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Adventures with a Greenpeace Captain

The inside story of the Arctic 30, life in prison, and what it means to be free

In September 2013, Greenpeace activists made their way toward a giant oil platform in the Russian Arctic, intending to hang a banner highlighting the perils of oil development in the fragile Arctic ecosystem. They were stopped by armed Russian Federal Security Service members. The following day, Russian soldiers boarded the deck of the Greenpeace ship Arctic Sunrise, detaining all 30 people onboard at gunpoint. The 30 crew members and journalists were taken to Murmansk, where they were charged with piracy. (Read the Journal’s article on the Arctic 30 here.) Peter Willcox, Captain of the Arctic Sunrise, was one of the Arctic 30. The following is an excerpt from his new book.

photo of Arctic SunrisePhoto by John CookPeter Willcox was Captain of the Greenpeace ship Artic Sunrise when he was detained by Russian soldiers as part of the Arctic 30.

Maggy had been watching a live Greenpeace feed in our home in Maine, anxiously awaiting the moment when my head would pop out from behind the huge prison door. Just before I walked out, the video feed was lost and she missed the big moment. She didn’t know I was out until I called her from the car to tell her I was drinking Alexander’s brandy.

While I was relieved to be out of jail, during the car ride from Kresty Prison to the hotel my joy was tempered by worrying about the reception I would receive there from the Arctic 30 who had been released before me. Would they blame me for their incarceration? I had certainly made decisions that contributed to our arrest and the arrest of the ship, but then again, not one of us had anticipated the muscular response from the Russians. As I exited the car and walked into the lobby of the hotel, my concern grew. Would they vent their anger at me, or would I just get the cold shoulder?

The first people I saw were my shipmates Sini, Camila Speziale, and Alexandra “Alex” Harris. They saw me in the same instant and immediately moved toward me with their arms raised. I realized the three were all opening their arms to me. Seconds later we were in a group hug. Their shoulders were anything but cold. It was the best I had felt …more

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Environmentalists, First Nations Vow Summer of Action Against Trans Mountain Pipeline

Canadian regulators’ OK of the tar sands pipeline expansion draws flack from activists

Environment and Indigenous rights organizations are indicating it’s going to be a long, hot summer of civil disobedience in British Columbia following a National Energy Board report released last week recommending conditional approval of Kinder Morgan’s $5.4 billion Trans Mountain Pipeline expansion project that allow for the transport of nearly a million barrels of bitumen per day from Alberta’s tar sands oil mines.

people holding Trans Mountain protest bannerPhoto courtesy of SumOfUsThe decision didn’t come as much of a surprise, given that the National Energy Board members were hand-picked by former prime minister, and friend of the oil patch, Stephen Harper.

“All this has accomplished is to escalate this issue and exacerbate an already volatile situation,” says Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of BC Chiefs. “In many ways, it’s a call to arms for the multitude of Indigenous groups and other interests.”

Phillip was one of 130 people arrested on Burnaby Mountain during a multi-day protest over Kinder Morgan’s plan back in 2014, and he sees more of the same in the coming months. “That was the first of many,” he says. “There’s no question it is going to be a long, hot summer.”

And Phillip is far from the only one who has made such claims. Burnaby mayor Derek Corrigan, has said he is prepared to get arrested to stop the project. Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson has also said he does not want to see the pipeline approved, going as far as calling the NEB hearings a “sham.”

Kinder Morgan, the largest energy infrastructure company in North America headquartered in Houston, Texas, is proposing to expand the existing Trans Mountain capacity to 890,000 barrels per day by twinning the pipeline, reactivating 193 km of existing pipeline and adding new and modified facilities, including an expanded marine terminal in Burnaby. If approved, the project would increase tanker traffic in the Burrard Inlet seven-fold.

The 533-page report detailing the NEB recommendation follows 686 days of public hearings on the proposal. The recommendation comes with a list of 157 conditions that must be met prior to approval. The government has seven months to reach a final decision.

“Taking into account all the evidence, considering all relevant factors, and given that there are considerable benefits nationally, regionally and to some …more

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Remembering Wildlife Is Wild

Death of Yellowstone bison calf draws attention to perils of non-expert interference with wildlife

The public was outraged last week after learning that two visitors to Yellowstone National Park had placed a bison calf in their car and delivered it to rangers, saying it seemed to be without the protection of its herd. Rangers spent two days trying to return the calf to the herd, which rejected it. Park officials said it appeared to have imprinted on people and cars, as it kept approaching visitors and vehicles along the roadway. Believing it would not survive in the wild, they euthanized it.

photo of yellowstone bison and calvesPhoto by Yellowstone National ParkYellowstone park officials euthanized a bison calf after visitors placed the calf in their car, believing it needed help.

Was the calf imprinting on people because of its car ride? Or had that process already begun for the calf living one of America’s most visited national parks? The answer is unclear, but the incident remains a high-profile example of a common problem: People loving nature too much to leave it alone.

Sometimes the toll for human interference is paid by the animal lovers, sometimes by the animals, and sometimes by both. Timothy Treadwell, a naturalist who spent long periods of time with Alaskan grizzly bears and claimed to have a relationship of mutual respect and understanding with them, was killed in 2003 by at least one grizzly. A large male bear found protecting the campsite afterward was shot and killed.

Six years later, a Colorado woman who fed black bears through a fence, saying she considered them her pets, was killed by one of them. It swiped at her through the fence, and then dragged her under it.

Jeff Olson, spokesman for the National Park Service, said his agency kills a handful of bears every year because, despite park rules and warnings, people have fed them often enough that the bears have come to expect it, making them a danger to visitors.

Recently, the selfie culture has also encouraged tourists to place themselves in unsafe proximity to wild animals.

“In a recent viral video, a visitor approached within an arm's length of an adult bison in the Old Faithful area,” the National Park Service said in a press release last week. “Another video featured visitors posing for pictures with bison at extremely unsafe and illegal …more

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Flame Retardant Exposure Poses A Significant Health Risk to Women

New research links exposure to these toxic chemicals to thyroid problems, especially in post-menopausal women

Exposure to flame retardant chemicals has become nearly ubiquitous in the United States thanks to fire safety standards that, until recently, could rarely be met without their use. This has meant that furniture foams, mattress and carpet padding, and numerous other consumer products and building materials are loaded up with flame retardants. Now a new study published in the journal Environmental Health suggests that exposure to one of the most widely used class of flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers or  PBDEs, may increase the risk of thyroid hormone problems for women, especially post-menopausal women.

lone woman walking along path in the woodsPhoto by Susanne NilssonThe findings have potentially significant public health implications given that more women than men suffer from thyroid disorders, and because rates of thyroid cancer — which disproportionately afflict older women — are also on the rise.

PBDEs are among the most widely used flame retardants that are known to migrate out of products. They have been found in household dust, food, in animals and nearly everywhere else scientists have looked. PBDEs have previously raised health concerns because of their environmental persistence, their ability to build up in fat tissue and because some have been linked to cancer in animal studies. Additional studies have shown PBDEs to interfere with endocrine hormones, including thyroid hormones.

While many studies have looked at the effects of early life exposure to PBDEs, this new study, led by researchers at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, is the first to look at how these chemicals affect people who are exposed to it later in life.

And the researchers’ findings have potentially significant public health implications given that more women than men suffer from thyroid disorders, and because rates of thyroid cancer — which disproportionately afflict older women — are also on the rise.

“Fifty percent of post-menopausal women will have thyroid disease at some point,” explained study author R. Thomas Zoeller, a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I think it’s a mistake if we ignore this data.”

The researchers measured levels of four different PBDEs in blood samples from about 2,500 people across the United States, gathered as part of the US Centers for Disease …more

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The Real Threat to Europe’s Last Primeval Forest: Bark Beetles or Undemocratic Politicians?

Poland’s plans to increase logging in Białowieża may destroy this ancient forest

This past March in Białowieża, Poland, a few dozen people stood on a street corner shouting, “dead wood, new life!“ Across the street at a luxury Best Western a crowd of about a hundred held Polish flags and banners that read: “The ancient forest is dying,” and “pseudo-ecologists destroy Białowieża.” Both groups, protestors and supporters, were there to greet Poland’s environment minister, Jan Szyszko, whose proposal to increase logging in Bialowieża Forest has pit environmentalists and the scientific community against logging interests and the country’s right-wing government. 

Białowieża National Park, PolandPhoto by Frank Vassen A decaying log in the Białowieża oldgrowth reserve. Białowieża Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to myriad flora and fauna, including more than 250 bird species, 4,000 species of fungus, moose, wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boars, and the largest wild population of the European bison.

Szyszko’s planned state forestry management plan includes at least an threefold increase in the timber harvest in what is arguably Europe’s most ancient and biodiverse forest and one of the very few forests with a core that has never been commercially logged. 

Straddling the border between Poland and Belarus, Białowieża Forest is one of largest remaining parts of the immense 8,000-year-old forest that once stretched across the European Plain. The 580 square mile forest is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is home to myriad flora and fauna, including more than 250 bird species, 4,000 species of fungus, moose, wolves, lynx, beavers, wild boars, and the largest wild population of the European bison.

The Polish section of the forest (one third portion of the entire forest) includes the country’s oldest national park — Białowieża National Park — which  covers an area of about 105 square km (about 17 percent of the entire forest area on the Polish side) and is famous for its bison population and, perhaps even more, for its strictly protected 57 sq km inner zone of old growth forest, which has existed without forest management for nearly 8000 years. The 2/3 of the forest that lies outside the national park is open to selective logging. It’s this area that’s been the subject of an ongoing battle between environmentalists and  foresters.

Poland’s new far right government says logging is needed because more than 10 percent of spruce …more

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Land as Canvas

When farming and art intersect

When artists use the land as their canvas, wonderful, organic creations are brought to life. Farm and landscape art exist at the vital and fertile intersection of cultivation and visual art, and result in land-based creations that allow viewers, artists, farmers, and visitors alike to interact with the landscape in new ways.  

Site and crop selection are often the driving forces behind agricultural designs, but along with functionality, the organization of farm crops naturally has an aesthetic craftsmanship. The organic, flowing design of many rice paddies in China, Japan, and Indonesia, and the geometric symmetry of corn rows in the United States, are just two examples of farms with starkly different visual layouts.

photo of rice paddiesPhoto courtesy of Skitter PhotoThe organic, flowing design of many rice paddies have an aesthetic craftsmanship.

While these standard layouts are designed for practical farming, when a farmer or environmental organization actively plants, tends to, and alters the land in a way that is intentionally visual, or invites artists to do so, the site specific results can be stunning, thought provoking, and monumental.

Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, created the piece Eleven Minute Line at the Wanås Art Farm in Sweden. The raised curve of the piece is organic — both visually flowing and made of earth — and powerful in its three dimensional presence; it interrupts and guides the way in which the cows can traverse and interact with the field. Modern Farmer explains that the piece was purposefully placed out of public view, but it remains accessible to cows. 

photo of Maya Lin Farm ArtPhoto by Anders Norrsell Maya Lin's Eleven Minute Line guides the way in which cows traverse the field.

Wanås is a global leader when it comes to landscape art, and has an enormous estate that includes farmlands, forests, and a castle. As the Wanås website explains, the estate “is a place where art, nature, and history meets.” The organization focuses on site-specific sculptures and installations, but is involved in sustainable forestry and agriculture as well. In fact, the estate is the largest producer of organic milk in Sweden’s Skåne region. Charles Wachtmeister, CEO of the Wanås Estate, credits collaborating with artists as …more

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Canada Approves Sale of Genetically Modified Salmon

Move could make it the first country to have GM salmon on grocery shelves

Health authorities in Canada have approved a fast-growing, genetically altered salmon as safe for consumption, paving the way for it to become the first genetically modified animal to be allowed on Canadian dinner plates.

Leaping Salmonphoto by Jake Khuon, on FlickrThe modified salmon is ready for market in 16 to 18 months rather than the up to three years needed for conventional salmon.

After four years of testing, Health Canada and the Canadian food inspection agency said on Thursday they had found the salmon developed by Massachusetts-based AquaBounty Technologies to be as safe and nutritious as conventional salmon.

The GM fish contains a growth hormone gene from a Chinook salmon and a gene from the eel-like ocean pout, allowing it to grow twice as fast as conventionally farmed Atlantic salmon. It's often ready for market in 16 to 18 months rather than the up to three years needed for conventional salmon.

Canadian officials said the GM salmon would not require any special labeling, as no health and safety concerns were identified during testing.

"GM foods are becoming more common every day and are part of the regular diets of Canadians," Health Canada said in a statement. "GM foods that have been approved by Health Canada have been consumed in Canada for many years and are safe and nutritious."

The approval process in Canada has been dogged by concerns raised by environmentalists and consumer groups over the safety of the fish, dubbed 'Frankenfish' by its critics, and questions over the risks it could pose to wild salmon populations.

The company has said its fish are sterile and currently only raised in land-locked tanks in Canada and Panama. The company has also argued that its GM salmon, originally developed by a group of Canadian scientists at Newfoundland's Memorial University more than 25 years ago, could help curtail the over-fishing of Atlantic salmon and lessen the pressure on stocks of wild salmon.

In November, AquaBounty's salmon was approved by the US Food and Drug Administration . Just two months later, however, the FDA issued a ban on the import and sale of GM fish until clear labeling guidelines are established.

The FDA ban will likely be in effect until at least September 2016. Some speculate it could take years to …more

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