Changeable weather

  • Jim Day
  • "There’s really no fish to play with." --Duncan MacLean, a commercial fisherman from Half Moon Bay, on the likelihood of a second year of a fishing ban off California’s coastline due to dwindling salmon populations. (Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

    Tom Knepp

The West's environmental movement got buffeted by strong late-winter winds, both good and ill.

First, President Barack Obama has targeted the federal government's 22-year-old multibillion-dollar effort to bury nuclear waste in Nevada's Yucca Mountain. He vowed to devise "a new strategy" on dealing with nuclear waste, while seeking little money for Yucca Mountain in his 2010 budget proposal, released in late February. Congress will probably go along with that, since the Senate majority leader, Nevada's Harry Reid, also opposes the project.

The bad news within that good news: There is still no place for long-term storage of the 57,700 tons of nuclear waste that are being held in dozens of "temporary" storage sites around the country, plus the 2,000 additional tons that nuclear reactors will produce this year, and the additional tons that'll be produced in 2010, and so on. Back to Square One on solving that problem.

Then, on March 3, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that enviro groups had no "standing" to file suit against a Forest Service "categorical exclusion" rule that boosts salvage logging — meaning that the groups hadn't shown how the rule would harm their members. Lots of technicalities; suffice it to say that the justices split 5-4, with the four liberals saying the groups did indeed have standing to sue.

The ruling will make it "harder to get into the federal courthouse even when (federal agencies') actions are blatantly illegal," says Patti Goldman, an Earthjustice lawyer in Seattle. "It could've been worse," she adds: Enviros can still sue agencies, according to the ruling — it will just be more difficult. So maybe that's bittersweet.

Meanwhile, enviros also got hit by smaller gusts from Western legislatures that meet during February and March. Some are proposing laws that seem like the same-old, same-old. The results won't be final until the sessions end and governors sign (or reject) laws, but a few gusts seem pretty definite:

Montana's Legislature is determined to make it more difficult for the public to challenge coal, oil and other industries' projects for environmental reasons. Those industries already got a big boost in Montana during the 1990s and early 2000s, when previous sessions of the Legislature gutted many longstanding environmental laws.

Montana's pols also want to prevent Indian tribes and enviro groups from adopting surplus bison from Yellowstone National Park. That's rancher power: Cattle folks fear the bison would spread brucellosis to their herds, even though the bison would be tested and certified free of the disease.

"This is the worst legislative attack on (existing) environmental laws I've ever seen, and I've been doing this since 1997," says Jim Jensen, head of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Idaho's Legislature is also considering laws to make it tougher for wildlife agencies to transplant animals into ranchers' territory. And it passed an anti-regulation measure that says mining companies don't have to clean up pollution that leaks into Idaho's groundwater, as long as the pollution doesn't spread farther than the boundaries of their property.

The Sagebrush Rebellion — the 30-year-old Western movement that rejects federal environmental laws on federal lands — reared its head in Utah. "I am right now proclaiming that this is the beginning of Sagebrush Rebellion number two," Kanab's Rep. Mike Noel said during a February rally on the Utah Capitol's steps, according to the Emery County Progress. Noel vented about "eco-terrorists." Then he introduced a bill that would make it more difficult for enviros to challenge state actions that favor drilling, new power plants and so on.

Symbolic proposals to express state sovereignty over federal law also blew around legislatures in Arizona, Idaho, Washington and Montana. It should be noted that most of these gusts came from Republican pols, with only a few Democrats huffing and puffing along with them.

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