The iconic landscapes that represent our last reserves of biodiversity and untamed beauty are threatened by government and industry.
NRDC fights to preserve our planet’s natural treasures, from the Arctic to Patagonia to the American West. We go to court to challenge oil companies' plans to drill in the ocean and stop governments and businesses from building dams and clear-cutting forests that would destroy wildlife. And we urge the White House to establish new national monuments that will preserve more American wildlands for generations to come.
How NRDC helped protect the Tahuamanú Rainforest from illegal logging.
The big-leaf mahogany is a literal and figurative giant of Peru’s Tahuamanú Rainforest. Reaching 350 years of age and towering 200 feet above the forest floor, the mammoth tree lives up to its name with leaves that span more than a foot and a half. It’s also the cornerstone of a diverse ecosystem that supports giant river otters, red and turquoise macaws, ocelots, jaguars, and squirrel monkeys.
Outside of the rainforest, these majestic evergreens have value of a very different sort. Big-leaf mahogany’s rich, red, workable wood has been a favorite material for high-end furniture and musical instruments since the 1500s. But centuries of high demand for the prized timber have decimated all but a few of Peru’s old-growth stands and made the country a prime target for illegal logging.
An individual big-leaf mahogany can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the international market, leading loggers to poach the trees on remote protected land and in areas set aside for indigenous groups who have little to no contact with the outside world, such as the Mashco Piro, Matsigenka, and Amahuaca peoples.
In recent years, more than 80 percent of the Peruvian mahogany sold overseas has ended up in the United States. “Many American consumers have no idea that by purchasing these products, they are driving the destruction of Peru’s rainforests and threatening the survival of vulnerable indigenous communities,” says Ari Hershowitz, a former NRDC campaign director.
NRDC knew it was time to act as far back as 2002, when it designated the Tahuamanú Rainforest as one of its first BioGems, an initiative aimed at protecting the most endangered natural treasures in the Americas by mobilizing online activists. Seeing that the United States was well positioned to tighten controls on mahogany, the organization launched a three-part strategy to root out illegal timber from the supply chain, an effort that eventually resulted in significant protections for endangered forests all around the world.
The first step was to upgrade the status of mahogany under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a multilateral treaty that aims to protect wild species from the consequences of international trade. Next, in partnership with the indigenous organization Native Federation of the Madre de Dios River and the Peruvian forest group Racimos de Ungurahui, NRDC took legal action against top U.S. timber importers for violating the Endangered Species Act. Even before the first case reached a courtroom, Peru yielded to pressure in 2007 and stopped the export of all mahogany that had not been legally inspected in the field by a recognized forestry authority.
NRDC’s third strategy involved working with a coalition of environmental and labor groups to push the U.S. government to make illegal logging an issue in all future bilateral trade agreements. The U.S.-Peru trade agreement implemented in 2009, for instance, includes a substantial annex that lists steps to halt illegal timber trade and better manage Peru’s forests. The country is currently piloting an electronic timber-tracking system that will trace the movement of each log from stump to port.
The combined effect of these victories was nearly immediate. Between 2006 and 2007, Peru’s mahogany exports dropped from 22,000 to 2,000 tons. But NRDC didn’t stop there. The success of these actions generated momentum to cut down illegal logging across the globe. In 2008, with the Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, and the World Wildlife Fund, NRDC successfully lobbied lawmakers to amend the Lacey Act—a U.S. conservation law that prohibits illegal wildlife trafficking—to also include illegal wood and plant products.
Major raids of the Gibson Guitar Corporation and Lumber Liquidators have since proved the law’s effectiveness in stemming illegal timber trafficking. But the Peruvian rainforest isn’t out of the woods yet. For one thing, the Lacey Act has weathered attacks in Congress. Then there’s the fact that Peru has repeatedly violated the strict standards now in place, and U.S. enforcement has been lax. NRDC continues to work with other NGOs and the U.S. trade representative to ensure that the American and Peruvian governments are living up to the language in these vital pieces of legislation.
Meanwhile, the Peruvian forest faces other threats, like agricultural expansion and unregulated gold mining. A 2013 report by the Carnegie Institute found that the destruction of forest destroyed by gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of the country had increased fourfold between 1999 and 2012. “The way they’re doing the mining, they have to cut down a lot of trees,” says Susan Egan Keane, deputy director of NRDC’s Health program.
Small-scale miners often use mercury to extract gold—a cheap but highly toxic and dangerous method. Exposure to mercury puts the miners at risk of neurological symptoms like tremors, memory loss, headaches, and poor coordination. Mercury also makes its way into the local waterways, where it accumulates in the fish that indigenous communities rely on for food. NRDC’s Health program is currently involved in promoting better gold-extraction technologies, as well as better governance of small-scale mining, to make it safer for miners, local communities, wildlife, and the environment.
The Amazon is the lungs of the planet, a biodiversity hot spot, and home to indigenous peoples. If a tree falls illegally in the Peruvian rainforest, you can be sure that NRDC will make a sound.
Groups Call on President Obama to Protect New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts as a Monument
49 ocean NGOs wrote to President Obama, requesting that he designate New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts a national marine monument. These areas are a unique biodiversity hotspot and a place of incalculable ecological value and scientific interest deserving of protection.
How NRDC joined a small town’s fight to protect Mexico’s Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park from big resorts and other destructive development.
Thirty feet off the tip of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula, a reef covering 27.5 square miles stretches out in seven directions. Among its fingerlike extensions swim whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and countless tropical fish. On the shores of Cabo Pulmo National Park, sea lions sunbathe on boulders rounded by the waves of the Sea of Cortez.
It’s picture perfect, but it hasn’t always been this way. In the 1980s, local fishermen began noticing fewer and fewer fish in their nets. Realizing that they had severely overfished the reef and virtually wiped out its once-abundant marine life, the people of Cabo Pulmo did the unthinkable: They voluntarily decided to stop fishing. The tight-knit community of fewer than 200 joined academics and NGOs to petition the government for state and then federal protections for the threatened waters, and in 1995 Mexico created Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.
The efforts paid off. A 2011 study found that the reef’s biomass had increased by an astounding 463 percent over 10 years. Thanks to this unprecedented recovery, Cabo Pulmo is now one of the world’s most robust marine reserves—and it has the international recognition to prove it. In 2005, UNESCO designated it as part of a World Heritage Site, and three years later the Ramsar Convention added Cabo Pulmo to its list of Wetlands of International Importance.
“It’s incredible—the reef is thriving,” says Amanda Maxwell, director of NRDC’s Latin America project. “And it’s really all because of this local community that decided to become the stewards of this marine park.”
It didn’t take very long for foreign developers to set their sights on the newly revived Cabo Pulmo, however. Hoping to capitalize on its tourism potential, Spanish company Hansa Urbana revealed plans in 2008 to construct a Cancún-size city just to the north of Cabo Pulmo National Park. The megaproject, known as Cabo Cortés, would include a total of 30,000 rooms in hotels and houses, a 490-slip marina, at least three golf courses, and a private jetport—all on the edge of a fragile reef ecosystem, a dozen miles from the closest paved road.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the local community immediately organized against the project, and it wasn’t long before regional and national groups joined the effort, creating a vibrant coalition called Cabo Pulmo Vivo. In response, Hansa Urbana stepped up its pressure on the Mexican government to swiftly approve its ill-conceived proposal. But the coalition did not back down. Instead, it enlisted international organizations, including NRDC, to help protect Cabo Pulmo.
“It was an easy, natural fit for us because many of them were our partners in Laguna San Ignacio,” Maxwell says, referring to NRDC’s involvement in an international campaign that successfully staved off industrial development in the Mexican lagoon, an important breeding area for the Pacific gray whale. After about a year of scoping the project out, NRDC decided to get involved in the Cabo Pulmo effort at the end of 2010.
The project’s flaws were abundant, and the coalition attacked Cabo Cortés on every front imaginable: legal, scientific, environmental, economic, social. The permitting process broke municipal and national laws, and the project would severely harm not only the reef’s marine life but also the local community. There was also the issue of Hansa Urbana’s financial instability: It would be a very risky investment.
Despite this clear evidence, the environmental review process continued for four years, with major pieces of the project receiving approval in 2011. “It soon became obvious that the government wasn’t necessarily prepared to evaluate a project of this size and complexity,” Maxwell remembers. But the coalition pushed on, continuing to call on the expertise of scientists both local and world-renowned and raising awareness throughout the country. Finally in June 2012, Felipe Calderón, the Mexican president at the time, officially rejected the Cabo Cortés project.
The decision was a huge victory for the underdogs in this David-and-Goliath fight, but the threat of unsustainable coastal development near Cabo Pulmo never really goes away. In fact, developers proposed a new project strikingly similar to Cabo Cortés just a few weeks after the president canceled it. And in 2014 the project surfaced again, this time led by Chinese investors who renamed it Cabo Dorado, a plan that Maxwell dubbed “Cabo Cortés 3.0.” Both plans fell through, thanks to the persistence of the local community and other groups, including NRDC. Yet the developers continued to—unsuccessfully—challenge the original rejection of Cabo Cortés.
“It’s important to remember that it’s not an issue of development versus environmentalism,” says Carolina Herrera, NRDC’s Latin America advocate. “It’s about making sure development is compatible with the protection of the marine ecosystem that the self-appointed stewards of Cabo Pulmo worked so hard to revive.”
With that in mind, she continues, “We’re not against all development in the area; we’re against bad development. We’re always ready to get back in the game if we have to.”
My friends and I were utterly captivated. The enormous grizzly bear we had been watching devour a dead bison was now settling delicately onto the cold, muddy, decaying carcass—exactly as if easing himself, facedown and full-bellied, onto a comfy couch after a big dinner. We stared and smiled as the grizzly warily eyed the vultures congregating nearby while absentmindedly scratching his chin on the dead bison’s head and horns. How many places in the world, I wondered, can people still see such wildness—so close, so easily, so often?
I knew the answer: not many.
And once you start to list those places—Yellowstone, Glacier, Denali—it quickly becomes clear what many of them have in common: They’re our country’s national parks.
Last year, U.S. national parks posted a new attendance record—305 million visitors. That beat the previous record by fully 12 million people. And it reinforced what has long been obvious: Park visitors cherish the soul-stirring experiences to be had in these natural treasures and are willing to spend time, energy, and dollars to enjoy them—often again and again.
Within the national parks system, two of the best-known parks, Yellowstone and Denali, also broke their own individual attendance records in 2015. And while there are plenty of reasons why these two, in particular, continue to appeal to so many people year after year, one reason stands out. As one retired ranger with the National Park Service recently told a newspaper reporter: “Both parks are wildlife shows.”
Indeed they are. Wolves, grizzlies, black bears, and moose abound at both Denali and Yellowstone; at the latter, visitors also have ample opportunity to see elk, antelope, bison, and all of their young up close. And as the recent attendance figures illustrate, people are taking full advantage of this opportunity. In the communities around Yellowstone, inns and motels that used to close during October and November, typically the slowest months of the year, now find themselves with more than enough bookings to justify staying open year-round. The owners of these establishments credit wildlife lovers, especially wolf-watchers, with this remarkable change of fortune.
The fact that we’re being drawn like never before to our wildest places is significant. The technology-driven revolution that we’re currently undergoing has made it incredibly easy for us to connect with one another — but harder, it seems, for us to connect with nature. For many people, a trip to Yellowstone or Denali is more than just a vacation; it might represent a powerful, even spiritual, form of communion with the idea of unspoiled, unmediated wilderness. And it’s safe to say that certain animals, namely the wolves and grizzly bears that inhabit both Denali and Yellowstone, embody this idea of wilderness more potently than any others. To see one of these animals in its natural environment is an experience as memorably poignant as it is viscerally thrilling.
In the course of my work as a wildlife advocate, I’ve been fortunate to see some of these animals up close. But I’ve also watched something else: other people seeing these animals up close. When people are allowing themselves to be captivated by the sight of wolves and bears—not distractedly gazing into their smartphones, or thinking about work, or worrying about the exigencies of their day-to-day lives—they’re being fully present. They’re grinning and sometimes even gasping with excitement. They’re laughing at the animals’ antics or marveling at their beauty. They’re offering to keep an eye on strangers’ jackets and purses so that others can take a turn looking through their scopes.
And back in the car or over dinner that evening, they’re not talking about the presidential election or the latest TV shows they’ve been binge-watching. They’re still talking about that huge grizzly they saw taking a postprandial nap on a bison carcass, or the unexpected glimpse they caught of those wolf pups nursing near their den.
Which makes it all the more confounding and saddening that when these animals—the very same creatures that elicit so much joy and wonder in us — choose the wrong time to stretch a paw across the invisible, arbitrary lines that are our park’s administrative borders, the law often allows them to be hunted, trapped, and killed. Taken away from millions, all for the sport of a few.
It’s paradoxical that we would be flocking to national parks in hopes of spotting a bear or a wolf, yet trapping or shooting these animals should they venture just outside their protected parkland homes at the wrong time of year.
Paradoxical, and also profoundly selfish. One of the most important reasons we have and maintain our national parks in the first place is to give wild animals a safe (at least from humans) place to live, hunt, and breed, and to give visitors a chance to see them roaming free in their natural habitats. When someone takes it upon him or herself to shoot and kill a bear or wolf that lives primarily within a park, they not only take a life but deprive countless park visitors of a powerful, transcendent experience. Indeed, a recent studydetermined that the hunting and trapping of wolves along the boundaries of Denali and Yellowstone National Parks cut the chances of seeing a wolf within those parks by half.
Whenever a wolf (like the one known as 06 Female) or a bear (like the one called Scarface) is killed right outside a national park, the event reignites the complex debate over whether we should institute so-called “buffer” or “transition” zones around these protected places. This debate, which has been going on for decades, needs to continue. Frustratingly, a few years ago, the state of Montana actually prohibited the closing of areas adjacent to national parks to wolf hunting or trapping (unless quotas have been met). Given the economic value that wildlife viewing brings to the state and the negative effect that hunting just outside parks can have on viewing opportunities, the state legislature should reconsider that law.
In the meantime, Montana’s Fish and Wildlife Commission has at least instated relatively low wolf hunting and trapping quotas adjacent to the parks. These actions should be recognized and appreciated as steps in the right direction. But we must push our political and wildlife officials to do more, to continue the conversation, and to adopt reasonable restrictions around our most protected places.
For example, in connection with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent proposal to remove Endangered Species Act protections from Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem grizzly bears, the states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have proposed to allow grizzly bears in this area (including just outside Yellowstone Park) to be hunted. But these states should prohibit, or at the very least limit, grizzly hunting near the park’s borders—as Yellowstone’s superintendent Dan Wenk has also urged.
I grew up a hunter. I believe there are species and situations for which hunting makes sense. Killing wolves and bears along the undetectable edges of our national parks is simply not one of them. The opportunity to witness wolves and bears in our national parks provides an economic boon to local economies and profound personal experiences to people from all over the world. Killing these animals along our parks’ borders risks taking those opportunities away, and cuts at the core of a crucial reason we have parks at all.
Let’s not exploit and punish our wolves and bears for crossing invisible lines that they cannot see or know exist. Instead, when we happen to encounter these magnificent creatures just outside of their protected homes, let’s continue to act as the visitors we are and just simply, silently, and gratefully marvel—for their sake and for our own.
As we shift away from the dirty fuels of the past to cleaner, smarter ways to power our future, we must also limit the waters that are exposed to the risks of offshore drilling. And we must reduce the risks to those waters that are exposed while we transition to the clean energy economy.
Industry officials tell us if Arctic or Atlantic waters were opened to them today, it would be another 20 to 40 years before those regions started producing oil and gas. But we’re already shifting away from those fuels to prevent catastrophic climate change. Opening up those waters to new drilling would take us in the wrong direction, locking future generations into those fuels and all the hazard and harm they bring. That doesn’t make sense. Let’s protect Atlantic and Arctic waters and all they support—for good.
We’re getting some oil and gas in Pacific waters off our western coast, but it’s been decades since we made new areas available for drilling there. We need to keep it that way.
It is also important to hold the line on new areas of drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Six years ago, the BP blowout there killed 11 workers and gushed millions of barrels of toxic crude oil into some of the richest marine habitat in the world. This ongoing disaster threw tens of thousands of fishermen, oystermen, shrimpers, and others out of work. It made food unsafe to eat and air unsafe to breathe and resulted in widespread health problems for the people of the Gulf, where oil spread out across more than 1,000 miles of coastal lands and marshes. It is still taking a toll on marine life.
Right now, in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil and gas industry has leased from the federal government 24 million acres—an area slightly larger than the state of Indiana—for potential drilling. The industry is getting oil and gas from about one-sixth of that area, leaving more than 19 million acres of existing leases on the table for development.
As our economy shifts to cleaner energy sources, the federal government needs to consult and coordinate closely with Gulf residents on ending the region’s reliance on the fossil fuel industry. The Gulf region has a skilled workforce that has helped power our country for decades. We must not consign that workforce to the sidelines of a clean energy boom. That force is an asset we need to help us improve our efficiency, get more clean power from the wind and sun, and create the transportation options that can better our lives.
The Obama administration and its successors will need to work in direct consultation with front-line communities, listen to them, understand their concerns, and help connect this skilled workforce with the clean energy jobs of the future.
In the meantime, we need to do everything we can to reduce the risk of another offshore drilling catastrophe.
It’s time to bar oil and gas drilling in waters not already exposed to the hazards of fossil fuel extraction. It’s time to shift away as quickly as we can from dirty fossil fuels that wreak havoc on our climate and threaten our oceans, communities, and coasts. And it’s time to provide the highest possible protection for waters and communities still at risk, until that transition is complete. It is part of NRDC’s mission to make that happen.
Letter on Exceptions to Pause in Federal Coal Leasing Pending Completion of Programmatic EIS
Letter submitted to the Department of the Interior by NRDC, the Sierra Club, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, and the National Parks Conservation Association, regarding exceptions to the pause in federal coal leasing pending completion of the Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement.
Our national parks and monuments should reflect the diversity and history of all Americans.
What if all our national parks were confined to the western prairies? They would be breathtaking, to be sure, but we’d miss out on so much of our varied national landscape, from the unspoiled splendor of our wetlands and coasts to the natural majesty of our mountains, forests, valleys and streams.
In some sense, that’s how we’ve restricted the kinds of Americans we commemorate and recall through our national monuments and parks. Of our more than 460 national parks and monuments, only about 12 percent are devoted to women, African-Americans, Latinos or American Indian, the Center for American Progress reports. We’ve done a better job showcasing the diversity of our lands than of our people, many of whom are all but left out of the national story we tell through the places we honor, conserve, and remember.
The national mosaic our parks create is not only incomplete but altogether. As we mark the centennial of our National Park Service this summer, it’s long past time for our public lands to reflect more clearly who we are as American people.
These places also tell the story of who we are and where we came from, the story of American identity. We draw on that story to better understand our purpose, as individuals and as a nation, and to chart our way forward in good times and bad. That’s why it’s so important that our monuments and parks render a faithful portrait of the past we share.
And, here, we have a problem. All too often, we have dimmed or ignored the voices of indigenous people, communities of color and others who helped build this nation. We have swept aside injustice that separates us from our founding ideals of equality and basic rights. And we have neglected our role as stewards of those places that can summon the memory of critical steps along our national journey.
For these and other reasons, the people left out of the picture often have muted interest in visiting these public lands, even though they help to support our parks and monuments through their taxes. Our public lands should not only reflect our common values but be welcoming places to all of us.
That’s especially important, given the sharp demographic change already sweeping the country.
In 2014, 62.2 percent of the country was white, 17.4 percent Latino, 13.2 percent African-American and 5.4 percent Asian in heritage. By 2060, though, just 43.6 percent will be white, 28.6 Latino, 17.9 African-American and 9.3 percent Asian-American.
The face of our country is changing, and our parks and monuments must keep pace with that change. As our National Park Service enters its second century, it must commit to building a system that faithfully reflects the diversity of our country, respects its varied cultures and engages all of its people.
That’s why NRDC has joined with more than 30 others — civil rights organizations, environmental justice advocates, community groups — in calling on President Obama to mark the centennial of the National Park Service this August by issuing a presidential memorandum to address this critical need.
In the near term, we’re urging the president to build on his legacy of setting aside important monuments and lands by using his authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to provide permanent protection for special places like Bears Ears. This area of nearly two million acres in southern Utah contains burial and cultural sites important to American Indians, includes critical wildlife migration corridors, and is the source of drinking water for 40 million people.
In the longer term, we must increase the diversity of the people who work in our national parks, so we can make full use of the unique knowledge, voice, and experience they bring to those jobs. We need to expand outreach into underserved communities to identify barriers to full participation in our public places and then work to make that participation more equitable. And we need to increase funding for historic research and preservation that supports the creation of national heritage areas.
A hundred years after the creation of our National Park Service, its mission is more important than ever, and it’s more important than ever that we get it right.
This land, after all, wasn’t made only for you and me; it was built by all of us — men, women, Latinos, American Indians, Asian-Americans, and many others. Our public lands are a public trust. They must reflect the public interest. That, too, means all of us.
A massive open-pit mine above Bristol Bay would rip apart the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery—which is why NRDC has been waging a multiyear battle to stop it.
About 200 miles southwest of Anchorage, Alaska’s largest city, lies 40,000 square miles of wild tundra and wetlands. Crisscrossed by rivers and dotted with lakes, the upper Bristol Bay watershed is reachable only by plane, and as a consequence, it remains virtually pristine. Its many waterways support subsistence hunters, fishing tourism, and a diverse array of wildlife. Along with grizzly bears and bald eagles, the area boasts the world’s most productive salmon run, where an incredible 30 million to 50 million fish return every summer to spawn. With its $1.5 billion sustainable commercial fishery, Bristol Bay supplies half of all sockeye salmon on the global market.
Sounds like the wrong kind of place for a highly polluting mine, right? But foreign companies have been eyeing the gold and copper deposits under Bristol Bay’s watershed and scheming to build a massive mine there for more than a decade. NRDC and a broad coalition of Alaska natives, sportsmen, conservationists, jewelers, and other concerned citizens have been fighting to keep Bristol Bay wild and productive—and they’ve been winning.
Exploratory drilling at Pebble Mine first came about in 2002, when Northern Dynasty Minerals, a small Canadian company, proposed the project on 186 square miles of Alaska state land for which it held the mineral rights. Lacking mining experience of its own, Northern Dynasty sought help. So three of the world’s largest companies—Anglo American, Mitsubishi, and Rio Tinto—quickly jumped on board, all eager for a piece of the estimated $350 billion worth of precious metals beneath the landscape. Joining forces as the Pebble Limited Partnership, the four companies started planning what could be, at two miles wide and 2,000 feet deep, the largest open-pit mine in North America.
Why so big? Due to the region’s remote location and the low-grade quality of its minerals, making a buck wasn’t going to come easy. To extract just one pound of ore, the miners would have to sift through 99 pounds of rock. Pebble Mine would be worth the investment only if it were made as big as possible, turning a terrible idea into something even worse.
The chemicals used to separate the gold and copper deposits from the rest of the rock would create an unimaginable amount of toxic waste. Earthen dams as tall as 740 feet would be required to contain about 10 billion tons of mine tailings and keep it from the surrounding environment—in perpetuity. It’s no secret that dams leak, especially in wet and earthquake-prone regions like Bristol Bay. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the mine would have the potential to destroy 94 miles of streams and 5,350 acres of wetlands, ponds, and lakes. It would also remove an extra 35 billion gallons of water from salmon habitat every year.
And that’s only the mine itself. The necessary infrastructure—roads, a major power plant, and a new deep-water port (adjacent to Cook Inlet, where belugas are currently fighting for survival) would also take their toll, bringing noise, water, and air pollution to the extended region and laying a solid foundation for other mining companies to move right in and set up shop. There are no two ways about it: Pebble Mine would destroy Bristol Bay’s wild salmon fishery and devastate the livelihoods of the people and communities that depend on it.
“It’s just the worst place in the world to build a mine like this,” says Taryn Kiekow Heimer, a senior policy analyst for NRDC’s Marine Mammal Protection project. “When you tell people about the resources, the salmon, the incredibly rich indigenous culture that relies on the fish up there—it’s not just an environmental battle; it’s a human rights battle.”
Although local and statewide opposition to Pebble Mine is strong—more than 80 percent and 62 percent, respectively—the state of Alaska, renowned for its pro-development perspective, has thrown its support behind the $6 billion project. That fact, however, has hardly daunted the coalition of native Alaskan tribes, commercial and sport fishermen, environmental groups (including NRDC and its members), and others who are fighting a relentless—and wildly successful—campaign to persuade the Pebble Partnership to abandon its plans for Bristol Bay. After facing years of coalition advocacy—including petitioning, attending shareholder meetings, and advertising in major publications like the New York Times and The London Financial Times—Pebble's three major investors fled the project. Mitsubishi bowed out in 2011, Anglo American left in 2013, and Rio Tinto divested in 2014, donating all its shares in Northern Dynasty Minerals to two Alaskan charitable foundations.
While the coalition went after the money behind Pebble Mine, it also targeted the permitting process for the project, calling on the EPA to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. (Section 404(c) of the act allows the EPA to prohibit, restrict, or deny permits if a project would have an “unacceptable adverse impact” on the environment.) That strategy worked, too. The agency went above and beyond the call of the petition, undertaking a four-year scientific study that was peer-reviewed twice and revised three times in response to public comments. As the coalition expected, the agency found that “the infrastructure necessary to mine the Pebble deposit jeopardizes the long‐term health and sustainability of the Bristol Bay ecosystem” in its July 2014 “proposed determination” under Section 404(c).
“The uniqueness of the watershed, the need for pristine water to support salmon, and the potential [development] of North America’s largest open-pit mine warrants a closer look,” said EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy at the time. Northern Dynasty Minerals, now the sole member of the once formidable Pebble Limited Partnership, responded aggressively by filing three lawsuits, one of which has put the EPA’s review on temporary hold. So after a decade of reckless plans to rip apart Bristol Bay's ecosystem, the Pebble Mine project is hanging on by a thread. But the coalition remains vigilant.
“People mistakenly believe that with all the great successes we’ve had in this campaign, the project is dead—and it’s not,” Heimer says. “We keep putting nails in the coffin, but not quite enough to kill the zombie inside.” Stay tuned.
Saving the Breeding Grounds of the Pacific Gray Whale
NRDC led the international fight to keep industrial development out of Mexico’s pristine San Ignacio Lagoon.
With its warm, shallow waters bounded by vast stretches of uninhabited desert, Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon is a paradise for Pacific gray whales. Every winter, hundreds of these 40-ton marine mammals make an epic 10,000-mile swim from their summer feeding grounds above the Arctic Circle to the coast of Baja California. It is the longest known migration of any mammal on earth. After they reach their destination, the whales breach the surface of the clear, green waters, spy-hop, interact with tourists on small fishing boats, and nurture newborn calves within this pristine and sheltered southern sea.
But without the sustained efforts of NRDC, our Mexican partners, and other international environmental activists for years before the turn of the century, the whales would now be arriving each December to a much different scene. In 1994, the Mitsubishi Corporation entered into a partnership with the Mexican government to build a massive salt production plant at the San Ignacio Lagoon that would have had grave ecological consequences. The $100 million facility would have been the largest salt plant in the world, covering 116 square miles (about three times the size of the District of Columbia). To accommodate large container ships, the project also would have included the construction of a pier stretching a mile into the Bay of Whales, directly in the path of the Pacific gray whales.
“San Ignacio Lagoon is a World Heritage site, a Mexican biosphere reserve, a whale sanctuary, and a migratory bird sanctuary. There are more than 300 animal species that live in the area, including the magnificent Pacific gray whale,” says Joel Reynolds, NRDC senior attorney and codirector of the San Ignacio Lagoon campaign. “Without any doubt, it is the wrong place for the world’s largest industrial salt factory.”
NRDC garnered the support of an international coalition of environmentalists, fishermen, scientists, and consumers—a total of more than 50 stakeholders—to face down Mitsubishi and stop the incoming ecological disaster. The lagoon lies within one of the largest ecological preserves in Latin America, the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve, but the battle to protect it from the proposed salt plant would still take five years to win. More than a million people signed petitions and sent letters and e-mails to Mitsubishi, and 34 world-renowned scientists, including nine Nobel laureates, joined the fight before the company and the Mexican government finally decided to scuttle the plan in 2000.
“This victory represents a triumph of an empowered citizenry over one of the world’s most powerful companies,” says NRDC senior attorney and campaign codirector Jacob Scherr. “Through e-mails and newspaper ads, we were able to galvanize people all over the world.”
Today, San Ignacio is the last whale lagoon along the Baja coast undisturbed by industrial intrusion. NRDC is proud of the role it played in safeguarding this crucial ecosystem, and our work there continues today with support for projects providing San Ignacio communities with sustainable economic alternatives to harmful development. Through the Laguna San Ignacio Conservation Alliance, NRDC has helped purchase conservation easements on more than 141,000 acres of land on the southern edge of the lagoon and secured protections for another 199,000 acres of Mexican federal lands to the north, as well as 150 miles of lagoon coastline. Mitsubishi may be gone, but the fight for permanent protection goes on. And so, too, do the Pacific gray whales.