MOTHER EARTH NEWS econotes covers environmental news briefs including problems on the split estate, the comeback of Southeast American alligators, the Presidio's U.S. Post Office and a mineral catch-22.
An awkward situation exists on — and under — many of the nation's 425 national wildlife refuges. When the government acquired fully 80% of these areas — which it did mainly to protect birds and their feeding and breeding grounds — it did not at the same time acquire rights to any oil, gas, coal, or other minerals that may exist beneath the refuges. Why? The situation hasn't been thoroughly investigated, but the reason appears to be a combination of miserliness on the part of the feds and the assumption that the mineral deposits, if acquired, would eventually be leased back to commercial operators for exploitation anyway.
Whatever the reason, the potential for conflict is obvious. On the D' Arbonne National Wildlife Refuge in northeast Louisiana, for example, the company that owns rights to the gas beneath the refuge has flatly refused to abide by regulations the Fish and Wildlife Service issued to control surface damage. After a sticky series of lawsuits, a judge ruled that the company is right. The government first appealed but then backed down.
So for the moment the drilling company is free to blast its way through delicate refuge lands, knocking down trees used by endangered woodpeckers and playing hell with streams and meadows. It's a problem crying for attention.
The Presidio of San Francisco is a U.S. Army base that lies within the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, a unit of the national park system. Established in 1972, the GGNRA is expected eventually to absorb the Presidio when the army no longer needs the base.
So it came as a surprise last fall when a sign went up on Crissy Field, an abandoned airstrip within the Presidio next to San Francisco Bay, announcing that a brand-new post office would soon rise on the site.
"Wait a minute," said Congresswoman Sala Burton, whose late husband, Phillip, led the campaign to establish the GGNRA when he was in Congress. Mrs. Burton tried to persuade the army to stop construction and hold the public hearings it had failed to call before breaking ground. The army refused.
Next, the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund filed suit against the army and the Postal Service. Two weeks later a federal district judge ordered the army to halt construction, finding that it had blatantly violated the law. That was on Valentine's Day.
The last chapter was written July 16, when the army agreed to raze the partly built post office and build several other planned buildings well back from the bay in already developed areas.
They haven't started nibbling yet at MOTHER's hometown of Hendersonville, North Carolina (so far as we know), but all over lower-lying parts of the Southeast American alligators are making a remarkable comeback from the brink of extinction.
In a breezy, early July press release ("Alligator Continues Its Crawl Back to a Brighter Future"), the Department of Interior announced that the gator was being reclassified from "endangered" to "threatened by similarity of appearance" — a unique category invented for the alligator. It means that though the gator is considered recovered, its hide so closely resembles that of related species from South America and Africa that large-scale hunting or trade in belts, shoes, and wallets will be extremely hard to regulate. Should poaching begin again, the alligator could be popped right back on the endangered-species list without time-consuming hassles.
The good news covers areas in seven states where the gator has made population gains of more than 1,000% over 10 years: Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and South Carolina.
The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are taking an odd approach to lands of theirs that may have oil or gas beneath them. Arguing that the mere signing of a lease — a "paper transaction" — has no environmental impact, the agencies refuse to conduct environmental studies prior to selling exploration rights. Trouble is, if oil or gas is subsequently found on the tracts, the signed lease obliges the agencies to allow the lease buyer to develop the property, even if doing so will mess up streams, meadows, or forests ("inflict unacceptable environmental damage," in bureaucratese).
Congress is finally taking a long-overdue look at this problem, along with others that plague the leasing system, including the "split estate" situation discussed earlier. Environmentalists are supporting H.R. 4741, cosponsored by Congressmen John Seiberling of Ohio and George Miller of California.
The gold-mining situation in Alaska hasn't changed much since the gold rush of the last century.
Federal hard rock mining law (as opposed to the leasing law mentioned above) virtually makes mining of gold and similar minerals the highest use of any public land. In Alaska, this has led to placer mining in streams in national parks and elsewhere. There are regulations meant to protect fisheries and scenery, but they have been lazily enforced at best. Two lawsuits by the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund have elicited stern warnings from the federal court in Juneau, one of which stopped all mining on national parks pending workable enforcement procedures. The other saw the court, for the first time, order the Bureau of Land Management to actually inspect the 300-odd mining operations in its jurisdiction.
Cadillac Desert is an amazing account of the development of the water resources of the western United States. Lively, detailed, exciting, beautifully written, and thorough almost to a fault, it describes just how utterly the West relies on water transported over long distances, how vulnerable it is to drought, and how bleak the long-range prospects are. The West — as we know it, anyway — is built on a mirage. (Cadillac Desert, by Marc Reisner, Viking, 1986, $22.95.)
Tom Turner is a writer and editor who's been working in the environmental field for 17 years. At present, he's with the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, an independent environmental law firm that represents many organizations across the country. It is supported principally by private donations. For more information, write Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, San Francisco, CA.
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