Action Report: June/July 2003

How National Wildlife Federation is making a difference

  • Rene Ebersole
  • Jun 01, 2003
Pollution Plan Boosts Mercury Threat 
It's called the Clear Skies Initiative, but the new Bush administration program appears to be misnamed. Far from cleaning the air, the plan could lead to higher levels of toxic mercury in the environment.

Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the United States, and current laws require new power plants to lower their mercury emissions by 2008. This could cut mercury emissions nationwide by 90 percent. But under the administration's proposal, power plants would only have to comply if doing so would be "economically and technologically feasible." Further, the Bush administration's proposal would give power plants another decade before controlling mercury levels, and then would require only a 70 percent reduction by 2018.

"That's more than five times as much power-plant mercury pollution for more than a decade longer," says Felice Stadler, NWF's Clean the Rain campaign project director. "That pace is not only too slow, it's a rollback of existing Clean Air Act requirements at a time when much more work needs to be done."

A heavy metal that descends from polluted air into water, mercury works its way up the food chain. It is especially dangerous to people and wildlife--particularly otters, eagles, herons and loons--that eat a lot of freshwater and marine fish. High mercury levels in waterways have spurred officials in 44 states to issue warnings to people to restrict or avoid eating fish caught from lakes, streams and coastal waters.

Further, according to a recent report by the Centers for Disease Control, one in 12 women of childbearing age has mercury levels above those considered safe for protection of fetuses. As a result, approximately 320,000 newborns are at risk of developmental delays each year because of exposure in utero. Contact with the silvery neurotoxin through breast milk can cause memory problems, impaired motor function and even mental retardation in infants, and may play a role in attention deficit disorder and autism. In adults, elevated exposure can cause infertility and heart disease.

"Clearly, we need stringent emission standards at power plants if we are to meaningfully address mercury levels in the environment," Stadler says.

Your Contributions at Work 
The battles that NWF wins on the conservation frontlines are made possible by financial support from members and donors like you. Your recent contributions are helping to fund dozens of initiatives, including:

Habitat enhancement for coho, chum and chinook salmon on the Newaukum Creek in Washington through our Keep the Wild Alive™ program.

Habitat protection for pollinators--bees, butterflies, birds, bats and other mammals. Learn how to create a pollinator-friendly backyard habitat at In Your Backyard.

Conservation of wildlife and wilderness on Native American lands through our Tribal Lands Conservation Program. Visit Where We Work.

Saving the "Wild Heart of the West" 
In its continuing efforts to protect Western wilderness areas, NWF is fighting a recently released federal oil and gas development plan that could puncture the heart of Wyoming's Red Desert--an area called Jack Morrow Hills. This 600,000-acre landscape--home to the nation's largest herd of pronghorn, rare desert elk and imperiled sage grouse--is no stranger to thumper trucks and mammoth drill bits. Over the years, Jack Morrow Hills has been pierced by more than 150 wells, though the area still retains its ecological richness. But experts say that richness won't likely survive another onslaught.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) aims to sink more than 200 oil and gas wells in the area over the next few decades. Yet, according to the state of Wyoming's own numbers, drilling all the recoverable oil and gas reserves in Jack Morrow Hills would furnish the United States with only a nine-week supply of natural gas and 39 minutes of oil.

NWF and a coalition of conservation groups have offered another economically viable option, called the "Wildlife and Wildlands Alternative," which calls for the trade and buyout of oil and gas leases in the Jack Morrow Hills area in exchange for responsible recreation and grazing. "It doesn't make sense to risk a natural treasure of this scale when a management solution exists that will safeguard the Jack Morrow Hills for people and wildlife," says NWF President Mark Van Putten.

Battling a Bird-Killing Pesticide in Florida 
The Florida Wildlife Federation (FWF), an NWF affiliate, and two other environmental groups are currently in negotiations with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over its approved use of fenthion, a mosquito pesticide that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says has killed hundreds of birds in the Sunshine State. In Florida's Collier County, fenthion is used to rid Marco Island--the gateway to the Ten Thousand Islands--of pesky mosquitoes overflowing from the Everglades. Sprayed by helicopters, the pesticide is powerful enough to kill adult mosquitoes. The problem is it also kills birds. Between 1998 and 1999, at least 12 separate fenthion-related bird kills occurred in Collier County.

"These incidents, which were reported to the EPA, resulted in the death of birds from at least 16 species that are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, including one--a piping plover--that is a federally listed endangered species," says FWF's Nancy Payton. "The EPA should be consulting with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as they are required to do by law. And until that's resolved, fenthion should be suspended from use."

Court Action to Conserve Missouri River 
Attempting to break the U.S. Army Corps' stranglehold on the Missouri River, a coalition of conservation groups recently filed suit against the agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). The objective: to save endangered species, improve the river's health and produce economic benefits. The coalition, which includes NWF and six of its state affiliates, is seeking more wildlife friendly water releases from a half dozen dams along the Missouri.

The Corps currently releases water from its dams on a schedule driven by commercial shipping interests. These unnatural flows have driven three species--the pallid sturgeon, piping plover and interior least tern--to the brink of extinction. "Today's scant commercial shipping makes it clear that the Missouri River's future depends on restoring the waterway for other economic benefits," says Mark Van Putten, NWF president. "The Corps must cease to manage the river based on the obsolete notion that navigation is its biggest benefit and begin a new era of conserving this natural resource for people and wildlife."

NWF's Efforts on Tribal Lands Honored 
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently applauded NWF's joint effort with the Cheyenne River Game, Fish and Parks Department to create a 21,500-acre preserve in the heart of Cheyenne River Sioux reservation lands in South Dakota.

Crowning the plan a 2003 Environmental Justice Revitalization Project, the EPA celebrated the project's success in partnering with communities, governmental agencies and other stakeholders to bring about a park that will showcase the tribe's ongoing prairie conservation efforts and create much-needed jobs through ecotourism. Says NWF Tribal Lands Conservation Program Director Steve Torbit, "The Cheyenne River Sioux are committed to conserving and restoring the American prairie on a grand scale."

Annual Meeting Pursues NWF's American Dream 
NWF members, supporters and affiliate delegates from around the country recently came together in Washington, D.C., for the Federation's 67th Annual Meeting. The meeting's mission: to advance the conservation values that are part of the American dream--to help ensure clean water, healthy habitat and abundant wildlife.

Announced at the meeting were this year's additions and changes to NWF's volunteer Board of Directors. New Chair Rebecca Scheibelhut is an educator from Mishawaka, Indiana who has championed the environment at community, state and national levels for more than 25 years. David Carruth, an environmental attorney and former board president of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation, adds to the Federation's board his experience fighting harmful U.S. Army Corps of Engineer projects. Christine Peralta Thompson is an environmental management consultant from Virginia Beach, Virginia, and former president of the South Carolina Wildlife Federation. David Wimberly, an investment manager from Boston, Massachusetts, serves on the board of the Wild Salmon Center and is a director of the Anglers' Club of New York.

Also presented at the meeting was the Trudy Farrand/John Strohm Magazine Writing Award for outstanding writing in National Wildlife. New Jersey-based writer Jessica Snyder Sachs was honored for "Seeking Safe Passage," an article about wildlife corridors in the June/July 2002 issue. A longstanding supporter of NWF and member of the President's Council, Mrs. Edmund Ball of Muncie, Indiana, established the writing award ten years ago in memory of Trudy Farrand, who started Ranger Rick, and John Strohm, founding editor of National Wildlife.

Michigan's Lord of the Wings 
Joe Kaplan wasn't looking to stir up trouble with the Michigan State Police. The 37-year-old student was simply minding his own business--studying loons, working on his graduate degree at Michigan Technological University. But when Kaplan heard two years ago that the police had erected a 500-foot tower in the middle of an important migratory bird flyway, he couldn't stay quiet. Someone had to do something. And so was born another NWF volunteer activist.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that more than 4 million birds--mostly migratory songbirds--die every year when they collide with tall communication towers. Scientists say the birds are likely drawn to the towers' bright lights, especially on cloudy nights when the celestial signposts they use to navigate are hidden. Joe Kaplan was deeply concerned about a tower the police had placed at the tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan. Embraced by Lake Superior, the basalt backbone of the Keweenaw is a natural flight path for migrants navigating around the lake. "There are a lot of birds that concentrate there," says Kaplan. "And they put a tower right on the bluff at the end of the peninsula. It seemed like a disastrous place."

Public records revealed that the tower was just one of 181 towers in a statewide police system that was licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) without environmental review. What's more, some of the towers stand on the breeding grounds of endangered Kirtland's warblers. Scientists estimate some 900 Kirtland's warblers are left in the entire world--and most of them breed in Michigan.

Kaplan suspected the FCC's actions had violated the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires federal agencies to consider alternatives when proposing any action that may affect the environment. He sought a lawyer and found Michelle Halley, NWF's attorney for the Lake Superior region.

For almost a year, Kaplan and Halley tried to resolve the issue through negotiations with the FCC and the Michigan State Police. But when it became clear last spring that the talks were not progressing, they filed a petition with the commission requesting environmental impact studies on each of the 181 towers. "This is really a national problem," says Halley. "Our main goal is to ensure that the FCC requires its applicants to comply with federal environmental laws so that avian mortalities due to communication towers are reduced or eliminated."

In the meantime, Kaplan is interested in monitoring the carnage beneath the towers and increasing public awareness about the impacts of tall towers on birds. And he plans to continue to push the FCC to do the right thing. "They can't hide these towers," he says.

Reports Reveal Big Energy's Toll on Arctic 
The roads, rigs and pipelines used to find, pump and transport oil and gas have taken a significant toll on 89,000 acres of Alaska's North Slope, according to a recent National Academy of Sciences report. The report found that over the last three decades, energy development has, among other things, altered the course of migrating bowhead whales and impacted the distribution and reproduction of central Arctic caribou. Combined with a Senate vote in March that rejected oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the second time in less than a year, the report's findings reaffirm that the refuge should remain untouched, says Jamie Rappaport Clark, NWF's senior vice president for conservation programs. A new NWF report, The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Wildlife Values, provides additional evidence of the reserve's importance to dozens of species.

Buy NWF Coffee, Help Save a Songbird 
If you enjoy watching birds out your window with a morning cup of coffee, consider this: The java you drink could actually give those backyard visitors a boost. Many birds that frequent your feeders annually migrate to and from Latin America--where their habitat is being increasingly converted to sun-grown coffee plantations. In response to this threat, NWF has teamed up with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters to develop Café Verde, a blend of fair trade, organic, shade-grown coffee. Studies show shade-grown coffee plantations are beneficial to birds and other wildlife because they keep tree diversity intact, provide habitat and avoid using harmful pesticides. For more information on the importance of buying sustainable coffee and to purchase Café Verde, visit NWF Coffee.

Protecting a Migration Path for Pronghorn 
NWF and the Wyoming Wildlife Federation, an affiliate, recently agreed to settle a suit involving a rancher who constructed nearly 90 miles of antelope-proof fencing on a federally managed grazing allotment, destroying an important pronghorn migration route. The Austin Triangle Allotment in southwest Wyoming contains a checkerboard of one-mile square sections of alternately privately and federally owned land. The rancher's fenced sections created an impassible maze for migrating pronghorn, says NWF Counsel Tom Lustig. Now no more antelope-proof fencing will be built anywhere on the allotment, and the rancher will modify sections of existing fence that are critical to pronghorn movement. "We are pleased with the settlement," says Lustig. "Although it doesn't restore the allotment to an ideal migration corridor for pronghorn, it improves and secures migration routes across both federal and private lands."

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