We rely on wilderness not only to inspire and enjoy but also to protect our watersheds, clean the air we breathe, and provide a home for the diverse species that enrich our world.
NRDC protects wildlife and unspoiled lands from the threats of industrial development, commercial exploitation, pollution, and climate change. We partner with ranchers, farmers, energy companies, and the government to promote solutions that help wild predators coexist with livestock and people. We push for international agreements that shield polar bears, elephants, rhinos, and other animals from being killed for trade. And we fight to keep reckless oil and gas drilling out of wild areas, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Boreal Forest.
99 percent of plants and animals protected under the Endangered Species Act still exist today.
The Pacific Northwest’s salmon are in big, hot trouble. Billions of taxpayer dollars have been spent on a wild range of government efforts to save these sacred and essential fish—from transporting salmon in trucks around dams that block the river to shooting thousands of cormorants—with little recovery or success.
A report released by Columbia Riverkeeper this summer sheds new light on what’s killing our salmon: hot water caused by dams. The Report’s findings confirm that if we are going to save the salmon—and the killer whales and countless other species that depend on these fish for their survival—it’s time to rethink the lower Snake River dams.
Salmon need cool water to survive. Adult sockeye salmon have difficulty migrating upstream when water temperatures approach 68°F. Migration stops altogether when water temperatures reach 72 to 73°F. The fish then start to die from stress and disease.
The summer of 2015 brought severe heat and drought to the region. During this time, parts of the lower Snake River stayed warmer than 68°F for two straight months, leading to the death of approximately 250,000 adult sockeye salmon. Only 4% of the Snake River sockeye that returned to the Columbia basin in 2015 made it past the four Lower Snake River dams. Survival of adult migrating Chinook salmon, the primary prey of the critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales, was also at an historical low.
Columbia Riverkeeper ran a computer model of river temperature that compared conditions with and without the four lower Snake River dams. The model predicted river temperatures based on data about climate, the shape of the river, upstream water temperature, and other factors.
The findings were striking. A free-flowing Lower Snake River would have remained cooler than 68°F during most of the summer of 2015. In contrast, water temperatures in most of the dammed Lower Snake – specifically the three downstream reservoirs – reached 68°F in mid to late June and remained near or above 68°F until September. The reservoir created by Ice Harbor Dam reached 70°F by the beginning of July and stayed at least that warm until August. To compare the two, see below Figure X.
Figure X: Comparison of 2105 summer water temperatures between the actual, dammed Lower Snake River (left) and a modeled, free-flowing Lower Snake River (right). The blue horizontal lines show 68°F – the water temperature that seriously impairs salmon migration.
Source: CRK White Paper
The bad news is that the four lower Snake River dams significantly heat the river by slowing flow and creating huge, stagnant, salmon-killing reservoirs that soak up the sun. Each of the lower Snake River reservoirs was found to raise the water temperature by 2 to 4°F.
The good news is that without the dams, the lower Snake River would not warm up as significantly and would cool more quickly, as warm water would be flushed downstream by cooler upstream water. A ‘pulse’ of hot water takes roughly two weeks to pass through the dammed lower Snake, but it would pass through a free-flowing river in just a few days.
This region is famous for its beautiful outdoors, its bountiful wildlife, its big trees, and roaring rivers. But what really brings the Pacific Northwest together is its salmon.
In a recent interview in Street Roots News, Elliott Moffett, co-founder of Nimi’ipuu Protecting the Environment, explained why he is fighting to remove the dams on the lower Snake River (Weyikespe in Nimi'ipuu): “the salmon is not doing that well, and so our people are not doing that well, and that’s one of the reasons why we take this on, because we’ve gotta heal our community, as well as the community of salmon, and the ecosystems that they swim in.”
Asked what the dams represent, Elliot said: “They represent an unnaturalness. …we believe the rivers have life, and they impede that life that we see. … When they dammed them, when they impounded them, they took it out of that life cycle. And now they’re just these big backwater, sediment-filled ponds, so our fish can’t survive in them. That’s what they represent to me. And I know for others they represent what they call progress, but that to us is not progress. It’s not sustainable.”
Perhaps true progress begins with admitting past mistakes. There is a way out of this hot water crisis. We free the Snake River.
A victory for Alaska’s forests—but further threats on the state's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, plus more pipelines and ongoing attacks on our national monuments.
In his debut speech before the United Nations General Assembly, President Trump dropped 4,580 words on the heads of state and ministers from nearly every country on earth.
He thought it appropriate to talk about America’s prosperity, military prowess, and pummeling by hurricanes. He called on the world community to stand up to “rogue regimes” like North Korea and Iran, which he called “the scourge of our planet.”
Yet he couldn’t squeeze in a couple of words about an issue that the world has already united on: the true scourge of our planet, climate change.
Indeed, the president failed to discuss the growing dangers from our changing climate or his plans to withdraw the United States from the landmark Paris Agreement, which leaves―with Nicaragua joining the accord this week—America and Syria as the only two nations refusing to support the world’s most significant global climate action ever.
“Given that he’s abdicated his responsibility, it’s now on the leaders of other nations to rally the will of the people to leave our children a livable world,” Rhea Suh, NRDC’s president, wrote in the New York Daily News. “It’s on our state and local officials, investors, and businesses to press forward with the progress we need. And, more than even that, it’s on us, as American citizens, to demand better of our leaders.”
In other ways, Trump and his team kept up the assault on our health and environment, although there was one important victory for wilderness protection.
On September 20, a federal judge upheld the Roadless Area Conservation Rule, which was issued by the Clinton administration’s U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit the number of roads built in national forests. It’s an important win because it protects 50 million acres of wild national forests and grasslands for the public and future generations.
“This rule has weathered endless attacks by corporate interests and their allies. But it’s as enduring as the old-growth forest it protects,” said Niel Lawrence, NRDC’s Alaska director. “No rule has saved as much federal forestland from destruction. Now it has itself been saved, once again.”
Groups Outline Opposition to Trump Nominee for Clean Air Office
NRDC and allies sent a letter to key senators on September 19 with supporting documentation outlining their strong opposition to the nomination of Bill Wehrum, Trump’s pick to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Air and Radiation—enforcers of the Clean Air Act and protectors of clean air.
In 2006, President George W. Bush nominated Wehrum, a lobbyist who has represented coal, oil, gas, and chemical companies, for the same post, but Wehrum withdrew when it became clear the Senate wouldn’t confirm him.
And it shouldn’t this time around, either, NRDC and allies say. “In private practice with corporate law firms,” they wrote, “Mr. Wehrum has represented industrial interests in nearly 35 lawsuits that sought to weaken or void EPA clean air and public health safeguards. Americans deserve better for the nation’s chief clean air official.”
Will FERC Greenlight More Gas Pipelines?
With Trump nominee Neil Chatterjee now at its helm, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave a green light this past week to a natural gas pipeline that had been rejected by the state of New York.
FERC has rejected only two pipelines in three decades, according to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania. But to John Moore, senior attorney for the Sustainable FERC Project at NRDC, the commission appears to break new ground. “Historically, FERC has been careful not to tread over state decisions and state prerogatives,” Moore said, adding a concern that future “close calls” could go more pipeline companies’ way.
Zinke Puts 10 National Monuments at Risk of Being Opened for Mining, Drilling, and Hunting
Back in August, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said he’d recommended changes to just a handful of our national monuments in a monument review he sent to the president. Now we know from a leaked memo that Zinke actually targeted 10 to be carved up for private profit.
Zinke’s memo called for downsizing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, both in Utah; Cascade Siskiyou in Oregon; and Gold Butte in Nevada—but didn’t say by how much the boundaries should change. He also urged change in the use and/or management of six other monuments: Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine; Organ Mountains–Desert Peaks and Rio Grande, both in New Mexico; Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument; Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument; and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument.
If Trump accepts Zinke’s recommendations, he’ll have a fight on his hands. “We will stand up for the nearly three million people who urged the administration to protect these monuments—in court, if necessary,” NRDC’s Rhea Suh warned.
Trump Moves to Open the Pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to Energy Exploitation
The Washington Postreported on September 15 that the Trump administration is moving to try to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for the first time in three decades to oil and gas drilling. “This is a really big deal,” said NRDC’s Niel Lawrence. “This is a frontal attack in an ideological battle. The Arctic is the Holy Grail.”
That’s this week’s Real Lowdown. NRDC has prepared a list of other far-ranging threats. And we’re vigilantly reporting on the administration’s assault on the environment through Trump Watch.
Trump Watch: NRDC tracks the Trump administration’s assaults on the environment.
The decision shot down Alaska’s challenge to the Roadless Rule, which protects 50 million acres throughout the United States from logging and road-building.
Yesterday, a Washington, D.C., district court rejected the state of Alaska’s latest attempt to scrap a 16-year-old rule that protects 50 million acres of wild national forests across 37 states.
The Roadless Area Conservation Rule, enacted by President Bill Clinton in 2001, protects the integrity of national forest wildlands by prohibiting damaging development, including commercial logging the construction of most roads. The rule was created for good reason—huge areas of our national forests have been logged, many of them clear-cut, and by 2000, the U.S. Forest Service was maintaining close to 400,000 miles of roads, more than the country’s entire interstate highway system.
But the timber industry—and states like Alaska where the industry holds a lot of influence—has for years been challenging these protections, and environmental groups, including NRDC, have fought off numerous efforts to overturn them. The state had sought to exempt the 17-million-acre Tongass National Forest, America’s largest, from the Roadless Rule, but the U.S. Supreme Court rejected that effort in March 2016. Yesterday’s decision in favor of groups represented by NRDC and Earthjustice applied to the nationwide rule—a huge victory for our pristine public lands, for the wildlife that inhabit them, and for future generations who will also be able to cherish them.
“This rule has weathered endless attacks by corporate interests and their allies,” says Niel Lawrence, NRDC’s Alaska director. “But it’s as enduring as the old-growth forest it protects. No rule has saved as much federal forestland from destruction. Now it has itself been saved, once again.”
The critically endangered Florida panther is battling ongoing threats to its survival.
Florida’s wildlife, including the critically endangered Florida panther, was one of the toughest holdouts during Hurricane Irma. After all, the panther cannot evacuate and has learned to adapt to such storms. But this species cannot adapt to the constant manmade threats to its survival, including an ever-increasing human population in South Florida, more cars, and habitat destruction from residential and fossil fuel development.
It is estimated that fewer than 200 Florida panthers remain in the single population living in South Florida. Last year, panther deaths tied for the worst year on record, and 34 panthers were killed by vehicle collisions alone. So it is essential to retain this big cat’s endangered status and protect all remaining panther habitat to ensure the continued survival of this iconic species.
And yet development of prime habitat rolls on, including on public lands that should serve as places of refuge for the panther as well as other species. In the Florida Everglades, the fossil fuel industry has targeted the panther’s home in the Big Cypress National Preserve for oil development. The politically powerful Collier family, after whom a county was named, owns the oil beneath the preserve. While oil development has taken place in discrete portions of Big Cypress, developers are targeting new areas for exploration, which will further restrict panther movements and adversely impact habitats.
The Colliers leased their mineral rights to the Texas-based Burnett Oil Company, which has already begun seismic oil exploration in Big Cypress and will occur in four phases, ultimately impacting 230,000 acres, or one-third, of the preserve. The first phase has already begun using 33-ton “vibroseis” vehicles that drive off-road in sensitive wetland areas and panther habitats, causing damage to soils and vegetation. The full extent of the impacts to panther habitat is unknown, and it is unclear how this will affect the small Florida panther population.
Next door to Big Cypress, in parts of the Dinner Island Ranch Wildlife Management Area and other lands that are state- and privately owned, the Mississippi-based Tocala, LLC, wants to conduct oil exploration using explosives to generate seismic signals. These explosives would penetrate underlying aquifers and disrupt Florida panther movements and habitats.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is reviewing the Florida panther’s endangered status. The best available science on the panther’s recovery found that the federal government should only consider reclassifying the species to a “threatened” status if there are two viable populations of at least 240 adults and sub-adults for at least 12 years, along with other factors related to habitat and panther corridor connections. For delisting, the science calls for three populations of 240 panthers. The newest population estimate of 120 to 230 panthers, if accurate, is not enough to even constitute one viable population.
So, it is clear the Fish and Wildlife Service should retain the highest level of protection for the Florida panther, especially given the threats it faces from vehicles and continual habitat modification and destruction. To remove protections now would betray this iconic species and the students from throughout the state who selected the Florida panther as the state’s mammal in 1982. If we don’t act now to prevent this species from becoming extinct, future generations will never know the Florida panther.
Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke recommended modifying at least 10 national monuments, according to a report he submitted to the president last month.
Despite receiving 2.8 million comments from the public in support of our national monuments, U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has advised President Trump to change the way at least 10 of these treasured areas are managed and to shrink the boundaries of at least four of them. Zinke’s report, submitted to Trump in late August and leaked last night, didn’t address more than a dozen other monuments that had been under official review.
“If President Trump accepts Zinke’s advice and moves to eviscerate monument protections, he’d be ignoring the law—and the will of the American people,” NRDC president Rhea Suh said. The monuments in question were established in previous administrations under the Antiquities Act, a 1906 law authorizing presidents to set aside federal lands for protection.
The memo called for reductions to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante, both in Utah; Cascade Siskiyou in Oregon; and Gold Butte in Nevada, but it didn’t include specific recommendations for their boundary changes. He also urged change in the use and/or management of six other monuments: Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine; Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks and Rio Grande, both in New Mexico; Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument; Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument; and Rose Atoll Marine National Monument.
Zinke also proposed opening these publicly held national monuments up to drilling, logging, commercial fishing, and other activities for private profit.
Suh emphasized NRDC’s commitment to keeping these cherished lands and waters safe from destruction. “We will stand up for the nearly three million people who urged the administration to protect these monuments—in court, if necessary,” she said. “We will not allow these special lands and waters to be handed over to private interests for drilling, commercial fishing, logging, and other extraction.”
Surely readers are as tired of reading this headline as the advocate is of writing it. Too bad for us, GOP members of Congress and their counterparts in the Administration have somehow not grown tired of brazenly attacking fundamental environmental protections. Case-in-point: Wednesday, September 13th, the House Natural Resources Committee is holding a markup on seven bills that threaten the role of science and citizen engagement in federal decision-making on public lands, resources, and wildlife. By continuing a dangerous trend of limiting public involvement in government decisions, subverting scientific considerations in favor of political calculations, and undermining the rule of law, these bills and their sponsors not only attack our environment—they attack the foundation of our democracy.
One perennial piece of legislation included in the markup is the SHARE Act (H.R. 3668). Damaging provisions within the bill would forgo science-based decision-making under the Endangered Species Act; eliminate public participation in federal planning processes under the National Environmental Policy Act; and jeopardize management of the National Wildlife Refuge System by curtailing critical habitat conservation programs. The bill also contains the reoccurring “War on Wolves” rider that continues Congressional attempts to interfere with science-based listing decisions and undermine the rule of law and citizen court access by precluding judicial review of two gray wolf delisting decisions. This destructive, undemocratic bill threatens to harm wildlife and public lands, erode bedrock environmental laws, and undermine key conservation policies.
Another bill under consideration is the Native American Energy Act (H.R. 210), which would erode the public interest by severely limiting citizen engagement and government transparency surrounding the development of major energy projects on tribal lands. Specifically, one section of the bill would amend the cornerstone National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) by restricting public input on environmental reviews to only members of the Indian tribe and the “affected area.” Citizens and communities outside the tribe, even if significantly affected by the project, would be cut out of the process and could not sue for government malfeasance. In doing so, this provision would undermine public involvement in decisions around potentially environmentally devastating projects. To make matters worse, another section would insulate these same projects from judicial review making legal challenges overwhelmingly cost-prohibitive except by large corporations.
And of course, a House Natural Resources Committee event would not be complete without an attack (or five) on the Endangered Species Act itself. In addition to the above loaded pieces of legislation, the Committee markup will also include five anti-Endangered Species Act bills. In continuing the tired theme of prioritizing politics over science and undercutting citizens’ ability to help enforce the law, these bills threaten to undermine the effectiveness of the Endangered Species Act as a whole.
Thankfully, these proposals are too far gone to pass as standalone bills on the House floor. However, that does not mean that their sponsors will not seek to attach them as policy riders on any must-pass legislation that moves. Pro-environment, pro-democracy members of Congress must stand strong against such attempts, and must not be coerced into voting for such destructive legislation—regardless of the vehicle.
All Hands In to Repair Seattle’s Polluted Duwamish River
Local groups and government agencies are working together to remediate this Superfund site in the city’s midst, despite diminishing support from the EPA.
“The dangers in the Duwamish River are hidden. They’re not visible, and you can’t experience them with your senses,” says Sharon Leishman of the Duwamish Alive Coalition, which brings together nonprofits and government agencies dedicated to improving the health of this Seattle-area waterway.
Part of the group’s mission is raising public awareness of all those invisible dangers: namely, the polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), dioxins, carcinogenic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (cPAHs), and arsenic that routinely flow into the waterway through stormwater pipes and upland runoff and have accumulated along the river’s shores during more than a century of heavy industry. The five-mile stretch that flows into Elliott Bay is so polluted that in 2001 it was declared the Lower Duwamish Waterway Superfund Site and added to the National Priorities List.
Additionally, the Washington State Department of Health has determined that the Lower Duwamish River’s crabs, other shellfish, and resident bottom-feeders harbor unsafe levels of PCBs and other chemicals. Despite warning signs posted along the Duwamish’s banks, members of riverfront communities—many of whom are immigrant populations—fish in the waterway. After all, the Duwamish doesn’t smell bad and may look relatively clean to people from areas with visibly polluted rivers, Leishman says.
Restoring the Duwamish may be even more complicated than first anticipated, due to the river’s complex ecosystem, impacts from climate change, and—not least—the agenda of the new EPA head, Scott Pruitt, who has worked to abandon federal clean water regulations, loosen air pollution standards, and cut environmental justice programs. What’s more, the cleanup efforts themselves can backfire if not done with appropriate care—after all, the diesel trucks and trains used to ferry materials back and forth from the site carry their own harmful impacts. That associated air pollution is a threat that the city of Seattle is keenly aware of and has been working hard to minimize. The surrounding neighborhoods already face the region’s highest ranking for air pollution, and childhood asthma hospitalization rates in the city are twice that of the King County average.
Ultimately, the goal for river rehabilitation extends beyond its channel to the well-being of the communities that flank it. “Once the Duwamish River’s quality is on par with Puget Sound,” says James Rasmussen, director of the Duwamish River Cleanup Coalition, “area life is more equitable.”
Cleaning the River
Four entities partially responsible for the sediment contamination—the city of Seattle, King County, the Port of Seattle, and aerospace manufacturer Boeing—already have poured $200 million into initial efforts to reduce PCB levels on the Duwamish, cutting them by half since work began in 2013. Now, phase two—a $340 million undertaking—is about to begin. The work will include dredging areas prone to erosion, in some cases laying down a clean layer of sand and in other areas adding an engineered cap over remaining contamination.
Stop Trump and Pruitt’s escalated anti-environment assault
After the dredging phase, the Washington Department of Ecology, working with the EPA, will address the sources of continuing pollution. “The Duwamish is the industrial heartland of King County,” says Dave Schuchardt, Seattle’s point person for the Duwamish Superfund since 2007. And while most contamination in the sediment occurred before the Clean Water Act was enacted in 1972—“when industry dumped waste down the drain,” Schuchardt says—PCBs from older buildings, such as those with aging exterior paint, are breaking down and entering the region’s water systems.
New technologies are showing promise. A pilot study is determining if activated carbon can keep low-level PCBs out of the river bottom where dead and decaying matter is snapped up by bottom-feeding fish. Researchers are hoping that the cleansing effects ripple up the food chain onto the dinner plate. Most urban waterways have some fishing advisories, Schuchardt says, but “we do expect cleanup to reduce the contamination level.”
A Change in EPA Strategy
Earlier this year, Pruitt announced he would prioritize the Superfund program. His Superfund Task Force released its initial report on July 25 after just 30 days of deliberation. Although it’s too early to tell how Pruitt’s approach may impact the Duwamish cleanup, some find the report’s focus concerning. It does not seem to support the kind of comprehensive effort underway in Seattle; rather, it emphasizes expediting cleanup efforts, cutting costs, and encouraging private investment and redevelopment opportunities.
And little mention is made of community input or the concerns of local residents. “If you read the whole 26-page report, there’s barely mention of who lives in the community,” says Scott Slesinger, NRDC’s legislative director. “It’s all about making it easier for polluters to clean up or claim they’ve cleaned up.”
Earlier this year, President Trump also suggested a 30 percent Superfund cut. “If the president guts Superfund, it slows down the cleanup,” Slesinger says.
One result might be that the EPA funds only cheaper, less extensive Superfund cleanup work. Ten Superfund sites were selected for focus, Slesinger says, with an emphasis on those likely to be redeveloped into commercial and industrial properties rather than those involving higher risk to local communities.
As if all that weren’t enough, Pruitt’s recently announced “back to basics” agenda signals his intention to review “misaligned regulatory actions,” aims to make clean water regulation a state responsibility, and doesn’t mention climate change. By focusing solely on the past damage to Superfund sites, his plan ignores current threats to river health and those likely to come in the future.
More at Stake
Researchers are still attempting to identify and reduce pollution sources from the Green River, which feeds the Duwamish and probably contributes to the river’s pollutant load. “Existing sediment data and models completed for LDW [Lower Duwamish Waterway] cleanup studies indicate that LDW sediments may still exceed target levels after cleanup because of pollutant concentrations in sediment coming from upstream,” the Washington State Department of Ecology has reported.
Even if the Duwamish is cleansed according to Superfund targets, climate change may still bring new threats to the region’s wildlife and people. For example, the endangered Chinook salmon live in a narrow temperature range. If the water warms too much, the fish die off, Leishman says.
A crisis for Chinook would also be a crisis for the members of the local Muckleshoot tribe, who retain fishing rights on the Duwamish and for whom salmon are a critical part of diet and culture. (Because Chinook migrate between the Duwamish and Puget Sound, they’re still considered safe to eat.) To address this threat, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe Fisheries Division identified areas of the river receiving the most light and heat and created “sun maps” depicting optimal spots along the Duwamish’s banks where more trees could be planted to provide natural cooling. The tribe shared these maps with King County and other parties as part of a watershed management plan.
The river’s various stakeholders hope that integrated efforts like these will boost the likelihood of success, even if the federal government pulls back its support. “We want a place where the community can thrive and fish, and wildlife thrive, and industries thrive,” Rasmussen says. Should the river’s advocates achieve this goal, cities and towns across the United States might learn from the Seattleites’ approach to revitalizing their polluted waterways. After all, with more than 1,300 Superfund sites appearing on the EPA’s National Priorities List, the communities of the Duwamish have plenty of company.