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Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: Land use, sprawl, urban planning

The Sierra Club 's Carl Pope to step down as chairman

Carl Pope It's official: Carl Pope announced Friday that he is stepping down from his position as chairman of the Sierra Club to devote most of his time to working with environmental organizations, corporations and organized labor in the "green economy."

Pope, 66, who served the club for 17 years as executive director, announced his career change in an email to club members on Friday:

"Dear Sierra Club Colleagues,
 
After 38 years with the Sierra Club, I am opening my dance card to new partners. In December, I shall stand down as Chairman to undertake a new initiative. My hope is to pull together a broad front of environmental groups, labor unions, clean-economy innovators, mainline manufacturers, civil rights organizations, and state and local officials to insist that candidates for public office in 2012 address the role of innovation, clean technology, and manufacturing in rebuilding the American economy and restoring the American middle class. 
 
I will continue to serve as a consultant to the Sierra Club and to fund-raise on the Club's behalf through 2012, but this shift in my professional focus marks the close of my career as a full-time Club employee with broad-spectrum responsibility. Each of my previous Club roles, including my tenure as Chairman, has been a privilege and an opportunity, largely because of the incredible staff and volunteer colleagues with whom I have had the good fortune to work. I look forward to continuing many of those relationships -- and to building new ones as my role outside the Club develops.
 
There are simply too many of you to thank and too much to be grateful for. So, for now, let's just keep fighting the good fight.
 
ALSO:

 Christo river wrap gets BLM approval

Grand Canyon mining ban moves forward

Super committee could gut national parks budget

-- Louis Sahagun

 Photo: Sierra Club Chairman Carl Pope, who has announced he is stepping down. Credit: David Butow/For The Times

Playa Vista plan gets court approval

Playavista
This post has been corrected. See note at bottom for details.

A state appellate court has upheld the city of Los Angeles' approval of Playa Vista's second and final phase.

Wetlands activists had challenged a revised environmental impact report for the Village, as Phase 2 of the big project south of Marina del Rey is known.

Wednesday's decision comes after a long trail of litigation, revision and further appeals.

The Los Angeles City Council initially approved the environmental analysis for the Village in April 2004. Challengers sued, alleging that the report was flawed. In January 2006, a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge upheld the city's approval.

The activists appealed, and a three-judge panel in the 2nd District Court of Appeal agreed that three aspects of the environmental impact report should be revised.

The City Council approved the revised EIR in 2010. Activists once again challenged that approval in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The trial court upheld the council's approval in January 2011, and the challengers appealed again.

The three-judge panel that affirmed the trial court's ruling on Wednesday was the same panel that ordered the EIR revisions. The wetlands activists have 40 days to petition the California Supreme Court for review.

Rex Frankel, president of the Ballona Ecosystem Education Project, one of the Playa Vista challengers, said his organization planned "soon" to petition the state high court. He contended that there "is a good likelihood the Supreme Court will take our case."

Playa Capital Co-President Patti Sinclair said the company would vigorously oppose his filing. She added that the high court seldom takes rulings that are "unpublished," as this one is. She said the company expected to begin construction on the Village early next year.

The Village is intended to be the link between the Phase 1 residential community and the commercial campus that is home to Facebook, USC and a division of Fox Sports, among other employers. The Village will include retail stores and restaurants as well as parks, office space and multi-family residences.

[For the Record, 6 p.m. Nov. 10, 2011: An earlier version of this post incorrectly reported that Patti Sinclair was president of Playa Capital.]

ALSO:

Christo river wrap gets BLM approval

Grand Canyon mining ban moves forward

Super committee could gut national parks budget

-- Martha Groves

Photo: Playa Vista's first phase can be seen behind the Ballona Fresh Water Marsh. Environmentalists eager to preserve wetlands have sought to limit development. Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

National Academy of Sciences to study wild-horse roundups

A National Academy of Sciences panel is reviewing federal Wild Horse and Burro Management Program
A National Academy of Sciences panel is set to hear official presentations and public comment to begin its independent review of the federal Wild Horse and Burro Management Program. The first meeting is scheduled for Oct. 27 in Reno.

The Bureau of Land Management last week announced a tentative calendar for its wild-horse and burro roundups.

The roundups are to begin this month and continue through next March in California and several Western states. The BLM is expected to gather about 6,000 animals via helicopter herding. Some of the horses are to be removed from the range; others -- about 2,000 horses -- are to receive a fertility-control vaccine.

The controversial program has drawn criticism from animal-welfare advocates as being unnecessary and harmful to the horses and foals. In response, the BLM has allowed the public to observe the roundups. 

The Reno meeting is to include presentations from BLM officials and wild-horse experts. Among issues the panel is expected to study are horse and burro genetics and the scientific basis for population models.

The BLM estimates that about 33,000 wild horses and 5,500 burros roam BLM-managed range lands in 10 Western states, based on data from February of this year. Wild horses and burros have virtually no natural predators, and their herd sizes can double about every four years. 

Public-lands ranchers complain that the animals compete with livestock for scarce food in the arid West.

ALSO:

Yellowstone grizzly bear involved in attacks euthanized

Mountain lion killed by poachers in the Santa Monica Mountains

Officials announce schedule for roundups of wild horses, burros

-- Julie Cart

Photo: Two young wild horses play while grazing on the Huffaker Hills near Reno on Jan. 13, 2010. Credit: Andy Barron / Reno Gazette-Journal

Tehachapi slender salamander denied endangered species protection

Tehachapi slender salamander
Jeremy Nichols had never seen a living Tehachapi slender salamander when, acting as a private citizen, he filed a petition in 2006 asking the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the stealthy, brick-red amphibian as endangered.

Nichols became infatuated with the salamander after reading an article about it in a book about North American reptiles and amphibians. His petition cited Tejon Ranch Co.’s development plans as threats to its existence.

The agency agreed to study the matter, declaring in the Federal Register in 2009 that Nichols' petition presented "substantial scientific or commercial information" to warrant a comprehensive review.

On Friday, the service rendered its final conclusion: Batrachoseps stebbinsi does not warrant a spot on the endangered species list. An analysis determined that cattle grazing, road construction, flood control projects, disease, severe wildfires, prolonged drought and construction of Tejon Ranch’s proposed 7,860-acre residential and commercial development, the Tejon Mountain Village project, would not impact the species in the foreseeable future.

The salamander resides in two canyons about 13 miles apart and separated by a freeway 60 miles north of Los Angeles.

It lives mostly underground and, without lungs, absorbs oxygen through its skin. When threatened, it can coil its body like a snake.

The salamanders live most of their lives underground, emerging only when it rains. They occur on north-facing slopes within canyons or ravines, beneath rocks, fallen logs, talus, or leaf litter. They feed on small arthropods and other invertebrates.

It is unknown how long it lives, and no juveniles have been seen in the wild or reported.

Nichols, a climate program director with Wild Earth Guardians, an environmental group based in Santa Fe, N.M., was not immediately available for comment.

ALSO:

Court approves endangered species settlement

Rocky Mountain pikas not nearing extinction, study finds

Endangered arroyo toads cling to existence in the Tehachapi Mountains 

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: An adult Tehachapi slender salamander from Caliente Creek, Kern County. Credit: Gary Nafis.

Federal biofuel mandate flawed, report finds

Ethanol fuel use

A National Research Council report Tuesday said a federal requirement to add some 16 billion gallons of cellulose-based ethanol to the nation's fuel supply by 2022 won't be met unless innovative technologies are developed or policies changed.

The report also calls into question the ecologic and economic calculations behind Congress' backing of commodity-crop ethanol (mainly corn), particularly if production involves clearing land to grow crops dedicated to fuel.

In 2005, Congress enacted the Renewable Fuel Standard, as part of the Energy Policy Act and amended it in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.

The amended standard, known as RSF2, mandated that by 2022 the consumption volume of the renewable fuels should consist of:

15 billion gallons of conventional biofuels, mainly corn-grain ethanol;

16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels produced from wood, grasses, or non-edible plant parts, such as from corn stalks and wheat straw.

4 billion gallons of advanced renewable biofuels, other than ethanol derived from cornstarch, that achieve a life-cycle greenhouse gas threshold of at least 50%.

1 billion gallons of biomass-based diesel fuel.

Continue reading »

Supreme Court rejects builders' challenge to pollution rule

Sanjoaquinsprawl

This post has been updated. See below for details.

The U.S. Supreme Court today refused to review a case in which builders in the San Joaquin Valley sought to overthrow restrictions on air pollution associated with sprawl.

The National Assn. of Home Builders had sought to overturn a rule that requires developers to mitigate additional air pollution associated with large developments -- such as increased automobile traffic with longer commuting distances.

The so-called indirect source rule, adopted in 2005 by the San Joaquin Unified Air Pollution Control District, was aimed at steering development to areas close to public transportation, providing pedestrian-friendly shopping areas, and encouraging alternative means of travel, such as bicycle lanes. Developers who could not comply were required to pay a fee that would be used to fund pollution offsets elsewhere.

Earthjustice, an environmental group that participated in the case, praised the rejection by the nation's highest court. "We were glad to stand with the San Joaquin air district to defend this rule,” said Paul Cort, an attorney for Earthjustice. “No special interest should have a free ride in a region where schools and parents are frequently warned to keep children indoors on bad air days.”

The regulation had withstood opposition in 2008 in a lower federal court in Fresno, and had been appealed to the nation's highest court.

[Updated, 1:50 p.m.: "We are disappointed that the Supreme Court did not elect to hear our case," Amy Chai, a senior counsel for the Nationial Assn. of Home Builders, said in an email. "However, the Supreme Court receives thousands of petitions every year and hears only a fraction of those cases, so it is rare to have a case taken by the Court."]

The heavily agricultural San Joaquin Valley, along with the Los Angeles area, suffers from some of the dirtiest air in the nation and a high rate of asthma and other respiratory diseases.

[Correction: A previous version of this story said the pollution rule was aimed at greenhouse gases. It was intended to curtail emission of nitrogen oxides and particulates, an effort that also would have a beneficial effect on emission of greenhouse gases.]

ALSO:

Clean natural gas? Not so fast, study says

EPA scolded on greenhouse gas report review process

'MythBusters' asks: Are motorcycles greener than cars?

-- Geoff Mohan

Photo: A housing development along the San Joaquin River in California's Central Valley. Credit: Marcio Jose Sanchez / For The Times

Decision postponed, again, on Yellowstone snowmobile rule

Snowmobiles

Once again the National Park Service has punted instead of issuing a final rule regarding the number of snowmobiles it will allow to operate each day in Yellowstone National Park.

Supt. Dan Wenk announced Thursday that the issue required additional analysis and that the park would implement an interim policy of allowing up to 318 commercially guided snowmobiles in the park each day, and 78 commercially guided snowcoaches.

Wenk said that when the winter use season starts Dec. 15, the same rules that have been in place the last two years will still apply. 

He said a final "sustainable" rule is expected before the start of the 2012-13 season. 

The debate over the use of snowmobiles in the nation's oldest park dates to the Clinton administration, when the use of the machines was to be phased out because of concerns about noise, air and sound  pollution, as well as visitor and wildlife safety. That rule was reversed by President George W. Bush.

The issue of snowmobiles in the park has been studied for more than a decade, at a cost of more than $10 million.

ALSO:

Secluded park threatened with closure

Yellowstone park releases report on grizzly attack

EPA scolded on greenhouse gas report review process

-- Julie Cart 

Photo: A bison crosses the road ahead of snowmobilers at Yellowstone National Park in a 2003 photo. Credit: Craig Moore / Associated Press 

Texas wildfires: Is drought the new climate?

Drought and climate change
The litany of misery playing out in Texas is tough to watch but less difficult to predict.

Well before the contagion of wildfires was sparked this week, the state had been experiencing a weather catastrophe. Texas has seen its driest consecutive months since record-keeping began in 1895. Parts of the state have had no measurable rain in nearly a year. The drought, warn officials from the National Weather Service, may continue into next year.

A brutal heat wave has tormented residents, with some cities experiencing 100-plus degree weather for more than a month.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a GOP presidential candidate, scoffs at the notion of human-induced climate change, even suggesting recently on the campaign trail that scientists are manipulating data to make money. He also has declared a  weather-related state of emergency every month since December. Meanwhile, Texas' state climatologist has warned that his fellow citizens should get used to this new climate of extremes.

These horrible fires are driven by wind, to be sure, but are fueled by much more combustible decisions: fire-prone nonnative plants planted to benefit another nonnative -- cattle. Rampant urban incursions into wildlands, placing homes in danger. Private property owners' failure to manage the grasses and trees on their land. A budget-cutting policy that pared  most of the state's volunteer firefighters. 

Climate-watchers are reminding Perry that Texas' nightmare is a direct result of a political decision to ignore the reality of climate change, leaving the state unprepared for its devastating effects on public health, the livestock and agriculture industries, and, ultimately, the sustainability of life in the arid Southwest.

ALSO:

Is nature doing what the climate models predict?

Global warming effect seen in pole-to-pole data-gathering flights

Climate change: Drought, floods, tornadoes part of 'new normal'?

--Julie Cart

twitter.com/LATenvironment

Photo: A nearly drained stock tank in West Texas. Credit: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times

Endangered arroyo toads cling to existence in the Tehachapi Mountains

Toad (3)When biologist Ruben Ramirez wants to introduce people to his favorite amphibian, he takes them to a little oasis in the southwestern foothills of the Tehachapi Mountains where an isolated colony of endangered arroyo toads clings to existence by their stout little toes.

It is a remote creek on U.S. Forest Service land offering all the creature comforts needed for the toads to avoid extirpation: shallow water, sandy banks and willows and buckwheat buzzing with insects to feed on. It is also free of dams and diversions and seldom visited by hikers and mountain bikers.

During a tour on Friday, it took Ramirez and fellow biologist Robert Haase only a few minutes to find several young arroyo toads bulking up on harvester ants in the area, which also teems with more common species: western toads, Pacific chorus frogs and California chorus frogs.

Ramirez requested that the exact location not be disclosed. “The less disturbance here the better,” he said as a youngster hopped past the tips of his hiking boots.

“This is one of the few sweet spots left in Southern California for this species,” Ramirez said. “So it’s an ideal place to bring groups of people who want to know more about this incredible amphibian I have been researching for 15 years. The goal of these 'toad walks’ is to provide people with the kind of information you can only get firsthand in the field.”

Most people learn about arroyo toads in news reports about legal skirmishes among environmental groups, developers and federal land managers over their fate.

“Unfortunately, people love this toador hate it,” Haase said. “For those subject to the economic impacts of dealing with an endangered amphibian, it’s an enemy. For those who want to keep remaining ecosystems intact, it’s a treasure.”

Meanwhile, the 3-inch-long toad’s fate remains uncertain. When Bufo californicus -- a small, buff-colored amphibian with dark spots and warts -- was listed under the federal Endangered Species Act in 1994, it had lost more than 75% of its historic habitat to development, mining, agriculture and predation by non-native species.

Today, the arroyo toad persists in 23 small, isolated populations including this one, about 40 miles north of Los Angeles.

The Endangered Species Act requires the federal government to designate critical habitat for endangered and threatened species, creating an additional level of review for building and land-use permits.

But even within critical habitat, the arroyo toad faces threats that include fungal infections and predation by raccoons and non-native bullfrogs, and continues to figure in development battles across Southern California.
 
Earlier this year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finalized designation of 98,366 acres of critical habitat for the arroyo toad from Monterey County to San Diego County, concluding a decade-long legal battle between the agency and the Center for Biological Diversity.

In June, a U.S. District Court judge ordered three federal agencies to "take all necessary measures" to better protect 40 endangered species -- including the arroyo toad -- in four national forests in Southern California.

In July, however, avdvocates for the toad lost a court fight to spare a small population in Orange County’s Silverado Canyon from threats posed by a proposal to develop a large horse ranch in the area.

Dropping to his knees for a better view of a dime-size arroyo toad hunting insects in the shade of a willow tree, Ramirez said, “The fight to save these creatures is far from over. But at the end of the day, the best decisions will be based on the best available science collected in places like this.”

Also:

Yellowstone grizzly bear euthanized for 'predatory behaviors'

Southwestern pond turtle making a comeback in San Diego County

 

Agency seeks to end sea otter relocations, to allow them off SoCal

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: An arroyo toad in the Tehachapi Mountains. Credit: Louis Sahagun/Los Angeles Times

City Council not commenting on Laguna Beach access issue

The Laguna Beach City Council accepted petitions that supported public beach access through private property at Rockledge in Laguna Beach, but refrained from making any comments on the emotionally charged issue.

City Manager John Pietig advised the council to button its lips because of a lawsuit filed by a Rockledge resident against his neighboring property owner, Mark Towfiq, and the city. He argues those who go through the property are trespassing.

"This property has always been protected by a gate at the ocean and an iron gate in front of the property," Towfiq said. "If you are the public, you have been trespassing if you are going to use this property to get to the ocean. There is no other way around it."

The issue of public access through Towfiq's property was raised at the July 12 meeting, according to the Coastline Pilot.

ALSO:

Climate change and health: How vulnerable is your city?

Study ranks air pollution from coal and oil-fired power plants

California bill would reveal chemicals used in "fracking" process

--Barbara Diamond, Times Community News

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