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Quietly, Surely, We’re Losing a Whole Pine Species En Masse and Nobody Gives a Damn

Mother Jones

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

U.S. Forest Service research ecologist Bob Keane has studied whitebark pine, a coniferous tree of the high country, for more than thirty years. Still, when asked to describe a whitebark to someone who’s never seen one, he takes a breath and pauses for a moment. “Gosh,” he says.

The shape of the tree is very distinctive, Keane says. Instead of growing cone-shaped like other conifers, whitebarks branch like hardwoods. “A lot of the undergrowth is very small, so you see these open park-like stands of beautiful spreading trees,” he says. This shape is an adaptation that shows Clark’s nutcrackers flying past that a tree below has many nutritious cones and might be worth a travel stop.

Clark’s nutcrackers cache thousands of whitebark seeds, dispersing the pine across the high country, where the tree is a keystone species. Whitebark pine is one of the first trees to break ground after a fire, thanks to those nutcrackers, and it stabilizes soil and snowpacks at timberline. Living a millennium or more, whitebarks shape the West’s high mountain ecology in countless ways.

But the whitebark is going extinct and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the agency) hasn’t given the species federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In April 2017, two conservation organizations from Montana lost a lawsuit against the agency for its failure to list the pine. No one—not the plaintiffs, defendants, or panel of judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—questioned the precariousness of the tree’s fate. At question was how the agency prioritized which species it protects. Species, the court ruled, could be passed over because the agency didn’t have the necessary funds. As the story of whitebarks demonstrates, extinction has as much to do with politics as it does with biology.

The whitebark pine is an iconic tree of the West’s high mountains, ranging from Wyoming’s southern Wind Rivers to northern Alberta and British Columbia. In the fall, in a whitebark pine forest, “there are tons of cones and it is alive with animals, just alive,” Keane says. “You don’t see that with subalpine firs.” Researchers have found that whitebark cones feed more than 100 animal species and, in Glacier National Park, 40 percent of the understory plants in whitebark pine communities grow only there. The tree’s fatty, protein-rich seeds are an important food for Greater Yellowstone grizzlies; when the seeds run short, the bears eat more meat.

The whitebark pine faces intertwined threats that have killed the trees across much of their historic range. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot imported white pine blister rust, a fast-moving European fungal disease that kills whitebarks, to the West in a tree shipment.

And a century of fire suppression has imperiled whitebarks, too. The shade-intolerant trees rely on fire to open areas; without fires, trees such as subalpine firs shade out whitebarks. Often, Keane says, permanently stunted pines linger in the shadows of those new neighbors. “You’ll see an overstory of subalpine fir, but an understory of tiny whitebark pine saplings that are probably older than the canopy,” he says.

Meanwhile, native mountain pine beetles have taken out swaths of whitebark pines weakened by overcrowding and drought; a 2009 beetle outbreak killed whitebarks across more than 3,000 square miles. Exacerbating blister rust’s spread, wildfire suppression, and pine beetle outbreaks is an ever more pervasive threat: “The fourth big one is climate change and how climate change is interacting with all of these things, ” says Amy Nicholas, endangered species listing coordinator for the agency’s Wyoming field office.

Conservationists have requested federal protection for whitebark pines under the ESA for more than 25 years, beginning in 1991. In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the pine was likely to go extinct across much of its U.S. range in as little as 100 years, or less than two generations. Yet instead of listing whitebark pine as endangered, the agency listed the tree as a “candidate” species, essentially waitlisting the species for help.

The reason came down to a funding shortage: listing whitebark pine as endangered would have required the agency to devote resources to saving it. Without enough money to care for all disappearing species, the agency focuses on listing species that are part of legal settlements, for example.

As a candidate species, whitebark pine got a listing priority number, based on how likely it is to go extinct. In 2011, whitebark pine received one of the highest priority rankings, yet other species were being federally protected and whitebark pine was not.

Two Montana-based conservation organizations—WildWest Institute and Alliance for the Wild Rockies—sued the agency, arguing that by prioritizing candidate species ranked lower than whitebark pine, the Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t following its own guidelines for deciding which species to protect. The conservation groups felt species should be given help in order of biological need.

The court ruled in favor of the agency. While pointing out that current policies on listing seemed inadequate when “dealing with the potential life or death of an entire species,” the court concluded that the agency was not required to make decisions based on its candidate species ranking system. “Scarce funds and limited staff resources may prevent FWS from taking immediate final action to list or delist a species,” the presiding judge wrote.

According to Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor, the agency often makes listing decisions based on finances. “This is a systematic problem that the Fish and Wildlife Service has had for decades,” Parenteau says. He points to persistent resistance from Congress and some Republican administrations to fully fund the service’s endangered species listing program.

Financial considerations do not factor into whether a species gets listed, but rather in what order and when, agency biologist Craig Hansen says. “The listing budget is given to us by Congress and has an annual cap,” Hansen says. “We can’t pull funds from other programs to list.” The service’s funding woes have led to a backlog of organisms waiting to be listed, such as northern California’s Sierra Nevada red fox, which in 2016 included just 29 remaining adults.

These rust-resistant baby whitebarks are part of the U.S. Forest Service’s collaboration with NGOs trying to save the species. Bob Keane

In 2016, to stop the constant backlog of candidate species waiting to be listed as threatened or endangered, the Obama administration drafted a streamlined process that prioritized the most imperiled species backed by the best available science. It wasn’t adopted by the Trump administration.

Matthew Koehler, executive director of plaintiff WildWest Institute, grows frustrated talking about the whitebark case. Koehler believes the funding shortage that stalled the whitebark’s listing is part of a strategy by Congressional members in both parties to tie the service’s hands. “Then, the same members of Congress complain that the ESA doesn’t work or that it moves too slow,” he says.

Indeed, this past February, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., led a Senate hearing to “modernize the Endangered Species Act,” arguing in a statement that the ESA has not been successful enough and causes economic harm.

Funding is only one of the ESA’s difficulties, though. Court battles also stymie species’ recoveries. For each species, a listing decision takes years, followed by litigation from whoever opposes the outcome. “It isn’t just a bunch of scientists sitting around a table saying ‘let’s list this species,” says Parenteau. And still, species such as the whitebark disappear.

And then there’s climate change. Congress wrote the ESA in the 1970s, long before scientists understood the profound ways in which greenhouse gases affect species and their homes. The ESA is designed to address discrete problems: overgrazing, point-source pollution, exurban development. In its revision of ESA listing guidelines, the Obama administration acknowledged as much: the agency could have put off working on species endangered by climate change, including whitebark pine, since it has less power to help them.

With our existing environmental laws, whitebarks may yet survive in the northernmost parts of their range in Canada, Parenteau says. “But in the southern part of its range, unless we get serious about climate mitigation, it’s probably doomed anyway,” he says.

In any case, listing isn’t necessary for the feds to take action: Almost all whitebarks occur on federal public land, where the government can take steps to protect the species without listing, Parenteau says.

Indeed, having given up on the ESA for now, the WildWest Institute is seeking other pathways to whitebark protection. The organization is supporting a bill introduced to Congress to designate public lands in the northern Rockies where whitebarks live as wilderness. “We see wilderness designation as a way to protect that entire ecosystem,” Koehler says.

When pressed to make predictions for the longterm, Keane says areas where whitebarks used to flourish will probably eventually burn. By then, though, there will be no source trees left for birds to find seeds to spread to freshly burned areas. Instead, he imagines, shrub herblands will grow.

Still, unlike Parenteau, Keane is optimistic about the climate extremes that whitebarks can survive, if the trees get help. He’s part of a new collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and two NGOs – American Forests and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation—that’s working to restore whitebarks in the West. The group’s even developing rust-resistant seedlings. “Whitebark pine doesn’t even start optimum cone production until it’s 200 years old,” he says. “What we want to make sure is what we’re doing now, 100 years from now we will see the fruits of our labors.”

“If we do nothing,” Keane says, “we are making sure that it will be so low on the landscape, we will probably name the ones we see, there will be so few of them.”

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Quietly, Surely, We’re Losing a Whole Pine Species En Masse and Nobody Gives a Damn

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California’s Wildfires Just Tripled in Size

Mother Jones

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When it comes to forest fires, California can’t seem to catch a break.

Last year was a hellacious one for uncontrolled burns, and 2016 is looking just as bad. In the past week, the number of acres scorched by wildfire has tripled from around 32,000 to more than 98,000, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The number of fires the department, known simply as Cal Fire, has responded to is slightly above the seasonal five year average. But it’s early in the fire season. (California’s 2013 Rim Fire, the largest ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, began in early August and blazed on into October, torching more than 257,000 acres.)

Local, state, and federal firefighters have already dealt with more than 2,400 wildfires so far this season, say’s Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire’s information officer. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Southern California’s Kern County, where the largest of those conflagrations still rages; the Eskrine fire covers more than 45,000 acres and is only 40 percent contained. It has killed two people so far, destroying 150 homes and damaging 75.

In recent years, drought conditions have fueled fires across the state. El Niño conditions brought badly needed rain this past winter, but the wetter conditions also begat a bumper crop of grasses that are now reduced to dry fuel. “The rain is always a blessing and a curse,” Berlant says.

In addition, thanks to prolonged drought and hungry bark beetles, California has more than 66 million dead trees, the US Forest Service estimates—more than double last year’s count. In short, the state is a tinderbox.

Ahead of the July 4 weekend, Cal Fire officials warn that they’ll be confiscating illegal fireworks. They’re also urging residents to keep fireworks away from dry, flammable materials. Which should be pretty obvious, but sadly…

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California’s Wildfires Just Tripled in Size

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19 Firefighters Fall on the ‘Wildland-Urban Interface’

The dangerous interface between humans and forests claims the lives of 19 firefighters. Read More:   19 Firefighters Fall on the ‘Wildland-Urban Interface’ ; ;Related ArticlesSeeking More Presidential Action, Less Rhetoric, on WarmingObama’s Ambitious Global Warming Action PlanKerry Proposes U.S.-India Push on Carbon and Climate ;

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19 Firefighters Fall on the ‘Wildland-Urban Interface’

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Nation’s biggest uranium mine planned in New Mexico

Nation’s biggest uranium mine planned in New Mexico

Mike Fisher

The uranium mine is proposed on terrain such as this, near Mount Taylor, seen in the distance.

Two foreign-owned mining companies, betting that the world will quickly forget the horrors of Fukushima, plan to sink a pair of shafts into the rugged New Mexico landscape near near Mt. Taylor and begin 0perating the nation’s biggest uranium mine.

If approved by the U.S. Forest Service and state agencies, the mine would be the first of its kind to operate in the state in more than a decade, extracting as much as 28 million pounds of the radioactive heavy metal and desecrating as many as 70 acres of land sacred to Native Americans that’s designated by the federal government as traditional cultural property.

Previous uranium mining left the state’s landscape scarred and workers sickened. But the Roca Honda joint venture of Canadian and Japanese companies says the industry has learned from past mistakes and now has the whole safe-isotope-extraction thing sorted out. From the Albuquerque Journal:

[Roca Honda Manager John] DeJoia said he would be the “first to admit there are legacy issues,” but that much has been learned in the industry.

“Were cars less safe 60 years ago? Of course they were … Do we know more about food? We certainly do, and that’s the case with uranium, coal, copper,” DeJoia said. “It is an evolving process and just because it wasn’t done properly 40 or 50 years ago doesn’t mean we can’t do it properly today.” …

He concedes that for now, neither spot market nor long-term sales market prices “support fervent development.”

“However, the nuclear-power situation in the world — in our country — indicates a true shortage and that the price will go up once the fervor over Fukushima and everything gets past us,” he said, noting that the U.S. itself produces only 7 or 8 percent of the 55 million to 60 million pounds of uranium used a year by the nation’s nuclear plants. “We will have to realize nuclear power is probably the most viable, cleanest power source we have.”

Needless to say, DeJoia’s glee is not shared by all of the neighbors of the proposed mine. From the same article:

[A] coalition of community organizations, including several Native American groups and an organization of former uranium miners, contends a mining operation would imperil the area’s water supply and quality. The group also believes it would severely impact an area designated by the Forest Service as a traditional cultural property that has great spiritual significance for indigenous people across the Southwest.

“It is essentially the same as proposing a huge uranium mine in the middle of the Vatican. There’s just no way to avoid the impacts,” said attorney Eric Jantz of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing the coalition, the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment.

Jantz said water pumped from the mine could result in significant drawdowns of surface water and springs. There is also concern waste piles and toxic heavy-metal materials could make their way into ground and surface water, he said.

The Forest Service could issue its approval this year, the newspaper reports, clearing the path for drilling to begin within the next several years. And once that happens, hoo-boy, is New Mexico in for an economic bonanza — the likes of which DeJoia can’t even describe to a reporter:

“I won’t run you through all the economics on that, but you can rest assured there is an awful lot of income tax paid on that,” he said. “There are a lot of New Mexico taxes in there.”

Thanks for sparing us the numbers. Nobody wants to be thinking hard when we could just be mindlessly digging for short-term profits.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who


, posts articles to


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Uranium mining is coming soon to the Grand Canyon area

Uranium mining is coming soon to the Grand Canyon area

Paul Fundenburg

So much for that ban on uranium mining near the Grand Canyon that Obama imposed early last year. The U.S. Forest Service just went ahead and gave a Canadian company approval to begin mining for uranium a mere six miles from the Grand Canyon National Park’s South Rim entrance, which nearly 5 million people visit every year.

Canadian company Energy Fuels Resources says its rights to mine the area, granted in 1986, should be grandfathered in, and the Forest Service concurred. In response, three environmental groups and the local Havusupai Tribe filed suit in March against the feds. They say the 1986 environmental impact review that originally gave the mine clearance needs to be updated. From The Arizona Republic:

Opponents say newer studies indicate pathways for trouble. One study, conducted in preparation for an old development plan at Tusayan, found that groundwater pumping at that Grand Canyon gateway sucked water from the vicinity of the mine. Another, by the U.S. Geological Survey, included models based on known subsurface geology funneling water toward Havasu Springs.

The Forest Service had no way of knowing these things before the 1986 approval, Northern Arizona University hydrogeologist Abe Springer said.

“Nobody ever asked the question” back then, he said.

A spokesperson for the mining company argues, naturally, that the review is still adequate, and calls the old Canyon Mine, now set to reopen in 2015, “tiny.” But Roger Clark, director of Grand Canyon Trust, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, compares the area — which will be stripped of vegetation — to the size of a Walmart parking lot, and tells The Guardian about other contamination concerns:

Clark argues that uranium’s radioactive properties only become dangerous once it is brought up out of the ground and exposed to air and water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, such properties include radon gas, a substance that was not regulated when the government conducted its initial study of the mine in 1986. The lawsuit contends that radon and other chemicals could pollute the area.

The mine is located on a site sacred to the Havusupai and other tribes, including the Hopi, Zuni, and Navajo. The Navajo are still fighting for a comprehensive cleanup of the hundreds of abandoned uranium mines scattered across their reservation, mines blamed for decades of health problems and deaths among residents unknowingly exposed to radioactivity.

Those mines, crucial in the Cold War years to the government’s nuclear weapons program, closed as the demand for, and price of, uranium dropped steeply in the 1990s. The Canyon Mine never became fully operational before its owners decided to cut their losses. But with the value of uranium soaring, the Guardian reports that …

… companies are moving to reopen old claims. Observers say the outcome of the lawsuit is important, because it could serve as a bellwether for how future attempts to re-open old uranium mining claims in the area will go. There are over 3,000 mines in the Grand Canyon area that hold such claims.

As much as we despise bottled water, you might think about bringing some on your next trip to the Grand Canyon.

Claire Thompson is an editorial assistant at Grist.

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2012 saw the fewest wildfires in a decade — but the second-most acres burned ever

2012 saw the fewest wildfires in a decade — but the second-most acres burned ever

This is the most calm the Forest Service’s active fire map has looked all year.


After all, here was the year 2012 in fires, as compiled by NASA.


From the description: “Areas of yellow and orange indicate larger and more intense fires, while many of the less intense fires, shown in red, represent prescribed burns started for brush clearing and agriculture and ecosystem management.” Click to embiggen.

Through August, the continental U.S. had seen the most acreage burned by wildfires in history. Happily, that trend didn’t continue. We only came in second.

Data from

National Interagency Fire Center


2012 was actually not a bad year for fires as discrete incidents. But notice how few fires did all of that damage. As we noted over the summer, the link between fire intensity and climate change isn’t direct. Clearly, though, the year’s epic drought meant drier conditions — and such drought is strongly correlated to climatic shifts. So it’s not surprising to see that this year’s fires were the most intense in a decade.

Data from

National Interagency Fire Center


It’s this acres-burned-per-fire number that we don’t want to see rising in the future. Let’s hope this year is an aberration — particularly those of us who live near wildlands.

Philip Bump writes about the news for Gristmill. He also uses Twitter a whole lot.

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