Developments Doom Grand Canyon?

The Little Colorado River (foreground) meets the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The National Park Service says a development that would include a tramway to this confluence presents one of the most "serious threats the park has faced in its 95-year history."

The Little Colorado River (foreground) meets the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The National Park Service says a development that would include a tramway to this confluence presents one of the most “serious threats the park has faced in its 95-year history.” (Photo by Ted Grusing)

Update: CBS News also covered this story on July 14, 2014. Watch the video here

This week’s story in the Los Angeles Times spotlights ever-present threats to Grand Canyon National Park. “The Grand Canyon is Doomed” chimed in Outside online in response to developers’ plans to build a gondola ride to the canyon’s bottom and a mega-resort at the canyon’s most popular entrance.

According to the Times article, the National Park Service “worries those new developments will jeopardize some of the park’s most iconic vistas and push already-strained resources to the brink” and adds that this is the “most serious threat the park has faced in its 95-year history.”

Grand Canyon Trust was challenging these threats long before they reached national media.

In 2012, we accepted an invitation from Save the Confluence, an organized group of local families from the Bodaway/Gap Chapter of the Navajo Nation, to join their campaign to oppose the proposed Escalade development at the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado rivers.

While working in support of the Confluence families to stop the project, our team is also collaborating with community groups to help craft alternative economic development strategies that would bring much-needed jobs to this area of the Navajo Nation without threatening national park resources, sacred sites, or traditional culture.

Two years ago, Grand Canyon Trust intervened in water and sewer applications before the Arizona Corporation Commission (ACC) in a massive development proposed in Tusayan, at the southern entrance to Grand Canyon National Park. Developers hope to build “3 million square feet of commercial space—with high-end stores, fancy hotels, condos, a concert pavilion, spa, dude ranch and Native American cultural fair—along with hundreds of homes, at a range of price-points, and some of it meant for local workers.” (Indian Country Today Media Network)

Under pressure from the Trust, developers withdrew their ACC permit application. The Trust, Havasupai Tribe, and other allies are continuing to fight to prevent the developer from sinking new wells that threaten Grand Canyon springs and to force compliance with all state and federal regulations.

The Grand Canyon is not doomed. The Trust remains vigilant in opposing these developments, as well as uranium mining in Grand Canyon watersheds. But we need your help.

You can help by becoming a member of the Grand Canyon Trust; you can also stay up to date on this and other issues by signing up for our e-news and following our news blog. You can also follow and support Save the Confluence families.

-Roger Clark

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Connecting “Island” Fragments: Finding the Mountain Lion

By Erin Lees, Intern, Kane-Two Mile Ranches Program

The grass moved and swayed in the wind, I could almost feel the breeze. A bird would fly to the tree and perch on the creaking branch but in the next slide, it would disappear. I would again watch the grass perform its interpretive dance while I sat in my chair and watched. Hours went by without documenting a single animal. I would reluctantly file “blank” in hundreds of slots in the Excel spreadsheet. One location, nothing. The next location, nothing. I watched more tumble weeds roll by the camera and the tedious work would start to pull my eyelids down but suddenly a figure would appear in the screen. At times it would be a single bighorn sheep or even a group of pronghorn. But, I thought, could it be our target species?

Emerge the mountain lion. A statuesque, elegant, and lively animal was standing in front of me with only a computer screen between us. I could almost feel the warm breath against my skin. The puma seemed noble and wise moving its body weight from one shoulder blade to the next as it pursued its target of attack. One photo it would be present, the next it would vanish. For that brief moment in time, the mountain lion’s majestic spirit appeared through the camera lens. I was very curious as to where it was going. It could be searching for food, for its cubs, finding a new population, retreating from poor habitat; the answers are endless.

GCT_WildlifeConnectivityPhotos_Updated_V2

Tediously sifting through mountains of pictures, it is easy to lose sight on what we are trying to achieve. These photos came from motion-activated camera “traps” that were placed in areas within the Kane and Two Mile Ranches in northern Arizona predicted to be “high traffic” for a number of wildlife species including the noble puma. Each photo is cataloged according to the location and species (or lack thereof) that appears. We are essentially asking whether we are finding animals in the places our sophisticated statistical models of habitat connectivity suggest they should be. Along the way, we are also learning a great deal about the habitat requirements of many animals that call the Kane and Two Mile Ranches their home.

It is crucial to understand the effects that landscape form and infrastructure, such as roads, have on the movement of species and how possible “islands” connect to other populations. The pictures from this camera trap data are doing just that. It gives organizations like ours the ability to better understand the habitat in order to be aware of potential isolated populations and address fragmented areas. You know what they say, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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Connecting “Island” Fragments: Exploring Wildlife Connectivity on the Kane and Two Mile Ranches

By Cerissa Hoglander, Kane & Two Mile Ranches Program Associate

Habitat fragmentation is a global concern, and the Colorado Plateau is no exception.

Maintaining the connections between protected habitat “islands” is important for reducing the vulnerability of these landscapes to threats such as large-scale wildfires, expanding energy development, and the spread of invasive species like cheatgrass.

Habitat fragmentation can be human-caused; for example, Highway 89A near Kane Ranch serves as a barrier to wildlife. (Photo by Cerissa Hoglander)

Habitat fragmentation can be human-caused; for example, Highway 89A near Kane Ranch may serve as a barrier to wildlife. (Photo by Cerissa Hoglander)

Grand Canyon Trust is working to identify areas where maintaining habitat connectivity, or movement pathways between habitat islands, is critical for the persistence of wildlife species on the Kane and Two Mile landscape, located on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. This wild landscape includes the ponderosa pine forest of the Kaibab National Forest and the pinyon-juniper woodland and desert sagebrush of the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument.

The Grand Canyon, which serves as a boundary of the Kane and Two Mile landscape, is an example of a natural disturbance that causes habitat fragmentation. (Google Earth image)

The Grand Canyon, along the southern border of the Kane and Two Mile landscape, is an example of a natural barrier that causes habitat fragmentation. (Google Earth image)

The Kane and Two Mile region is home to a rich diversity of plant and animal species, including the mountain lion. With their wide range and long-distance movements, mountain lions are a primary focal species for habitat connectivity modeling and can serve as a proxy for the conservation of other species in the region. These connectivity models and maps, developed in collaboration with the non-profit science organization Conservation Science Partners, Inc., use satellite imagery, as well as data on topography, vegetation, and other landscape characteristics, to predict areas of high or low connectivity across the landscape. More specifically, these models draw on concepts from electronic circuit theory. “Connectivity models created using circuit theory treat the landscape as a network of electronic circuits. Think of a typical circuit board. Different habitat features have different levels of resistance to an animal moving across the landscape,” says Dr. Brett Dickson of Conservation Science Partners. “Based on measures of ‘current flow,’ our models predict the corridors where animals are most likely to move from one habitat patch to another.”

Mountain lion (Puma concolor) habitat connectivity model developed by Conservation Science Partners, Inc. for Arizona and New Mexico. The “current flow” represents the probability of animal movement between areas considered to be high quality habitat for this species.

Mountain lion (Puma concolor) habitat connectivity model developed by Conservation Science Partners, Inc. for Arizona and New Mexico. The “current flow” represents the probability of animal movement between areas considered to be high quality habitat for this species.

In the summer of 2013, Trust staff and volunteers hiked deep into canyons along the Kaibab Plateau’s East Monocline to set up over 40 wildlife camera ‘traps’ in areas predicted by our models to be corridors. Among other species, the pronghorn antelope, bobcats, coyotes, and bighorn sheep that moved through the field of view of the carefully placed camera traps triggered the shutter and were recorded with a candid shot.

GCT AmeriCorps Amanda Smith works with GCT intern Ysa Diaz (left) to set up wildlife camera traps.

GCT AmeriCorps Amanda Smith works with GCT intern Ysa Diaz (left) to set up wildlife camera traps in the East Monocline of the Kane and Two Mile Ranches. When triggered by motion, these wildlife camera traps snap photos of species moving through this region (photos by GCT Volunteer Ross Kantra).

Throughout this effort, camera traps were maintained by staff and volunteers who ensured that the cameras kept working through the flash floods, lightning storms, and sun-scorched summer days, and regularly replaced data-rich memory cards. As daytime maintenance trips were not typically rewarded with sightings of mountain lions or other wildlife, committed staff and volunteers were eager to see the fruits of their labor recorded by the trap photographs. These data will allow us to provide guidance to conservation efforts targeted at maintaining the connections among important habitats patches on the Colorado Plateau. This effort represents just one of the many research projects on the Kane and Two Mile landscape as the Trust works to use science as a foundation for well-informed conservation action. In the fall of 2013, volunteers collected multiple rounds of memory cards and logged many hours in the field, with the red-dirt-caked hiking boots to prove it. Back at the office, thousands of photographs were tediously inspected by Trust interns and staff. All were anxious to document our target species, the mountain lion, and get a glimpse of other elusive northern Arizona wildlife otherwise invisible to most visitors to this remote and wild region. Click here to read about our intern Erin’s behind-the-scenes account of this camera trapping effort in our final blog post of this series.

 

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Utah OKs Oil Refinery Construction Before Examining Impacts on Public Health, Pollution, Iconic National Parks

Refinery, Approved Without Permit, Would Be Utah’s First in 30 Years

For Immediate Release, May 14, 2014

Contact:

Anne Mariah Tapp, Grand Canyon Trust, (512) 565-9906, atapp@grandcanyontrust.org

John Weisheit, Living Rivers, (435) 260-2590, john@livingrivers.org

Tim Wagner, Sierra Club, (801) 502-5450, tim.wagner@sierraclub.org

Randi Spivak, Center for Biological Diversity, (310) 779-4894, rspivak@biologicaldiversity.org

SALT LAKE CITY— Disregarding laws meant to protect public health, the environment and national parks, the Utah Division of Air Quality has given Emery Refining permission to build Utah’s first new oil refinery in 30 years. Approval was given even though the project has not been given a permit, public and environmental reviews have not been conducted, and the agency has not determined whether the refinery complies with pollution laws. The refinery in eastern Utah would be within miles of Canyonlands and Arches national parks, two of the state’s most popular tourist destinations.

Conservation groups today called on state officials to prohibit construction pending final permitting.

“State and federal laws are clear: Construction must follow permitting, and permitting must follow public and environmental review,” said Anne Mariah Tapp with Grand Canyon Trust. “Turning that scheme on its head reveals the deeper problem of Utah heeding oil interests over public and environmental health.”

Utah is allowing Emery to proceed with construction under a 2013 permit originally issued for a now-abandoned refinery proposal. After conservation groups challenged that permit over unlawful pollution, Emery proposed a new refinery design. Under Utah law the company should have to wait for a new permit for the new design. Instead the state gave Emery approval to build its new refinery under the inapplicable 2013 permit. The groups’ legal challenge to the original permit is still pending before an administrative law judge.

“Air quality for the downwind communities of eastern Utah has been worsening, and it’s just a short matter of time before the limits of pollution are exceeded. Energy companies need to invest in a clean-energy economy, because this business-as-usual approach to energy development is destined to damage our health, the water cycle of this important watershed, and the enjoyment of this landscape’s superlative scenery,” said John Weisheit of Living Rivers.

“Utahns should be outraged at the state fast-tracking Emery’s refinery plans,” said Stephen Bloch with the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. “The Division of Air Quality has its priorities backwards when it puts streamlining Emery’s permit ahead of its duty to protect the environment and human health.”

Conservation groups’ comments on Emery’s new design point out several major problems in the state’s draft permit for that new design. The state failed to perform mandatory dispersion modeling and impact analysis of hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, toluene, hexane and ethylbenzene; it sharply underestimated emissions from volatile organic compounds and greenhouse gas emissions; and it failed to analyze visibility impacts to Canyonlands and Arches national parks and impacts to endangered fish like Colorado pikeminnow in the Green River.

“Millions of people flock to Utah for the magnificent public lands, national parks and wildlife,” said Randi Spivak with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Putting a toxic oil refinery smack in the middle of some of America’s most stunning landscapes will pollute the air and endanger the health of park visitors and wildlife.”

Emery’s newest refinery plan comes as Grand County officials promote an oil transportation corridor connecting Green River to the oil, oil shale and tar sands deposits atop the Book Cliffs. Increasingly the refinery appears to be one part of a bigger scheme to industrialize Utah’s wildlands for high-carbon fossil fuel extraction.

“Utah’s biggest draw and economic engine, our majestic wildlands, is being transformed into a dirty energy wasteland before our very eyes,” said Tim Wagner of the Sierra Club. “In spite of recent double-digit growth in Utah’s outdoor recreation and tourism economies and the overwhelming evidence of the impacts to Utah from climate change, Utah’s leaders continually demonstrate their lack of regard for anyone or anything but short-term profits.”

Background

Utah’s air-quality rules explicitly provide for a pre-construction public comment period and a public hearing and mandate that “the director will consider all comments received during the public comment period and at the public hearing and, if appropriate, will make changes to the proposal in response to comments before issuing an approval order or disapproval order” (R307-401-7(3)). The rules further require new sources of air pollution to obtain an approval order “prior to initiation of construction,” which is defined as “any physical change or change in the method of operation (including fabrication, erection, installation, demolition, or modification of an emissions unit) that would result in a change of emissions” (R306-401-2).

The rules ensure that the Division of Air Quality will consider and mitigate environmental and public-health effects of emissions before the company commits resources to a project. See R307-401-7 (1), (2) – Public Notice (“prior to issuing an approval or disapproval order…the director’s analysis of the notice of intent proposal, and the proposed approval order conditions will be available for public inspection.”); see also R307-401-7 (3) (“the director will consider all comments received during the public comment period and at the public hearing and, if appropriate, will make changes to the proposal in response to comments before issuing an approval order or disapproval order”).

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Green River Oil Refinery, Round Two

The Green River oil refinery is back. As you may remember, late last year the Trust and partners challenged the state of Utah’s approval of an oil refinery proposed for Green River, Utah. It threatened unlawful toxic pollution for residents of Green River and haze at Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In response to that challenge, owners came back with plans for a different facility, for which the state has issued a draft permit.

But as with its predecessor, the new refinery threatens pollution problems too—and the state’s pollution analyses are again flawed. Worse, the state has told refinery owners they can begin building the new facility before environmental analyses have been completed and before a final permit for it has been issued. So, the Trust and allies are again taking the state to task to ensure Colorado Plateau communities and national parks are safeguarded from unlawful oil refinery pollution. We’ll keep you posted as events unfold.

Read about the recent public hearing in Green River

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Judge Tosses Uranium Industry’s $123 Million Raid on U.S. Treasury

In an important victory for public lands and Grand Canyon National Park, a U.S. Court of Federal Claims judge last week dismissed a lawsuit by VANE Minerals LLC challenging the Department of the Interior’s 2012 decision to ban new uranium mining across a million acres of public land in Arizona for 20 years.

The court ruled that VANE doesn’t have a property interest in unpatented mining claims, for which VANE had sought $123million in “takings” from the U.S.  Had they won, VANE’s could have made the government pay for mining claims that VANE hadn’t proven to be economically valuable, and for which VANE hadn’t established valid rights to mine. Such a result would make the uranium-mining ban (and any other “mineral withdrawal” on public lands for that matter) too expensive for the federal government, effectively re-opening Grand Canyon’s watersheds to dangerous new mines while undoing years of advocacy by Grand Canyon Trust and its members and partners. If VANE appeals the ruling, we’ll likely intervene. You can read more about the suit details in this recent article by E&E Publishing:

Court tosses industry suit over Obama administration ruling blocking mining claims

Manuel Quiñones, E&E reporter

Published: Monday, May 5, 2014

 

The U.S. Court of Federal Claims has tossed a uranium exploration company’s lawsuit against the Obama administration over its 2012 decision to block new mining claims on roughly 1 million acres around the Grand Canyon National Park.

Judge Susan Braden last week said Vane Minerals LLC’s request for almost $80 million in compensation for 678 company mining claims and exploration activities in the affected area was not ripe for discussion.

Vane Minerals argued that the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service are not letting the company explore its existing mining claims.

Even though the Obama administration’s withdrawal does not affect existing mining claims, regulators are only honoring claims proved to be valid. In other words, they must go through a test showing they contain economically recoverable mineral reserves.

Braden sided with the Obama administration in saying that Vane needed to go through a validation process before determining how the withdrawal will affect its claims.

“Unless and until Plaintiff receives a [valid existing rights] determination,” she wrote, “neither the BLM, the Forest Service, nor this court can determine if and how the Withdrawal Order will impact Plaintiff’s unpatented mining claims.”

In its own court filings, Vane Minerals argued that it shouldn’t have to go through the validation process because the government is well aware of the rich uranium deposits around the Grand Canyon.

The company also argued that the withdrawal made it harder to conduct the necessary exploration to prove validity — and that having to prove validity amounted to a new regulatory burden.

“Had the segregation, and later withdrawal, not been in effect, the Forest Service would not have required mineral examinations or demonstrations of mineral discoveries as a condition of approving VANE‘s plans of operations,” the company wrote in a court filing.

It added that “the value of VANE‘s mining claims has significantly decreased. Moreover,VANE must pay annual fees to maintain its claims, even though it is effectively barred from developing them.”

But Braden, in her 23-page opinion, wrote, “Congress has authorized the Department of Interior to determine the validity of mining claims on the public lands.”

“In this case,” she concluded, “Plaintiff failed to obtain a VER determination and consequently has no property right.”

Taylor McKinnon, energy director for the Grand Canyon Trust, described the case as an uranium industry attempt to “raid” the U.S. Treasury. “Dismissal of this case is good news for the American public and Grand Canyon National Park,” he said.

An attorney for Vane Minerals said this morning the company was mulling its options. It can appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Arizona case

While Braden’s ruling is a win for opponents of uranium mining around the Grand Canyon, more significant litigation is pending in Arizona U.S. District Court involving numerous companies and groups, including the National Mining Association and the Nuclear Energy Institute.

The groups and companies argue that a section of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act allowing for congressional resolutions of disapproval is unconstitutional and, therefore, so are 5,000-acre-plus withdrawals.

Last year, Judge David Campbell agreed with the mining and nuclear industries in finding the resolutions unconstitutional, but he said that didn’t invalidate the withdrawals.

Companies have signaled their interest in appealing Campbell’s decision (Greenwire, July 16, 2013). However, other parts of the case remain pending, including whether the Obama administration followed the National Environmental Policy Act in approving the withdrawal.

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