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Saving the Endangered Chinese Swamp Cypress

National Geographic Explorer expedition heads into Lao forests to study newly discovered population of this endangered tree in its threatened ecosystem

Located in central Laos, the Nakai plateau is a shelf of land at about 300 meters resting at the western edge of the Annamite Mountains. This range of mixed limestone, sandstone, granitic rocks, and gneisses runs roughly north west and south east, dividing Vietnam and Laos. These mountains are the major watershed of Lao, and are an important ecoregion hosting many endemic species. Time, climate, and geological processes have generated unique elevated habitat, and it is here, along the Ho Chi Minh Trail, that the majestic — and critically endangered — Chinese swamp cypress grows.

photo of Chinese swamp cypressPhoto by David McGuire In January, a National Geographic Explorer’s expedition trekked into the forests of Laos to study and document the endangered Chinese swamp cypress.

Until recenlty, this Lao population of the endangered Chinese swamp cypress was unknown to science. A decade ago, the conservation science community was aware of only 250 of these trees in the wild, mostly a remnant population in Vietnam. The majority were just spindly young things poking their way out of Vietnamese coffee plantations. That changed in 2007 when my colleague Dr. Gretchen Coffman, a wetland restoration ecologist, literally stumbled upon a remote and unrecorded population of Chinese swamp cypress while surveying wetland wildlife habitat in Laos in an area to be flooded by a huge dam, the Nam Theun 2. After tripping over a cypress knee, she looked up at a red-barked giant that resembled a cross between a bald cypress and a coastal redwood.

Photo of Chinese swamp cypressByDavid McGuire An illegally felled Chinese swamp cypress. Due to its rot-resistant wood,
the tree is highly sought after by poachers.

This tree has a very limited range and specialized habitat, and due to its rot-resistant wood (similar to rosewood), it is highly sought after for building boats and houses. Locally extinct in China, the trees were believed to only exist in Vietnam where most had been removed. Coffman’s discovery offered proof that the Chinese swamp cypress survived also in Laos, raising hope that it might be saved from extinction. In January 2015, we embarked on a second trip as part of a National Geographic Explorer’s expedition to document, sample, and learn more about this tree, its habitat, and the associsted ecosystem. It was during this trip that …more

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LNG Terminals and the Environmental Unlearning of Philadelphia

The lure of fossil fuel for America’s fifth largest city

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. It’s hard not to think of that definition when considering current plans to build Philadelphia’s economic future on making it a major fossil fuel-based energy hub.

photo of an oil refinery just outside PhiladelphiaPhoto by Laura Pontiggia Philadelphia has a long history as a fossil fuel based energy hub, and business and political leaders are now hoping to revive that history with a new LNG export terminal.

The insanity factor here is that Philadelphia has a very long history as a fossil fuel-based energy hub — with very painful consequences. The United State’s first oil wells were drilled in Pennsylvania in the 1850s. It was natural that much of the output from these wells would be processed in the state’s largest city. Over the years, even into the 1970s, refineries (there were seven then, five today), petrochemical manufacturers of plastics and other fossil fuel dependent products, along with related infrastructure, proliferated in around Philadelphia.

The cumulative result of all this economic activity was a massive build up of pollution residues. Which was why Forbes magazine in 2011 ranked Philadelphia the country’s most polluted large American city, the “capital of toxicity,” in the magazine’s own trenchant phrase.

Given that history, what could now lead Philadelphia’ business and political leaders to promote a major fossil fuel-based energy hub to reanimate the city’s future economy, a plan leading the press to dub Philadelphia, “the new Houston?” The answer to this question comes down to four words: Marcellus shale natural gas.

Most of the prolific production from Marcellus shale gas wells is now generated in Pennsylvania. The “new Houston” development plan envisions Philadelphia as the a major recipient of this gas, almost all of which now goes elsewhere by pipeline, primarily to processing facilities in the Gulf of Mexico. A proposed LNG (liquefied natural gas) exporting terminal in Philadelphia’s Port Richmond section has in recent months become the focus of much of the debate over this whole energy hub concept.

The environmental objections to this LNG terminal touch upon its possible (and indeed likely) negative effects on local air and water quality. They also include upstream environmental issues, notably the enhanced Marcellus shale fracking that would be necessary to meet the natural gas supply needs of …more

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North Carolina Could Become Fifth State With an Ag-Gag Law

Bill sitting on Governor McCrory’s desk would make it illegal to document or film animal abuse on factory farms

Whistleblowers beware. Last week, the North Carolina senate passed HB 405, a controversial “ag-gag” bill that would make it illegal to document unethical or illegal practices on industrial farms in the state. Passed by the House in April, the bill has been presented to the Governor, who has five more days to veto it. If he does nothing (or signs it) before the end of the week, North Carolina will join Idaho, Iowa, Missouri, and Utah as the fifth state with a law criminalizing undercover investigations of factory farms.

Photo of Poultry Factory FarmPhoto by Farm Sanctuary HB 405 would criminalize undercover investigations of industrial farms.

The North Carolina bill would stifle would-be whistleblowers by making it illegal for employees to record or remove employer data or records, to record any images or sound on their employer’s property, or to place an unattended camera to film the property. It would also make it illegal to seek employment for the purpose of exposing animal abuse, environmental harms, or food safety issues on farms, or for anything other than a “bona fide intent of seeking or holding employment.” If the bill is signed by Governor McCrory, employees could be sued for breaching the “duty of loyalty” to their employer,  and liable for $5,000 per day they are found in breach, court costs, and any actual damages caused by the breach.

In addition to North Carolina, ag-gag bills are also currently under consideration in New Mexico and Washington.

Animal welfare advocates are particularly concerned about HB 405 because of North Carolina’s prominent factory farm industry. The state ranks second in the country for the number of factory-farmed hogs, second in turkey production, and sixth in production of factory-farmed broiler chickens. (In North Carolina, factory farm chickens out number people nine to one.)

“For a state like North Carolina to be really shut down from investigations is very detrimental and would put billions of animals at risk,” says Matt Dominguez, public policy director for the Human Society of the United States’ farm animal protection campaign.

Although the North Carolina bill appears to be geared towards the agriculture industry, the duty of loyalty extends to employees beyond the agricultural sector. Opponents say the law would also apply to whistleblowers trying to document abuse at nursing homes and day care centers. Dominguez believes …more

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Latest Santa Barbara Oil Spill Is Reminiscent of 1969 Disaster

Area known as the Galápagos of the north is again choked with oil as operators exploit patchy regulation

By Andrew Gumbel

Mark Massara was eight years old in 1969, when a blowout at a Union Oil well off the California coast spilled more than three million gallons of crude along the beaches of Santa Barbara and devastated one of the northern hemisphere’s most prized ecosystems.

Photo of the Oil Platform Santa BarbaraPhoto by Glenn Beltz, on Flickr Plains All American Pipeline has estimated that up to 105,000 gallons leached into a storm drain before the supply was cut off, and that about 20,000 gallons of that travelled the extra quarter-mile to the ocean. Environmental activists expect these numbers to go up.

He remembers going to the beach with his family and throwing hay on the oil as it washed ashore — a frustratingly inadequate gesture that stayed with him as he later built a career as one of California’s top environmental lawyers.

Last week, Massara was back in Santa Barbara, surveying the damage of the latest of many spills along California’s staggeringly beautiful central coast and lamenting how little has changed in the past 46 years. An oil slick stretching for miles is once again choking fish and wildlife, and again local residents are flocking to foul-smelling, blackened beaches to do what little they can to help with the cleanup.

“Instead of hay, now we have five-gallon buckets and hand shovels,” Massara said. “We’ve gotten really sophisticated.”

This time, the rupture is in a pipeline running close to the Pacific coast highway near Refugio state beach, a popular spot on a long, undeveloped stretch of coastline north of Santa Barbara. The Texas-based operator, Plains All American Pipeline, has estimated that up to 105,000 gallons leached into a storm drain before the supply was cut off, and that about 20,000 gallons of that travelled the extra quarter-mile to the ocean.

The company has described these figures as a “worst-case scenario” and expects them to go down, whereas environmental activists including Massara who have viewed the 11-mile slick expect the numbers to go up, perhaps dramatically. 

Almost everything about the spill — the speed with which it was discovered and the pump turned off, the pace of the response, the quality of maintenance on the pipe and the company’s adherence to a knot of local, state and federal regulations — is mired in controversy and remains subject to multiple investigations. …more

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Why Sacred Places Matter

Film series tells the stories of eight embattled indigenous communities around the world

This story originally appeared in Triple Pundit

In the last month, Native Hawaiians blockaded construction machinery headed for the top of sacred Mauna Kea, where a 30-meter telescope is to be built. Thirty-one people were arrested. In Arizona, members of the San Carlos Apache Tribe walked 45 miles to Oak Flats and occupied a ceremonial initiation site that the US Congress has handed over to a London-based mining company for a copper mine. In California, the Winnemem Wintu Tribe continues their fierce opposition to government plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam, which would flood Winnemem sacred sites.

photo of Chief Caleen SiskPhoto by Christopher McLeod Chief Caleen Sisk of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe is fighting US government plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam.

Sacred places are alive in the hearts and minds of native people around the world. Mountains, springs, lakes, rivers, trees, groves, caves — these are sites of ceremony, inspiration and learning for human cultures throughout time. From Mt. Fuji to Uluru, from Taos Blue Lake to the Grand Canyon, sacred lands anchor peoples’ souls to earth.

The public relations push to proclaim national parks as “America’s Best Idea” missed an important historic fact: Sacred places are the oldest protected areas on the planet. This is an old idea. Perhaps it has been buried by monotheistic Christian ideals that instruct man to dominate nature, or capitalist market values that dictate extraction and profit off land that is bought and sold. But long before there was a “protected area movement” to counter environmental threats, there were culturally protected places on every continent. And there still are.

Photo of Sacred Land Film Project MemeBy Christopher McLeod As Standing on Sacred Ground continues to broadcast around the US,
the Sacred Land Film Project has mounted a social media campaign
to publicize the film series. The above meme has been especially popular,
with 56,000 views and 818 shares so far.

Sacred lands are more than esoteric, spiritual sanctuaries. These places protect biodiversity. The World Bank reports that indigenous people make up 4 percent of the world’s population and control 22 percent of the earth’s surface — and on that land is 80 percent of the planet’s remaining biodiversity. People whose connection to land goes back centuries …more

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Kinder Morgan Paid Pennsylvania Police Department to ‘Deter Protests’

ACLU calls arrangement “flat out unconstitutional”

Between June and October 2013, Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America, paid a local Pennsylvania police department more than $50,000 to patrol a controversial pipeline upgrade. The company requested that the officers, though officially off-duty, be in uniform and marked cars. Kinder Morgan’s aim, according to documents obtained by Earth Island Journal, was to use law enforcement to “deter protests” in order to avoid “costly delays.” 

photo of Tennessee Gas PipelinePhoto by Delaware Riverkeeper Kinder Morgan sought off-duty police officers to “deter protests" and avoid delay of the Tennessee Gas Pipeline upgrade.

It’s unclear if the police department instructed its officers to explicitly “deter protests” but, if officers carried out Kinder Morgan’s request, their conduct would clearly violate the First Amendment rights of protesters. 

“It is politically and socially entirely inappropriate for a private company to be able to hire a police department and use its officers to try to intimidate protesters of one stripe or another,” says David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

In a letter to the Eastern Pike Regional Police Department (EPRPD) dated May 1 2013, Duane Jones, Kinder Morgan’s corporate security manager, acknowledged the “controversial nature” of the pipeline project and requested that the local police “provide a visible presence to create a deterrent effect.” The officers began conducting patrols in June 2013 and were paid $54.80 an hour for their off-duty services. The patrols were terminated in October of that year.

The off duty officers were employed in addition to a 24/7 roving private security patrol.

Two weeks after Kinder Morgan sent the letter (described as a “letter of engagement for police services”), the Eastern Pike Regional Police Commission voted to accept Kinder Morgan’s proposal to contract with the department. In an email from the EPRPD to Off Duty Services, a Texas based private security company that administered the contract, the department said that its attorney would “cc you a copy of the contract.” In response to several public records requests, however, EPRPD has said that no contract exists.

 Chief of police Chad Steward declined to comment for this story and referred me to the commission’s solicitor, Thomas Mincer. Mincer also declined to comment.

“If they are actually being instructed to deter protest that’s not okay,” says Mary Catherine …more

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The Silencing of Hector Valenzuela

As the University of Hawai'i was cozying up to GMO giant Monsanto, one of the school's professors says that he was forced to tolerate a climate of 'bigotry, retaliation and hostility' for speaking out on risks of genetic engineering

This story originally appeared in Cascadia Times

The islands of Hawai`i are like a magnet attracting insects from all over the world. Bugs catch a ride on every ship headed to the islands, and state authorities often find bug species they’d never seen before. And the bugs stay.

As Hawai`i has no winter frost to beat back pests, over time this accumulation of bugs started to become a problem, especially for farmers. Their response: apply a heavy dose of chemicals

photo of strawberry papayaPhoto by Justin Ennis The University started to market seeds for a genetically modified type of papaya the same year Valenzuela lost his organic research project.

A Hawai`i Department of Agriculture report from 1969 said Hawaiian farmers were using pesticides at a rate 10 times higher than the national average (in terms of pounds per acre).

In 1993, Dr. Hector Valenzuela, then a non-tenured professor of tropical plant and soil science at the University of Hawai`i-Manoa, began a long-term research project to determine whether it’s possible to grow crops in the state without synthetic pesticides. Valenzuela, who in 1990 received his Ph.D. in vegetable crops from the University of Florida, established the first long-term organic farming research project in Hawai`i and the Pacific region.

Valenzuela planted 50 varieties of vegetables — including tomato, daikon radish, bulb onion, cucumber, eggplant, zucchini, bush beans, pole beans, sweet potato and bell pepper — on 2.5 acres at the university’s Waimanalo Experiment Station located some 15 miles from the Manoa campus in the southeast corner of Oahu. With an enrollment of about 20,000, the Manoa campus, located near downtown Honolulu, is the largest of the 19 units in the University of Hawai`i system. The College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (CTAHR) where Valenzuela teaches is the largest unit within the Manoa campus.

By 1999, he had initiated several long-term research projects at Waimanalo. The organic farming plots were his research laboratory.

But it all came to an end inexplicably in 1998 when Charles Laughlin, then the dean of CTAHR, shut down the organic farming research project. Valenzuela recalls the dean’s exact words: “You can no longer use those plots.” Laughlin had decided that a Japanese religious group would use them instead.

“I saw the removal of my field laboratory as an infringement of my academic freedom,” he says. “The college …more

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