GRAYS RIVER, WA. — On Sept. 10, a federal judge in Eugene, Oregon, handed down a bombshell of an opinion.
US District Court Judge Michael Hogan stunned federal officials by stripping Oregon's coho salmon of Endangered Species Act protections. This opened the way for logging in the threatened-species habitat, jeopardized the endangered-species listings of more than 20 other stocks of salmon, and pushed the $4 billion effort to save northwest salmon runs into uncharted waters.
One look at the date, and you know why you didn't hear about this decision. The events of Sept. 11 pushed environmental stories to the back pages - if not out of the papers and off the news broadcasts entirely.
A story that normally would have dominated headlines, the coho salmon decision didn't make it into a newspaper until three days later. Important environmental events continued after that fateful day in September. Yet the ability of these events to capture our attention waned. Stories that were big news before Sept. 11 seemed irrelevant or trivial afterwards.
In the first days after the attacks, environmental groups planning national campaigns critical of the Bush administration suspended their mailers and advertisements. In Klamath Falls, the standoff between farmers and federal officials over irrigation water ended quietly. The protesters at the headgates disbanded and went home, saying they didn't want to cause any more trouble for the federal government.
The press officers for the Earth Liberation Front - an ecoterrorism group that had been capturing national headlines before Sept. 11 - stepped down quietly. Even one of the most hotly contested environmental issues of the year - opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to oil and gas development - was chilled the week after Sept. 11.
Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski at first refused to discuss the issue in the context of the attacks, saying it would be "inappropriate and in poor taste," to do so. Yet after the shock wore off, new lawsuits were filed over Klamath Basin water, the Earth and Animal Liberation Front stepped up its firebombing campaign, and a provision for drilling in ANWR was attached as a rider to a defense spending bill before the end of September.
The rider was removed after it was discovered, but the ANWR issue continued to boil. ANWR drilling proponents said it was a way to free the US from dependence on oil imports. Opening ANWR was a matter of national security in wartime. That argument was deflated a bit when a drunken ne'er-do-well accidentally blew a hole in the Alaska pipeline with a high-powered hunting rifle. The result was 285,000 gallons of national security spilling all over the tundra.
In a report to Congress, Interior Secretary Gale Norton got caught changing data from federal scientists to make drilling seem less harmful to the environment. Senator Murkowski vowed to attach ANWR drilling as a rider to any bill likely to pass. However, Democrats are pushing an alternative energy bill sans ANWR drilling.
Speaking of oil and gas, remember global warming? In November, negotiators from 40 nations worked out how to implement the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. At least the deal gets countries going in the right direction - developing and implementing technologies that will be needed for further reductions.
Of course, the biggest weakness in the Kyoto agreement is the absence of the United States. You probably know that President Bush pulled the US out of the climate talks. What you may not know is that cities and states seem to be tackling the problem on their own. Seattle has made a commitment to reduce its emissions and has signed a 20-year contract to buy wind-generated power - which is booming in the northwest.
San Francisco voters approved a $100 million bond to install as many rooftop solar panels in one year as are currently installed nationwide. The Long Island Power Authority has hooked 55 fuel cells to the grid to produce as much as 1 million kilowatt hours of power. Those are, of course, just a few of the big environmental stories you may have missed.
Others include a bill introduced in Congress that would designate more than half of Alaska's 5.6 million-acre Chugach National Forest as wilderness. Another effort would ban all logging on the 1.1 million acres of old-growth federal forest lands still unprotected.
A Forest Service proposal would give local managers more discretion to skip environmental review processes and public input on logging and road-building projects in national forests. The Interior Department lifted a two-year moratorium on new mining claims in southern Oregon. California adopted new rules requiring private landowners to get state approval before cutting down ancient trees on their property. An even tougher old-growth measure will go before California voters in 2002.
Finally, after revoking Clinton-era rules for arsenic in drinking water, the Environmental Protection Agency under the Bush administration concluded that it needed to adopt standards at least as tough as those it had revoked earlier in the year. That last announcement was made on Sept. 10.
Ed Hunt is editor in chief at the Tidepool.org news service.