Tag Archives: wilderness

Obama administration blocks new exploration for oil, gas in Arctic waters

The Obama administration on Nov. 18 blocked new exploration for oil and gas in Arctic waters, in a win for environmental groups that had fought development of the ecologically fragile region.

The Department of the Interior released a 2017 to 2022 leasing plan that blocked drilling in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas off northern Alaska. It also limited petroleum development in the Cook Inlet off south-central Alaska.

Environmental activists have battled drilling in Alaska to protect whales, walruses and seals, and as part of a broader movement to keep remaining fossil fuels in the ground.

The Interior Department said the plan was “balanced,” and left 70 percent of economically recoverable oil and gas resources open to drilling, mostly in the Gulf of Mexico.

The plan focuses on the best areas “with the highest resource potential, lowest conflict and established infrastructure — and removes regions that are simply not right to lease,” Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said.

President Barack Obama, who last year became the first sitting president to cross the Arctic Circle, has made fighting climate change and protecting the Arctic priorities in his administration.

But President-elect Donald Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, 2017, has vowed to open resources to petroleum development and could take steps to reverse the decision.

Oil interests have pressured the administration to explore for energy in the Arctic. Jack Girard, the head of the American Petroleum Institute industry group, said the decision “puts the U.S. at a serious competitive disadvantage.”

Russia and Norway have explored the Arctic, though Exxon Mobil wound down drilling in the Russian north in 2014 due to U.S. sanctions over Moscow’s aggression in eastern Ukraine.

Fierce winds and frigid waters make the Arctic treacherous for drilling equipment.

After spending billions of dollars to explore the Alaskan Arctic, Royal Dutch Shell retreated in 2015 after suffering a gash in one of its ships and environmentalists had uncovered details of an old law that forced the company to cut exploration there by half.

The U.S. Coast Guard complained when Shell was drilling off Alaska that it had been forced to divert resources, including a vessel that fought cocaine trafficking, to keep operations in the region safe.

Environmentalists applauded the new lease plan, which built on a similar decision in March when the government removed much of the Atlantic ocean from oil and gas leasing for five years.

“This is excellent news for our oceans, from the Arctic to the Atlantic,” said Jacqueline Savitz, deputy vice president for U.S. campaigns of Oceana, an international advocacy group.

Editor’s note: This story will be updated with reaction.

Study: Catastrophic declines in wilderness over past 20 years

Researchers reporting in the journal Current Biology show catastrophic declines in wilderness areas around the world over the past 20 years.

They demonstrate alarming losses comprising a tenth of global wilderness since the 1990s – an area twice the size of Alaska and half the size of the Amazon. The Amazon and Central Africa have been hardest hit.

The findings underscore an immediate need for international policies to recognize the value of wilderness areas and to address the unprecedented threats they face, the researchers say.

“Globally important wilderness areas — despite being strongholds for endangered biodiversity, for buffering and regulating local climates, and for supporting many of the world’s most politically and economically marginalized communities — are completely ignored in environmental policy,” says Dr. James Watson of the University of Queensland in Australia and the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York. “Without any policies to protect these areas, they are falling victim to widespread development. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around. International policy mechanisms must recognize the actions needed to maintain wilderness areas before it is too late. We probably have one to two decades to turn this around.”

Watson says much policy attention has been paid to the loss of species, but comparatively little was known about larger-scale losses of entire ecosystems, especially wilderness areas which tend to be relatively understudied.

To fill that gap, the researchers mapped wilderness areas around the globe, with “wilderness” being defined as biologically and ecologically intact landscapes free of any significant human disturbance. The researchers then compared their current map of wilderness to one produced by the same methods in the early 1990s.

This comparison showed that a total of 30.1 million km — around 20 percent of the world’s land area — now remains as wilderness, with the majority being located in North America, North Asia, North Africa, and the Australian continent. However, comparisons between the two maps show that an estimated 3.3 million km — almost 10 percent — of wilderness area has been lost in the intervening years. Those losses have occurred primarily in South America, which has experienced a 30 percent decline in wilderness, and Africa, which has experienced a 14 percent loss.

“The amount of wilderness loss in just two decades is staggering,” according to Dr. Oscar Venter of the University of Northern British Colombia. “We need to recognize that wilderness areas, which we’ve foolishly considered to be de-facto protected due to their remoteness, is actually being dramatically lost around the world. Without proactive global interventions we could lose the last jewels in nature’s crown. You cannot restore wilderness, once it is gone, and the ecological process that underpin these ecosystems are gone, and it never comes back to the state it was. The only option is to proactively protect what is left.”

Watson says the United Nations and others have ignored globally significant wilderness areas in key multilateral environmental agreements and this must change.

“If we don’t act soon, there will only be tiny remnants of wilderness around the planet, and this is a disaster for conservation, for climate change, and for some of the most vulnerable human communities on the planet,” Watson says. “We have a duty to act for our children and their children.”

Hunters to descend on Florida wilderness to kill 320 black bears

Thousands of trophy hunters will descend on Florida’s wilderness to kill an estimated 320 Florida black bears, a unique subspecies of the American black bear that’s found nowhere else on Earth.

The state is holding this hunt on Oct. 24 despite the fact that most Floridians oppose it.

Nearly 3,000 hunting permits have been sold.

Kate MacFall, Florida state director for The Humane Society of the United States, said, “This is a sad day for Florida’s black bears. This weekend, trophy hunters will take to the woods to kill our bears for rugs and taxidermied trophies. This hunt is completely unnecessary and it’s not supported by science or by public sentiment. Research overwhelmingly shows that hunting bears in the woods doesn’t reduce problems with bears in neighborhoods. The state would be better off helping citizens manage trash and outdoor food sources. Unfortunately for bears, most of Florida’s wildlife commissioners failed to listen to the overwhelming majority of Floridians who publicly opposed the hunt.”

The Florida black bear was on the state’s threatened species list just three years ago and the species continues to face serious threats from road mortality, habitat loss and documented genetic isolation from other bear sub-populations.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission set the quota of 320 bears despite the fact that a complete bear population study won’t be available until 2016.

2 cocker spaniels re-enact ‘The Incredible Journey’

After spending almost two weeks in July wandering on their own deep into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness, Jim Cain’s two English cocker spaniels seem to have recovered from their re-enactment of The Incredible Journey.

“There’s no sign of any lasting problems,” Cain said. “But since they’ve done that they don’t pass up a meal. You put a bowl of food down and they’re on it. And they stick a little closer to home now.”

Abby, 11, is the mother to Molly, who is 6 or 7 years old. And their tale of getting lost in the 1 million-acre wilderness and then found is one that the people involved won’t soon forget.

“It was pretty bizarre,” said Sonny Mazzullo, who works for the Montana Wilderness Association as a Continental Divide Trail field coordinator. “It’s definitely one of the most unusual things to happen to me in the backcountry.”

BACKCOUNTRY DIRTy WORK

In July, Mazzullo had a crew of staff and volunteers working on a section of the CDT near Bowl Creek repairing a rotted out turnpike — an elevated trail that crosses swampland. The crew was five days into a nine-day hitch about 11 to 12 miles deep into the wilderness when Abby and Molly came walking down the trail.

“No one thought too much of seeing the two dogs. Everyone figured the owners would be trailing along shortly,” wrote Ted Brewer, MWA’s communications director, in a blog post. “They never showed.”

“After 10 minutes we started fearing the worst, that the dogs had wandered away,” said Mazzullo. “After 20 minutes we figured nobody was coming with them.”

Judging by the cuts on the dogs’ feet and bodies, their thinness, exhaustion, hunger and thirst, the crew figured the dogs had been on the trail for some time.

“They looked haggard,” Mazzullo said.

DOG PACKER

Since the dogs were too exhausted to walk any farther and camp was about 2 miles away from the work site, backcountry horseman and packer Greg Schatz used some of the bags the crew was using to haul gravel to carry the dogs back to camp on his horse, Dusty.

In his 27 years of trekking into the Bob Marshall Wilderness, Schatz has often carried unusual things on his pack horses and mules — everything from bridge timbers to wheelbarrows, fire hose to scaffold — but he said he’s probably never carried anything more unusual than the pair of dogs.

“They were in such tough shape that they couldn’t walk,” he said. “They were finished.”

Then the concern arose that the dogs’ owners may have been injured and that a search and rescue operation might be necessary. Luckily, Molly still had her collar on and a tag that had a phone number.

“Crew co-leader Nick Burkland radioed the Schaefer Meadows Ranger Station and reported finding the dogs,” Brewer wrote. “The ranger called the number on Molly’s dog tag and later reported back that he had reached the dogs’ owners.”

Long potty break

Turns out that Cain had let the dogs out on July 2 to do their morning business while staying at his wife’s family cabin on the West Fork of the Teton River. The area is located northwest of Choteau along the Rocky Mountain Front. An hour later, there was no sign of the two black pooches.

Worried, Cain said his family contacted everyone they could think of: the county sheriff, Forest Service and the newspaper in Great Falls. They even offered a $500 reward and spent the rest of their vacation at the cabin driving up and down the road and checking trails in the area.

“We’re quite the dog people,” Cain said, noting that altogether they have eight canines at their Conrad home. “Those two really love to go outdoors. They’re field dogs. They’re used to running around.”

But after a week of looking and with no leads, he said the chance of ever seeing the dogs again seemed hopeless.

TOUGH TERRAIN

How the dogs ended up crossing the Continental Divide 12 to 13 miles from the cabin is uncertain. Did they chase an animal and lose their way, or maybe follow other hikers or a pack train?

Schatz described the terrain between the cabin and work site as “extremely rocky,” littered with downfall and dense brush. What’s more, the dogs would have crossed the Rocky Mountain Front, known to the Blackfeet Tribe as the backbone of the world. The trail crew went over 7,200-foot high Teton Pass — an elevation gain of about 1,600 feet above Cain’s cabin. Whether the dogs followed that trail or clambered over the Lewis and Clark mountain range somewhere else — places with names like Corrugate Ridge or Washboard Reef — is unknown.

“I was shocked that the dogs, which are not backcountry dogs, had made it as far as they did, and with no dog food,” Schatz said. “They probably had 200 miles on them.”

The area is so remote that Mazzullo said during the trail crew’s stay they only saw two other backpackers the whole time, with the exception of the Forest Service and horse-packers who were scheduled to come in.

TRAIL NURSES

With Cain unable to retrieve the dogs from the wilderness, the trail crew took turns staying with the pups until work near Bowl Creek was finished. Mazzullo said he always carries a two-man tent into the wilderness, just in case someone else needs a place to stay.

“I made room for the ladies,” he joked.

With temperatures staying cool, Abby was constantly shaking, Mazzullo said.

When the work on the Bowl Creek turnpike was done, the trail crew wasn’t quite sure how they could get the dogs out, since their feet were still hurting. Carrying the 30-pound dogs in their arms wasn’t practical. So the idea was hatched to cut down long logs and hang the gravel bags in the middle to give the dogs a place to ride out. The volunteers would take turns carrying the logs on their shoulder.

“After about 5 miles, I was thinking we might have been able to get by with smaller logs,” Mazzullo said.

Molly only stayed in her hammock about two miles before she scrambled free. But Abby — the older dog — was happy to make the trip out on the shoulders of the workers.

TRAILHEAD REUNION

Cain’s wife Traci was waiting at the trailhead to greet the workers, snapping pictures and cuddling the long-lost pooches. She insisted the volunteers take the reward money, which the crew donated to the MWA and its Continental Divide Trail program.

“You could tell right away that the dogs were really happy,” Mazzullo said. “That was a good feeling. We had gotten pretty attached to them.”

Cain still can’t thank the volunteers enough.

“Mom was pretty shell-shocked,” he said of the older dog, Abby. “If they hadn’t met that trail crew she wouldn’t have made it.”

Looking back on the incident, Mazzullo is philosophical.

“The thing that’s cool about the story is that it’s a reflection of the good hearts that our volunteers have,” he said. “Our volunteers are terrific.”

Published via the AP member exchange.

Obama wants wilderness designation for Arctic refuge’s coastal plain

President Barack Obama is calling on Congress to designate the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska as a wilderness.

“This is the best news for the refuge since President Eisenhower established it in 1960 as the Arctic National Wildlife Range,” said Rhea Suh, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’s a national treasure worthy of the highest protection available for our public lands. NRDC is committed to making that protection a reality. And we will continue working to preserve, protect and defend other such treasures in the Far North — and everywhere else.”

The White House on Jan. 25 issued this statement from John Podesta, counselor to the president, and Mike Boots, who leads the White House Council on Environmental Quality: “This far northern region is known as ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins’ to Alaska Native communities. The refuge sustains the most diverse array of wildlife in the entire Arctic — home not only to the Porcupine caribou, but to polar bears, gray wolves, and muskoxen. Bird species from the Coastal Plain migrate to all 50 states of the country — meaning that no matter where you live, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is part of your landscape. 

“But the majority of the Refuge is not protected as wilderness, including the coastal plain. For more than three decades, some voices have clamored to drill for oil in the coastal plain — a move that could irreparably damage this ecological treasure and harm the Alaska Native communities who still depend on the caribou for subsistence.

“Today, the Department of the Interior released a revised Comprehensive Conservation Plan to better sustain and manage the entire Arctic National Wildlife Refuge — and President Obama took it a step further and announced his plans to ask Congress to designate the Coastal Plain and other core areas of the refuge as wilderness.…

“The coastal plain of the Arctic Refuge, one of the few remaining places in the country as pristine today as it was when the oldest Alaska Native communities first set eyes on it, is too precious to put at risk. By designating the area as wilderness, Congress could preserve the Coastal Plain in perpetuity — ensuring that this wild, free, beautiful, and bountiful place remains in trust for Alaska Natives and for all Americans.”

Earthjustice president Trip Van Noppen said today, “We call on Congress to follow the president’s lead. Known as ‘The Sacred Place Where Life Begins’ to Alaska Native communities and teeming with rare wildlife, this is a place of incalculable beauty and value, to be protected like Yellowstone and Yosemite, not turned into another polluted oil patch.”