April 13, 2006
Toxic (Press) Releases
Good news about pollution? The US EPA says so. This Washington Post story makes it seem like the US made great strides in reducing toxic emissions in 2004.
The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2004...The agency said releases of dioxin and dioxin compounds fell 58 percent; mercury and mercury compounds were cut 16 percent; and PCBs went down 92 percent. [Emphasis added.]
Now, the fall in dioxins in particular seemed like pretty big news. But it also struck me as a bit suspicious. So I looked into the numbers a bit.
The EPA's Toxics Release Inventory Explorer is pretty simple to use, so it didn't take long to zero in on why, exactly, dioxin emissions fell so much. The basic scoop -- it's not so much that dioxin emissions fell in 2004, as that they spiked in 2003. The nation's dioxin emissions (at least, those captured by the TRI) in 2004 were comparable to levels from 2000 through 2002. The 58 percent "decline" was just relative to 2003, which was abnormally high.
Then the question becomes -- what happened in 2003? Apparently, there was a single wood-preserving facility in Lousiana that was responsible for the 2003 spike. (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess they landfilled a bunch of contaminated waste.)
So the national "good news" story about dioxins in 2004--a 58 percent decline in releases--turns out to be, if anything, a bad news story about 2003. Or, more properly, it's an artifact of the way the data are reported: the dioxin "released" in 2003 was likely just transferred from one place to another, in a way that triggered EPA's reporting requirements.
The thing is, it took just a few minutes to figure out that the EPA's press release was, at least in part, full of hot air. Obviously, reporters are under tremendous pressure to churn out stories. But I do wish that basic fact-checking was a higher priority for them. Bum facts passed off as "good news" should be recognized for what they are: a form of toxic information pollution.
Closer to home, the news seems a little bit better for dioxin trends. In Washington, Oregon, and Idaho combined, releases to air, water, and land have fallen from 163 grams in 2000 to 46 grams in 2004. "Off-site disposal" -- transfers for storage or treatment -- has climbed a bit, though. On net, 2004's total dioxin releases were a bit higher than 2002 and 2003, but have fallen by about a quarter since 2000. And the three states combined now account for about 2 tenths of one percent of national dioxin emissions, as measured by TRI data.
That said, there are some facilities that escape TRI reporting requirements, and much of the dioxin releases from the region are now from activities such as backyard trash burning. But the numbers, for the northwest at least, do seem modestly promising.
March 20, 2006
Cascadian Cabinet Member
President Bush recently tapped Idaho's governor, Dirk Kempthorne, to head the US Department of the Interior, making Kempthorne the highest ranking US official of Cascadian extraction. (Kempthorne was raised in Washington, but he's made his 20 year political career in Idaho.) As secretary of the interior he'll oversee some of the most critical aspects of Cascadia's future: everything from energy security to wildlife management to funding for national parks and forests.
No comments from me (for now), but I though it worth pointing to a handful of the better newspaper articles on Kempthorne's appointment...
More Charm Than Substance, LA Times.
A Collaborative Conservative, Christian Science Monitor.
Bad, Eugene-Register Guard.
Not Bad, Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
March 09, 2006
New wolf numbers released this afternoon from US Fish and Wildlife: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming now host an estimated 1,020 wolves, a stunning 21 percent increase in just a single year. Since reintroduction in the mid-1990s, gray wolf numbers have grown at an astonishing pace, faster even than the most optimistic prognostications. Idaho continues to shelter more wolves than any other state in the West with about half the total. The rest are split almost evenly between Montana and Wyoming.
In recent months, nearly every day seems to bring new rumors of federal de-listing, an action that would leave gray wolves in a much more precarious position. Idaho officials, for example, have already stated their intent to kill wolves that are preying on elk.
The sheer absurdity of Idaho's position is almost mind-boggling. Wolves are already killed for attacking livestock--but elk, on the other hand, are the wolves' natural prey. In any case, credible biological studies actually show a negligible reduction in elk numbers that can be attributed to wolf predation. Until wolves become vegetarian, they're not likely to have many friends in state government. In the meantime, their best chance lies in establishing a large and sustainable population that can weather squalls of bad policy.
Ironically, the best ally of the wolves at the moment may be anti-wolf forces in Wyoming. State officials there have so far refused to draw up a recovery plan for wolves that doesn't allow unregulated killing outside of Yellowstone National Park (where, incidentally, the wolves draw millions of dollars in tourist revenue). Until Wyoming has a suitable recovery plan--as Idaho and Montana already do--the federal government will likely not de-list wolves. And with each year bringing double-digit population growth, gray wolves just need time to keep their numbers booming.
UPDATE 3/10/06: Article in today's New York Times that details some of the issues around de-listing, including the desire of ranchers to have unregulated wolf killing, including aerial killing.
March 07, 2006
Sprawl of Boise
In NEW's seven-city study of Northwest cities and sprawl--part of our Cascadia Scorecard project--Boise ranked worst. What's heartening is that many Boise community leaders, members of the media, and advocates in Idaho are bent on doing something about it.
An Idaho Statesman editorial this weekend--which cited our energy and sprawl research extensively--laments the city's smart-growth record and notes the strong connection between Idaho's sprawl and energy habits. (Idaho also consumes the most energy per capita in the Northwest.)
"Our decisions about energy use — and the land-use policies that drive energy use — can prove costly. . . . And it's a critical message for a state that, for all its growth, still embraces a love of the highway and a general lack of interest in public transportation."
February 23, 2006
The Whales Among Us
The long term outlook for Puget Sound's resident orcas depends in part on the health of the Columbia Chinook salmon, which are themselves struggling because of the four dams on the Lower Snake River. In a word: To save the whales, we may need to first save the salmon. Saving the salmon may mean tearing out the dams. And tearing out the dams would mean bridging a nasty political divide in the Northwest.
Few issues in regional conservation raise tensions faster than talk of breaching those dams. But if we are to protect the Sound's orcas, the subject will have to be revisited. Again. And writer David Neiwert does so in an exceptionally nuanced article in the Seattle Weekly. He points out, rightly, that we simply don't know as much as we should about the resident orcas, especially about their wintertime travels and diet. We need more scientific research in a hurry. And if the best evidence is right--that Columbia Chinook are a necessary component of orca recovery--we'll also need some skillful politicking because either the whales will continue to face insufficient food or the dams will have to come down. As Neiwert casts the issue, we'll have to bridge the cultural and political divide between Puget Sound urbanites, who love the whales, and rural inland northwesterners who want the dams in place.
It's tragic, in a sense, that the fate of the orcas may rest on political machinations. The southern resident orcas, perhaps even more than the salmon, are an emblem of the ways that ecosystems and wild creatures are not just local phenomena. They rely on the integrity of whole landscapes with all their biological complexity, even though those landscapes are sometimes overlaid by a fragmented and poisonous political system.
At the very end of the article, Neiwert touches on what I think may be the key. The policies to protect orcas--cleaning up toxics, easing sprawl, restoring fisheries--have other effects too. Namely, they're pretty good for people. So in the face of staunch political opposition, maybe it's time for conservationists to try another tactic: showing that the policies in the best interest of orcas are also in the best interest of people.
If that sounds woefully anthropocentric to you, well, I agree that it is. But consider why the orcas get so much attention: it's at least in part because they exhibit signs of intelligence, even appearing to mimic certain human behaviors such as family life. The Western Grebes and geoducks of Puget Sound are struggling too, but they don't get nearly the conservation resources because they're simply not as charismatic. We're eager to protect the orcas at least in part because they remind us of ourselves.
Whether or not that's a bad thing is a subject for another (and longer) post, but it's useful to remember that, in a metaphysical sense, protecting the orcas is also partly about protecting ourselves. And in a practical sense, we inhabit the very same ecosystems as the orcas. So a Northwest with natural systems resilient enough to support a flourishing orca population is likely to be one that supports a flourishing human population too.
February 17, 2006
Accounting for Endangered Species
In the Washington Post today, an ominous headline for endangered species: "The True Cost of Protection?"
Dust off your sense of outrage, fellow taxpaying Americans, because as the article informs us, protecting endangered species cost $1.4 billion in 2004. So magnificent is that figure that the writer sneeringly suggests that king salmon are so called because recovering them cost the princely sum of $160 million in '04. By the tenor of the piece we are supposed to feel that spending $5 million on gray wolves is magnanimous, while spending $11,000 on a rare species of beetle is the height of absurdity.
What's truly outrageous is the intimation that somehow the species themselves are to blame for their costly predicament. Like lazy welfare queens, these imperiled animals should pony up. Never mind that wild Columbia River king salmon are perhaps 1 percent of historical abundance because a welter of industries were given free rein to destroy them. Clearcuts, dams, voracious fisheries, nuclear plants, pesticides... the list of culprits is long and it is to them that the $160 million bill should be assessed. The cost is not of "protection" as the writer asserts, it is instead the cost of heedlessly trampling ecosystems.
It's apropos that the headline editor added a question mark because, in truth, none of the dollar figures cited in the article actually amount to the "true cost" of protection. Like a blinkered accountant tallying only expenses but not revenues, the article utterly fails to mention any of the monetary benefits of species recovery. (And I won't even mention the inestimable non-monetary ones). Study the "costs" of protection for a moment and you'll see that the figures just don't add.
In the Yellowstone region, University of Montana economists have estimated that gray wolves have generated $23 million dollars in tourism to gateway towns. Add to that the many millions of dollars in central Idaho and the Upper Midwest, where gray wolves are also rebounding, and it turns out that wolves not only pay for themselves, they pick up the tab for those good-for-nothing salamanders, and still return a hefty dividend to taxpayers.
In Idaho, fully functioning sport salmon fisheries have been valued as high as $544 million per year. Though that estimate is disputed, it's for just one year for one of the several states where that $160 million was spent in 2004 to assist king salmon.
I could go on and on. The point is, the "true cost" of endangered species protection is much lower than the greenbacks that the US Fish & Wildlife Service lays out. It's even possible that the investment is actually a net benefit for the economy, if one bothers to factor in the revenues of wildlife-based tourism, ecosystem services, and sport (and commercial) fisheries. And that's just the dollars and cents, which is a lamentably poor way to value our natural heritage.
Even if they never do hold steady jobs and pay back what they rightfully owe us taxpayers, protecting and restoring endangered species is worth the price. When I consider the meaning of those species, their uniqueness in geography and history and their symbolism of wildness, $1.6 billion just doesn't seem like very much money to me. Especially when I remember that it's spent on species across the entire country--from Florida manatees to Northwest salmon.
Where I live, in Seattle, officials are just about to plunk down $3.5 billion in tax dollars to build a 2 mile long tunnel. Enough said.
February 15, 2006
Perhaps everyone else knew this, but I certainly didn't: most residents of the northwest US were born outside the state where they now live. Roughly 53 percent of folks who live in Idaho and Washington, and 55 percent in Oregon, are transplants, born either in another state or country. (For the record, I'm a wanderer too, born and raised on the east coast.)
For the most part, in-migrants came from other parts of the US, rather than overseas. As of 2000, only 1 in 20 residents of Idaho, 1 in 12 residents of Oregon, and 1 in 10 Washingtonians were foreign-born. The rest of us came from other parts of the US. (Of course, there's some overlap here; some folks who were born in, say, Washington now live in Oregon. So there may be quite a few people who didn't move far -- but the Census site where we got these numbers couldn't tell us specifics.)
British Columbia, on the other hand, has a substantial population of international in-migrants: 1 in 4 residents of the province were born in another country, mostly in Europe or Asia.
I have no larger point here -- other than a bit of surprise that, for a place that seems to have inspired genuine loyalty among its inhabitants, our roots may be a bit shallower than I'd thought.
February 13, 2006
Another plot to cripple the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was foiled recently, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer (via Reuters). A Montana judge gets credit for apprehending the plotter, in Idaho, although Oregon and Washington are the main consumers of oil from Alaskan oil.
A year ago, we released the 2005 Cascadia Scorecard, which detailed the profound vulnerability of Cascadia's energy infrastructure (pdf), including the Trans-Alaska pipe.
The latest plot--which involved blowing up propane trucks along the pipeline, among other acts of sabotage elsewhere--doesn't seem to have been as far along as one in 1999 or one in late 2003. (Both described here (pdf), on pages 30-31.)
The larger story, of course, is that Cascadian officials have done little to secure its energy system in the past year. Pending energy security measures in Washington and Oregon may be bright spots on the horizon.
January 24, 2006
Looks Matter (To Ecosystems)
Oregon State University just won a $3.6 million grant for sagebrush ecosystem restoration. That's good news because sagelands conservation always seems to take a back seat to other landscapes. I wonder if the explanation for sagebrush's short shrift isn't surpisingly superficial (how's that for alliteration?). Looks matter and sagebrush just doesn't sell like the prettier places do.
If so, sagebrush ecology is paying the price for its lack of glam appeal. The American West is home to 100 million acres of sagebrush country, but it is a battered landscape. As the AP story today puts it:
Because of the invasion of non-native plants, increasing wildfires and the expansion of juniper woodlands, sagebrush ecosystems have become one of the most threatened land types in the United States, researchers say.
"We are losing sagebrush-steppe ecosystems at an alarming rate, as wildfires fueled by cheatgrass sweep across the landscape," said project coordinator Jim McIver, an associate professor of rangeland resources.
The ongoing tragedy of conservation biology, with its limited resources, is that large attractive creatures--"charismatic megafauna," in biologist-speak, such as the ivory-billed woodpecker--generate most of the hoopla and therefore receive most of the protection. Less sexy creatures are often ignored, though they may be no less critical to complete and well-functioning ecosystems.
Landscapes tend to go the same way as wildlife. People get animated by old-growth forests, coastlines, canyons, and alpine settings. These are the places that we protect in national parks, photograph endlessly, and write volumes of earnest prose about. Big conservation organizations have little trouble "branding" these ecosystems and drumming up the dollars necessary to protect them from depredations. But sagebrush country is another matter.
At first glance the drab dun-colored world can appear desiccated, windy, even lifeless. And for some reason, the aesthetics of sagebrush country are particularly anemic in the car-centered view of the world. I've never encountered another landscape that looks so dull and hostile from a car at 70 miles per hour but that can be so arrestingly beautiful and complex at pedestrian speeds.
Given their lack of superficial appeal, it's no surprise that sagebrush ecosystems are so badly stressed and under-protected. The list of insults is long: invasive species, biodiversity loss, fire suppression, unsustainable water withdrawals, grazing, cattle ranging, road-building, fencing... In many places, sagebrush country is so degraded that some of the most intact landscapes are where you would least expect them: the lands that were formerly part of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Yakima Training Center, a large-scale artillery range, to name just two places in Washington.
It's unfortunate that sagebrush lands are not better preserved because the ecology is worth protecting. They're home to an astonishing array of birds, rare plants, and even the big charismatic critters like elk, owls, porcupines, cougars, and my personal favorite, the sage grouse. (Sage grouse, in fact, may be one of the better simple indicators of overall sagebrush ecosystem health; and, no surprise, grouse numbers are drastically depressed from historical levels throughout most of the West.) Sagebrush landscapes are beautiful too--particularly during the springtime blooms--but to most observers they lack the dramatic flair of other places.
Sagebrush ecosystems should be near the top of the list of good conservation buys. Sagelands shelter rare and endangered plants and animals, they are under-represented in protected areas, they are are often not in high demand for important uses, and the land (or the rights to it) is comparatively inexpensive. In fact, one of the Northwest's recent conservation success stories is the Owyhee Initiative, a collaboration working to protect seldom-visited sagebrush country in southwestern Idaho. It's telling,however, that the group's website mostly advertises the conventionally scenic portions: river gorges and basalt outcroppings.
Sagebrush ecology, and it's comparative lack of conservation, strikes me as precisely the reason why we can benefit from a public biodiversity accounting. I'd bet that dollar for dollar, conservationists--and funders of conservation--could do more good for native biodiversity by protecting sagebrush country than by continuing to help the eye-candy ecosystems.
January 19, 2006
Mind the Gap
The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations just published its annual job gap study, looking at the share of jobs that actually pay a living wage (defined as one that puts healthy food, acceptable housing, and other basic living expenses within financial reach). Not too surprisingly, it found that only about a quarter of the jobs in the Northwest pay a living wage for a single-parent family with two kids. (See press coverage in Washington and Idaho.)
To me, this news seems about right. For a family with kids, the cost of living seems pretty darn high, once you factor in housing, health care, child care, rising energy bills, etc. And many, many jobs don't pay particularly well. So it's little shock that there are lots of families who have to cut corners to get by.
But as plausible as the figures from the job gap report may seem, they're also hard to square with this claim from a recent article in The American Prospect:
[A]ccording to a 2004 Roper Poll for the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants, 93 percent of individuals earning more than $50,000 described themselves as doing well -- many as doing very well -- as did 77 percent of those who earned just $30,000 to $40,000.
So...few jobs pay a living wage, but most people seem to consider themselves as "doing well." Hm. I don't think this is exactly cause for scepticism about the "living wage" figures -- but it's certainly evidence that there's more here than meets the eye. Perhaps jobs below the "living wage" are more common for people without families to support, or where one partner in a family earns substantially more than the other. Or perhaps people are just reluctant to admit that they're not "doing well," even in an anonymous survey.
One thing is pretty clear, though--as a society, we haven't done a particularly good job of measuring how people are really faring economically. Part of that is lack of attention -- economic statisticians are generally more concerned with aggregate figures for GDP, productivity, and the like, rather than with the situation of real families. But part is just that, well, it's just really hard to decide how to measure true prosperity. Surveys? Fancy economics? Guesswork? Any one approach is bound to have its drawbacks--which means that you probably have to look at the problem a bunch of different ways, though a number of different lenses, to get closer to a useful answer.