Coastal Louisiana’s Garden of Alligators, Zydeco, and Conservation

Edward McIlhenny flooded a 35-acre pond and erected a big net over his rookery in 1895 to save Snowy egrets. The net disappeared. The birds stayed. Their descendants are thriving. (Photo/Keith Schneider

LAFAYETTE, LA —Avery Island, which draws its name from a family that settled here in the 1830s, is renowned for the Tobasco hot sauce brand that Edmund McIlhenny invented after planting pepper seeds amidst the live oaks in 1865. Another historic breakthrough credited to the family is the work his son, Edward Avery McIlhenny, accomplished in safeguarding much of the island’s subtropical landscape as a conservation preserve and especially with the rookery he built to protect Snowy egrets.

In increasing the island’s egret population from under ten when he started in 1895 to over 100,000 by 1911, McIlhenny pulled off one of the great species preservation feats in American history.

Avery Island’s famous product. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

Avery Island is on the National Historic Register for its role in American commerce and conservation. It’s one of the surprising delights I encountered during the few days I was in the Lafayette area while on the way to Houston to report for ProPublica. The story of American ecological preservation is always defined by the confrontation between natural values and industrial business principles. It’s been that way since Thoreau spent all those weeks on Walden Pond. It’s been that way since John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt camped in the Sierras in the weeks prior to formally establishing Yosemite National Park. Continue reading “Coastal Louisiana’s Garden of Alligators, Zydeco, and Conservation”

Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters

In July, 39 people were killed and 6,600 left homeless after a big hydropower dam collapsed in Laos.

Like a herd of wild bulls, raging floodwaters stampeded across a highland plateau in July and tore a hole in the mammoth Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower complex dam in south central Laos. The boiling torrent crashed downstream from the nearly completed $1 billion dam, drowning 39 people identified so far, leaving over 100 more missing, and forcing more than 6,600 people out of their homes and into temporary government housing.

Little more than a month later, on August 29, floodwaters caused an irrigation dam to burst at Swar creek in central Myanmar, flooding 85 villages.Two people are missing.

The two catastrophes, both connected to the increasing ferocity of drenching storms in Southeast Asia, are an epochal moment of reckoning for the financiers, builders and managers of big dams, especially the mammoth hydropower dams that nations are so intent on building despite the vivid and mounting risks. Mega dam developers are being challenged by fierce ecological havoc, as well as climbing costs, civic resistance, and engineering lapses. The result is that dams around the world are failing at a rate never seen before. In Southeast Asia alone three big dams have failed in the last year. A second hydropower dam failed in northern Laos in September 2017.

“There have always been big projects that failed,” said Bent Flyvbjerg, professor of major program management at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School and a widely cited global authority on mega projects. “What is different now is that we have many more mega projects, they are much bigger, and there are spectacular failures that are more visible.”

The deadly collapse in Laos is a case in point. Until the Xi-Pian Xe-Namnoy disaster, Laotian leaders viewed mega hydro dam construction as a safe path to strengthening their treasury. The tiny landlocked nation of 7.1 million people set out to encourage domestic and international financiers and contractors to build over 100 big hydropower projects to sell electricity to its fast-growing Southeast Asia neighbors and to serve its own rising power demands. According to the Laotian government, two thirds of the country’s hydropower is exported, which accounts for almost a third of its export revenue.

In late August, an irrigation dam collapsed in Myanmar and flooded 85 villages.

More than 50 dams are in various stages of planning and construction, according to government reports. As a whole, Laos is undertaking one of the world’s largest hydropower development programs. Continue reading “Southeast Asia’s Dam Disasters”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Tough Second Act

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke addresses reporters in Salt Lake City, February 2018 (Keith Schneider photo)

SALT LAKE CITY — January was supposed to be a great month for Interior Secretary Ryan Keith Zinke, the tall, cowboy-fit, decorated SEAL warrior dispatched by the White House to battle the “elites” and elevate resource development to the primary goal of the world’s largest conservation agency.

Guided by his personal hero, Teddy Roosevelt, who once said “conservation means development as much as it does protection,” Zinke opened the year with the most ambitious federal plan ever to explore for oil and gas off nearly every mile of U.S. coastline. Ten months in the making, the drilling scheme was the latest of the administration’s coordinated steps to sweep away decades of environmental impediments and unleash the fossil energy reserves stored beneath much of the 1.7 billion acres of ocean bottom and at least half of the 500 million acres of surface land overseen by the 168-year-old department.

The bid to decorate America’s coast with drilling rigs was bigger than even the ocean leasing program proposed in 1982 by James Watt, the last Interior secretary to try as hard as Zinke to swing the department’s mission from conservation to extraction. “We’re embarking on a new path for energy dominance in America,” Zinke declared. “We are going to become the strongest energy superpower.”

But five days later, like the unpredictable president he serves, Zinke disrupted the show. During a trip to meet with Rick Scott, the Florida Republican governor and likely Senate candidate, Zinke announced he was excusing the offshore waters of the Sunshine State from participation. The drilling waiver, which shocked his own staff, ignited an impassioned political backlash led by Republican coastal state governors, Congress members, and state lawmakers. It also put the entire plan in grave legal peril because at the very least the federal Administrative Procedure Act requires a substantive and rational basis for making new policy.

The public dismay grew more intense two weeks later when a senior Interior executive rebuked his boss and told a Congressional committee that Zinke’s waiver had no authority. Florida, he said, was still in the offshore drilling plan. As the month ended, Zinke appeared on CNN to counter his aide and explain that the exemption stood because, in Florida, “the coastal currents are different.”

It is not clear why Zinke apparently set out on his own to alter the Trump administration’s marquee energy development plan. Heather Swift, Zinke’s spokesperson, declined repeated requests to interview the secretary or members of his senior staff. “The secretary is unavailable,” she said during Zinke’s appearance at a hunter and sportsmen expo in Salt Lake City.

Ryan Zinke’s effort to expand oil and gas leasing in the West’s public lands is not attracting much interest across most of the domain. (Keith Schneider photo)

Whatever the cause, Zinke’s change of heart about Florida raised eyebrows across official Washington. “It was different, to be sure,” said Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson.
Continue reading “Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s Tough Second Act”

The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West

The Ruby Mountains in Elko County, northeast Nevada. (Photo/Keith Schneider)

ELKO, NEV. – From this rest stop desert city midway between Salt Lake City and Reno the snow peaks of the Ruby Mountains are like finely crafted wainscoting in an elegant ballroom. The slopes rise sharply to form triangles in the sky. In 1989, Congress approved permanently safeguarding 92,650 wooded acres along the ridge lines from any intrusions in the Ruby Mountain Wilderness. The big flat sagebrush valley that runs up to the base of the mountains’ western flank is open range for grazing, and hunting ground for golden eagles. The watery meadows on the eastern flank are nesting sites for migrating birds. Since 1938, 37,632 acres of it have been protected as the Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

Elko is an intriguing place. It’s the biggest city in the nation’s sixth largest county and has a nationally-recognized cowboy poetry festival every winter. Elko also has understood since its founding as a railroad stop in 1869 the economic value of extracting resources from the land and conserving the natural geography. The county is home to one of the largest gold mining sectors in the United States. Elko County, where about 50,000 people live, was hardly scratched in the 2008 to 2012 Great Recession because Americans got so freaked out that the price of gold climbed to $2,000 an ounce.

Lately, though, residents in Elko County have been stirred up by a plan, hatched in the Trump White House, to disrupt the decades-long equilibrium they’ve achieved between extraction and conservation. In the last week of December I drove out to Elko from my base in Salt Lake City to take a tour of the Ruby Mountains and see what’s going on. Since early October I’ve been based in Utah’s capital city to report for the Los Angeles Times as the western environment and public lands correspondent. My contract ends in early March. Until then I’ve got time and room to roam to tell a momentous story of an administration’s pursuit of an economic and energy development story in the West that does not fit its time. (Read my reports here.)

The Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1938, sits in a valley on the east side of the Ruby Mountains. (Photo/Keith Schneider

The powerful tide of that story washed into Elko County in September when residents learned that the U.S. Forest Service, which manages the Ruby Mountains, is preparing to auction leases for oil and gas development on some 50,000 acres of public land that border the wilderness on the western flanks, and the wildlife refuge on the east. The Bureau of Land Management, the Interior Department agency that owns and manages most of the public land in the West, also is preparing an oil and gas lease auction for hundreds of thousands of acres of public desert land in the western reaches of the county. Continue reading “The White House Wants To Disrupt Elko County and a Whole Lot of Other Places in the West”

Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story

Before she was removed from office Philippine Environment Secretary Gina Lopez prepared to launch her latest helicopter tour of abandoned mine sites. Photo/Keith Scheider

A week after I arrived in the Philippines in late April, Gina Lopez invited me to lunch at her home in Quezon City, the center of government. Lopez was engaged in a national campaign to preserve her post as the Philippine secretary of the environment. Her 10-month tenure had yielded shutdown and suspension orders against 26 of the country’s 41 big hard rock mines. Lopez formed and promoted an interagency law enforcement campaign to impede the flow of timber logged illegally. She’d advocated renewable energy in a nation adopting a misguided program of coal-fired power plant construction in the midst of a less damaging and less expensive global renewable energy revolution.

In response, a Philippine legislative committee, acting at the behest of the mining industry, was preparing to remove her from office. It was plainly apparent, though, that the orders she’d signed, and the way she’d galvanized grassroots activists, would not be so easily cleared away. Lopez looked to me to be part of a welcome trend. Several more enlightened government officials have emerged in Asia. Piyush Goyal, India’s energy minister, is pivoting the world’s second largest country, to renewable energy. Indonesia’s Minister of Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Susi Pudjiastuti, is seizing and sinking foreign trawlers fishing illegally off the country’s coast.

We talked as Lopez showed me around her home and gardens, which laid out on multiple levels accessible by wood and stone stairways. I told Lopez that I’d been writing about her since last summer. I was convinced her powerful advocacy for environmental enforcement and human rights was a signal of global transition. While the U.S. retreated on ecological safeguards Asia was tilting green in a way it never had before. China was cancelling coal-fired power plants. Vietnam cancelled a $12 billion steel plant because of pollution concerns. The Philippines had installed an eco-activist, a determined woman, to fulfill President Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign pledge to rein in the Philippine mining industry.

The Philippines is 7,000 islands cast amid a blue Pacific. The country is stunning. Photo/Keith Schneider

“I’m thrilled to hear that,” Lopez responded. “I’m thrilled that what I’m doing resonates around Asia. It’s life. You need to sustain life. It comes from a deeper and more enlightened perception of what is needed to sustain life, and the role of the environmnent in the sustenance of life.”

Lopez is the daughter of a very wealthy and influential Filipino family that owns ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media and communications company. She’d attracted Duterte’s attention while working as the leader of the ABS-CBN foundation and taking on open-pit mining as one of her primary projects. An adventurer her entire life, Lopez’s airy home was filled with art and sculpture from various continents. Birds sang in the garden. Roosters crowed. Flower scents drifted through the open air kitchen and dining areas on several levels.

Lopez introduced me to her youngest of two sons who was returning to college. She introduced me to the woman who’d made her meals for years and the gardener who tended the tropical landscaping. She treated me like a friend she’d known for decades. I knew this was genuine because it was the same way she’d interacted with every other person she dealt with in the week I’d been around her.

Because of her strong views, courageous in a nation that regularly experiences assassinations of environmental activists, Lopez was lionized by millions of Filipinos. She made it a point to tour mine sites and hold public events, which attracted hundreds of Filipinos. Her communications operation was strong, especially her Facebook page that had 400,000 followers. By the time I met her Lopez had become something of a Filipino folk hero.

The rusting equipment of the Marcopper mine, site of one of world’s worst toxic mining disasters. Photo/Keith Schneider
Continue reading “Gina Lopez: A Philippine Political Story”