Environmental News: Alligators, U.S. Post Office and Mineral Catch-22

article image
ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
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.

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.

Econotes: Environmental News

Problems on the “Split Estate”

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.

What Post Office?

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.

Good Goin’ Gators

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.

A Mineral Catch-22

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.

Golden Streams

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.

Recommended Reading

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.