April 1, 2005
In This Issue
Two-thirds of the world’s ecosystems are in danger of collapsing because the human race is living beyond its means, according to the
Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a newly released United Nations Environment Program report. Backed by 1,360 scientists from around the world, the report warned that without substantial changes in policy and practice, the Earth faces an environmental disaster that will threaten all people in the 21st century.
“Only by understanding the environment and how it works, can we make the necessary decisions to protect it,” said U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan in a statement marking the report’s release. “Only by valuing all our precious natural and human resources, can we hope to build a sustainable future.”
The report said that while changes made over the past 50 years to meet demands for food, water and energy have helped billions of people, 15 of the 24 types of services provided to humans by the environment have been significantly degraded. The consequences could become much worse in coming decades as changes produce unexpected deteriorations in water quality, climate and health.
“In many cases, it is literally a matter of living on borrowed time. By using up supplies of fresh groundwater faster than they can be recharged, for example, we are depleting assets at the expense of our children,” said the report.
According to the directors of the study, reversing the degradation of ecosystems “will require radical changes in the way nature is treated at every level of decision-making and new ways of co-operation between government, business and civil society”.
One way to address the environmental problems, according to Stanford University professor Harold Mooney, is to assign economic value to the environmental benefits provided by the Earth. “We consider services free — like clean water and pest regulation — but they are not free,” he said. “A number of services have a potential to get into the economic system that will help in making wise decisions.”
Thousands of acres of isolated wetlands and hundreds of miles of seasonal and small streams currently outside of Clean Water Act jurisdiction would again receive federal wetlands protection under legislation reintroduced by a bipartisan coalition of House members.
The Clean Water Authority Restoration Act, originally introduced in 2003 in both the House and Senate, would amend the Federal Water Pollution Control Act and override a 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision that deemed isolated wetlands outside the scope of federal wetlands regulations under the Clean Water Act.
That decision, Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County v. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, or SWANCC, found that federal agencies could not regulate isolated wetlands under the Migratory Bird Act and interstate commerce clause of the Constitution, a rationale the Corps and EPA had used for years. This prompted federal agencies to issue new, less restrictive guidance on wetlands protection in January 2003.
The bill would restore the pre-SWANCC jurisdiction by changing the wording of the Clean Water Act to explicitly state which waters are covered under the legislation. The bill defines waters of the United States as “all waters subject to the ebb and flow of the tide, the territorial seas, and all interstate and intrastate water and their tributaries, including lakes, rivers, streams (including intermittent streams), mudflats, sandflats, wetlands, sloughs, prairie potholes, wet meadows, playa lakes, natural ponds, and all impoundments of the foregoing.” The bill also strikes the word “navigable” from the CWA, a term often cited by conservatives as evidence that the authors of the original act intended for the law to apply only to large water bodies suitable for navigation.
“The SWANCC case was decided 5-4 contrary to the intent of Congress and against the grain of nearly 30 years of judicial and administrative precedent,” said bill sponsor Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN).
Similar legislation was introduced last year but did not make it to committee. This year’s House legislation, supported by a group of 127 House members, was introduced by Oberstar and House Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member John Dingell (D-MI).
Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) plans to reintroduce the bill in the Senate after Easter recess, according a Feingold staffer.
See ESA’s letter on this subject at:
House Resources Ranking Member Nick Rahall (D-WV) and Oceans Caucus Chairman Sam Farr (D-CA) introduced legislation that would revamp the nation’s fishery management councils, requiring them to give greater weight to the findings of independent science committees.
The legislation is a response to findings from the Pew Initiative and the U.S. Oceans Commission reports, which found the current management councils have brought about
overfishing and dwindling fish stocks. The Commission report made 200 recommendations for change, including better integration of science in fishery management decisions.
The proposal from Rahall and Farr hones in on that recommendation. It would keep the overall council management structure in place but beef up the role of science and statistical committees. The committees — comprising federal, state, academic and independent scientists — would determine what number of fish may be caught, how to allocate the catch and which habitats need protection.
Under the current system, the councils themselves set catch limits. But in some cases, 80 percent to 90 percent of the council members represent fishing interests, according to Rahall’s office, which he said leads to irresponsible decisions that allow overfishing.
The Senate is expected to issue its own fisheries proposal, with Senate Commerce Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) vowing to make reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act his top priority.
The nation’s fisheries regulators answered critics, saying only minor changes are needed in the federal management scheme. “We don’t think we need to have a major overhaul,” said William Hogarth, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Assistant Administrator for fisheries.
But critics are afraid the councils are ignoring the warnings of rampant overfishing from the reports.
“What you see [with the fishery management councils] is a lot of, ‘We’ve been doing this for 30 years, let’s keep doing this,’ but the ocean report found that things are greatly different than they looked 30 years ago in the ocean and a lot of fisheries are in trouble,” said Kate Wing of Natural Resources Defense Council.
Two new Interior Department rule changes will give state and local governments a greater say in land-management decisions and environmental studies.
Interior is proposing amendments to require agencies to allow state, local and tribal governments to collaborate on writing of environmental impact statements –often-controversial documents that play a large role in how federal lands are managed for energy development, recreation and species protection. The proposal is out for public comment until April 18.
The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently finalized a rule that would give local, state and tribal governments “cooperating agency” status during the land-use planning process, permitting them to collaborate with Interior and BLM in the development of the plans and environmental analyses required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
Both rule changes are another step in the Bush administration’s effort to open the NEPA process to non-federal stakeholders, actions critics worry are a de facto attempt to reduce the federal role in managing public lands and erode environmental protections.
President Bush issued an executive order last August directing U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior, Agriculture, Commerce and Defense departments to “implement laws relating to the environment and natural resources in a manner that promotes cooperative conservation, with an emphasis on appropriate inclusion of local participation in federal decision making.” The order also mandates that departments take “appropriate account of and respect the interests of persons with ownership or other legally recognized interests in land and other natural resources”.
The plans have met with sharp criticism from environmental groups, who under the new rules would not be granted the same access as the state, local and tribal governments. Interior has said the NEPA process still provides for notice and public comment by the public and stakeholders such as environmental or industry groups. There is also no guarantee that BLM would go along with its new stakeholders’ wishes, as the federal government retains the final say on land-use decisions. However, states would still have the right to protest BLM’s decision under the new rule.
The Group of Eight industrialized nations agreed to buy timber only from legal sources in an effort to slow a $15 billion illegal logging market that has decimated forests and threatens animal species in developing countries. Environmental and development ministers agreed to “encourage, adopt or extend public timber procurement policies that favor legal timber.” The new policy would prevent governments, local officials and public contractors from buying timber without legal certification. G8 officials will work out the specifics of the action later this summer.
“Illegal logging by highly organized criminal gangs is a very serious problem right across the developing world,” said United Kingdom environment secretary Margaret Beckett. “It causes soil degradation and a vicious spiral of poverty.”
Other delegates would have liked the agreement to go further. Louis Michel, the EU Commissioner for Development and Humanitarian Affairs, had argued for a system of verifying the origin of timber imported to G8 member countries. But due to opposition from the United States, the G8 statement did not endorse a ban on public procurement of supplies that could not be proved legal.
Forest campaigners say the US position is a serious blow, because if all the G8 nations signed up to the ban it would guarantee that a substantial proportion of world timber was legally produced and send a clear signal to companies and exporting nations about the direction of future policy.
Sources: BBC News; Environment & Energy Daily; Greenwire; The Guardian; Washington Post