Environews: July 2018

By Amy Brunvand

Environmental news from around the state and the West.

Corona Arch added to National Recreation Trails System

The popular Corona Arch trail near Moab, Utah has been designated as part of the National Recreation Trail (NRT) System. Although Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke made a misleading announcement to say he was expanding recreational opportunities, in fact NRT designation is only available for trails that have existed for at least 10 years.

The Corona Arch trail was preserved thanks to the Utah Recreational Land Exchange Act of 2009 which set up a land trade of SITLA property in the Colorado River corridor for federal lands elsewhere.

Until the trade was completed in 2014, Corona Arch was located on land owned by the Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA) which meant it was vulnerable to development or being sold. The State of Utah traded for land to develop as oil-shale and tar sands strip mines, so it was something of a devil’s bargain.

Utah has 18 other NRT-designated trails including the Slickrock Bike Trail and the Fisher Towers Trail near Moab.

National Recreation Trails: http://www.americantrails.org/ee/index.php/nationalrecreationtrails

Uranium and the Trump administration

The Trump administration wants to make uranium great again, and that’s bad news for Utah.

In May, the U.S. Department of the Interior released an updated list of “critical minerals” defined as non-fuel minerals essential to the economic and national security of the United States. For the first time, the list includes uranium. This suggests two disturbing possibilities:

One is that the Trump administration plans to resume nuclear weapons testing. The other is that uranium has been added to the list arbitrarily as a gift to the uranium mining industry.

The industry has been applying pressure to end a 2012 ban on new uranium claims in the Grand Canyon watershed. In 2017 the Trump administration reduced the boundaries of Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monuments in part to free up areas with uranium mining potential.

In any case, the uranium industry seems to think there will be ore to process. In January the Utah Department of Environmental Quality renewed the license of the White Mesa Uranium Mill operated by Energy Fuels Resources, Inc. near the Ute tribal town of White Mesa between Bluff and Blanding. The mill had been operating under an expired radioactive materials license since 2007. At a public hearing on license renewal, San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman (the Republican candidate running to replace Mike Noel in House District 73) said, “I think it is a beautiful industry.”

However, representatives from the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe expressed concern about the accumulation of radioactive waste and contamination of the water supply.  Peter Ortego, General Counsel for the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, testified, “The day Energy Fuels can no longer pay to keep this place clean, the day they get sued and there’s a massive judgment against them, they’re going to walk away and we’re going to be stuck with this thing, the same way Ute Mountain is stuck with stuff, the same way I am sure Navajo is stuck with stuff.”  For the past three years environmental groups and Ute Mountain Utes have held annual protest marches against the mill.

Hunting in Bear River Bird Refuge?

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to change rules at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in order to open 13,000 acres to hunting.  The change would mean hunting is allowed in 40% of the Refuge.

The priorities of national wildlife refuges and national park service areas are now  to promote hunting, fishing and shooting, according to an order signed last fall by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke. But hunting would be an additional stressor on already threatened Great Salt Lake wetlands.

The Bear River provides about 60% of the fresh water that flows into Great Salt Lake.  However, a proposed Bear River Development Project would divert 22,000 acre-feet of water for human use, and Utah and Idaho have requested to divert an additional 400,000 acre-feet of runoff from Bear Lake.  If either or both of these projects happens, there will be no water left for birds.

Currently, the Refuge supports over 250 species of migratory birds including 67 species that use the area for nesting.  Priority species include white-faced ibis, American white pelican, snowy plover, black-necked stilt, cinnamon teal and tundra swan.

The Refuge was created in 1928 after public concern over huge bird die-offs.

Public comments are due by July 8.  Send comments to BearRiverRefugehunt@fws.gov. More info:  fws.gov/nwrs/threecolumn.aspx?id=2147614618

Yellowstone grizzlies in the crosshairs

Wyoming and Idaho plan to issue licenses for grizzly bear hunting in the greater Yellowstone area, which means bears that wander outside of National Park boundaries could be shot.

Yellowstone grizzly bears were removed from the endangered species list last year, even though their population declined in 2016. The bears’ habitat is threatened by climate change and human development.

Grizzly bears currently occupy less that 4% of their historic range, and hunting will keep bears from migrating to find mates.

Removal from the endangered species list also means that more bears will be killed by ranchers and farmers.

The Center for Biological Diversity, National Parks Conservation Association, Humane Society, Wild Earth Guardians, Sierra Club and the Northern Cheyenne Tribe have filed lawsuits to restore endangered species protection for Yellowstone’s grizzlies.

On the opposing side, lawyers from the National Rifle Association, Safari Club International and Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation are pressuring the court to allow trophy hunting to proceed.  A federal judge has scheduled a hearing on the case for August 2018.

How oil companies lock up public lands

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released in June found that oil and gas companies are locking up millions of acres of public lands in the Western United States by holding onto unused mineral leases.

In Utah alone, more than 1 million acres of public lands are held under “suspended” leases, which never expire, even though energy companies are not paying rent or royalties.

The suspended leases amount to a massive taxpayer subsidy for energy developers. A 2015 report from the Wilderness Society calculated that since the 1960s, suspended leases have cost taxpayers over $82 million in lost rents alone.

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) grants suspensions without any opportunity for public comment, and once granted they are never reviewed.

The existence of suspended leases is often  used to justify anti-conservation land use planning. Despite the surfeit of stockpiled energy leases, Republicans in the U.S. Congress currently have four bills in committee to loosen environmental regulations and “streamline” the permit process, encouraging energy companies to lock up even more public land.

Oil & Gas Lease Management (GAO, 2018): bit.ly/2K2txoN/ Land Hoarders: How Stockpiling Leases is Costing Taxpayers (TWS, 2015): bit.ly/2LZTS7a

The corrupt Ryan Zinke

A new report from the Western Values Project documents ethical lapses and poor judgement during Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s first year. Among other things, Zinke met with Utah Representative Mike Noel (R-Kanab) and then re-drew the boundaries of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument to accommodate Noel’s private property.

Zinke also purchased stock in Compass Minerals, a company that mines salt in Great Salt Lake and has contracts with U.S. Department of the Interior.

A Report on Possible Instances of Corruption at Ryan Zinke’s Interior Department. westernvaluesproject.org/one-year-of-corruption-at-interior-under-secretary-ryan-zinke/

Toxic algae is back in Utah Lake

Summer heat has brought toxic algae blooms back to Utah Lake. On June 9 the Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) issued a warning advisory for Provo Bay telling people not to swim or water ski, and to keep pets and livestock away from the water.

Last summer toxic algae occurred in Utah Lake as well as eight Utah reservoirs, the Jordan River and Ogden City 21st Street Pond.

Toxic algae blooms are caused by nitrogen and phosphorous that wash into lakes and streams from fertilizer on agricultural land and lawns as well as manure and leaking sewage systems.

In 2010 there were just three reports of toxic blooms. In 2017 there were 169 reports nationwide including one that covered 700 square miles of Lake Erie. A new report from the Environmental Working Group says that the number of toxic blooms in the U.S. is increasing as a result of global warming.

Harmful Algal Blooms (Utah DEQ)


This article was originally published on June 30, 2018.