Congress and New Mining Threatens Grizzlies and the ESA
(c) Craig Pettitt 2005.
The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has long been recognized as one of America’s leading environmental laws. Now Congress, lead by Rep. Richard Pombo (R-CA), is working to weaken this law and its ability to protect critical species. While this battle unfolds in congress, efforts are underway to de-list the Yellowstone Grizzly bear, which if successful, could affect grizzly populations throughout the West. One vulnerable group of grizzlies, located in the Cabinet Yaak Mountains of western Montana, is now threatened by the proposed Rock Creek Mine. The remoteness of the area requires an aerial perspective to fully view and understand.
A conference organized this fall by Louisa Wilcox of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) gathered scientists, activists and local community and business leaders to learn about grizzlies, possible delisting and the Rock Creek mine proposal. Experts, including noted author Rick Bass and wilderness researcher Dr. Lance Craighead of the Craighead Environmental Research Institute attended the conference. EcoFlight’s role in this poignant meeting was to provide flights over the Cabinet Mountains for attendees and the press.It was an exceptional aerial tour, in which one could view the majesty of this small wilderness area. From the air, it is easily seen where the tunnel will go and view the habitat that could be filled by the tailings site. Also in view were the wilderness lakes that are at risk from collapse and the watersheds that would be affected reaching all the way to Lake Ponderille and further downstream to Sand Point and Coeur de lane, Idaho. Our aerial tour also surveyed the nearby Troy mine, juxtaposing huge tailings ponds, roads and industrialization of land within otherwise pristine wilderness. Once again, flight helped to tie all the facts together and put them into a larger landscape perspective.
The Cabinet Yaak Ecosystem (CYE) is a blend of granite peaks and fertile valleys and is among the most heavily logged areas of the northern Rockies. Within the CYE, the Kootenai National Forest alone has logged 237,000 acres since 1987, with over 68,000 acres occurring within grizzly bear recovery zones. Since grizzlies were first listed under the ESA in 1975, 280,000 acres of formerly wild country in the CYE has been roaded and logged.
The Grizzly bear has the lowest reproductive rate of all carnivores, reproducing at 4-7 years with two cubs per litter every third year. Research suggests a 95-100% probability of extinction over 100 years. Population estimates for the Grizzly in the Cabinet Yaak, which provides key connectivity between populations in Canada and the lower 48 states, vary from 10 to 40 individuals, with as few as two or three females. This 6-mile swath of wilderness was protected in the original wilderness bill in 1964. Another mine in the region could doom this bear population to extinction.
Situated near Libby, Montana, the Rock Creek Mine would tunnel underneath the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness Area. The Forest Service and Fish and Wildlife Service have recently reissued their permits for the Rock Creek Mine. Opponents - including conservationists, politicians and business leaders - are concerned that the mine will fragment wildlife habitat, impact dwindling wild life populations and degrade water quality. The plan calls for building many miles of roads, pipelines, power lines, a tailings treatment plant and other infrastructure on more than 1500 acres. At press time, the mine is on hold due to lawsuits addressing the ESA. To learn more about threats to Grizzly bear habitat and the ESA go to www.nrdc.org. To read the Pombo bill, go to www.resourcescommittee.house.gov/issues/more/esa.
Tailings pond at the Troy Mine near the proposed Rock Creek Mine
already impacting and fragmenting wilderness in the Cabinet Yaak
Mountains of western Montana. (c) EcoFlight 2005.
Letter from the President
Dear Friends and Supporters,
At times it seems like I have spent the entire summer somewhere between 9,000 and 12,000 feet flying over the American West. It’s been a busy summer for all of us concerned with protecting our natural world. These days it is difficult to fly more than 30 minutes in any direction and not have a field of drilling rigs or network of roads crisscrossing below me. Each month more oil and gas wells punctuate the western landscape as gas prices rise. Even the recreational sanctuary of Pitkin County is threatened. The Board of County Commissioners requested a flight with us as they prepare for an expected onslaught of more wells near the heart of the mecca of tourism, Aspen, Colorado. Working with conservationists throughout the West, it has taken all of our combined energies to hold back the extractive industries quest to lease and develop as much public land as possible. Mining too, is back in the forefront, such as the Rock Creek Mine discussed in this issue, along with an all-out attack on the Endangered Species Act. All this without any effort or energy to conserve and plan for the future. All this without a plan for sustainability or balance. What politician will stand up to this juggernaut? Who among our elected officials will offer a better explanation for signing off on the energy bill, other than that it contained a few items of merit?
At this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival, one prominent presenter spoke about the “end of environmentalism”. Though he made interesting points, I couldn’t agree with his premise or motivation. The two questions I came away with were, how to make conservation a “third rail issue” in American politics and thus make it less vulnerable to shifting political ideologies and secondly, how to get our young people involved in caring for the planet. EcoFlight’s answer to the latter question is to take to the air with young adults, let them see for themselves and then give them the tools to reach out and engage their local communities. In this way, perhaps we can help educate more Americans who care and motivate them to act upon their cares.
In August, EcoFlight provided a series of flights over old growth forest ecosystems in the Klamath-Siskiyou bioregion of Southern Oregon. This image shows logging units of the Fiddler Timber Sale in the Biscuit Fire area (Illinois Valley Ranger District, Siskiyou National Forest), including 17 acres cut inside the protected Babyfoot Lake Botanical Area that were illegally logged due to mistakes by Forest Service sale administrators. Photo © Ken Crocker 2005.
Flight Across America 2005 Produces Voices for Wilderness
One Cessna 210, three college students and one increasingly fragmented Rocky Mountain landscape in four states.
EcoFlight’s 2005 Flight Across America took three students on a hard-hitting aerial tour of the new energy front of the United States. From the rugged moonscapes of Adobetown to the lush green meadows of the Upper Green River, from the starkly carved beauty of Upper Desolation Canyon to the 150 foot waterfall of the Roan Plateau, nothing is spared in the quest for oil and gas in our wildest of lands, no landscape is sacrosanct. Gas wells litter the land from one horizon to the next.
Flight Across America’s students Nick Bayard, a Teton Science School graduate from Jackson, WY; Jeff Graff, a Political Science graduate from Montana State in Bozeman and Nelson Harvey, a journalism student from Colorado attending Bates College, in Maine, were flown over contrasting landscapes - environmental threats and eyesores and spectacular, pristine wilderness areas in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Utah. The aerial perspective illuminated the issues for the students and gave them useful first-hand information for the press conferences they would attend with EcoFlight’s partner environmental organizations at each flight stop. The experience also gave the students a better understanding of the ongoing debate of how and where oil and gas development should happen and what energy alternatives are available.The intention of Flight Across America 2005 was to get young adults more involved in environmental issues and to use the media to get a strong message out that our youth does care about healthy ecosystems and in so doing, to educate local citizens about their regional conservation challenges. The program was a big success on all fronts. Newspapers and television interviewed the students at each flight stop and the students themselves published articles in a number of newspapers on their experiences, the current state of the environment and how they hope their voice will be heard, and how EcoFlight’s FLAA empowered them to ask big questions about the very large problems facing our wild lands in the Rocky Mountain States.
The Rocky Mountain States should be the jewel of our country, a spine traveling from North to South, providing corridors for our last remaining big game wildlife and respites and playgrounds for our population. From tundra through alpine to desert these are our last remaining wild lands – the last truly underdeveloped areas of our otherwise heavily developed country.
Students Fly, Learn and Speak Out
“During our whirlwind tour of six western states, this much becomes painfully apparent: although the public is clearly united on certain issues of conservation, the public process is becoming increasingly marginalized from land management decisions at the behest of an increasingly small number of managers.”
-Nick Bayard, graduate student and resident in Environmental Education at the Teton Science School in Kelly, Wyoming
“Flying over the American West in a single engine plane, wilderness that seemed vast and expansive from ground level is transformed. Its boundaries and surroundings are exposed, and it is revealed as a network of islands afloat in a sea of oil, gas, logging and housing development.”
-Nelson Harvey, journalism and environmental studies major at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine
“As we glide through the air above the Madison River Valley … I consider how similar the footprints of new home sites and their road networks look from the air when compared to the lily pad footprints and road networks of the gas well sites to the south. From the air, all I can see is that the area is becoming surrounded by both – each with its own affects. -Jeff Graff, graduate student in Political Science at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.
Flying to Save Browns Canyon
Browns Canyon from the air. (c) EcoFlight 2005
It’s late summer and river rafters are still heading down the whitewaters of Colorado. Nowhere in the West is this more popular than on the Arkansas River. The highlight of a trip down the Arkansas is invariably Browns Canyon, a short white water run in an area of rugged canyons where streams have cut steep gulches through granite and metamorphic rock. An important wintering ground for deer and elk, the canyon is home to a herd of bighorn sheep and eight species of raptor among many other species. A proposed Wilderness area of 20,000 acres would protect this special area, bound on the west by the famous Browns Canyon and rising eastward to the higher forested areas of Aspen Ridge in the San Isabel National Forest. It is an area ripe for wilderness designation.
But wilderness designation is never easy to secure even in the best of times. EcoFlight, working with the Wilderness Society and Friends of Browns Canyon, organized flights over this proposed wilderness for staff of Congressman Joel Hefley (R-CO) (sponsor of the wilderness proposal) and Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO), local outfitters, state park officials and Bureau of Land Management personnel. Though off road vehicle (ORV) users and others have expressed concerns over protection, most are working hard to create a win-win situation that protects both wilderness and recreation interests. By working together the proposal now complements the recently designated Four Mile travel management area just north of the Canyon, which provides over 100 miles of routes to accommodate off-road vehicles, including ATV’s and snowmobiles. By protecting this remarkable landscape, which provides almost 65 million dollars annually, the local economy and recreational users all benefit and a vital western ecosystem will continue to thrive and provide for generations to come.