Interior Secretary David Bernhardt is being investigated for calendar discrepancies
From Politico: “[A letter from the National Archives and Records Administration to the Interior Department] adds new pressure to a department that is facing investigations by House Democrats who question whether Bernhardt has violated federal record-keeping laws. Bernhardt’s existing daily schedule shows that the former fossil fuel and agriculture lobbyist has met with representatives of former clients who stood to gain from Interior’s decisions, but the department has released few details about his activities during about one-third of his days in office.”
Read more about the new Secretary of the Interior and a federal proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam in California on GlacierHub.
Mercury concentrations at Mt. Yulong on the Tibetan Plateau
From Environmental Science and Pollution Research: “For the first time, Hg was studied over the Mt. Yulong region, in the various matrices of the environment including, surface snow/ice, snowpit, and meltwater… It was evident of the presence of an anthropogenic source of pollutants that have been long-range transported to Yulong Mountain… Suggesting that the concentration of Hg depends [more] on the distance from the anthropogenic sources than the different characteristics of the water bodies.”
Read more about mercury contamination from glacial rivers in High Arctic watersheds on GlacierHub.
Yak herders of the Himalayas voice their concerns
From ICIMOD: “For the first time in the history of the annual International Yak Conference, yak herders from the southern side of the Himalaya were able to join their counterparts from other parts of Asia to raise their concerns… Given the challenges facing yak herding, there is much to be gained from knowledge sharing across borders… Sharing such knowledge and technology from plateaus to other yak-rearing countries will contribute to sustainable yak farming in the region.”
Read more on GlacierHub about yak herders in Bhutan and what they have to say about global warming.
Among the controversies facing US President Donald J. Trump’s Secretary of the Interior nominee, David Bernhardt, is his proposal to heighten California’s Shasta Dam, which would increase the capacity of the state’s largest reservoir by 630,000 acre-feet, and flood part of the McCloud River.
Bernhardt began Senate his confirmation on March 28. The Senate Energy Committee voted on April 4 to send Mr. Bernhardt’s nomination as Secretary of the Interior to the full Senate for a final vote. He was nominated for the position after his predecessor, Ryan Zinke, resigned last year amid mounting ethics concerns. Bernhardt could become the second Secretary of the Interior under Trump to threaten glacier landscapes and watersheds in the western US.
Glacier and snow melt from Mount Shasta, which has the most glaciers of any mountain in California, comprise much the McCloud’s flow. The 47-mile river is one of four major tributaries that feed Lake Shasta, which was created with the completion of the Shasta Dam in 1945.
State politicians, environmental groups, and native peoples in the region, particularly the Winnemem Wintu, have mobilized to resist the proposal as it undergoes environmental review. They point to adverse environmental and cultural impacts as well as ethical concerns with the project.
Opponents of raising the dam cite Bernhardt’s former position as a lobbyist for Westlands Water District, a Fresno-based provider of irrigation for Central Valley agriculture and a likely beneficiary of additional Shasta reservoir capacity. This week the New York Times reported that Bernhardt continued to lobby on behalf of Westlands for several months after he claimed to have discontinued lobbying activities. The US Bureau of Reclamation, an agency within the department Bernhardt would oversee, has offered to pay for half of the $1.4 billion cost of heightening the Shasta Dam. Local and state partners are expected to foot the other half. Westlands Water District, Bernhardt’s former client, is the only agency to offer funding so far.
Bernhardt is also a former oil and gas industry lobbyist with a track record of challenging environmental regulations, including the expansion of offshore oil drilling and attempts at weakening key provisions of the Endangered Species Act.
A New York Times investigation published last week revealed Bernhardt blocked the release of a report which highlighted the threat presented by pesticides to 1,200 endangered species. Prior to his position in the Department of the Interior, Bernhardt worked to undo protections surrounding California’s critically endangered delta smelt. The small fish is used as an indicator species for environmental quality in the San Francisco Bay-Delta
In response to Bernhardt’s nomination, more than 160 conservation groups signed a letter on March 26, urging Senators to oppose confirmation, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
On the McCloud River, endangered and threatened species are also at risk. A lawsuit attempting to block the Shasta Dam heightening project cited three species of salamander which would be imperiled on the McCloud and other rivers. According to the California Wilderness Coalition, the McCloud is not protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, though state protection prohibits the construction of new dams on the river.
Ted Grantham, a professor of environmental science, policy and management at the University of California Berkeley, told the Berkeley News, “That area is protected under state law, and the state is opposing it just for that reason. But it’s not just that. The Winnemem Wintu’s cultural influence would be impacted. And there would be repercussions for salmon, trout and salamanders. There are a lot of wrinkles that make this plan problematic.
The Winnemem Wintu are an unrecognized Native American tribe indigenous to the McCloud River watershed. Their name translates to “Middle Water People,” as the McCloud River is bounded by the Upper Sacramento to the west and the Pit River to the east. The tribe’s website reads, “We were born from water, we are of the water, and we fight to protect it.”
The Winnemem Wintu ancestral lands were submerged in 1945, when the lower reaches of the McCloud River flooded behind the new dam. The tribe hopes to preserve the few sacred sites remaining above water. “We’re unique to that river. And that’s the only river that can make us that. And we’ve already lost a lot,” Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk said in a January 2018 scoping meeting hosted by the Westlands Water District. “The Winnemem people have nowhere else to go to become Winnemem people. We have to have that river and there’s so little of it left.”
The river is storied among fly-fishermen, who pilgrimage there to fish for rainbow and brown trout. Before Shasta Dam blocked the return of anadromous fish, the McCloud River was one of the most productive salmon and steelhead waters in the Sacramento Watershed, according to Cal Trout, a non-profit steward of wild fish and rivers in the state.
William Hagen, professor emeritus in the history department at University of California Davis, has experience fly-fishing on northern California rivers. “To raise Shasta so as to wipe out miles of riffled and white water, when so little such primal water remains, is very deplorable,” Hagen told GlacierHub. “All other routes to water conservation should be taken first.”
The dam-raising proposal comes at a time when many dams are being removed due to inefficiencies, ecological degradation, and coastal erosion. American Rivers, a non-profit group which advocates for protecting wild rivers, reported a record 86 dams were removed in the US in 2017, while another 82 were taken down in 2018. Significant dam removals are scheduled this year, including four hydroelectric dams on northern California’s Klamath River, into which runoff flows from the glaciers on Mount Shasta’s north slopes.
Due to climate change, snowpack in California is expected to decline 25 to 40 percent by 2050. While the climate trend toward less available water is encouraging water managers to increase storage capacity, reduced water availability raises questions about the efficacy of raising the dam.
“Big, new dams will not remedy California’s water challenges,” the National Resources Defense Council said in 2014. “The dramatic declines in snowpack and changes in streamflow timing raise serious flags about California’s outdated approach to water supply storage, requiring the state to reconsider and change how new and existing reservoirs are managed.”
How realistic is the dam project and its threat to the ecology and Native Americans of the McCloud? “My view is they will ultimately be stopped,” John McManus, who heads the Golden Gate Salmon Association, said to KQED, “but I could be wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time.”
From HuffPost: “Perry went on to defend his and others’ denial of near-universally accepted climate science, suggesting that those who question the scientific community’s findings are more intelligent. Also in June, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke said glaciers in Montana’s Glacier National Park started melting ‘right after the end of the Ice Age’ and that it has ‘been a consistent melt.’ He also dismissed the notion that government scientists can predict with certainty how much warming will occur by 2100 under a business-as-usual scenario.”
Read more about the Trump cabinet and its tenuous relationship to evidence here.
Ski No More
From Reuters: “High temperatures that have hit Italy over the past weeks have taken their toll on the country’s glaciers, with a summer ski resort at the Stelvio Pass having to make the historic decision to suspend its activities due to worsening conditions at the Alpine glacier. Swathes of southern and eastern Europe have sweltered in temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius (104°F) this week in a heat wave nicknamed ‘Lucifer’ that has fanned forest fires, triggered weather warning alerts and damaged crops.”
From the Bellingham Herald: “12 runners set out from Bellingham Bay for the top of snow-capped Mount Baker in the distance. To get there and back — a round trip of 108 miles during a hot, sunny weekend — they ran, hiked and climbed to the 10,781-foot summit of Mount Baker over two nights and two days. Eleven of them completed the arduous journey, a trek known as the Mount Baker Ultra Run.”
It’s official. The Senate voted today to confirm Rep. Ryan Zinke (R–MT) as the nation’s next Secretary of the Interior. The strong majority confirmation vote of 68-31 gives Zinke, a Westerner and fourth–generation Montanan, commanding power over the nation’s most prized public lands and wildlife as well as 70,000 employees, 280,000 volunteers, and a $12 billion annual budget.
The Department of the Interior— a Cabinet-level agency created in 1849 to manage the country’s internal affairs— oversees such critical offices as the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the U.S. Geological Survey, among others.
A former boy scout turned Navy SEAL in the Iraq desert, Zinke grew up 30 minutes outside of Glacier National Park in Montana, an experience he cites as the impetus for his interest and dedication to environmental stewardship. He has promised to “restore trust” in the department and address the $12-billion maintenance backlog in America’s national parks from Alaska to the beaches of Maine.
Republicans hope Zinke will also usher in a “culture of change” to the Interior by repealing many of the Obama administration’s land management policies seen to favor environmentalists over local interests.
Zinke, a Trump administration favorite, was once considered a moderate Republican when it came to environmental and land management issues, siding with Democrats on bipartisan legislation and standing up to fellow Republicans on conservation principles. He challenged Republican colleagues on the transfer of federal lands to the states, for example, speaking out and voting against certain Republican-led proposals. In 2016, he also supported Democrats in calling for full funding and permanent authorization for the Land and Water Conservation Fund in a bipartisan effort. Most recently, in July 2016, Zinke publicly withdrew from the Republican Convention due to the party’s support of federal land transfers to the states.
At the same time, Zinke is a vocal advocate for oil and gas development on public lands, fracking and coal mining interests, and weaker protection for endangered species and national monuments, among other anti-environmental platforms, earning him a five percent rating from the League of Conservation Voters and an F rating from the National Parks Action Fund. His recent statements, particularly on the issue of climate change, have some scientists and environmentalists deeply concerned.
On the topic, Zinke openly oscillates between acceptance and denial, both of which he displayed during his confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in January. However, unlike President Trump, who flat out denies climate change, Zinke went on record during the hearing citing glacier retreat as evidence that the planet is warming in a heated exchange with Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT).
Sanders was the first to challenge Zinke on the issue during the hearing.
“Climate change is very important to issues that the Department of the Interior deals with,” said Sanders. “Is President-elect Trump right? Is climate change a hoax?”
Zinke seemed to have a response prepared for the question, launching into a multi-part answer on what he called the “tenants” of his climate change perspective. These include: one, his recognition that climate is changing, and two, his belief that man is an influence. “That is indisputable,” Zinke said, adding later, “I do not believe it is a hoax.”
Zinke offered Glacier National Park as an example of a visible symptom of climate change that he has witnessed personally. “I have seen glaciers over the period of my time recede. As a matter of fact, when my family and I have eaten lunch on Grinnell Glacier, the glacier has receded during lunch,” Zinke said.
This comment prompted chiding from Sen. Angus King (I-ME) later in the proceedings. “I want to thank you for your straightforward admission that climate change is happening, that human activity is contributing to it, and for also the image of the glacier retreating during lunch,” said King. “I am going to add that to my arsenal of climate change anecdotes.”
Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) also weighed on the topic of receding glaciers. “Glacier National Park is going to be… I don’t know, ‘Lake National Park’ or ‘Mountain National Park,'” said Franken. “But it isn’t going to be Glacier National Park in 30 years.”
Around glaciers and the subject of glacier retreat, at least, the body seemed to find common ground. But when further probed by Sanders on whether climate change is a hoax, Zinke seemed hesitant. “I believe we should be prudent to be prudent,” he said. “That means, I don’t know definitively. There is a lot of debate on both sides of the aisle,” a response that did not sit well with Sanders.
“Well, actually, there is not a whole lot of debate now,” replied Sanders. “The scientific community is virtually unanimous that climate change is real and causing devastating problems.”
After several hours of testimony and questions that touched on diverse topics from wildfires in Tennessee, coal mining in West Virginia, protection of wild horses across the West, and the delisting of the greater sage-grouse, the committee ultimately approved Zinke’s nomination by a 16-6 vote, advancing his nomination to the full Senate. He was well received by the Republican senators on the committee who see in the congressman an ally and fellow Westerner sympathetic to regional concerns; less so by environmentalists and some Democrats who fear Zinke will shepherd the department in the wrong direction, perhaps even into an era of public land privatization from which there is no return.
But on this point, Zinke drove a hard line, at least in rhetoric. “I want to be clear on this point. I am absolutely against the transfer or sale of public land,” he said in his testimony. “I can’t be anymore clear.”
He drew attention to his service in the military as an example of his strong backbone. “This is probably one of the reasons why the president elect put a former Navy SEAL in place,” he said. “I don’t yield to pressure. Higher principle, yes. But my job is to advocate for the Department of the Interior to make sure we have the right funds and to be a voice in the room for great public policy.”
But not all Montanans are convinced of Zinke’s ability to lead the Interior Department well.
“I believe that Zinke has at least minimal qualifications to be Secretary of the Interior simply by virtue of coming from a state in which hunting, fishing, hiking and outdoorsmanship are prominent concerns,” said Bill Cox, an economist and Democrat who lives in Montana. “About where he would come down when public lands confront mining companies, oil and gas drillers, and other commercial ambitions, I am much less confident.”
Jamey Loran, a fourth generation Montanan and a certified public accountant who has worked with Native American tribes for the past 15 years, agreed. “It is difficult to pigeon-hole him as a strict environmentalist or anti-regulation proponent. He will almost always do what is in his own political best interest,” he said. “He brings a very simplistic mindset to complex problems. I have little hope that he will have much success dealing with problems such as climate change. In fact, I have grave concerns that matters will get much worse because ‘quick fixes’ always benefit those with economic interests over future generations or endangered species.”
Despite negative views like these, Zinke remains quite popular in his home state, recently winning re-election by a 16-percent margin.
“We are happy with Ryan Zinke as our Secretary of the Interior because he was raised in Montana surrounded by the wilderness and environment, which he will manage as opposed to someone who was raised in the city,” said Carl and Cheryl Baldwin, third-generation conservative ranchers from Montana. “We have talked to him personally as our representative in Congress and know his decisions will not hurt or harm our federal lands.”
Jim Martin, a retired home-builder in Montana, and his wife Judy, added that the balance of timber, recreation, ranching and wilderness is important, something that a Westerner like Zinke understands. “He has lived in other sections of the U.S. so as to realize regional problems with the environment,” said the Martins. “He will not let liberals overpower the conservative right.”
Chairwoman Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who gave the opening statement at the hearing, drew attention to the deep divides along party lines that exist at the end of the Obama administration’s leadership under Secretary Sally Jewell, a former CEO of REI.
“To state that Alaska has had a difficult or tenuous relationship with the outgoing administration is probably more than an understatement,” said Murkowski. “Instead of seeing us as the State of Alaska, our current President and Secretary seem to see us as ‘Alaska, the National Park and Wildlife Refuge’ — a broad expanse of wilderness, with little else of interest or value.’” It is a sentiment that was echoed by other senators from mostly red states throughout the hearing.
Zinke attempted to appease concerns about his ability to work with both sides of the aisle. “Even in this body, we are all different, but we all share a common purpose: to make our country great again. As secretary of the interior, I will have inherited 70,000 hard charging, dedicated professionals that want to do the same thing,” he said. “My task is to organize for a better future for interior and our country. I will work with anybody, as the list would indicate. I’ve never been red or blue. To me it has always been red, white and blue.”
Environmentalists, opposed to Zinke, must now hope awareness of the disappearance of our white glaciers might promote coordinated action between red and blue leadership under the new secretary, before it is too late.