Trump is a symptom as well as a manifestation of our shadow side of this country that’s always been there, that is now being revealed. Certainly, the youth climate justice movement, the activism that we are seeing in terms of gun violence, I think we’re seeing deep engagement. But I don’t think that makes up for what is being lost, and the kind of cruelties that are being exacted, whether it’s on the border, or the gutting of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah, or cutting Grand Staircase National Monument in half.
In our community in Castle Valley, there is a Japanese tea master. After the election, she offered to have a tea ceremony, and that’s what we did that night. It was so powerful to just sit as a community in silence and contemplate what had just happened, how we wanted to sit with this, and what we were going to do in these next four years, both as a community as well as citizens. That really set the tone for me. So in the midst of all this, I’ve been drinking a lot of tea [laughs]—made with sage, which grows right outside our door.
BIONEERS: This divisiveness and the “shadow side” coming to light seems to have created a disintegration of the public conversation, of public dialogue. “Dialogue” may not even be the right word, because people are just sort of yelling at each other.
I don’t even know what we do when the rule of law is not respected, when you realize that the open space of democracy has remained open out of decency and a respect of one’s word and integrity, and that is no longer. If you are sent a subpoena, it doesn’t matter. That’s what worries me, is that there is no democracy if there is no respect for the law. And I don’t know what that outcome will be, if that’s taken to its limit. We’ve never been here before.
That’s one of the things I’ve been thinking about these past few years: the idea of erosion. We live in an erosional landscape. We have four directions that are deeply marked to the south, the LaSalle Mountains; to the north, the Colorado River running red, carrying the sediments of sandstone to the ocean; to the west, Porcupine Rim holding the last light of day; and to the east, Castleton Tower, this wonderful monolith of free-standing wingate sandstone that has a pulse. We live in an erosional landscape. It’s not unusual at night to hear what sounds like a bomb, and you realize one of the cliffs has fallen or a boulder has rolled.
Then I started thinking: How does erosion play out in our own lives? The erosion of democracy? The erosion of decency? The erosion of compassion? The erosion of belief, of the body, of time? And I really believe that we are eroding and evolving at once, and that’s not a bad thing. That erosion takes stone to its essence. We see the stratigraphy of deep time in the Grand Canyon through all of the different layers, even the Vishnu shifts three billion years of time. It’s hard for us to even comprehend that.
We, too, are eroding as a nation. And I hope that we will be weathered to our essence of what it means to be human at this moment in the climate crisis.
BIONEERS: What role do you feel that love—all of the different kinds of love—can play in bringing that about?
I think everything I do has to do with love. If you talk to any activist or if we get to the heart of what it means to be a citizen engaged, it is about love—a love of justice, a love of equity, a love of fairness. And certainly the work that I’ve been doing regarding public lands is deeply about love—a love of place, a love of wildness, a love of other species. We’re not the only species that lives and breathes and grieves and loves on this planet.
We are all experiencing so much grief in terms of what is being lost, and the suffering that is occurring in real time, in real places. And grief is love.
I think about anger as also a sibling to grief. I’m constantly asking myself: How do I take my anger and transform it into sacred rage? What does that look like? Where do you take it? And if I’m honest, I think I write out of my anger often. But if you go deeper, I write out of my love and questions.
BIONEERS: What would you say about the fact that we have this “erosion” of democracy, and at the same time, it is bringing forward such an enormous response?
It’s interesting. And I do think that’s a great point: that we can hold contradictory emotions at once. We can hold a contradictory country at once. This is a time where rather than constricting ourselves and going inward, it’s actually a time to expand. We have to become larger as our country seems to be getting smaller in terms of its… I want to use the word “virtue.” We’re watching democracy collapse, and I think we, as citizens, have to be more expansive and responsive as a result.
BIONEERS: How do you feel that our undoing can be our emergence together?
When I lost my job at the University of Utah, I was crushed. I was brokenhearted. I felt exiled, and I really participated in a real soul-searching time. Was it my fault? What didn’t I do? Was I irresponsible? I think as women, we always take that blame.
That was a time of undoing. And because Brook and I had saved enough money, I could take that time off for six months and just contemplate what had happened. I wanted to grieve. I wanted to reflect. And I wanted to think about: Where do I belong if I’m not in my own home?
What I realize now, looking back, is I thought I would be there forever, but my soul had other plans. Looking back at that moment, my undoing, it has now become part of my becoming. I could never have imagined the kind of expansion of mind and soul that I’m able to participate in now at the Divinity School. And I’m grateful. I think that’s a common story; when we lose a job, when our marriage dissolves, perhaps an illness, my brother’s suicide. When these things occur, I think about Shinran, the Japanese poet, who said, This happened. Now something else can occur. 
This happened in America. Now something else can occur. And that something else is up to us. We have more power than we know.
Sierra: This morning you told an auditorium full of people, “Environmental racism is the product of bad storytelling.” I was wondering how you came to that notion, and how we can best reframe that story to bolster racial and economic justice?
You know, I look at Willie Grayeyes, who is a Diné Navajo community organizer. He lives in his car. His family, for generations, has been living on Navajo land. He saw the injustices that were happening politically in San Juan County [Utah], one of the largest counties in the US, where there was gerrymandering predicated on race. And he took the county to court, and he won. And when he saw that space of democracy open, he thought, I need to stand inside that space, so he ran for county commissioner. He won. And as I mentioned this morning, Kelly Laws, his Mormon Republican opponent, after he lost, said, “This was an illegitimate election by an illegitimate candidate. Willie Grayeyes is not a legitimate resident of the state of Utah.” And it went to the courts, and it was brutal and it was ugly. It was a Trump-appointed judge, and the opposition made the point that [Grayeyes] had a place in Arizona, and that that’s where his kids went to school. Which were facts—quote unquote. 
Willie’s defense? “My umbilical cord is buried here. That is why I’m a resident of the state of Utah.” And he won his case. And the Trump-appointed judge gave one of the most beautiful renderings of what “dwelling” means I’ve ever read. You know, that is a different story. Racism, environmental racism, is a result of bad stories. The bad story that the majority-white Mormon story was, “These are not human beings; they’re cursed. Their brown skin is evidence that they betrayed God,” and that was long the dominant story. Willie Grayeyes changed that story.
Sierra: Despite the fraught times we’re living in, you seem to remain optimistic—and also realistic. But a strong degree of optimism shines through in your storytelling. What’s your secret?
You know, I don’t think about optimism or pessimism; I just think the world is so beautiful. And no matter where we are—whether we’re watching a cardinal in a forsythia against a blue sky in spring, or seeing ravens in a desert cavorting above and then come swooping down to where you can literally hear their wings beating—these are all things primary. How can you not just fall to your knees in gratitude or awe or joy? 
On the other hand, you see the frack lines. You see what’s happening on the edges of sacred sites like Hovenweep or Bears Ears, where oil and gas leases are being sold, lands that are now open for business. So again, it’s the full range—on that hand you have massive destruction on a scale that is unprecedented with oil and gas development, with the supremacy of the fossil fuel industry, just at the time we’re in this climate crisis. On the other hand, you see these beautiful young people marching, putting themselves on the line, being arrested, writing these powerful stories, changing the story, going to court to fight for the right of a healthy future. And then you say, “How do we bring these two hands together in prayer?” And for me, engagement is the prayer. For me it’s about always being present—with one another, and in the vitality of the struggle. In finding the strength not to look away.
Because you can find optimism in paying attention. You know, after my brother’s death by suicide, I promise you, every night for six weeks, from five to nine at night, these two great-horned owls would come and sit with me. I’d sit on the porch and they’d perch on a branch of a tree, maybe ten feet away. They would just sit and stare at me. It made me think about what my father said when I asked about how he was doing after the loss of his second son. He said, “Terry, I’ve finally figured it out. We have to stare down grief.” That was my father’s way. I can stare it down. That may not be my way—grief for me is the raven that sits on my shoulder that you may or may not see. But for me the owls—they were staring me down. And they were offering me, I think, an insight, to their night vision: showing that we do have the strength not to look away, that we can learn to see in the dark, and expand the range of our vision. That’s where I think we are and can be. And the animals around us are offering us instruction; I believe that. 

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Learning to Love Bats

Bats, those frights of vampire lore, neglected attics and Halloween antics have taken on a  new role in Chicago: charismatic mini fauna.
“It’s a great way for people to connect with wildlife in cities” said Liza Lehrer, assistant director of the Urban Wildlife Institute at the Lincoln Park Zoo, which studies city wildlife, and promotes tolerance of biodiversity. The UWI  is one of a clutch of conservation organizations in Chicago dedicated to rehabilitating the bat’s dark reputation.
Every night at dusk during the warm months, Chicago’s bats can be spotted throughout the city’s parks and neighborhoods, as they emerge in search of mosquitos and other insects. Because they’re so easy to see, says Lehrer, bats are more relatable from a conservation perspective.
The UWI also aims to prevent human-animal conflicts and to minimize disease transmission, which, in the case of bats would be rabies (rare in the state of Illinois). They also champion bats as useful insect predators, seed disseminators and sometimes pollinators. In 2018, UWI convinced the City of Chicago to name the little brown bat, which is indigeous to the area, as  its official city mammal.

Acoustic monitoring equipment installed by the Urban Wildlife Institute. Photo courtesy of the Urban Wildlife Institute.
The Urban Wildlife Institute began monitoring bat activity in the city in 2013. What they found surprised them. They’d expected to only find a few species. Instead, the Institute’s 25 acoustic monitoring sites have recorded eight so far—not just in forest preserves, but in city parks, golf courses and cemeteries.
Bats seem to like Chicago.  A two decade study carried out by the  Forest Preserve District of Cook County, found higher bat numbers near the city than in the surrounding countryside. “The monoculture of agriculture produces very little food for bats,” said Chris Anchor, a biologist who runs the wildlife division of the forest preserve. Bats also appreciate Chicago’s architecture,  which, says Anchor, features “a wide mix of horizontal and vertical structures bats utilize for finding food sources and loafing between feeding.”

Bat housing. Photo courtesy of the Urban Wildlife Institute.
Over the past two decades, bat fans have built more than 100 bat boxes on Chicago’s forest preserve land in the hopes of bolstering the local bat population.  But the kinds of bats that might use them,—the kind that roost in colonies like the little brown bat and the big brown bat, are on the decline, according to the forest preserve. White nose syndrome, which was discovered in the state in  2013, may play a role.
Meanwhile solitary bats like red bats and hoary bats are on the rise, a surprise revealed by monitoring the animals using telemetry, a technology that picks up their sounds inflight. Solitary bats seem to echo the psyche of Chicagoans in winter. “When they hibernate, red bats hibernate on the ground under oak leaf litter,” Anchor said. “On slopes or in heavy oak forests, they’ll go to ground and spend the winter there.”
Friends of the Chicago River built six bat condos on 12-foot stilts in sunny but out-of-the-way riverside areas between 2014 and 2018. “They feed on insects and insect lifecycles include time on the water,” said Maggie Jones, conservation programs specialist at Friends of the Chicago River. Encouraging these batty predators, she added, is good for the overall health of the ecosystem.
Bats, however, are finicky home shoppers. It usually takes three to five years after a bat house is built for an occupant to move in, and some may never catch a bat’s fancy. Acoustic monitoring has identified five species of bats near the condos, but to date, none of the waterfront dwellings have been occupied.
 “I don’t know how to put the real estate sign out for bats to see,” said Jones. “We know they’re here and hope to be able to provide means for them to thrive in perpetuity.”

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So Your Kids Are Stressed Out About the Climate Crisis

When my nephew, Sam, was four years old, he said to his mother one night before bed, “Mom, I don’t want to be alive anymore.”
His mother pulled him onto her lap and asked, “Why?”
“The animals are all going to die, and I don’t want to be here when everything’s dead,” he answered. Mind you, this scene played out in 2005, long before the world watched as 1 billion animals died in Australia’s bushfires. 
I’ve been thinking about this incident a lot lately as I read media reports about children suffering from eco-anxiety. For their whole lives, our kids have absorbed terrifying stories about what’s happening to our planet and the creatures that inhabit it. Worse, more and more of them understand that when it comes to doing what it takes to avoid future hell-on-Earth scenarios, adults are, on the whole, failing them. No wonder so many of them, from preschoolers to college students, are freaking out. How might we help our kids deal with their feelings in ways that are age-appropriate, empowering—and honest?I started pondering this question long ago when my own children, now 20 and 23, began showing signs of anxiety about the climate crisis. The following suggestions grew from my observations of what helped them, what helped other families I’ve interviewed, and what professionals have to say about a problem that’s not going away any time soon 
“First, it’s important to validate the young person’s experience and emotions,” says Dr. Patricia H. Hasbach, a psychotherapist who specializes in Eco-therapy. “Find out what it is they’re worried about.” Some, like Sam, may grieve the generalized—and very real—extinctions happening worldwide. Others fear their own demise in hurricanes, floods, or wildfires. One 12-year-old survivor of California’s 2018 fires panics now every time the Santa Ana winds kick up. My own kids describe an “always there, back-of-the-mind type fear of the future.”
In Sam’s case, his mother didn’t dismiss his worries. After her son’s stark pronouncement, she told him, “Wow, that’s a big feeling. Tell me more.” Then she stated other things that are also true, like, “The earth is strong. Lots of people are working to protect animals, and we can help them.”
“OK,” he said. Then he rolled over, fell asleep, and didn’t raise the issue again. 
Tell the Truth (Carefully)
In climate discussions with children, parents are tasked with balancing age-appropriateness with honesty. My husband and I didn’t offer climate tutorials to our preschoolers, but we did talk about protecting the earth and animals, and we showed them what that looks like: rescuing worms from puddles, composting food waste, and advocating for environmental protections.
As our kids matured and encountered more information, often frightening and overwhelming, we listened and—after acknowledging bad news and processing their feelings—reminded our kids of the bigger story, just as Sam’s mom had done: “Yes, it’s a time of peril. It’s also a time of incredible energy and innovation.” We assured them that apocalypse isn’t inevitable and that scientists say we have the time and the technology to avert catastrophe. 
“There’s so much bad and overwhelming odds all the time that it’s hard not to just get defeated,” says Sam, who is now 19 and an environmental studies major and activist. “But if you look at it another way, we have an opportunity to influence the outcome of humanity and civilization, and be righteous warriors in the fight of our lives.”
This may be the most helpful truth to share, if kids don’t already know it: Youths worldwide are using their moral authority to demand bolder climate action from leaders. Adults are starting to listen, and that’s helping alleviate some anxiety. Greta Thunberg’s father recently told BBC News that his daughter, who suffered severe climate anxiety and depression before beginning her climate strikes, has become “very happy” because of her activism.
Get Kids Outside 
Dr. Hasbach also asks parents to consider whether a child’s anxiety may stem from disconnection from nature. “Young people spend an average of four to seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play, and nine hours in front of a screen. That’s a problem.”
Getting an anxious child of any age outside to garden, skip stones, or play in the park may reduce anxiety of any kind. Nature immersion, says Hasbach, also helps kids love nature “before they have to do the hard work of trying to save it.” They need a “deep, sincere connection to that part of themselves, recognizing that they are the natural world.”
Facilitate Agency 
Dr. Hasbach says that it’s important for parents to help children feel a sense of agency in the climate crisis, but that few parents actually do this.
“Remind children, ‘Here’s what some people are doing to help address it. Here’s what we’re doing in our family and why. Here’s what else needs to be addressed.’” Then, brainstorm together. What sounds fun or interesting? An easy first step might be a family challenge to reduce food waste by 20 percent. Or, students could do school research projects about the kind of energy their local utility uses, and who gets to make that decision.
Families could explore what’s happening locally with forest restoration or fossil fuel resistance, and decide how to support those efforts. Our family helped launch a youth climate action club at our kids’ high school, with parents providing logistical support and pizza. 
And of course, the 2020 election cycle offers everyone a chance to make big changes at the highest levels of our government. Families can research candidates together: Who supports a Green New Deal? Who supports fracking? Teens can volunteer at candidates’ offices or join Get Out the Vote campaigns.
“Help teens get involved in social activism,” Dr. Hasbach says. “Doing research, letter-writing campaigns, protests, or clean-ups in group settings is particularly impactful, because the peer group is primary at that age.”
Sam, who volunteered on a 2018 congressional campaign and recently joined the Sunrise Movement, agrees. “It’s really exciting, working with all of these young people doing all these amazing things. It’s really high energy because the stakes are so high.” 
Be a Role Model 
But Serena Orsinger, an 18-year-old climate leader in my community with whom I spoke last year, warns that adults shouldn’t leave young people holding the bag, climate-wise.
“If we’re not seeing the urgency and, quite honestly, the fear from the older generations that we’re feeling, that can be upsetting, because it’s such a big weight to carry. And if it’s not spread throughout the generations, it can be discouraging. But when we’re all bearing the load that is climate change, it’s more empowering and doesn’t feel like as big a burden.”
In his BBC interview, Greta Thunberg’s father reported that Thunberg got “energy” when her parents, at her urging, changed their own behavior.
It’s important to recognize that some lifestyle changes might mean more to your kids than others. As Sam puts it, “When I say ‘change your life,’ I mean ‘think about giving up some—or a lot—of your time. If you have the financial stability, maybe work a couple of days less a week and volunteer for a congressional campaign, or some activist group like Sunrise or 350.org.”
He recently asked his mom to trade one work day for activism. “She said ‘that’s a lot to ask,’ and I said, ‘This problem demands a lot. Think about my children and what kind of life they’ll have.’ That really resonated with her. She said she’s going to try to get more involved politically now, and my dad is thinking of early retirement so he can too.”
When I asked how he felt hearing that from his parents, he said, “I feel better whenever I see people actually weighing the facts about what we’re up against and making conscious decisions to do more.”
Then he grinned. “It’s inspiring.”

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ICYMI: Falling Iguanas, Dying Sequoias, Mops and Buckets & More

Florida is experiencing a cold snap, and the National Weather Service’s Miami office advises residents to beware of frozen iguanas falling out of trees. 
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses Juliana v. United States, ruling that its 21 young plaintiffs lack standing to sue the federal government for failing to act on climate change.
Emails between Trump’s Justice Department and oil-industry lawyers show that they worked together as a “team” to oppose climate lawsuits from coastal cities.
The carbon emissions from Australia’s January fires near 540 million tons, just short of the country’s anthropogenic emissions for an entire year.
BHP, Australia’s largest coal producer, complains that smoke from the country’s massive wildfires is curtailing its ability to mine coal. 
Since 2014, 28 giant sequoias have died in Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks because of conditions linked to climate change.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent lawsuit by the Sierra Club, the EPA admits that administrator Andrew Wheeler had no scientific basis for his claim that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.” 
New York City contemplates a six-mile, $119 billion sea wall to protect itself against climate-fueled storm surges like that from Hurricane Sandy. Trump suggests any problem of flooding can be solved with “mops & buckets.” 
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gets funding from Congress to study two methods of geoengineering to cool the earth. 
The Trump administration approves a rule that will make it much harder to set new energy-efficiency standards for common household appliances in the future.
The Trump administration weakens Obama-era clean water rules, allowing industry to dump pollutants into ephemeral streams and wetlands.
The Trump administration will allow the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline to be built across a key stretch of federal land in Montana. 
For the first time in more than 60 years, a juvenile eastern indigo snake is found in the wild in Alabama, proof that a reintroduction program is working.
China proposes a sweeping ban on single-use plastic, especially plastic bags from supermarkets and food-delivery businesses.
Starbucks vows to halve its waste, water use, and carbon emissions by 2030.
Microsoft says it will be carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 will remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as the company has ever emitted.
Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest corporate plastic polluter, says that it won’t abandon single-use plastic bottles because people like them. 
The Zurich airport makes green jet fuel available for the hundreds of private jets arriving for the World Economic Forum in Davos. 
The Rockford (Michigan) Chamber of Commerce proclaims Wolverine World Wide, the footwear company responsible for contaminating local groundwater with toxic PFAS, as “business of the year.”

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ICYMI: Falling Iguanas, Dying Sequoias, Mops & Buckets & More

Florida is experiencing a cold snap, and the National Weather Service’s Miami office advises residents to beware of frozen iguanas falling out of trees. 
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismisses Juliana v. United States, ruling that its 21 young plaintiffs lack standing to sue the federal government for failing to act on climate change.
Emails between Trump’s Justice Department and oil-industry lawyers show that they worked together as a “team” to oppose climate lawsuits from coastal cities.
The carbon emissions from Australia’s January fires near 540 million tons, just short of the country’s anthropogenic emissions for an entire year.
BHP, Australia’s largest coal producer, complains that smoke from the country’s massive wildfires is curtailing its ability to mine coal. 
Since 2014, 28 giant sequoias have died in Kings Canyon and Sequoia national parks due to conditions linked to climate change.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request and subsequent lawsuit by the Sierra Club, the EPA admits that administrator Andrew Wheeler had no scientific basis for his claim that “most of the threats from climate change are 50 to 75 years out.” 
New York City contemplates a six-mile, $119-billion sea wall to protect itself against climate-fueled storm surges like that from Hurricane Sandy. Trump suggests any problem of flooding can be solved with “mops & buckets.” 
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration gets funding from Congress to study two methods of geoengineering to cool the earth. 
The Trump administration approves a rule that will make it much harder to set new energy-efficiency standards for common household appliances in the future.
The Trump administration weakens Obama-era clean water rules, allowing industry to dump pollutants into ephemeral streams and wetlands.
The Trump administration will allow the Keystone XL oil sands pipeline to be built across a key stretch of federal land in Montana. 
For the first time in more than 60 years, a juvenile eastern indigo snake is found in the wild in Alabama, proof that a reintroduction program is working.
China proposes a sweeping ban on single-use plastic, especially plastic bags from supermarkets and food-delivery businesses.
Starbucks vows to halve its waste, water use, and carbon emissions by 2030.
Microsoft says it will be carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 will remove as much carbon from the atmosphere as the company has ever emitted.
Coca-Cola, the world’s biggest corporate plastic polluter, says that it won’t abandon single-use plastic bottles because people like them. 
The Zurich airport makes green jet fuel available for the hundreds of private jets arriving for the World Economic Forum in Davos. 
The Rockford (Michigan) Chamber of Commerce proclaims Wolverine World Wide, the footwear company responsible for contaminating local groundwater with toxic PFAS, as “business of the year.”

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Some Enchanted Swamp Walk

On a warm fall morning, I pulled off the two-lane stretch of highway that connects Naples and Miami, and into Fakahatchee Strand Preserve, Florida’s largest state park, and parked beside Six-Pipe Slough, named for the six culvert pipes that run beneath the road. I climbed out and stood looking down into the water, tinted the color of weak tea by the tannins of fallen leaves. The preserve has many walking trails on its 85,000 acres. But on this particular day I was interested in something a little wetter.
One of the best parts of the Fakahatchee are its wet walks—where guides take visitors wading deep into the strand, through wetlands thick with cypress domes, resurrection ferns, bromeliads, wild orchids, indigo snakes, red-shouldered hawks. Also: water moccasins, and alligators, but those last two tend to be sluggish in the cooler winter months.

The wet walks are only offered from November through April—anything before that, I’m told, is too dangerous. Snakes are more active during the hot summer months, and alligators, which nest during the summer season, can be aggressive. Plus, summer rains mean higher waters and a greater threat of falls from submerged hazards. Visitors can take their own wet walks without a guide, but it’s not recommended. The abundant life that fills the swamp is disorienting, and it’s easy to get lost.
The Friends of Fakahatchee, a nonprofit group that runs the wet walks, sent me out with Patrick Higgins, who handed me a waiver before we set off. Besides the two of us, there was not another person in sight.
“Make sure you sign it so that if you get eaten they can’t sue me,” Higgins said in his dry British accent.
“That’s presuming you don’t get eaten, too,” I said.
He shook his head and smiled. “I only like going out with someone a little slower than me.”

The sun was hot on my neck as we eased down the bank and stepped into the cool water of the slough. I had dressed for the walk in old clothes and tennis shoes, which most visitors do, rather than worrying about special gear. The summer’s rainy months had passed but the water was still above my knees and hip-deep in places.
Clumps of pickerelweed grew beside the bank, and narrow-snouted gar, a prehistoric-looking fish as long as my arm, splashed in a deep basin to my left where, said Higgins, alligators are known to rest. I peered cautiously but saw only a banded water snake, its head just above the surface. After a few seconds, it dipped down, the creamy bands along its body swirling.

Life in the Fakahatchee wasn’t always this vibrant. In the early 1900s, plume hunters pillaged the wetlands, slaughtering herons, egrets and spoonbills for feathers worth their weight in gold. The Great Depression and a series of hurricanes spared the area from clear-cutting but as World War II ramped up, cypress wood—which is resistant to termites, rot and water—suddenly was in high demand. Logging crews came back to the swamps of the Fakahatchee armed with double-handled handsaws, and tree by tree they stripped the swamps of old-growth cypress. As I moved through the water, the stump of one loomed in front of me, wider than I am tall.

In the early 1960s, this area, like much of south Florida, was slated for development. On maps spread across tables in planning offices, wetlands that had existed for more than 5,000 years were carved into acre and a quarter lots for tract homes, destined for a beige ranch-style sameness. But before the first foundations could be poured, conservationists called for the preservation of the Fakahatchee lands. In a rare victory for the Florida environment, the Nixon administration intervened, and the area became the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve in 1974. I like to imagine those land planners pounding the drafting tables in frustration. All that buildable turf, gone to waste.

I pushed through the slough’s water, and the path back to the road quickly filled in with the narrow trunks of young cypress trees. Higgins walked ahead of me, pointing out different species of ferns, and when I stopped to write in my notepad, I looked up to find that he’d disappeared. I called his name, and he answered from my left. “Follow my voice,” he said, and I walked toward it. A grasshopper perched on a cypress knee stuck above the surface of the water. The knee was orange—a sign of new growth. The gently moving flow of a linear swamp is nothing like the stagnant bogs of the imagination. Here air smells of cypress, and the water flows clear and clean through the Everglades and out into the Ten Thousand Islands.
South Florida’s wetlands are still in danger—from rising sea levels, from invasive species, from upstream, where water is diverted into reservoirs. But the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Project, a $10 billion plan approved by Congress in 2000, has to restore the regular flow of water through south Florida’s wetlands, while preserving drinking water for residents of the area. Though the project has been battered by political maneuvering, it has kept the water flowing.

A zebra longwing flitted between the trunks. I followed it with my eyes, and noticed an old cabbage palm leaned at an angle, covered with resurrection ferns. Sunlight sifted down through the fronds and dappled the slow-moving water. I was struck by the sheer enormity of the life that surrounded me, a seemingly endless repetition of orchids, bromeliads, cypress trees, swamp ferns, pop ash and pond apple in a place that had once been slated for asphalt and concrete. Despite all the forces arrayed against it, the Fakahatchee had survived.

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Will Climate Justice Be Served?

Last week, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the landmark youth climate lawsuit, Juliana et al. v. United States et al., and in a 2-to-1 opinion concluded that the youth plaintiffs lack standing to sue the federal government for fueling global warming. While the legal saga isn’t over yet—the plaintiffs’ attorneys say they will file a petition for an en banc hearing, which requires half of the appellate court’s 29 judges to agree to hear the case by an expanded 11-judge panel—the decision nevertheless represents a setback for efforts to use the courts as a venue for addressing climate change. Since the case was filed by 21 youth plaintiffs in 2015, the lawsuit has been closely watched as a test case for whether judges are willing to tackle the threat of rising greenhouse gas emissions. For now, at least, the answer appears to be no.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs were naturally disappointed with the decision. “We consider it to be an abdication of judicial responsibility,” says Andrea Rodgers, a staff attorney for Our Children’s Trust, the nonprofit that organized the lawsuit.
Other observers, however, felt that the appellate courts had acted wisely in dismissing the case.  James Huffman, a professor at Lewis & Clark Law School and a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in an email, “I think the outcome is correct. It is not a matter for the courts. They have neither the authority nor the competence” to do what the plaintiffs requested.
In their lawsuit, the plaintiffs were asking the federal government to stop contributing to climate change and to develop a plan to remediate the damages the plaintiffs have suffered due to unchecked greenhouse gas emissions. The court should do this, plaintiffs argued, to protect the health and welfare of young people and future generations—a duty courts have recognized in prior cases. 
But two of the three judges felt that this demand exceeded the powers of the judiciary. Anybody who appeals to the courts for redress has to demonstrate three things: that she has been injured; that there are enough facts to determine whether the injury has been at least partly caused by an identifiable entity; and that a favorable ruling by the court will remedy the injury. While the appellate judges acknowledged that the plaintiffs had made a strong case in showing injury by federal actions, they concluded that the courts lack the ability to deliver to the young plaintiffs the relief they were asking for.
In his majority opinion, Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz wrote, “The [legal] record left little basis for denying that climate change was occurring at an increasingly rapid pace,” and went on to to acknowledge that “the record conclusively established that the federal government has long understood the risks of fossil fuel use and increasing carbon dioxide emissions; and the record established that the government’s contribution to climate change was not simply a result of inaction.” But even as Judge Hurwitz name-dropped the 1964 hit song “Eve of Destruction” (sample lyrics: “I can’t twist the truth, it knows no regulation/Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation”), he maintained that “the plaintiffs’ impressive case for redress must be presented to the political branches of government.” No matter how badly the other two branches of government have failed to remediate the problem, the opinion says, the courts do not have “the ability to step into their shoes.”
Both the Trump administration and, before it, the Obama administration, had fought the suit, and in a statement the Justice Department said it was pleased with the outcome. “As the Court recognized, Article III of the Constitution’s standing requirement is a vital limitation on the power of the federal courts and this suit fell squarely outside the parameters of Article III.” 
But the plaintiffs took a measure of consolation from a blistering dissent by Judge Josephine L. Staton, who wrote that “as described by plaintiffs’ experts, the injuries experienced by plaintiffs are the first small wave in an oncoming tsunami—now visible on the horizon of the not-so-distant future—that will destroy the United States as we currently know it.” She argued that the “perpetuity of the Republic” is the “guardian of all other rights,” so whatever truncates the existence of the United States also violates other guaranteed rights.
Citing previous cases, Staton observed that the Constitution’s protection of the right to life, liberty, free speech, a free press, and freedom of worship and assembly “may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.” These rights also extend to posterity, Staton wrote, adding, “When fundamental rights are at stake, individuals ‘need not await legislative action,’” citing Obergefell v. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court case enabling gay marriage. Making the plaintiffs wait for the political branches to remedy their injuries will be just like telling them they have no recourse at all, in Staton’s view.
The powerful dissent and what the plaintiffs attorneys describe as an apparent “tension” in the majority opinion itself leave the plaintiffs cautiously optimistic that they may be able to get a second appeal with a larger panel of judges. Nathan Baring, a 20-year-old plaintiff from Alaska, says he is “far more optimistic” about the outcome than media portrayals of the ruling have been. “If the court affirms all of these points that we’ve made that there is a systemic harm being done to us and our generation, we believe the court does absolutely have a role to play,” Baring says. And in an en banc hearing, he says, “We believe we can show that.”  
Mary Christina Wood—a law professor at the University of Oregon whose ideas about the “public trust doctrine” have served as a kind of intellectual inspiration for the youth lawsuit—also sees encouraging signs in the majority and dissenting opinions. “You have three judges agreeing that this is an all-out emergency caused by the federal government,” she says.
“Even without a trial they felt it necessary to call out the gravity of the situation. So that’s a big deal.” Wood also notes that the panel squarely rejected the federal government’s argument that climate cases should be conducted under the Administrative Procedure Act. “This case broke out of that framing that has characterized environmental law for decades,” she says. 
Dissenting opinions, though not controlling, are often used to powerful effect in ensuing cases, so Staton’s dissent may have long legs within the judiciary. It will also, Wood says, be of great interest internationally and could help propel forward the public conversation about climate.
“Judge Staton leaves no room for judges to waffle anymore,” Wood says. “Her opinion is so filled with the moral consequences of inaction that it is making judges have to choose sides. The bottom line is the judges’ own personal sense of their responsibility in their appointed office. That’s what it’s going to come down to.”

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Could Geoengineering Help Save the World’s Ice?

Imagine 2,000 elephants running into the ocean.
The Greenland ice sheet loses that much water in weight every second, according to Dartmouth climatologist Erich Obsterberg. It equals about 250 billion tons per year. Arctic sea ice as a whole has gone from 7 million square miles in 1979 to a little over 4 million in 2019. Meanwhile, Antarctica is wasting away at six times the rate it was 40 years ago.
Thanks to climate change, we are saying goodbye to ice. Some of us, literally, are having funerals. Hundreds gathered in the Swiss Alps last September to bid farewell to the Pizol Glacier, which was once a flowing river of ice but is now a static chunk of snow. As our glaciers and ice sheets shrink, we lose freshwater resources, and without its icy reflective blanket, our planet absorbs more heat from the sun, accelerating climate change. 
What we lose in land ice, of course, is also gained in sea level. Even if we manage to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, the world will experience greater than eight inches of sea level rise by 2100, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The instability of West Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier—roughly the size of Florida—is of particular concern to scientists. Slowing the rate of ice melt there and elsewhere would allow for critical adaptation in at-risk areas, such as islands and coastal cities. Some researchers are looking to geoengineering to accomplish this.
Michael Wolovick, a researcher at Beijing Normal University, is one of them. He and his colleague John Moore have studied a number of geoengineering strategies to prevent or slow the collapse of Thwaites Glacier. “The animating idea I had was trying to find high leverage, where you have the most societal impact for the smallest-scale intervention,” Wolovick says.
Of course, the best way to prevent the collapse of ice sheets is to limit warming. Scenarios are far less severe even at just 1.5 degrees Celsius. “Geoengineering is not any substitute for emissions reduction,” Wolovick cautions.
Nevertheless, for scientists like Wolovick, the idea of tinkering more, rather than less, with our environment offers hope that we can prevent, or at least forestall, some of the worst effects of climate change. Here are some of the ideas that they are exploring for saving the planet’s ice. 

A massive underground wall or “sill.” | Illustration courtesy of Michael Wolovick
Underwater Sills
One proposal is to build a massive underground wall or “sill” at the ice-ocean interface of key glaciers like Thwaites. 
This interface is where warm water eats away at the glacier, elongating the shelf that floats above the ocean. Like slowly hacking away at the base of a tree, the rest of the system becomes wobbly. The shelf increasingly calves into icebergs and melt accelerates.
A barrier, like an earthen dam built from ocean floor material, could block that warm water. It could also provide a physical “buttress” on which a glacier might stabilize and thicken. Wolovick’s models of Thwaites show that if the sill were large enough to block the warm water completely, the success rate would be 100 percent.
But an engineering feat of this scale would be enormous, according to the National Snow and Ice Data scientist Twila Moon.
“The idea of building such a big piece of infrastructure would require a logistical effort that I think might not even be possible…. That’s an area that even research ships have trouble getting to on a year-to-year basis,” Moon says. Plus, she added: “Ice sheets have been pretty good at plowing through obstacles of all sorts as long as they’ve existed.” 
All of Wolovick’s models begin 100 years in the future, leaving time, he thinks, for us to hash out the mechanics and test on smaller glaciers first. “I don’t expect to be alive when humanity tries to control Thwaites glacier,” Wolovick says. “I’m a young guy but… it’s important to start planning.” 
Drying the glacial bed 
Another idea Wolovick and Moore suggest is drying out a glacier’s bed—the bottom of the glacier where ice meets rock and meltwater flows in-between the two. That meltwater lubricates the ice, like adding soap to a slip-and-slide, accelerating glacial movement and mass loss.
If we drilled a tunnel to the bed and pumped water from beneath to the surface, we could hypothetically refreeze the ice-rock interface and slow glacial movement. The feasibility of drilling thousands of feet through ice and properly draining tonnages of water is fuzzy, but it has been done on a small scale. In Engabreen, Norway, meltwater at the base of the Svartisen’s glacier is pumped to a hydropower plant.  
Mass deposition 
One way to stop ice loss is to create a whole lot more ice. Johannes Feldman and his colleagues from the Potsdam Institute suggest artificially thickening glaciers by dumping sea water back onto ice sheets for it to refreeze. 
Last July, they published a paper in Science Advances showing that mass deposition could stabilize West Antarctica under certain conditions. However, they write, “The practical realization of elevating and distributing the ocean water would mean an unprecedented effort for humankind in one of the harshest environments of the planet.”
You would need a “hell of a lot of snow,” says Wolovick.
Pumping that water (over an area equivalent to the size of Costa Rica, in their model) would be extremely energy intensive. The authors proposed using 12,000 high-end wind turbines to power the process. Indeed, Antarctica is rather windy, but even if this idea were doable, Wolovick doesn’t think it’d have any lasting impact.
“Over the course of a few centuries, the ice will just drain that extra mass into the ocean,” he says.

Leslie Field in the Arctic | Photo courtesy of Ice911
Silica Beads 
Leslie Field wants to enhance the Arctic’s reflectivity—with beads.
Her company, Ice911, is testing a technology to spread silica beads on snow and ice to spur sea ice growth. While sea ice does not impact sea level rise (think about a glass of ice water—when the ice melts, the volume of the water is still the same), it does decrease how much heat the Arctic absorbs from the sun because ice reflects more energy than open ocean.
A chemical engineer and lecturer at Stanford, Field was first inspired to act against climate change after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. She began wondering what a person like herself could do, and as a material scientist, asked herself, “What safe material could you use to replace the loss of reflectivity in the Arctic?” 
After years of testing in water-filled blue buckets on her porch in California, she settled on silica, a naturally occurring compound in all ecosystems, with high reflectivity. 
The technology is in ecotoxicology and field testing. So far, it has shown positive results and no adverse ecological effects. If Ice911 proves safe and effective, Field hopes to handoff the technology to a collaborative body like the UN and the Arctic nations in three to five years. “I know very well that people can fall in love with their own ideas,” she says, “so you need outside regulation.” 
But is geoengineering really a good idea? 
Practical problems aside, many environmentalists object to geoengineering on principal, seeing it as nothing more than an excuse to let fossil fuel companies continue business as usual (“It’s an engineering problem, and it has geoengineering solutions,” then-ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson said about climate change in 2012.) 
Field, herself a former employee at Chevron, would rather think of Ice911 as a strategy for “climate restoration”—the act of repairing something we have harmed.
Ideas for geoengineering also vary widely, from spraying aerosols—a highly controversial proposal—to carbon capture technology, which most scientists think will be a necessary part of limiting warming.
Given that range of “methods and implications,” Moon says, “You can’t really say geoengineering is good or bad.”
What we can say is that geoengineering is very complicated. The political, social, ecological, economic and moral consequences of Wolovick and others’ proposals are far from fleshed out. How would a giant underwater wall impact wildlife? Who would pay for these projects? What governing body would oversee the process, like in Antarctica, a continent ruled by international treaties? What about the indigenous communities in the Arctic—do they get a say? What if these technologies give humanity a license to ignore emissions because we have an “easy fix”?
Ultimately, Moon thinks our resources are better spent adapting and mitigating in the present. 
For Wolovick, geoengineering offers a contingency plan for the future.
But “in the long run, the fate of ice sheets is closely tied to cumulative CO2 emissions,” he says. “If we keep emitting carbon without bound, the only reasonable goal of glacial geoengineering would be to slow the rate of collapse.”

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The Fate of 23.8 Million Acres of Arctic Wilderness is in Jeopardy

We landed in the 23.8-million-acre National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska hoping to see the biggest, wildest, remotest place in the United States. My fellow adventurers and I didn’t want to see oil derricks and pipelines; we’d seen plenty of those. What we saw as we flew in to land beside a tributary to the Colville River were castellated mountains and winding rivers. Floating down the Colville, we watched grizzly bears prowling, herds of caribou strolling along treeless hills, moose moving slowly across the tundra, and peregrine falcons perched on cliffside nests feeding their young. Loons, Arctic terns, sandpipers, and jaegers flew around a campsite that became nearly flooded by high waters. Archeological sites showed centuries’ worth of evidence of Indigenous Inupiat settlement. I had hoped to experience this vastness, a place as wild as wild can be, once in my life. And it did not disappoint. 
There’s a reason the NPRA, also known as the Arctic Reserve, topped my bucket list. In December, a newly formed company called North Slope Exploration leased one million acres from the Bureau of Land Management to explore and develop Arctic Reserve land for oil. This added to the 1.4 million acres that are already wide-open to development. According to a November 2019 BLM environmental impact statement (EIS), the Trump Administration is poised to further reduce protections for the NPRA, and offer more tracts for additional oil development. 
The NPRA lies to the west of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline, which is flanked on its east by the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Alaska’s Arctic ecosystem includes the Brooks Range, which runs east and west, with dozens of rivers running north to the Arctic Ocean. This area is roughly 67,188 square miles, larger than New York state, and marked by a spectacular geography of mountains and coastal flats. 
The BLM’s most recent EIS on the fate of the Arctic Reserve effectively outlines two choices: maintain this wilderness habitat, or develop a big part of it for oil—the latter would likely see its 23.8 million acres diced into smaller pieces divided by roads and development. “It was prudent,” said Alaska’s state BLM director Chad Padgett, “to develop a new plan that provides greater economic development of our resources while still providing protections for important resources and subsistence access.” 
What may have been most “prudent,” in Padgett’s parlance, was US Geological Survey scientists’ 2017 discovery of 8.7 billion barrels of oil within this Reserve. The proposed “exploration and development” stands to further exacerbate thumbprints of climate change in the vulnerable Arctic, and threatens much of this landscape’s abundant wildlife. In any case, it will determine the future of the largest piece of public land in the country. 
Further oil exploration would particularly heighten already-intensive conflict around the 3.65-million-acre Teshekpuk Lake special area (see below sidebar for more on threatened areas) and its globally significant bird population. Federal BLM assistant secretary of land and minerals management Joe Balash stated last year that geologists view the area as “extremely prospective.” He asked, “The big question is, can we make some of that acreage available in a manner that is responsible and honors the subsistence way of life that the people who live in the NPRA have lived for thousands of years?” But then in December, North Slope Exploration purchased 83 oil leases, each roughly 11,000 acres, southwest of Teshekpuk Lake. 

Tundra polygons at the Qupaluk marshlands in the Arctic Reserve. They’re shaped by thousand-year-old freezing and thawing forces, plus an underlying permafrost layer. These polygons make for excellent bird nesting areas, as they create small shallow lakes surrounding dry ground. 
“It’s a chess game of incremental moves,” says Susan Culliney, policy director for Audubon Alaska, who adds that the new EIS puts some of the most vulnerable places in the entire Reserve at heightened risk. “This is how places get developed—it’s slow and steady, a spiderweb of development.” Another concern for this ecosystem is the increase in global warming, perhaps most pronounced in Arctic regions. The precise environmental effects will depend on where oil is found and how sensitively it is extracted, pumped, and piped to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline—as well as on the condition of melting permafrost.
The National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska is bound by its name. In 1923, only four years after WWI’s end, President Warren Harding designated, by executive order, this vast block of public land as an emergency fuel supply for the military. Since then, however, the Reserve had seldom been used as a military supply source. In 1977, Secretary of the Interior Cecil Andrus established three protected “special areas” under the authority of the 1976 Naval Petroleum Reserves Production Act: Teshkpuk Lake, Utukok River Uplands, and the Colville River. This law also allowed for “significant subsistence, recreational, fish and wildlife, and historical or scenic values” to be set aside for “maximum protection.” And it balanced those conservation measures with oil exploration elsewhere in the Reserve. In 2004, Interior Secretary Gayle Norton added 97,000 acres of Kasegaluk Lagoon as another special area to maintain populations of beluga whales, walrus, seals, and polar bears. 
The Reserve presently includes hundreds of miles, from the Colville River to the Arctic Ocean, of undisturbed habitat for many thousands of waterfowl—like king eider ducks, tundra swans, and white-fronted geese—on hundreds of ponds and lakes. What some might call barren ground provides homes for grizzly and polar bears, wolverines, Arctic foxes, and musk oxen.  According to Rebecca McGuire, avian ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Arctic coastal plain boasts higher species diversity and density of breeding birds than anywhere else in the circumpolar north. “The NPRA is the most important part of the arctic coastal plain for breeding birds.
Peregrine falcons, classified as endangered 50 years ago, enjoy excellent habitat here, with little pollution and good breeding terrain on the cliffs of the Colville River. This fueled their recovery to hundreds of mating pairs in Alaska—In 1999, Fish and Wildlife removed them from the endangered species list. With its hearty salmon runs, remarkable archeological sites, and fossil beds, rare migratory waterfowl and shorebirds flock to the Reserve every summer. Musk oxen, too, reintroduced a few years back, once again thrive in the Reserve. 
Pure wilderness may be the Reserve’s most defining characteristic, but it’s also home to Indigenous Native Americans—Inupiat villages have existed within the Reserve for as long as anyone remembers. 40 years ago, an Inupiat spokesperson sent a document to the Secretary of Interior. “The Inupiat View” served to demand “Free access and use of the homeland by Inupiat villagers; Strict protection of the homeland’s physical, biological, and cultural environment; [and to provide] The highest possible degree of home rule and management control of the homeland by the Inupiat.” In addition, the View states, “National energy needs should not be transposed into a general exploitive policy… [and] Development for oil and gas development should be areally compact and carefully staged to avoid environmental and social overload.” In return, the Inupiat received a “statutory framework” from the US government promising to meet those requests. 
“The Inupiat View” served to demand “Free access and use of the homeland by Inupiat villagers; Strict protection of the homeland’s physical, biological, and cultural environment; [and to provide] The highest possible degree of home rule and management control of the homeland by the Inupiat.”
But that framework has sprung leaks under the pressure of additional oil profits and an oil development-happy administration. Today, the Inupiat have divergent opinions within the community—with some opposing oil development and others supporting it—but even, so they are in agreement when it comes to the topic of maintaining their subsistence style of living. The town of Nuiqsut, for instance, is home to 425 inhabitants living in close proximity to the oil development that supports them economically; however, their wild surrounds afford them essential opportunities to hunt for caribou and whales. 
According to a 2017 report from the University of Alaska, McDowell Group, two million barrels of oil were produced at Prudhoe Bay in 1977 and twelve years later, 500 million. “Today we are at one-quarter of that capacity (of 500 million barrels). That is the way of most industries.” This pattern of depletion seems to be behind Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski’s urgency to drill. Addressing the Alaska Oil and Gas Association in 2018, the Republican stated, “We have to make sure that drilling will protect the environment and protect the wildlife and protect the land. That is our responsibility. But we will also have to be relentless.” 
Conocco-Phillips, Alaska’s largest oil developer, has holdings in lease units in the North Slope of Alaska including Kuparuk, Alpine, Mooses Tooth 1 & 2, Bear Tooth, Willow, and West Willow. The company also holds 733,000 acres of undeveloped land within the Reserve. Concco-Phillips acquired 48,000 of those acres in the NPRA’s 2018 lease sale, and another 33,149 in 2019. It now has virtual ownership of 1.2 million acres within the Reserve, according to company information. In 2019 the oil company claimed to be “a model for future developments,” thanks to “directional drilling, zero harmful discharge, and other innovations to minimize the environmental footprint on the Arctic.” In addition to a diminished footprint, Conocco-Phillips stated that the newer development allows for greater efficiency, as fracking and directional drilling have resulted in 80 percent increases in Alaskan oil production from 2008 to 2015.  
“Teshekpuk Lake should remain protected,” Daren Beaudo, a spokesman for Conocco-Phillips says, adding, “Other areas south of the lake that are currently unavailable for leasing could be made available for leasing without significant impact.” Some of Conocco-Phillips’ conservation practices have included reducing the size of each gravel pad for drilling, from 65 acres in 1970 to 12 acres today, and using more drills in a single place to assure access to a larger area. In 1970 each drill pad drew from three square miles in an underground pool of oil, and in 2019 Connoco-Phillips predicted that five drills, aimed diagonally from the pad, will grant drillers access to 154 square miles. 
The current EIS defines four alternatives for the public to comment upon: Alt A states the no-action alternative to retain current conditions; Alt B reduces the protected area in the Teshekpuk Special Area by four million acres and maintains all other special areas; Alt C increases the land that is unprotected to 17.1 million acres (this identifies the core area around Teshekpuk Lake as unavailable for oil leasing); Alt D increases the land available for leasing to 18.3 million acres including the entire Teshekpuk area and parts of Utukok River Uplands Special Area. 
Each of these alternatives will reduce the limited protection of the special areas in different ways, as they’re compromises that increase the acreage available for oil production. The BLM EIS will likely meet the desires of oil developers unless citizens offer their commentary to protect the Colville River special area and add protection to the Reserve’s other special areas (Utukok Uplands, Teshekpuk Lake, Peard Bay, and Kasegaluk Lagoon), and the health and wellbeing of the Inupiat. The comment period will run until January 21, 2020. 
Whatever the resulting decision, it revisits one made in 2013 that decreed 11.8 million acres of the Reserve open for oil development and designated 12 million acres off-limits, to protect vulnerable wildlife. Regardless, all action alternatives in the 2019 EIS eliminate the Colville River special area’s protection, which means that the 2.44 million acres (3,813 square miles) in the Colville drainage will not be offered any protection at all, and may be opened up to gravel mining. 
I’m glad I got to experience the wild beauty of the NPRA before roads are built from the pipeline to the lease sites, before oil is developed around Teshekpuk Lake, before more drilling pads are developed and rock for roads to access them is mined from the Colville River drainage. Of course, that’s a worst-case speculation. Ideally, the two existing lawsuits (see sidebar) against the federal government over the BLM’s approval of Conocco-Phillips’ exploratory drilling plan will delay development, and the BLM will take EIS commenters seriously. 

An oil pipeline outside of the village of Nuiqsut, Alaska. Precisely because the tundra is featureless over such a huge area, pipelines and roads in the wetland region of Teshekpuk Lake would grant predators height, and thus access to nesting migratory birds.

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