Eye on Washington August 2021

by Dan Sealy

For 50 years, EcoNews Documents That Change Is Slow

Readers of the early EcoNews might be surprised and somewhat baffled that many, if not most, of the same topics of interest captured in headlines are still in our news: Saving redwoods, wilderness, wild rivers without dams, saying “No” to super freeways, clear cut logging, loss of salmon and endangered species, nuclear waste and pesticide use. Though Climate Change was not known by that name, certainly drought and the changes in species that were signs of climate change were an undercurrent. 

Drought

THEN: The EcoNews put a bright light on the drought of 1976-77, a period a State of California report described as, “…the worst in the State’s history…” But as the state continued over-allocation of water for increased agriculture and growing population, the drought of 2001-2002 resulted in a fish kill of over 33,000 adult salmon and steelhead in the lower Klamath, a tragedy caught firsthand in aerial photos by NEC Executive Director, Tim McKay. 

NOW: As California suffers yet another period of severe drought, Rep. Valadao (R-CA) has once again authored legislation to rob water from rivers in Northern California to supply agriculture and a growing population in the Central Valley. Rep. Huffman has countered with opportunities to conserve water and reduce use. 

Redwoods

THEN: The political mistake of putting only a narrow corridor along Redwood Creek to the Tall Trees Grove in the protection of Redwood National Park led to the 1978 increase of the park. 48,000 acres of Redwood Creek Valley within park boundaries was included in the upper protection zones. 

NOW: Fortunately, forty years of restoration have improved the ecological health of Redwood Creek, but it is threatened by upstream nutrients and water withdrawal. While conservationists triumphed in saving the 7,400-acre Headwaters Forest Reserve in the 1990’s, the stand-off between conservation organizations and CalTrans over widening of highway 101 through Richardson’s Grove continues to this day. 

Nuclear Energy and Waste

THEN: The PG&E 1960’s-era Humboldt Bay Nuclear Power Plant, located south of Eureka, was shut down due to concerns of leaks and earthquake vulnerability but was not planned for “closure” by the Nuclear regulatory Commission till 2020. 

NOW: Even now the site has not completed the “radiological final status surveys.” As the Climate Crisis forces evaluation of risk vs. safety of nuclear power as a low carbon alternative, over 56 severe incidents have occurred in the USA since the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology report concluded that with expected growth in nuclear power facilities, there could be at least four serious “accidents” in the next 35 years.

Logging

THEN:  In the 1970’s residents and visitors to the north coast of California routinely drove by large tracts of forests that had become moonscapes as a result of the increasing size and number of clear-cut logged areas. Sediment and logging debris choked streams and rivers, leaving salmon and steelhead with fewer spawning areas. 

NOW: Logging is still a primary concern for conservationists. The 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) created the environmental assessment system and laws to assure the use of the “best available science” in federal decision-making. This tool allows the public to review and engage in the assessment of actions and potential impacts as well as take legal action if an agency does not follow science and guidelines. NEPA assessments have been successful enough to stop some of the worst decisions that lawmakers and resources extraction companies propose. Both also regularly introduce ways to limit the effectiveness of this tool. To date NEPA remains one of the most powerful citizen engagement tools to encourage good decisions and stop ill-informed decisions.

Wilderness

THEN: EcoNews was full of encouragement to members to attend public hearings to use the 1964 Wilderness Act to save undeveloped, roadless portions of lands administered by the United States by designating large tracts for wilderness protections. That prolonged advocacy helped set aside hundreds of thousands of acres in northern California for future generations to enjoy and savor, free of development. 

NOW: The federal government has set aside over 13 million acres of wilderness in California and conservationists are working to add more than 600,000 more acres, one third of which are in northwestern California counties.  

Endangered Species 

THEN: The Northern Spotted Owl became a symbol of the division between the timber industry, which was focused on the economic benefits of logging, and conservationists using science to protect mature old-growth forests necessary for the survival of this critically endangered species. Similar disagreements set the stage for fights to protect important fish habitat that was being impacted by silt, debris and warmer waters as hillsides became denuded and mining leached toxins into streams and rivers. The 1980’s Northwest Forest Plan was built as a Solomon “split-the-baby” compromise that has not effectively achieved either sustainable populations of endangered birds and fish nor satisfied the gluttonous appetite of the nation for wood products.  

NOW:  In spite of the long hard fight to protect critical habitat for endangered inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest, forests still fail to provide enough sustainable populations of spotted owls, marbled murrelet and salmon. Continued logging, development activities that result in “taking” (killing either intentionally or accidentally), competition with non-native species and the climate crisis have left the Northern Spotted Owl populations unstable, and protected salmon species still suffer from more frequent droughts and dams that block spawning and create toxic water conditions. The good news: though the Spring Chinook salmon is not federally protected, it has been designated endangered by the State of California which may save it from the need for federal protection.  Through cooperative efforts by the Yurok tribe and the National Park Service, the California Condor is slated to return to northern California skies in the near future. 

The partisan divide in Congress has slowed progress on several legislative efforts supported by conservationists. The infrastructure bills include some important actions that might slow the climate crisis and reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, but as of late July, as Congress goes into August recess, far too little has been signed into law. September is shaping up to hold the typical threats to close the government while the minority in congress keeps bills from moving to the President’s desk for signature. Look for fireworks in September and into early October.