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Court to determine whether U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service must mitigate impacts of genetically modified crops

Environmental groups hail latest opinion as victory in fight against GM crops on protected lands

Migrating waterfowl rely on stopovers at wildlife refuges, where the use of genetically modified feed crops has been controversial. Bob Berwyn photo.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — A Federal court this week set the stage for resolving a long-running conflict over the use of genetically engineered crops of 44,000 acres of land in the national wildlife refuge system administered by the Southeast Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

U.S. District Court Judge James E. Boasberg said that, even though the region has already agreed to stop planting GM crops, there may be ongoing effects. The judge set a hearing date of Nov. 5 to determine an appropriate remedy and urged the parties to meet before then to try and reach at least partial agreement.

At issue is the fact that the USFWS started using GM crops without doing an in-depth environmental study Instead, the agency relied on environmental studies done by a U.S. Department of Agriculture agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, according to Tom MacKenzie, spokesman for the southeast region of the USFWS. Continue reading

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Park service wins court case on Mojave hunting rules

Conservation groups sought sport-hunting rules to protect endangered desert tortoise; agency wins case on procedural grounds

Desert tortoise. PHOTO COURTESY BEKEE HOTZE, USGS.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — A decade-long saga involving the fate of desert tortoises, careless hunters and a big dose of politics ended last month, as a federal court refused to make the National Park Service uphold one of its own management rules for the Mojave National Preserve. Continue reading

Environment: Arctic researcher Dr. Charles Monnett back at work after feds lift suspension, but investigation continues

Is the investigation of Dr. Charles Monnett about polar bears, or about the integrity of federal scientific contracting policies? PHOTO BY STEVEN AMSTRUP/USGS.

Scientist still under cloud, as watchdog group launches counter-investigation of federal agency

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — Dr. Charles Monnett, a federal researcher who was suspended in mid-July and investigated for his handling of scientific contracts is back at work today — but the investigation continues, according to Melissa Schwartz, the deputy chief of Staff and communications director for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement.

“He was informed that he will have no role in developing or managing contracts of any kind, and will instead be in our environmental assessment division … The Office of the Inspector General’s (OIG) independent investigation is ongoing,” Schwarz said via email.

“There is no truth to any suggestion that the return to work is in any way tied to PEER’s allegations against bureau leadership,” she continued, referring to charges by an environmental watchdog and whistle-blower protection group that the investigation of Monnett is a scientific witch hunt related to the scientist’s publication of a 2006 paper on potential global warming impacts to polar bears. Continue reading

Feds change tune on investigation of Arctic scientist

Previous questioning of Charles Monnett focused on research; Inspector General‘s office now says it’s about contract procurement and project management

A female polar bear and her two cubs travel along the ice pack north of the Alaska coast.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY — The federal government is now saying its investigation of a biologist working in the Arctic is related to the management and procurement side of a polar bear study, despite the fact that investigators questioned the researcher extensively about his scientific work in a previous interview.

In a Feb. 23 interview, Department of Interior Inspector General officials who identified themselves as criminal investigators exhaustively questioned Charles Monnet about his aerial survey work involving whales and polar bears, with no questions relating to the procurement side of the work.

New wetlands permits proposed for energy projects

Watchdog group says proposed nationwide permits for renewable energy development are too broad; more site-specific review needed

New federal wetlands permits for renewable energy projects could lead to significant wetlands impacts, according environmental groups.

By Bob Berwyn

SUMMIT COUNTY  — Two new permits for wetlands disturbances could help ease the development of renewable power, but the changes would come at the expense of American wetlands, already under siege from a steady stream of development, according to a watchdog group that monitors federal agencies.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility claims the changes could result in the destruction of hundreds of miles of streams and thousands of acres of wetlands.

At issue are the Corps’ nationwide permits, which allow for small-scale wetlands impacts without a site specific review. The new permits would give a blank check for onshore and offshore renewable energy projects, said PEER’s New England director Kyla Bennett.

“They give free reign for land-based solar, wind, geothermal and biomass projects,” Bennett said, explaining that the second permit does the same for offshore wind turbines. Continue reading

More oversight needed for wildlife refuge drilling

Sandhill cranes at the Bitter Lak wildlife refuge in New Mexico.

Numerous spills prompt call for more stringent guidelines, including better training for staff

By Summit Voice

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service needs rules to protect National Wildlife Refuges from spills and contamination from oil and gas drilling, according to a rulemaking petition filed this week by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a Washington, D.C. group that watchdogs federal agencies.

According to PEER, thousands of wells now operate on refuges, particularly in the south and east where the subsurface rights are privately held, with little regulation. That number is likely to skyrocket as natural gas from underground shale formations is tapped.

PEER is pressing the Fish & Wildlife Service, which operates the refuge system, to adopt rules modeled on ones the National Park Service has had in effect for more than 30 years. The rules address spill prevention and response, bonds for reclamation, proper waste disposal and reducing surface impacts. Continue reading

Mountain bike trail planned in Big Bend National Park

Hiking in Big Bend National Park. PHOTO COURTESY THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE.

Backers and critics are rallying their troops for public comment

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — In a potentially precedent-setting move, Big Bend National Park is pushing to build a single-track trail designed for mountain bikes in its undeveloped backcountry.

The project is a collaboration between the south Texas national park and a private mountain biking group, raising disturbing “pay-to-play” questions about user groups carving out park lands for special purposes, according to comments filed today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

The environmental assessment for the 10-mile trail and associated parking lot is open for public comment through April 2, 2011. Most of the backcountry trail would be single-track — about the width of a bike, with one-way traffic moving counter clockwise. Horses would be barred from the trail. Continue reading

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