April 14, 2008

In This Issue

CLIMATE: Feinstein, Snowe float bill to force EPA action

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would have 60 days to complete its Supreme Court-mandated endangerment finding on greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles under legislation Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME) introduced April 2.

The move follows EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson’s announcement that he would issue a rulemaking notice this spring that would respond to the Supreme Court’s decision in Massachusetts v. EPA. That ruling requires EPA to determine whether GHG emissions endanger public health and welfare and to regulate them if they are found to be harmful.

Feinstein said it should take EPA very little time to complete its endangerment finding because “the work has already been done.” Earlier this month, senior EPA officials informed the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that EPA submitted a draft endangerment finding to the White House Office of Management and Budget and a regulatory proposal to the Transportation Department in December.

SALMON: U.S. halts commercial salmon season

Federal regulators, worried about collapsing populations, agreed on April 10 to cancel this year’s Oregon and California commercial and recreational catch of Chinook salmon. The ban, adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council, is the first since the West Coast fishing industry began 150 years ago.

In California, commercial salmon fishing is a $150 million business and the economic mainstay of many coastal communities. The cancelled season will have repercussions beyond local fuel docks and tackle shops to grocery stores nationwide.

The ban largely results from the decline in the Sacramento River, which became the powerhouse of the chinook industry as other runs suffered. But in the past few years, its numbers have been dropping and scientists predict that fewer than half the fish needed to ensure a sustainable population will return to the run this fall.

Federal scientists have laid much of the blame for the salmon slump on shifting ocean conditions and a flagging offshore food chain, possibly brought on by global climate change. Fishers blame bridge construction that creates underwater noise, water diversion and pesticide contamination from agriculture in the Sacramento delta. Fishers have pushed for California to take action to reduce water diversion and would like farmers along the Sacramento to use less water-intensive crops and change their pesticide practices. Studies have found that 2 percent of salmon have survived the 250-mile trip from the headwaters of the Sacramento to the Pacific Ocean.

AGRICULTURE: House puts wildlife taxes on chopping block for farm bill

Tax incentives for wildlife habitat, timber and energy that were included in the Senate’s version of the farm bill are at risk, as the House and Senate push to iron out differences in a final conference bill.

At the first formal conference committee meeting for the farm bill, House members insisted that all extra tax provisions be struck from the bill — including measures on endangered species, forestry and energy.

Whether the taxes will survive the ongoing negotiations remains unresolved. Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-MT) and ranking member Charles Grassley (R-IA) said they are still working out what offsets and taxes to be included in the bill. Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), one of the cosponsors of the endangered species tax incentives, said she hopes there is still an opportunity to include it and other resources tax provisions in the bill. Lincoln is a conferee on the farm bill and sits on both the Agriculture and Finance committees.

Landowner and environmental groups have lobbied for years for the voluntary endangered species tax program. The $1.7 billion program would give tax credits to farmers, ranchers and other landowners who incur costs to recover threatened or endangered species. The measure has drawn praise from groups often on opposite sides of the endangered species debate, including the Farm Bureau, Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation.

“My judgment is that these tax credits cannot be in this bill, they just do not belong, there is no reason they could not be in a tax extender bill,” House Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-MN) told reporters. “It is mucking up the farm bill right now, the Senate is going to have to realize the House does business differently and these aren’t going to fly.”

OCEANS: 'Radical' shark-finning proposal aims to close vessel loophole

Ocean advocates are pushing for new legislation that would close a loophole in U.S. law on shark-finning — the practice of slicing off a shark’s fin and leaving its body to sink and die in the ocean.

Current U.S. law forbids shark-finning on fishing boats, but other vessels and international operations are allowed to bring some shark fins into the country. The new legislation, proposed by Delegate Madeleine Bordallo (D-Guam), would require sharks to be landed whole with their fins attached.

Ocean conservation advocates say the practice contributes to a swift decline of the species and the ocean ecosystems that depend on it. International environmental groups have identified 140 different shark species as threatened or imperiled.

The bill comes on the heels of a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on a Hong Kong shipping company that had 32 tons of shark fins seized by federal authorities in 2002. The court ruled in favor of the company in a decision last month, because the U.S. ban applies only to “fishing vessels,” and theirs was technically a shipping boat. The 9th Circuit decision would require the government to return $618,956 to the boat — the market value of the fins.

The new “Shark Conservation Act” from Bordallo, who chairs a House subcommittee that oversees fishing issues, would apply to all boats, not just fishing vessels.

As many as 100 million sharks are killed each year for their meat and fins, according to the U.N. Environment Programme.

FORESTS: Final Forest Service planning rule released

The Bush administration has released its final planning rule for the development of new management plans for almost 200 million acres of national forests after a federal judge shot down a previous version last year.

The new planning rule is intended to significantly expand the role of the public during plan development and to allow plans to better adjust to changing conditions such as drought and climate change. It also requires each ecosystem within a forest to be evaluated as a whole, eliminating the “species viability requirement” that mandated evaluation of each species. Species-specific studies will now occur only when the Forest Service determines that the “ecosystem diversity” provisions of the plan require examination of a particular species.

The final rule incorporates many of the elements of a 2005 rule that was blocked by a federal judge in San Francisco last year. The judge ruled that the Forest Service had removed environmental protections without providing for proper public comment or considering the effect on endangered species.

The Forest Service and timber industry claim the 2005 rule properly focuses attention at the project level, but critics say plans developed under the 2005 rule and the new planning rule would make it more difficult to challenge individual projects and would substitute categorical exclusions for environmental impact statements for forest plans.

To view the final planning rule, go to: http://www.fs.fed.us/emc/nfma/includes/planning_rule/08_planning_rule.pdf

APPROPRIATIONS: ESA Graduate Student Policy Award winners participate in Hill fly-in day

Ecological Society of America (ESA) graduate students Rebecca Chaplin-Kramer (UC-Berkeley) and Matthew Trager (U. of Florida) were two of the more than 30 biologists participating in a two-day event focused on federal support of the biological and agricultural sciences. Chaplin-Kramer and Trager both won ESA’s Graduate Student Policy Award, a competitive award which gives ESA student members the opportunity to learn more about the federal appropriations process and to actively participate in a full day of team meetings with congressional delegations. The event focused on the value of federal investment in the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Research Initiative and participants stressed how agricultural and biological research funded through these agencies contribute to a wide range of society’s challenges, from conserving biodiversity to alternative energy development.

Organized by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC) and the Coalition on funding Agricultural Research Missions (CoFARM), the event also featured an afternoon of briefings from the agencies, a perspective from a long-time Capitol Hill staffer, and a reception honoring Representatives Baird (D-WA) and Bilbray (R-CA). As Chair of the Research and Science Education Subcommittee, Baird has strongly championed investments in all sciences, and defended the integrity of the scientific method and peer-review. He has also been a strong supporter of the America COMPETES Act. Congressman Bilbray played a key role in gaining inclusion of language supporting the biological and social sciences in the report accompanying the NSF Authorization Act of 2007.

ESA—together with the American Institute of Biological Sciences—co-chairs BESC (www.esa.org/besc), which supports the goal of increasing the nation’s investment in the biological sciences across all federal agencies, including the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sources: Environment and Energy Daily, Greenwire, and Land Letter