Holiday News

Northern Passages wishes you all very happy holidays.

Wilderness advocates received an early holiday present toward the end of the Congressional term in mid-December.  A Congress that has largely been noted for gridlock and inability to govern managed to pass wilderness legislation that protected more than a million acres of wilderness and public lands.

As described by Jamie Williams, the President of The Wilderness Society, this legislation adds more than 245,000 acres to the National Wilderness Preservation System, "including the Lewis and Clark National Forest within Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front, the rugged watershed in Colorado’s Hermosa Creek, sacred cultural lands deep in New Mexico’s Columbine Hondo Wilderness, and the glacier-cut valleys in the Alpine Lakes in Washington, as well as important wildlands in Nevada;."

It also sets aside "392,000 acres of special conservation areas, including measures to add or expand 14 units of the National Park System—enhancing the protection of treasured American stories like those told at the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park in Maryland, the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania, and the Valles Caldera Preserve in New Mexico."  And it designates 106 miles of Wild and Scenic Rivers.

Many thanks to The Wilderness Society and the other conservation organizations that advocated tirelessly for these designations.

Then we had another promising development.  Last week, President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum withdrawing the offshore waters of Bristol Bay from all future oil and gas drilling, calling the region "too special and too valuable to auction off to the highest bidder."

Conservation groups including the Alaska Wilderness League brought a lawsuit in 2007 seeking to restrain oil and gas development that was proposed in Bristol Bay.   The environmentalists won the immediate lawsuit but it did not result in permanent protection.  Then, following the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010,  President Obama withdrew the Bristol Bay coastline from oil and gas leasing on an interim basis through 2017.   As the League recently noted, when that announcement was made Secretary of Interior Salazar celebrated by calling Bristol Bay a “national treasure” for its amazing fish and wildlife populations that have supported Alaska Native residents for thousands of years, and have supported sustainable commercial fisheries for well over one hundred years.  The announcement last week indefinitely extended the 2010 withdrawal with no end date.  

Of course, the Bristol Bay fishery wouldn't amount to much if the spawning and nursery habitats for salmon in the headwater rivers flowing into the Bay were to be irreparably damaged by large-scale mining operations.  The risk of such damage is what prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to take preemptive action earlier this year under Section 404(c) of the Clean Water Act.  That action has the practical effect of blocking development of the proposed Pebble Mine.  However, the EPA's findings are currently the subject of lawsuits challenging the agency's use of Section 404(c) in advance of the state permitting process.  (See the previous Northern Passages post, Legal Roundup 2.)

On a related front, Alaska's salmon habitats, including Bristol Bay, are subject to much broader challenges that will be impossible to address through local or regional withdrawals and administrative actions.  Earlier this year, Colin Shanley and Dave Albert, two scientists working with The Nature Conservancy, issued a report in which they examined the effect on salmon streams of warming temperatures and changing rain and snow patterns.  Their conclusion:  “Global climate change may become one of the most pressing challenges to Pacific Salmon conservation and management for Southeast Alaska in the 21st Century.”  It takes a global village to address this type of threat.

It is no accident that I have cited actions by The Wilderness Society, the Alaska Wilderness League and The Nature Conservancy of Alaska in this post.  These organizations are among the leading voices advocating for wilderness preservation in Alaska and elsewhere.  I am pleased and proud to be affiliated with each of them.  They all have great websites, with links shown below.

The Wilderness Society:

Alaska Wilderness League:

The Nature Conservancy of Alaska: