Wednesday, January 20, 2010

HCPC Works to Clean Up Air Pollution Over Wilderness Areas

Hells Canyon and Eagle Caps are affected by the Boardman coal plant

Oregon’s only coal-burning electric plant near Boardman
Photo courtesy of Friends of the Columbia Gorge

A coal-fired electric plant near Boardman, Oregon has been polluting the air over Hells Canyon and the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area. Hells Canyon Preservation Council is working to force this plant to stop polluting. In 2008, a coalition including HCPC filed a lawsuit to force Portland General Electric (PGE) to clean up the emissions from this plant. PGE owns and operates the plant, the only coal-fired power plant in Oregon. The aging plant is one of only two in the entire western half of the United States that has avoided installing modern pollution controls since it was constructed in the 1970s. The lawsuit argues that PGE has operated the plant in violation of the Clean Air Act. In September 2009, the coalition won a court decision that allowed the suit to continue. The Court denied PGE’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit and ruled in favor of allowing the coalition’s issues to proceed.

In a recent development, on January 14, 2010, PGE announced that it wants to close the plant in 2020 after installing $45 million dollars of pollution controls. Theses controls would partially clean up the mercury and nitrogen oxide emissions but would not affect the sulfur dioxide emissions. Previously, PGE had planned to operate the plant until 2040 after installing more extensive pollution controls by 2017. The coalition has been pushing for a shutdown by 2014.

The plant is the largest stationary source of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides in Oregon. Sulfur and nitrogen compounds from the plant react in the air to create the smoggy haze. These compounds are also believed to contribute to creating acid rain which can harm fish, vegetation, and water quality. Acid rain also can destroy Native American rock art. This is particularly important in Hells Canyon and the Columbia River Gorge.

The Boardman plant is the second largest mercury polluter in Oregon. Mercury accumulates in fish and then creates documented health hazards for people who consume them. It is likely that the wildlife eating these fish may suffer as well. The presence of mercury in the food chain is a concern for ecosystems and the overall environment.

An analysis commissioned by the US Forest Service showed that the plant is polluting the air over protected wilderness areas and national parks, according to an analysis commissioned by the US Forest Service. Haze from the coal-fired plant obscures the views in protected natural areas on public lands throughout the Pacific Northwest. Locally, the Eagle Cap Wilderness Area was affected for 61 days per year, Hells Canyon for 41 days per year, and the Strawberry Mountain Wilderness for 18 days per year, according to the analysis.

Portland General Electric (PGE) operates the plant through a permit from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). We believe the plant was improperly authorized in 1975 under outdated standards and it has not been held to current clean air standards. Since 2006, HCPC has been working with a coalition to pressure PGE and DEQ into cleaning up Oregon’s only coal-fired electric plant. PGE’s latest proposal will require approval from DEQ as well as The Oregon Public Utility Commission and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the coalition will continue to press for the strictest smokestack controls over the shortest timeframe possible.

HCPC’s coalition partners are the Sierra Club, Friends of the Columbia Gorge, Northwest Environmental Defense Center, and Columbia Riverkeeper. We are represented by the Pacific Environmental Advocacy Center.

Brian Kelly,
Restoration Coordinator

Information from this article came from DEQ, The Oregonian, and the Northwest Environmental Defense Center.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Wallowa-Whitman Forest Travel Management Plan: What's it all about?

Photo: Cayuse Flats OHV damage near Granny View on the Hat Point road. High elevation meadows are very slow to recover and the exposed bare soil helps invasive
weeds spread into otherwise healthy native plant communties

The 2.3 million-acre Wallowa-Whitman National Forest (WWNF) holds the dubious title of being the third most roaded National Forest in the nation with 9,111 total miles of roads. While it’s hard to imagine enough roads to stretch across the U.S. several times, packed into the non-wilderness areas, this is the imprint left from the height of industrial resource extraction. The road system is the most environmentally degrading legacy on the WWNF and there is not a single management reason why we need a road system anywhere near this size and a long list of reasons why we need a much smaller one.

So why are there so many miles of roads on the Wallowa-Whitman? In the early 1900s, roads were built along streams and rivers primarily for mining operations. In the 1950s and '60s, as more wood and minerals were extracted, roads were located on mid-slopes and ridge tops. The majority of the road system was built in the 1970s and '80s for intensive timber harvest. The eventual result was damaged watersheds roaded from drainage to ridge top. Oregon was hit heavily by extractive industries. The first- and second-most roaded national forests in the nation are also in Oregon.

The WWNF currently has 1,806 miles of designated roads and OHV trails inside riparian areas alone. One motorized stream crossing can do a lot of damage to water quality, yet the Wallowa-Whitman currently has 13,597 total road and OHV trail stream crossings! The survival of salmon, steelhead and bull trout are jeopardized by the excessive number of roads in riparian areas and stream crossings.

Right now, elk populations are on a downward trend and elk are moving onto private land, causing chronic problems for wildlife managers, ranchers and hunters. Road densities on the Wallowa-Whitman routinely exceed 2.5 miles per square mile of land, a threshold above which elk do poorly. A key indicator for elk security is the total percent of habitat in the project area greater than one-half mile from a road. Right now, 89 percent of the project area qualifies as within the "poor quality security area" (less than one-half mile from a road). For other key national forest resources, such as old-growth forests, snags and fisheries, the situation is similar. With numerous routes going to the same place, the current road system provides a level of access that is causing widespread damage to our national forest.

What the Travel Management Plan is really about is determining what we are going to find on the WWNF once we get there. Will we find wildlife and fisheries thriving within intact and pristine environments that provide our society with invaluable ecosystem services while simultaneously offering our families solitude from increasingly busy, technical lives or will we find frustration, beat-up landscapes with widespread roads and noise from vehicles?

I support the alternative that closes the most roads because there would remain over 2,500 open miles of roads on the WWNF. This would provide ample access and also be a huge step toward ensuring a WWNF we can all enjoy.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Wolf Death Toll Rises as We Await a Court Ruling

Photo of first wolf killed in 2009 Idaho wolf hunt,
released by Idaho Fish & Game Department

The federal government has made several attempts in recent years to weaken or entirely eliminate federal protections for wolves. Only weeks after conservationists had successfully restored Endangered Species Act (ESA) protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies through a court order in July 2008, the Bush Administration, just before leaving office, announced a “new” de-listing rule, based on virtually all the same flawed science as the previous rule, to once again deprive wolves of protection under the ESA. Sadly, one of the Obama Administration’s earliest disappointments to the conservation community was its decision to uphold this de-listing rule.

The effect of the de-listing rule hands wolf management over to states that have literally been chomping at the bit to open wolf hunting seasons. And starting this past fall Idaho and Montana did just that—setting hunting quotas at 220 and 75 wolves respectively. Idahoans eager to kill wolves have now come close to meeting that quota, with over 140 wolves already killed, paying a mere $11.50 a pop for the chance to shoot one of these animals. When these hunting quotas are combined with the hundreds of wolves killed annually by the states to protect livestock, as well as poaching, other human-induced mortality and natural mortality, the current Northern Rockies wolf population will be significantly reduced.

HCPC joined the conservation coalition, represented by Earthjustice, in once again filing suit to reinstate ESA protections for wolves in the Northern Rockies. We decided to participate in this lawsuit because the de-listing rule is based on flawed and outdated science, diminishes the opportunity for wolves to disperse into Oregon and re-colonize their native habitat, and threatens the overall long-term viability of this regional wolf population.

As our lawsuit states, the decision to de-list a species from the federal Endangered Species Act should be based on whether the best available science supports a determination that the current population is large enough to withstand extinction threats and, if so, whether the respective states have adequate management plans to ensure the population remains sufficiently large. Instead of looking to the best scientific information currently available, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (“FWS”) primarily relied on its outdated 300-wolf recovery standard from over 20 years ago. There is an abundance of current science, including the FWS’s own re-examinations of this antiquated recovery standard, which demonstrates that a viable wolf population—one that can persist over the long-term—requires much more than 300 wolves.

Following this scientifically unsupported recovery standard, Idaho and Montana have developed inadequate state management plans that only commit to protecting a combined 300 wolves. This means the vast majority of the remaining current population (now estimated to be around 1,350 wolves) can be legally killed—rendering the conservation benefits derived from federal ESA protections and recovery efforts over the past three decades essentially meaningless.

The federal judge in our lawsuit has already indicated that we are likely to succeed on the merits of our case. However, until we succeed in court the wolves of the Northern Rockies will continue falling victim to state sanctioned bullets—that is unless the Obama administration decides to uphold its pledge to “restore the scientific process to its rightful place at the heart of the Endangered Species Act,” withdraws the rule that undermines years of knowledge gained from the field of conservation biology, and reinstates federal protections for this wolf population until the day they are truly no longer warranted.