Trump's BLM Ready to Sacrifice Ancient Rock Art for Gas Drilling
By Sam Schipani
While the Ancestral Puebloan people of the Southwest were building citadels like Chaco Canyon, the Fremont people were carving mysterious petroglyphs depicting horned, broad-shouldered triangular men and sweeping carvings of desert snakes. Nowhere is their legacy more apparent than in eastern Utah's Molen Reef. Fremont artifacts dominate this cultural heritage site, but its rock art ranges from 3,000-year-old panels from the Barrier Canyon tradition to etchings by Mormon pioneers crossing the Utah desert.
They aren't easy to see, but that's not a bad thing. You won't find these cultural treasures on a map, and Jonathan Bailey, a Ferron, Utah-based photographer and author of Rock Art: A Vision of a Vanishing Cultural Landscape, thinks it should stay that way. "There are hundreds of rock art panels in the Molen Reef, and maybe a dozen are known," he said. "They are mostly pristine, unexcavated sites that have very little vandalism."
Bailey worries about the resources being compromised by human activity before they can be cataloged and protected. But the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has different plans for the area. In January 2018, the agency approved the leasing of 32,000 acres for mineral exploration between the San Rafael Swell and Molen Reef—just as it has in many other places in Utah. In Molen Reef, instead of highly publicized conservation efforts led by environmental organizations, tribal groups, or multibillion-dollar outdoor recreation outfitters, the resistance is being led by a scrappy group of rock art enthusiasts fighting to save the sites they love to explore.
The Utah Rock Art Research Association (URARA) has been protesting oil and gas leasing in the area for years. The group works with environmental organizations and others because "wilderness concerns cross over with rock art concerns." But it avoids taking partisan stances. "We're an organization of both Republicans and Democrats," said Diane Orr, cochair of URARA's conservation and preservation committee. "Our concern with oil and gas leases is when the leasing process does not carefully look at all the resources in the area and really evaluate what needs to be protected."
In the past, Orr, Bailey, and other rock art enthusiasts have been able to persuade the BLM to defer leasing while they conduct field work to document petroglyphs, habitation sites and geoglyphs that might be impacted by development. But in 2018, guided by the Trump administration's "energy dominance" agenda, the BLM's Price field office has overruled URARA's protests.
"This is the first year we have not been able to withdraw these leases," said Bailey.
Federal law obligates the BLM to analyze lands nominated for leasing and offer them at auction if it determines that leasing will not harm non-energy resources. Despite the determination of his two predecessors that leasing could damage the rock art, current BLM state director Ed Roberson concluded it would not.
"BLM conducts additional site specific analysis before any surface disturbing activities can occur," maintains Heather O'Hanlon, BLM's Utah information officer, in an email. "Strong stipulations ... give us confidence that we can protect the cultural resources entrusted under our care."
The rock art army is not reassured. Though O'Hanlon claims that "the BLM-Utah completed the most intensive pre-lease inventory survey that we have ever done," Bailey said that the agency has yet to inventory many rock art sites around Molen Reef. "They have not inventoried a good chunk of this land, so they can't judge the impacts," he said.
"In this instance, BLM has essentially punted on that issue," said Landon Newell, staff attorney at the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "They've deferred the majority of their analysis to a future date, even though they're required to inventory and document the presence of cultural resources in the beginning."
Following January's decision to proceed, the BLM put 15 parcels east of Molen Reef up for auction. After none received the minimum $2-an-acre bid at auction, the leases opened up for noncompetitive sale. Liberty Petroleum out of Great Neck, New York, was then able to buy 4,934 acres for $1.50 each, in what the rock art community considers the three most sensitive lease areas. The company has a history of holding on to leases without developing them (opponents believe the company is waiting for a more favorable market), but once a lease is issued, the BLM is contractually obligated to accommodate extraction.
Local Utah officials hold out hope that they can have it all. "We believe we can enjoy all the resources," said Ray Pederson, public lands director for Emery County, where the San Rafael Swell and Molen Reef are located. "We don't want to sacrifice certain resources to develop others, we just want to develop them in a manner that allows us to enjoy all of them. We believe we can do that."
Rock-art enthusiasts and conservationists strongly disagree. Oil and gas exploration will irreparably impact the area's cultural and natural resources, they say. Since Molen Reef is largely untouched, speculators would have to start from scratch, with new roads, new pipelines, new well pads. The development would prevent the area from ever achieving protection under the Wilderness Act, and the dust kicked up from developers driving in and out would damage pristine rock art panels, not to mention the fact that new roads would likely bring looters and vandals.
In a curious footnote, on May 9, Utah representative John Curtis and senator Orrin Hatch introduced a bill that would set aside more than a half million acres of wilderness in Emery County and create a national monument at the Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry as well as 383,380 acres of national conservation areas, mostly in the San Rafael Swell. Sierra Club Utah chapter director Ashley Soltysiak calls the legislation a "faux-conservation bill" that "simply does not protect enough of the wilderness areas." She notes that the bill conspicuously excludes some key areas, among them Molen Reef.
"We know they are interested in the Molen Reef for energy development, and we know they are aware of the cultural significance of Molen Reef," said rock art photographer Bailey, "so we have to wonder why it's left out."
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.
By Melissa Gaskill
Two decades ago scientists and volunteers along the Virginia coast started tossing seagrass seeds into barren seaside lagoons. Disease and an intense hurricane had wiped out the plants in the 1930s, and no nearby meadows could serve as a naturally dispersing source of seeds to bring them back.
Restored seagrass beds in Virginia now provide habitat for hundreds of thousands of scallops. Bob Orth, Virginia Institute of Marine Science / CC BY 2.0<p>The paper is part of a growing trend of evidence suggesting seagrass meadows can be easier to restore than other coastal habitats.</p><p>Successful seagrass-restoration methods include <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0304377099000078?via%3Dihub" target="_blank">transplanting shoots</a>, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1061-2971.2004.00314.x" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mechanized planting</a> and, more recently, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-020-17438-4" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">biodegradable mats</a>. Removing threats, proximity to donor seagrass beds, planting techniques, project size and site selection all play roles in a restoration effort's success.</p><p>Human assistance isn't always necessary, though. In areas where some beds remain, seagrass can even recover on its own when stressors are reduced or removed. For example, seagrass began to recover when Tampa Bay improved its water quality by reducing nitrogen loads from runoff by roughly 90%.</p><p>But more and more, seagrass meadows struggle to hang on.</p><p>The marine flowering plants have declined globally since the 1930s and currently disappear at a rate equivalent to a football field every 30 minutes, according to the <a href="https://www.unep.org/resources/report/out-blue-value-seagrasses-environment-and-people" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">United Nations Environment Programme</a>. And research published in 2018 found the rate of decline is <a href="https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2018GB005941" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">accelerating</a> in many regions.</p><p>The causes of decline vary and overlap, depending on the region. They include thermal stress from climate change; human activities such as dredging, anchoring and coastal infrastructure; and intentional removal in tourist areas. In addition, increased runoff from land carries sediment that clouds the water, blocking sunlight the plants need for photosynthesis. Runoff can also carry contaminants and nutrients from fertilizer that disrupt habitats and cause algal blooms.</p><p>All that damage comes with a cost.</p>
The Value of Seagrass<p>As with ecosystems like rainforests and <a href="https://therevelator.org/mangroves-climate-change/" target="_blank">mangroves</a>, loss of seagrass increases carbon dioxide emissions. And that spells trouble not just for certain habitats but for the whole planet.</p><p>Although seagrass covers at most 0.2% of the seabed, it <a href="https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/seagrass-secret-weapon-fight-against-global-heating" target="_blank">accounts for 10%</a> of the ocean's capacity to store carbon and soils, and these meadows store carbon dioxide an estimated 30 times faster than most terrestrial forests. Slow decomposition rates in seagrass sediments contribute to their <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/238506081_Assessing_the_capacity_of_seagrass_meadows_for_carbon_burial_Current_limitations_and_future_strategies" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">high carbon burial rates</a>. In Australia, according to <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/gcb.15204" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> by scientists at Edith Cowan University, loss of seagrass meadows since the 1950s has increased carbon dioxide emissions by an amount equivalent to 5 million cars a year. The United Nations Environment Programme reports that a 29% decline in seagrass in Chesapeake Bay between 1991 and 2006 resulted in an estimated loss of up to 1.8 million tons of carbon.</p>
Eelgrass in the river delta at Prince William Sound, Alaska. Alaska ShoreZone Program NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC; Courtesy of Mandy Lindeberg / NOAA / NMFS / AKFSC<p>Seagrasses also protect costal habitats. A healthy meadow slows wave energy, reduces erosion and lowers the risk of flooding. In Morro Bay, California, a 90% decline in the seagrass species known as eelgrass caused extensive erosion, according to a <a href="https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0272771420303528?via%3Dihub" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> from researchers at California Polytechnic State University.</p><p>"Right away, we noticed big patterns in sediment loss or erosion," said lead author Ryan Walter. "Many studies have shown this on individual eelgrass beds, but very few studies looked at it on a systemwide scale."</p><p>In the tropics, seagrass's natural protection can reduce the need for expensive and often-environmentally unfriendly <a href="https://www.nioz.nl/en/news/zeegras-spaart-stranden-en-geld" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">beach nourishments</a> regularly conducted in tourism areas.</p><p>Seagrass ecosystems improve water quality and clarity, filtering particles out of the water column and preventing resuspension of sediment. This role could be even more important in the future. By producing oxygen through photosynthesis, meadows could help offset decreased oxygen levels caused by warmer water temperatures (oxygen is less soluble in warm than in cold water).</p><p>The meadows also provide vital habitat for a wide variety of marine life, including fish, sea turtles, birds, marine mammals such as manatees, invertebrates and algae. They provide nursery habitat for <a href="https://wedocs.unep.org/bitstream/handle/20.500.11822/32636/seagrass.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly 20%</a> of the world's largest fisheries — an <a href="https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/science/seagrass-meadows-harbor-wildlife-for-centuries/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">estimated 70%</a> of fish habitats in Florida alone.</p><p>Conversely, their disappearance can contribute to die-offs of marine life. The loss of more than 20 square miles of seagrass in Florida's Biscayne Bay may have helped set the stage for a widespread <a href="https://www.wlrn.org/2020-08-14/the-seagrass-died-that-may-have-triggered-a-widespread-fish-kill-in-biscayne-bay" target="_blank">fish kill</a> in summer 2020. Lack of grasses to produce oxygen left the basin more vulnerable when temperatures rose and oxygen levels dropped as a result, says Florida International University professor Piero Gardinali.</p>
Damaged Systems, a Changing Climate<p>Governments and conservationists around the world have already put a lot of effort into coastal restoration efforts. And that's helped some seagrass populations.</p><p>Where stressors remain, though, restoration grows more complicated. <a href="https://www.rug.nl/research/portal/en/publications/the-future-of-seagrass-ecosystem-services-in-a-changing-world(3a8c56db-7bed-4c9e-ac7f-c72453e2a102).html" target="_blank">Research</a> published this September found that only 37% of seagrass restorations have survived. Newly restored meadows remain vulnerable to the original stressors that depleted them, as well as to storms — and <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/tag/climate-crisis">climate change</a>.</p>
Seagrass in Dry Tortugas National Park, Florida. Alicia Wellman / Florida Fish and Wildlife / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0<p>In Chesapeake Bay a cold-water species of seagrass is currently hitting its heat limit, especially in summer, according to Alexander Challen Hyman of University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment. As waters continue to warm due to climate change, the species likely will disappear there.</p><p>Climate-driven sea-level rise complicates the problem as well. Seagrasses thrive at specific depths — too shallow and they dry out or are eaten, too deep and there isn't enough light for photosynthesis.</p>
But There’s Good News, Too<p>Luckily, left to its own devices, a seagrass meadow can flourish for hundreds of years, according to a <a href="https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rspb.2019.1861" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">paper</a> published last year by Hyman and other researchers from the University of Florida. The researchers arrived at their conclusion by looking at shells of living mollusks and fossil shells to estimate the ages of meadows in Florida's Big Bend region on the Gulf Coast.</p><p>That area has extensive, relatively pristine seagrass meadows. "Our motivation was to understand the past history of these systems, and shells store a lot of history," said co-author Michal Kowalewski.</p><p>A high degree of similarity between living and dead shells indicates a stable area, while a mismatch suggests an area shifted from seagrass to barren sand. The researchers found that long-term accumulations of shells resembled living ones, suggesting that the seagrass habitats have been stable over time.</p><p>That stability allows biodiversity to thrive, creating conditions where specialist species can survive and flourish, according to Hyman.</p><p>Discovering the long-term stability of seagrass meadows has implications for choosing restoration sites, Kowalewski notes.</p><p>"There must be reasons they thrive in one place, while a mile away they don't and fossil data says they probably never did," he said. "If we remove a seagrass patch, we cannot hope to plant it somewhere else. It's not just the seagrass that is special. The location at which it's found is special, too."</p><p>A better approach is conserving these habitats in the first place, but we're not doing enough of that right now. The UN reports that marine protected areas safeguard just 26% of recorded seagrass meadows, compared with 40% of coral reefs and 43% of mangroves.</p>
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