NRDC Announces Annual BioGems List of 12 Most Threatened Wildlands in the Americas

Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau, Alaska's Western Arctic Reserve, Canada's Boreal Forest Added to 2004 Endangered List

WASHINGTON (February 26, 2004) - NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) today announced its new 2004 BioGems list of the dozen most endangered places in the Americas. Over the coming year, the BioGems initiative -- NRDC's international campaign to protect the Western Hemisphere's imperiled wilderness -- will mobilize citizen action to defend these 12 extraordinary areas, ranging from the Arctic to the Amazon (see

"With the help of hundreds of thousands of activists, we have won seven major battles over the last three years, protecting thousands of square miles of pristine wilderness," said Jacob Scherr, director of NRDC's International Program. "NRDC's BioGems campaign is a modern David, taking on the Goliaths of industry and their political allies. Our slingshot is the Internet."

Three sites are new to the BioGems list for 2004: the Cumberland Plateau in Southeastern United States, the Western Arctic Reserve in northern Alaska, and the Heart of the Boreal Forest in central Canada. The remaining nine sites, which include the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska and the Macal River Valley in Belize, are 2003 BioGems still at risk. NRDC, its local coalition partners, and hundreds of thousands of activists were able to fend off development in those areas last year, but they are facing renewed threats this year.

"Industry wants to turn our old-growth forests into toilet paper, and industrialize our last pristine wilderness areas for relatively little oil," said Johanna Wald, director of NRDC's Land Program. "The public is rising up and saying 'No more.' There are better, cleaner and more economical alternatives to destroying our natural heritage."

NRDC launched its BioGems initiative in 2001 to empower citizens to save some of the Western Hemisphere's last wild and unspoiled places. Since then, NRDC's 1 million members and Internet activists have generated more than 3 million messages of protest to corporations and governments planning to despoil wilderness and wildlife habitats.

This public outcry proved critical last year in ensuring two victories. On the eve of the war in Iraq, the Bush administration put tremendous pressure on the U.S. Senate to approve the centerpiece of its energy plan: opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development. More than 50,000 messages to Congress helped make the case that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would be the slowest, most destructive and least effective way to try to ensure U.S. energy security. The Senate dealt the administration a stunning setback by voting 52 to 48 to block oil development in the refuge. In South America, an outpouring of messages from BioGems Defenders helped persuade Alcoa and other aluminum companies to abandon plans for a massive dam on Brazil's Araguaia River that would have submerged a large stretch of rainforest -- home to black saki monkeys and rare pink dolphins -- and displaced 7,000 people.

Last year, NRDC's BioGems campaign also played a key role in protecting Yellowstone National Park after the Bush administration overturned a National Park Service plan that would have banned noisy, polluting snowmobiles inside the park. BioGem Defenders sent 100,000 messages of protest, and NRDC went to court and won a major victory. But a few weeks later, another court issued a conflicting decision in a similar case, and both cases are on appeal. The Yellowstone area remains on the BioGems list this year as the battle continues to save the park, its wildlife, and the surrounding area from degradation.

New BioGems for 2004

NRDC is launching new BioGems campaigns to protect the Cumberland Plateau in the Southeastern United States, the Western Arctic Reserve in the northwest corner of Alaska, and the Heart of the Boreal Forest in Manitoba and Ontario.

The storied Cumberland Plateau extends from West Virginia and Kentucky through Tennessee to Alabama. Boasting the largest concentration of endangered species in North America, this island of wild woods is now being clearcut for toilet paper, newsprint and office paper. This year, NRDC will target the corporations responsible for this devastation with a massive consumer education campaign.

Alaska's Western Arctic Reserve, labeled the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska in the 1920s, is the largest untouched Arctic wilderness in the United States. This remote and primeval landscape provides calving grounds for the 450,000-member Western Arctic caribou herd, and is also home to polar and grizzly bears, Arctic wolves, millions of migratory birds and, offshore, 3,500 beluga whales. The Bush administration plans to turn over more than half of the reserve to energy companies. NRDC is fighting this giveaway in court and mobilizing its BioGems Defenders to protest.

The Heart of the Boreal Forest in Canada is a key section of the great northern forest that rings the globe. There, amidst the pine trees and boggy marshes, billions of the Western Hemisphere's most beloved songbirds -- warblers, chickadees and many others -- build their nests and raise their fledglings every summer before flying south. This region is now threatened by plans to build hydroelectric dams and transmission lines that would slice through its very core.

Other U.S. BioGems

In the United States, Alaska is once again a prime target of the Bush administration's energy policy. The White House and Senate leaders have vowed to try once more to open the spectacular Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil development, and NRDC will continue to block the administration's efforts to industrialize the refuge. Employing a combination of citizen action and legal counterattack, NRDC also will defend Alaska's Tongass National Forest, the world's largest remaining temperate rainforest, where the Bush administration is rushing to sell off vast stretches at rock bottom prices for industrial clearcutting.

In the lower 48 states, the BioGems campaign will continue to defend Utah's redrock canyons and the Yellowstone-Greater Rockies region in the face of administration plans to authorize an invasion of oil and gas industry rigs, roads and pipelines that would threaten some of the nation's most important wildlife populations. In the Everglades, NRDC will wage a courtroom battle against a corporate-backed scheme, approved by the Bush administration, to turn 5,000 acres of the world's most famous wetlands habitat into a series of limestone mining pits.

Other Canadian BioGems

In the Canadian province of Alberta, the Shell Oil Company is pressing ahead with oil and gas development in the Castle and Bighorn wildlands, vital pieces in our continent's last major north-south pathway for wolves, bears, cougars and lynx.

Central and South American BioGems

In Central America, the BioGems campaign will continue its four-year old fight against a scheme to dam Belize's Macal River and flood the surrounding rainforest, one of the wildest places left on the continent. Despite a recent courtroom setback, NRDC will increase worldwide pressure on Fortis Inc., the billion-dollar Canadian company behind the dam, until it cancels this destructive and unnecessary hydroelectric project. In South America, NRDC will intensify campaigns to protect Peru's Tahuamanú Rainforest and Chile's Olivillo Coastal Forest. Last year, NRDC helped win a decade-long battle to establish tighter trade restrictions on the old-growth mahogany trees that are being illegally logged in Tahuamanú to meet U.S. consumer demand. In 2004, NRDC will be working to eradicate the market for illegal mahogany that is killing the Peruvian Amazon. Chile's Olivillo Forest, a haven for hundreds of species found nowhere else on Earth, won a reprieve last year when NRDC helped secure safeguards against logging and roadbuilding. Now, NRDC is pressing both Chile and the United States to protect the Olivillo permanently following the signing of a new bilateral trade agreement.