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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
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Lay of the Land

Noah's Canyon? | WWatch | A Better Way | For the Record | Hazards of High Tech | Second Careers | As the World Warms | Updates | Catch and Exterminate

Noah's Canyon?
Geology collides with theology at the National Park Service

When one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell made the first recorded boat descent of the Grand Canyon in 1869, he predicted that the gorge would prove "a Book of Revelations in the rock-leaved bible of geology." Today we're back to the literal Bible: A best-selling book in local national-park stores argues that the canyon was sculpted about 4,500 years ago, in the aftermath of Noah's Flood.

Grand Canyon: A Different View brings together the works of dozens of creationist theologians and "flood geologists" to present an alternative to what they call the "evolutionist" or "uniformitarian" view that the canyon's strata represent up to 1.8 billion years of geological history. A disclaimer notes that all contributions have been peer-reviewed "to ensure a consistent and biblical perspective."

"Creationist geologists don't need to speculate about history," boasts Different View contributor Tasman Walker, "because we accept the eyewitness accounts of past events, preserved in a reliable written record — the Bible." Harmonizing that record with the strata of sandstone and limestone full of fossils is no simple task.

The fossils are described as the remains of victims of the Flood, and the sedimentary layers as having been deposited by its waters. But then the Flood itself couldn't be responsible for the canyon, hence the deus ex machina of "a great dammed-up lake full of water from the Flood"; when the dam broke, the canyon was carved.

Stuff like this drives "uniformitarian" geologists crazy. Wilfred Elders, professor emeritus of geology at the University of California at Riverside, calls the book "bad theology and bad science." A letter from the heads of seven leading geoscience societies demanded that the National Park Service "distinguish religious tenets from scientific knowledge."

The Park Service did go so far as to take the book out of the "Natural History" section and move it to "Inspirational." But critics contend that the park bookstores are supposed to carry only material that supports the park's scientifically based interpretive program.

David Barna, spokesperson for the National Park Service, says that the ultimate decision may reside with the Supreme Court, which is now considering the constitutionality of displays of the Ten Commandments on government property. In 1987, the Court ruled that "creation science" was intrinsically religious, but if it sanctions Moses, a book about Noah will probably stand as well. — Paul Rauber


WWatch: Keeping Tabs on the Bush Administration

The faces are changing in the second George W. Bush administration, but environmentalists don't expect an end to stories like this one from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in early December: The newspaper found that the EPA had vastly overreported the amount of air-pollution reductions achieved during the administration's first four years. The agency charged with protecting our environment had "quietly allowed oil refineries nationwide to miss court-mandated deadlines to reduce air emissions, prolonging the exposure of hundreds of thousands of people to dangerous pollutants."

Bush's environmental policy is nothing if not consistent. While political figures from Bill Clinton to the Queen of England made passionate appeals for action on climate change, for example, the U.S. delegation to a United Nations conference in December opposed even the use of the term "climate change." The delegation also fought efforts to aid poor island nations most vulnerable to global warming.

The administration forged ahead with other long-threatened changes to environmental policy, including:

  • making it easier for oil and gas companies to drill under national parks (see "Grassroots," page 66).

  • pushing to limit protections for the gray wolf, which is making a slow but steady recovery in western regions of the Lower 48.

  • initiating a $2 million partnership with the American Chemistry Council to study the impact of pesticides on children by paying their parents to "spray or have pesticides sprayed inside their homes routinely during the two-year study period." (The project was quickly suspended after media reports provoked controversy.)

  • moving to eliminate protection for 80 percent of Northwest salmon and steelhead habitat and officially nixing the idea of taking down federal dams that hinder the fishes' recovery.

  • allowing snowmobile use to continue in Yellowstone National Park, despite National Park Service studies that concluded the machines harm the park's wildlife and damage its air quality.

While still EPA chief, Mike Leavitt declared that the election had given the administration "a clear agenda, one that's been validated and empowered by the people of this country." Are dead wolves, dirty air, and polluted parks what you voted for? — Jennifer Hattam


A Better Way: Tropical Tree-Keepers

While Bush and his timber-industry buddies treat our forests like cash machines, two Latin American nations are dedicating money — and in one case, cops — to the defense of trees.

In November, Brazil opened the region's biggest environmental police training camp deep in the Amazon. Agents instructed there will crack down on illegal mining, logging, and harvesting in the world's largest rainforest. "The wealth of this country is the environment and the federal police has been told to protect that wealth," one agent told Reuters.

That same month, the Mexican government agreed to spend $1.3 million to help purchase 370,000 acres of tropical forest on the Yucatán Peninsula from private landholders. The area will be added to the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve (see "The Way to Nueva Vida," September/October 2003). The U.S.-based environmental group Nature Conservancy contributed another $1.7 million to the conservation project, which Mexican officials called the largest in the country's history. — J.H.


For the Record

"Mr. Griles did not need personal contacts to carry out industry's wishes, so faithfully did he mirror them. He saw himself as chief operating officer, the man who got things done. As one admirer put it, Mr. Griles ‘kept the trains running at the Interior Department.' And so he did, even though they nearly always ran in the wrong direction."

New York Times editorial, December 20, 2004, on former timber and energy lobbyist J. Steven Griles's departure as deputy secretary of the Interior Department. Earlier last year, the department's inspector general called Griles's industry-friendly behavior "an institutional failure."


Hazards of High Tech

Giant heaps of computer scrap clog the dusty lanes of Mandoli, a squalid neighborhood on the east side of New Delhi. Dark gray clouds rise from the clanking bowels of more than a dozen high-walled buildings, choking the air and shrouding the sun. A knee-deep pile of green circuit boards, picked clean of metal, spills into a dirt lane from one of the building's doors. Inside, women squat in a circle amid discarded computer parts and several big blue barrels, pulling apart electrical plugs with their bare hands.

Yes, says Narender Kumar, a police officer patrolling the area, the plants are illegally recycling computer parts. But that's for the "magistrate" to deal with, he says.

The short working life span of computers — about three years — has created an enormous tide of obsolete units. While the outsourcing of high-tech jobs from the West has helped expand India's middle class, the detritus of the technological age ends up in the country as well. Computer waste is sneaked past customs officials, then transferred by truck to a storage yard on New Delhi's southern edge.

Scrap bidders divvy up the units and then sell their parts among various neighborhoods, each with its particular recycling specialty. The recyclers, many of them women and children, use fire and dangerous acids to melt down the computers' innards, releasing a smoky stream of lead, dioxin, and other pollutants in exchange for small amounts of valuable metals. (A truck driver eating a plate of rice in a nearby waste-strewn lot says that every day he transports about 2,400 kilos of copper from the dense rows of factories into the city.) These laborers, who earn about $1 per day, must choose "between poisons and livelihoods," says Kishore Wankhade of Toxics Link, a Delhi-based group that monitors the handling of electronic waste.

At the end of an alley in the slum neighborhood of Silampur, a doctor presses his stethoscope to the chest of a skinny, middle-aged laborer. The man shows "classic" symptoms of lung disease: shortness of breath and coughing up blood. The number of such patients at his clinic has grown rapidly, says Dr. B. B. Wadhwa. "It's because of the burning wires." The main medical clinic in Mandoli reports a sharp increase in the number of patients with lung ailments. Chief Medical Officer Priya T. Kumar says the hospital sees much younger patients than it did only a few years ago; they arrive with asthma, bronchitis, and chronic lung infections.

A Carnegie Mellon University study estimated that in 2002 the United States sent about 10 million computer units to Asia for recycling. The United States is the only developed nation not to ratify the international waste treaty, the Basel Convention, which forbids the export of computer waste. In 2003, California passed a law forcing computer manufacturers to take more responsibility for recycling, but it failed to ban the cheapest method of doing so: export. As long as computer users and the computer industry refuse to clean up after themselves, people in Silampur, Mandoli, and scores of other communities will pay the price instead. — Mike McPhate

ON THE WEB: See www.toxicslink.org.


Second Careers

Your resume shows you once knew your way around the West Wing and you had aimed for the nation's top post only to come up short. So what does a former presidential candidate do for an encore? Like Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi, Bob Dole and Al Gore have traveled different paths.

Far less prominent than his endorsement of Viagra is Bob Dole's work on behalf of the U.S. affiliate of Swiss-based Syngenta Crop Protection, which makes the herbicide atrazine. Suspected of increasing the risk of prostate cancer in humans, atrazine has already been shown to cause deformities in frogs (see "Profile," July/August 2004). Use of the chemical is severely restricted in seven European countries, and the European Union plans to ban it by mid-2005.

Hoping to prop up American sales of atrazine, Syngenta has spent $260,000 lobbying U.S. regulators, a sum that bought them the well-connected former Senate majority leader and corn-belt solon, who now works for Washington, D.C., law firm Alston & Bird. In late 2003, Dole met with White House deputy chief of staff Joe Hagin to discuss atrazine; the EPA soon reapproved the herbicide with no restrictions. Dole could be called on to plug for Syngenta yet again: This year, state senator John Marty, representing Minnesota's Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, plans to hold hearings on a bill that would ban the herbicide in his state.

Meanwhile, the environmentally attuned former veep once dubbed "Ozone Man" by George H. W. Bush has put his Capitol Hill skills to a more upstanding use. Teaming up with David Blood, former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Al Gore has launched Generation Investment Management, a London-based investment firm focused on socially and environmentally conscious companies.

The Blood and Gore team believes that long-term investors invite mayhem if they ignore issues of sustainability, particularly climate change. Gore will promote his concern for what he calls "the carbon intensity of profits" to clients such as pension funds, charitable foundations, and wealthy private investors — but he won't choose investments. "I'm not a stock picker," he told Reuters in November, perhaps considering his endorsement of Howard Dean six weeks before the Vermont governor tanked in the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses. — Reed McManus


As the World Warms
Signs of a changing planet

While the changing climate endangers some species, a little global warming suits many shallow-water squid and octopuses just fine. Slightly higher ocean temperatures have been shown to boost the growth of these cephalopods, whose digestive enzymes speed up when warm. The tentacled creatures are also quick to colonize new territory as conditions become more favorable; Humboldt squid, which usually range from Southern California to South America, have recently been spotted as far north as Alaska. Deep-sea squid may not, however, adapt as readily.

The tiny krill is a big deal to penguins, which rely on the shrimplike crustacean as a major food source. The Antarctic krill population has dropped by 80 percent since the 1970s, according to a recent study by the British Antarctic Survey that analyzed data collected over 40 summers. Krill feed primarily on algae that grow under sea ice, which has decreased by an annual average of 8 percent — and twice that during the summer — over the last 30 years. If these trends continue, krill-loving Antarctic whales, seals, and seabirds are also at risk.

New England's famous fall colors are dimming, while in some parts of old England, trees are exhibiting more vivid hues. In both cases, warmer weather seems to be playing a role. Hotter summers in the United Kingdom have caused some trees to produce more sugars in their leaves; the sugars react with other chemicals to produce a range of colors. New England has seen more rain, but less snow and frost, extending its trees' growing season and eliminating the harsh cold snaps that usually kill off chlorophyll production — and allow bright pigments to shine through.

Zepu Glacier is turning into a river. Rising temperatures in the highlands of Tibet have melted more than 100 yards of thickness from the 27-square-mile glacier in just three decades. Thousands of glaciers throughout the Himalayas face a similar fate. The swelling lakes that form as they melt threaten downstream communities with flash floods in India, China, and other nations.

Changing weather has made Britain hospitable to the green vegetable bug (Nezara viridula), an invasive pest that feeds on fruit plants, potatoes, and other important crops. Already a problem in warmer climes in the Mediterranean, Africa, Australia, and North America (where it's known as the southern green stink bug), the insect has reached the UK in vegetable shipments before, but has never been able to survive the cold weather. It has now established colonies in at least three London locations. — J.H.


Updates

Just Say What?
A congressional study released in December reports that federally funded sex-education programs that teach "abstinence only" are likely to contain false, misleading, or distorted information about contraceptives and abortion risks, and to blur religion and science. (See "A Neighborhood Named Desire," January/February 2004.) According to the report by Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), several of these programs purvey basic scientific errors, including claims that HIV can be transmitted through sweat or tears and that masturbation can lead to pregnancy.

Roadblock
In December 2004, the nation's largest automakers sued California in federal court, challenging the state's new vehicle greenhouse-gas standards. If enacted, the California law will force automakers to limit CO2 from their vehicles beginning in 2009. (See "Lay of the Land," September/October 2002, page 18.) The lawsuit claims that the state's regulation amounts to creating new fuel-efficiency standards, which only the federal government has the authority to do; the state responds that it is within its rights to regulate air pollution.

Law of FORESEEABLE Consequences
In 2001, the Bush administration nixed simple safety regulations designed to protect children from accidentally swallowing rat poison. (See "Lay of the Land," July/August 2004, page 15.) Now we see the results. According to the American Association of Poison Control Centers, more than 50,000 children were poisoned by rodenticides in 2004, three times as many as were affected before the sweetheart deal between the Bush administration and chemical manufacturers deep-sixed the rules.

Where's Arnold?
Last year, the U.S. Forest Service approved the Bush administration's plan to triple logging in 11.5 million acres of national forest in the Sierra Nevada. (See "Lay of the Land," July/August 2004, page 15.) Billed as a way to reduce wildfires, the scheme is considered a giveaway to the timber industry. Calling it a "betrayal of treasured forests and the public trust," California Attorney General Bill Lockyer (D) announced that he would sue to block the plan's implementation. While running for governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) promised to fight Bush administration attempts to roll back the Clinton-era policies that reduced logging in the Sierra, but so far the tough-talking governor hasn't said a word about the deforestation of his state.

Take it slow
In January, a federal judge placed a temporary injunction on off-road-vehicle use on 571,000 acres of public land in Southern California to protect the endangered desert tortoise. The ban followed the judge's ruling last August that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to adequately protect Gopherus agassizii. (See "The Sierra Club Bulletin," November/December 2004, page 49.) The latest decision prohibits off-road vehicles in desert habitat in Joshua Tree National Park and parts of three counties until a revised biological opinion is completed.


Catch and Exterminate
Exotic fish on the line

Orvis-attired catch-and-release anglers may take a while to warm up to the Exotic Fishing Tournament, the festival sponsored throughout the month of April by the Native Fish Conservancy that celebrates the motto "Once caught never returned." But the event's goal is noble: to rid waterways of exotic species that encroach on native fish populations.

Whether intentionally introduced into the environment or accidentally released from a ship's ballast water, species such as Asian carp and round goby have no natural enemies to limit their reproduction, so they spread rapidly, preying upon or diminishing the food supply for existing fish populations. The Great Lakes have been particularly hard hit, but there are troublesome exotic fish in all 50 states.

The NFC urges a no-holds-barred approach: "We encourage everyone to treat exotics with reckless, fishing exuberance. If you catch exotics, aquarium-keep them, grill them, feed them to your pets, turn them into fertilizer. Do anything except return them to their former homes." NFC-sponsored Exotic Removal Teams exercise appropriate abandon throughout the year (using whatever works, be it nets, artificial lures, live bait, or homemade chicken-feed concoctions) but it's the annual tournament that really gets the gills flapping: A $200 prize is given to the angling team that rids waterways of the largest number of invasive fish.

All participants receive NFC T-shirts that help them spread the organization's anti-exotics message far and wide: "Catch some carp in Kansas, gill a goby in Ohio, spear a snakehead in North Carolina, remove a rainbow trout in Yellowstone, pickle a pike in California! It all helps the cause!" — R.M.

On The Web: For more information, go to www.nativefish.org.


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