Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thoughts on Winter Solstice

American Bison in Yellowstone National Park
Story and photo by Brian Kelly, Restoration Coordinator

Thousands of years ago, Celtic people built Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland. Incredibly, they were able to orient these structures of massive stones to capture the rays of the rising sun on the Winter Solstice morning. Observance of the Winter Solstice must have captured the imagination of these people and held great importance to them.

Here in the Blue Mountains of Oregon, the Winter Solstice occurs on December 21, 2011 at about 9:30 PM. During the Solstice, the northern part of the earth tilts farther away from the sun than at any other time of the year. So the days grow longer and the nights grow shorter as we head into spring and summer.

Thinking about the earth as a planet that tilts, rotates and revolves around the sun is a reminder that we are all travelling on one planet together. From that perspective, it's apparent we should all be working together to take care of our planet. Protecting and restoring this earth is like taking care of your home and your family and friends. It makes good sense and you feel good by doing it.

During the Winter Solstice, I like to reflect on the seasons that have past and look forward to the seasons yet to come. The natural cycles in the Blue Mountain region are spectacular in their diversity as the seasons unfold. Skiing the powder snow of the Elkhorn Range in winter, gazing at the velvet-green slopes of Hells Canyon in the spring, sitting in the cool shade of a ponderosa pine in the summer heat, and hiking in the red and gold leaves of autumn are all vivid in my memory. We take these seasonal changes for granted. But when you stop to think about it, the intricate web of life that is expressed in each of these seasons is truly incredible.

The Winter Solstice marks an important point during the cycle of seasons. As we travel through the seasons and as we travel through space on our planet, it’s wise for us to keep in touch with the natural rhythms of life on earth. And it’s a graceful life that moves to the rhythm of nature.

I wish you the best of all of the seasons to come.

Monday, December 12, 2011

HCPC attends AGU Fall Meeting in San Francisco

Over 21,000 scientists from all over the world gathered at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting in San Francisco Dec. 4 – 9th. I was fortunate to be able to attend and present my work on satellite based detection of large-scale ecological disturbances and studies of global skin temperature, or land surface temperature. Attendees of the 2011 Fall AGU meeting traverse between three buildings making up the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco. Coming from La Grande Oregon, where the sidewalks are generally close to empty, it was exhilarating moving with a massive wave of people into the city for dinner at the end of the day.

I listened to presentations on global bioenergy capacity, treeline migration, global die-offs of trees, improving communication on climate change, the impact of drought and floods on the Amazon, challenges for feeding the world, and much more. I also got away from all the technical talk and listed to Simon Winchester tell stories about his own life, and heard presentations about the life’s work of prominent historic scientists, such as John Tyndall. John Tyndall was the first person to demonstrate that greenhouse gases absorb radiant heat in the laboratory in 1850, and then even recognized the implications of this discovery for effecting global climate. It makes one reflect on why we have come so far down this global warming path when we have had this fundamental information for so long.

While on the topic of troubling Earth system indicators, I listened to a prominent scientist describe his work with many others quantifying our exceeding of three of nine planetary systems considered in the study; Biodiversity, the Nitrogen Cycle, and Climate Change. We are now well outside the range of anything humans have ever experienced for these factors and rapidly changing most of the other factors, such as ocean chemistry.

On the lighter side, I dug an unwanted plant from an area of Golden Gate Park that is being managed to feel like an ancient forest. It was fun to get outside and do some physical work. It's worth noting that almost the entire park is exotic species because it was originally established on the beach sand dune environment. There were some native oak trees however, which can still be found growing there today.
Helping restore an ancient forest feel in the tree fern forest of Golden Gate Park during one of the AGU Fall Meeting events. I couldn't beleive how easy it was too dig in the soil compared to the rocky soil at my Eagle Cap cabin!

As I sat listening to the big changes that are already underway on Earth due to climate change and the unbelievably large-scale shifts in biomes that are expected because of impending climate change, I couldn’t help think of our conservation work. I for one, am very attached to the old growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, and even to little things such as the smell of a Douglas-fir plant community type in mid-summer, or the way light penetrates through the canopy at different times of the day. It is not easy to picture such big changes in our local Wilderness area. But I think it’s important that we get ahead of the curve and highlight the value of our current reserve system such as Wilderness areas, Roadless Areas, National Parks, National Recreation Areas, etc., as the best places we have to accommodate large shifts in the biotic community, mainly facilitated through natural disturbance processes. These are the only landscapes where these big changes can occur in a relatively natural way and I think there is real value in that from a conservation perspective. And through it all, large protected areas will still be areas where future generations can get into big open country, where solitude can be found, and a natural world can be observed, be it including novel ecosystems for which we have no historical counterpart. The entire National Forest System and Public Lands base is pretty well connected in many parts of the western U.S. and will serve as a corridor to the extent that our management allows for. I think this should be a key objective of the entire Public Lands base, as protecting connectivity of the landscape is the single most important thing we can do to aid plants and animals in adapting to climate change.

Other interesting factoids on our food production system:
1. Our food production system is responsible for 35% of total carbon dioxide pollution! In fact the rapid increases in global land use change (agricultural expansion), population growth and the increase in fossil fuel consumption are all very tightly coupled.
2. 40% of the Earth’s population is switching to a meat centered diet, creating a huge shift toward greater demand on global resources as the caloric benefit received from the meat is far less than the calories used to grow the meat. Particularly problematic is beef due to its water consumption and the massive amount of land allocated to grow corn for cows that isn't even edible.

3. Soybeans and cattle production continue to result in a one-two punch of destruction to the Amazon rainforest.

post by David Mildrexler, Ecosystem Conservation Coordinator

Monday, December 5, 2011

Settlement Agreement is a Victory for Threatened Fish and the Walla Walla Roadless Area

Press Release, December 5, 2011

Contact: Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney, 541-963-3950x23 or

Hells Canyon Preservation Council and the U.S. Forest Service reached an agreement, approved in federal court today, that commits the government to determining whether motorized vehicle use along the upper reaches of the Walla Walla River is impairing the recovery of steelhead and bull trout populations, both of which are listed as "threatened" under the Endangered Species Act.

For decades the Forest Service has allowed off-highway vehicles "OHVs" (motorcycles and in some areas all-terrain vehicles like quads) to use trails adjacent to the North and South Forks of the Walla Walla River. "The Forest Service has expanded the motorized trail network, which now spans over 100 miles, in some of the best, un-roaded fish and wildlife habitat in the region without carefully examining the environmental consequences, including the unauthorized use happening off of established trails" said Jennifer Schwartz, Staff Attorney for the Council. "The Walla Walla River watershed is an ecological stronghold, encompassing crucial winter range for big game, old-growth forest stands, and deeply incised canyons that provide critical aquatic habitat for bull trout and Mid-Columbia River steelhead." Under the agreement, the Forest Service will thoroughly assess the impacts of motorized use in the area and refrain from constructing any additional motorized trails until it complies with the Endangered Species Act and National Environmental Policy Act.

The Walla Walla River Roadless Area is surrounded by other large tracts of roadless habitat and the congressionally designated Wenaha-Tucannon Wilderness—offering rare opportunities for wide-ranging animals like elk, black bear, cougar, lynx, wolves, and wolverine to travel within a well-connected natural landscape.

The government has recognized since 1972 that OHV use on public lands is “in frequent conflict with wise land and resource management practices, environmental values, and other types of recreational activity.” Executive Order 11644. Today's high-powered motorized vehicles can penetrate deeper into backcountry areas that were previously inaccessible due to technological limitations. OHVs can negatively affect natural resources, from disturbing and displacing wildlife, to trampling native plants, to destroying wet meadows and spreading noxious weeds. This lawsuit focused on OHV impacts to water quality and aquatic habitat through soil rutting, erosion and compaction, the removal of streamside vegetation, and the loss of streambank stability, all of which can lead to increased surface runoff, sedimentation, elevated water temperatures, and the introduction of oil, grease, and other pollutants into public waterbodies.

"Today's agreement marks a critical step toward ensuring the health of our waters, native fish populations, and the biological integrity and quiet enjoyment of our remaining roadless, wild lands," said Schwartz.


Hells Canyon Preservation Council is a nonprofit conservation organization dedicated to the protection and restoration of the Hells Canyon-Wallowa and Blue Mountain ecosystems.

Top photo courtesy of David Mildrexler: depicting damage to wet meadow from unauthorized OHV use emanating from the Walla Walla River motorized trail network.

Bottom photo courtesy of Jennifer Schwartz: depicting unauthorized use by full-size ATVs (quads) alongside South Fork Walla Walla River and within river's floodplain.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Buying Bewilderment

Outside the wind is sharp, snowcold. The last of the deciduous leaves are blowing, swirling, dancing in the wind. Fall is turning now to winter. Watching the wind sculpt leaves into whirlwind shapes, I am thinking of Mystery.

Mystery was the first of the Big Three Essentials Gary Ferguson talked about in his keynote speech at the Fall Gala, and in many ways the hardest, at least for me, to talk about. Somehow it is easier for me to talk about words like Community and Beauty. With all the emphasis HCPC has on bringing the latest and best science to public lands management, Mystery may seem foreign, out of place, belonging to a different world. From my perspective, though, Mystery is at the heart of science.

Mystery is about what we don’t know, what we yet don’t understand. It’s the questions we don’t have the answers to. And it is in questions where science begins. Science doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, and certainly not immutable ones. Science tests hypothesis after hypothesis; gathers information, shakes it all up, and then looks for patterns.

At its best, science does not confuse the descriptions of the patterns we see with the actual reality. Science is content to say “this is our best understanding at this time”. Science lives side by side with the unknown and the unknowable, comfortable within its own limits. Humble even.

Humility seems to be required by both Mystery and Science, along with wonder, amazement, and delight.

I am still amazed that trees breathe in the carbon dioxide that would poison us, and breathe out the oxygen we need. I am still delighted that the chlorophyll in leaves is so similar to the hemoglobin in my blood, one centered around copper, the other centered around iron. I am still struck with wonder that a gigantic tree can grow from such a tiny seed.

“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” – Rumi

This quote is what Gary Ferguson chose to wrap up his keynote speech. I think of cleverness not only as the antithesis of bewilderment but also of humility, of that open place where journeys begin.

There’s no need to pretend we have all the answers. We start with where we are, do the best we can with what we know, seek to learn more as science makes available more knowledge, and move forward with this vital work to protect, defend, restore, and love these wild places we call home.

Begin with Mystery, and bewilderment. Be wilder.

- Danae Yurgel

Monday, November 28, 2011

Voluntary Grazing Permit Retirement Legislation Introduced in Congress

Hells Canyon Preservation Council is pleased to endorse the Rural Economic Vitalization Act of 2011 (HR 3432), a bill that promotes recovery of native ecosystems, saves taxpayer funds, and provides financial assistance to federal grazing permittees and lessees for voluntarily retiring public lands livestock grazing permits.

Help reclaim our public wild lands from livestock grazing by telling your representatives to support the Rural Economic Vitalization Act (H.R. 3432)!

Press release follows:

November 16, 2011

Bill would Provide Cash Option for Grazing Permittees

Conservationists hailed the introduction of the Rural Economic Vitalization Act (H.R. 3432) in Congress today, a bill that would allow federal grazing permittees to voluntarily relinquish their grazing permits back to the managing federal agency in exchange for compensation paid by a third party. The bill was introduced by Representative Adam Smith (D-WA-9th) and six original cosponsors.

“When enacted, this legislation will help resolve endless conflict on public lands, while providing ranchers with opportunities to restructure their operations, start new businesses, or retire with security,” said Mike Hudak, author of Western Turf Wars: The Politics of Public Lands Ranching and leader of the Sierra Club Grazing Team.

Domestic livestock grazing is the most pervasive and damaging use of federal public lands. On public land across the West, millions of non-native livestock remove and trample vegetation, damage soil, spread invasive weeds, despoil water, deprive native wildlife of forage and shelter, accelerate desertification and even contribute to global warming.

Unfortunately, antiquated federal law generally prohibits closing grazing allotments to benefit fish, wildlife and watersheds. The Rural Economic Vitalization Act would authorize federal agencies to permanently retire grazing permits if requested by ranchers.

“Grazing permit retirement has been implemented in a few places around the West with marked success, but there is much greater need—and demand from ranchers—to retire grazing permits,” said Mark Salvo of WildEarth Guardians.

One landscape that has benefited from grazing permit retirement is the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem where grazing allotments have been closed to reduce conflicts with wolves, grizzly bears and bighorn sheep, and to expand winter range for bison outside Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone bison, the last remaining genetically pure wild herd in the U.S., are subject to intensive management and control based on the irrational fear that they will transmit disease to domestic livestock.

“Bison are hazed, captured, shot and slaughtered to protect grazing interests on public land in Yellowstone country,” said Josh Osher of the Buffalo Field Campaign. “REVA is the tool we need to finally, permanently address these conflicts.”

In addition to being the source of immeasurable environmental harm, the federal grazing program is a fiscal boondoggle for federal taxpayers. The Government Accountability Office reported that the Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service annually spend $132.5 million on grazing management, but collect only $17.5 million in grazing fees for a net loss to taxpayers of $115 million.

“We want to save public lands and do our part to solve the deficit,” said Brian Ertz of Western Watersheds Project. “We just need Congressional approval to buy out willing ranchers and retire their grazing permits.”

Grazing permit retirement is a voluntary, non-regulatory, market-based solution to public lands grazing conflicts. Permittees determine if and when they want to retire their grazing permits. Permittees and third parties separately agree how much a permittee will be paid for relinquishing their permit. And federal agencies facilitate the transaction by immediately retiring grazing permits received from a permittee. The Rural Economic Vitalization Act caps the total number of grazing permits that may be retired each year at 100.

“This is a win-win-win for ranchers, the environment, and taxpayers,” said Rose Chilcoat of Great Old Broads for Wilderness. “Let’s pass this bill so that we can finally take some common sense steps to ensure healthy public lands.

# # #

See also the press release from the office of Rep. Adam Smith:

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Antelope Ridge Wind Power Project Update

Wind turbines near the proposed Antelope Ridge Wind Power Project

Story & photo by Brian Kelly, Restoration Coordinator for HCPC

It’s been a very interesting week in the world of Pacific Northwest wind power proposals. Here in northeast Oregon, Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife (ODFW) and the developer EDP Renewables jointly announced that they had resolved most of the wildlife objections previously raised by ODFW over the Antelope Ridge Wind Power Project. This agreement likely moves the application one step further down review process. However, Hells Canyon Preservation Council will continue to advocate for the strongest possible wildlife protections during the review of the project application.

The agreement between ODFW and EDP Renewables is the product of months of mediated negotiations set up by Governor Kitzhaber. It’s now up to the Oregon Department of Energy to create a “Draft Proposed Order” for the Antelope Ridge Project. At that point, members of the public may raise issues or objections during the “Public Hearings” phase of the process. So while the accord between ODFW and EDP is a significant development in the application process to permit the construction of Antelope Ridge, it is still a long ways from being completed.

I have begun to read through the eight new documents about Antelope Ridge that were released this week. It’s complicated. It will take some time to adequately research this new information. However, here are some of my initial impressions of these agreements.

· Overall, wildlife protections are significantly weaker than those in ODFW’s earlier comments on Antelope Ridge.

· The project would be built in two phases. Up to 100 turbines would be built in phase 1. Unfortunately, phase 1 turbines include those closest to the crest of Craig Mountain and flyways for eagles, hawks and other birds.

· Phase 2 would only be constructed after completion of a multiple year big game monitoring study.

· ODFW and EDP Renewables were unable to come to consensus regarding property to be acquired for mitigation of wildlife impacts from the wind project.

· An “Incidental Take Permit” for the killing of bald eagles by turbines would recommended rather than required.

· Golden eagle issues will be addressed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and not by ODFW.

· An Avian and Bat Protection Plan will be developed between USFWS and EDP Renewables and not by ODFW.

USFWS will play an important role as protections for golden eagles and the Avian and Bat Protection Plan are developed.

Hells Canyon Preservation Council will continue to play an important role in advocating for wildlife protections as public review of the Antelope Ridge project develops. HCPC led a coalition of conservation groups in submitting comments to Oregon Department of Energy advocating for strong wildlife protections in December 2010. I also spoke about these concerns when I addressed the Oregon Energy Facility Siting Council at a public meeting in early 2011. We will keep you informed about the Antelope Ridge project and future opportunities for you to comment during the “Public Hearings” phase of the process.

Renewable energy is a very good thing. The earth’s future hangs in the balance over how well we are able to conserve energy and develop clean energy production. However, renewable energy projects must be located on appropriate sites, and wildlife and their habitat must be protected in the process. We will continue to advocate for appropriate renewable energy but we will continue to insist that wildlife are not sacrificed in the process.

There is ample cause for concern about impacts to wildlife from the Antelope Ridge Wind Energy Project. EDP Renewables has applied to install 164 turbines over 47,000 acres of private land in the hills just south of the Grande Ronde Valley. (Horizon Wind Energy was the subsidiary of EDP Renewables that filed the application).

According to ODFW’s earlier comments, “The Project is one of the first wind power projects in Oregon proposed to be sited in critical big game winter range and very productive wildlife habitat, resulting in the construction of a large industrial structure that negatively affects Oregon’s wildlife.”

Antelope Ridge would be built immediately north of EDP’s existing Elkhorn Valley wind facility where four golden eagles have been found dead since May 2009, presumably killed by wind turbines. Since Antelope Ridge would be larger and located closer to eagle nesting areas, the likelihood of more golden eagle deaths is high, according to US Fish & Wildlife Service.

Burrowing owls, Swainson’s hawk, and red-tailed hawks nest within the project area. Four species of bats have been identified as well. The sensitive plant species Doulas clover and Oregon semaphore grass grow in the project area.

Antelope Ridge would be constructed just south of Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area, northeast Oregon’s largest remaining wetland. It would be about a dozen miles west of the Eagle Cap Wilderness. Forests, sagebrush /grasslands and wetlands provide key wildlife habitat in the project area. Wildlife travel through the project area, and it’s an important wildlife connectivity corridor. In fact, the Washington Wildlife Habitat Connectivity Working Group has identified the area as an important habitat link between the essential habitats of the Wallowa Mountains and the Blue Mountains.

There was also news about other Pacific Northwest wind power projects this week. In western Washington, the Radar Ridge project was cancelled over concerns about the marbled murrelet, a threatened seabird. Also this week, in southeast Oregon two wind projects were withdrawn from the unique and important Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area. A third project and a transmission line proposal for the Steens Mountain area still pose threats to eagles and sage-grouse of that region, however. Nevertheless, it is promising to say goodbye to these projects that harm wildlife. When faced with harmful energy development projects, HCPC will continue to provide a voice for wildlife. It's a privilege to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.