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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: What is the controversy over the Factory Butte landmark in Utah that has environmental groups filing lawsuits? -- M. Jensen, Taos, NM

The kerfuffle over Factory Butte, a 6,300-foot peak in Wayne County, Utah about 25 miles east of Capitol Reef National Park, stems from the on-again, off-again nature of federal rules about whether Off-Road Vehicles (ORVs) should be allowed to roam the 5,400 acres of wild desert surrounding it.

Named by white settlers in the mid-19th century who thought its almost-architectural stature resembled a Provo, Utah woolen mill, Factory Butte is the latest flashpoint in a long timeline of disputes over what constitutes fair and proper use of federally managed desert wildlands in Utah and across the Southwest.

Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bear’s Ears have been in the news lately given efforts by the Trump administration to ease restrictions on development, but Factory Butte has remained out of the spotlight since a George W. Bush-era ruling to close it to ORVs given potential risks to fragile desert soils and endangered species. But in May 2019, after some 12 years of protection, Trump’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opened up the desert around Factory Butte to ORVs once again despite protests.

“The agency’s decision ensures that one of Utah’s most recognizable landscapes will be defaced and damaged for years to come,” reports the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), a Salt Lake City-based conservation group leading the fight to keep ORVs out of fragile desert wildlands. “Contrary to popular myth, these tracks don’t simply disappear after the next rain!”

“Faced with public pressure and well-documented damage to the natural resource values of the areas around Factory Butte, the BLM disallowed ORV use in the area in 2006,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit working with SUWA in suing the BLM over the move in hopes of getting it overturned. “BLM indicated in its environmental impact analysis that the area around Factory Butte should remain permanently closed to unrestricted cross-country travel.”

Furthermore, environmental advocates are incensed as to how BLM re-opened the Factory Butte desert to ORVs—that is, without any new environmental reviews of feasibility, and in secrecy without soliciting or considering public comments. “By failing to update earlier environmental analyses, the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it failed to, at the very least, conduct a supplemental environmental analysis to account for the significant changes that have occurred in the Factory Butte area over the past decade, including the significant changes being wrought by the climate crisis,” says NRDC.

This violation of NEPA is a central tenet of the lawsuit the two non-profits are jointly filing against the Trump administration for opening up the area to ORVs once again. “Unrestricted ORV use in this area is simply incompatible with its fragility. Those who hope to appreciate its awe-inspiring beauty would instead confront a vast web of tire ruts carved into the desert,” adds NRDC. “And the area faces a potential loss of its highly vulnerable desert species. We hope our lawsuit once again demonstrates these facts and brings renewed protection of this iconic western landscape.”

CONTACTS: Factory Butte Recreation Area (BLM), blm.gov/visit/factory-butte-recreation-area

SUWA, suwa.org; NRDC, nrdc.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of suicide, homicide and genocide, but what is ecocide?

-- Leslie P., Carrboro, NC

While the concept of “ecocide” may be new to many of us, the practice of willfully destroying large areas of the natural environment has been around about as long as humans — although we got a lot better at it using the machinery we developed during the industrial revolution. Bioethicist Arthur Galston first started batting the term around in the 1970s to describe intentional widespread ecological destruction, especially as it pertained to ruining inhabited environments so people couldn’t live there anymore.

One classic example of ecocide in modern history is American troops’ widespread application of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. It was used to clear some 12,000 square miles of tropical rainforest to enable flushing out the “enemy,” despite the toll on civilians and the environment. There are also plenty of present-day examples, including: mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia whereby miners blast through hundreds of feet of earth to access thin seams of coal; the “fracking” for oil and gas across wide swaths of Canada’s Alberta tar sands that has so far destroyed thousands of square miles of boreal forest and peat bogs while releasing hundreds of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; the dumping of crude oil and toxic waste into Ecuador’s Amazon by oil companies too focused on profits to do the right thing about waste removal; and deep sea mining whereby the use of heavy machinery to ply veins of precious metals from the seabed is ruining marine ecosystems we still know little about.

In recent years Scottish activist Polly Higgins championed the cause of getting the International Criminal Court (ICC), an independent judicial body created by the United Nations in 1998, to recognize ecocide as a “crime against peace” in the eyes of international law. Her work focused on getting the ICC to add ecocide as the fifth prosecutable “core international crime” (along with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression). Sadly, Higgins succumbed to cancer at age 50 in April 2019, but her efforts to institutionalize ecocide as a major international crime lives on with other activists.

“Destroying the planet is currently permitted,” says Jojo Mehta of the non-profit Stop Ecocide. “That is how ecosystems are being destroyed every day by dangerous industrial activity, exacerbating the climate emergency and destroying our forests, our soils, our rivers and the lands that we love.”

Mehta points out that any of the 122 member states of the ICC can formally suggest adding ecocide as a major international crime. Stop Ecocide is working with small Pacific island nations which are already “feeling the sharp end of climate change” to urge ICC to finally adopt ecocide as another crime it prosecutes.

“Serious harm to the Earth is preventable,” urges Mehta. “When government ministers can no longer issue permits for it, when insurers can no longer underwrite it, when investors can no longer back it, when CEOs can be held criminally responsible for it, the harm will stop.”

CONTACTS: Arthur Galston’s “An Accidental Plant Biologist,” plantphysiol.org/content/128/3/786; International Criminal Court (ICC), icc-cpi.int; Stop Ecocide, stopecocide.earth

Dear EarthTalk: How are American supermarket chains doing in regard to cutting back on single-use plastics? -- B. Weston, Jacksonville, FL

Not very well, if you ask Greenpeace. The activist group compares 20 U.S. grocery chains by their commitments and actions to reduce single-use plastics in its recently released “Shopping for Plastic 2019” report. Each and every chain—even those you would think are leading the charge on reducing plastic—gets a failing score.

Illinois-based ALDI, with 1,900 stores in 36 states, ranks highest on Greenpeace’s list, thanks to its efforts to set a specific plastic reduction target and establish a more comprehensive plastic reduction plan than any of its competitors. That said, ALDI sells mostly its own in-house versions of products so the company has more control over its entire supply chain than conventional grocery retailers that draw from thousands of different producers. But beyond the product line and its packaging, ALDI has also been more transparent on its plastic practices and Greenpeace gives bonus points for the company’s commitment to implement reuse and refill systems across the entire chain.

That’s about as nice as Greenpeace gets in the report. While second-place finisher Kroger Co. gets kudos for being the only U.S. retailer of its size to phase out single-use plastic checkout bags (by 2025) and for setting plastics recycling goals for its own branded products, Greenpeace chastises the grocery behemoth with more than 2,400 stores in 31 states for not already taking much bolder steps to scale way back on single-use plastic: “These goals might have been totally rad in the 1990s, but given its size and the scale of the plastic pollution crisis in 2019, Kroger must do far more to reduce its plastic footprint.”

Greenpeace didn’t have much nice to say about third place finisher Albertsons, either, and is incensed that the company participates in Hefty’s EnergyBag Program whereby non-recyclable plastics are incinerated or turned back into fossil fuels. “Plastic incineration in any form threatens human health and the climate,” says Greenpeace. “Albertsons must immediately stop participating in this program.”

Whole Foods’ 11th place finish on the list begs the question of how the chain known for its green and healthy food selection could be so bad on plastics. Greenpeace says the chain has largely focused on recycling initiatives and using more light weight plastics but needs to “up its game to reduce and ultimately end its reliance on single-use plastics.” Whole Foods’ past groundbreaking efforts in plastics reduction—it was the first large nationwide U.S. retailer to ban single-use checkout bags as well as plastic straws and then microbeads—aren’t lost on Greenpeace. But given the scale of the plastic pollution crisis, Greenpeace says Whole Foods “needs to do much more.”

While Greenpeace is working hard to pressure these corporations to go above and beyond minimal efforts to reduce single-use plastics, it’s up to individual consumers to really drive the point home by bringing their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, staying away from products swaddled in unnecessary amounts of throwaway plastic, and complaining to store managers about all the plastic wrap everywhere.

CONTACTS: Greenpeace’s “Shopping For Plastic 2019,” greenpeace.org/usa/shopping-for-plastic-2019; “Say NO To Dow’s Dirty EnergyBag,” no-burn.org/dirtyenergybag.

Dear EarthTalk: How are American supermarket chains doing in regard to cutting back on single-use plastics? -- B. Weston, Jacksonville, FL

Not very well, if you ask Greenpeace. The activist group compares 20 U.S. grocery chains by their commitments and actions to reduce single-use plastics in its recently released “Shopping for Plastic 2019” report. Each and every chain—even those you would think are leading the charge on reducing plastic—gets a failing score.

Illinois-based ALDI, with 1,900 stores in 36 states, ranks highest on Greenpeace’s list, thanks to its efforts to set a specific plastic reduction target and establish a more comprehensive plastic reduction plan than any of its competitors. That said, ALDI sells mostly its own in-house versions of products so the company has more control over its entire supply chain than conventional grocery retailers that draw from thousands of different producers. But beyond the product line and its packaging, ALDI has also been more transparent on its plastic practices and Greenpeace gives bonus points for the company’s commitment to implement reuse and refill systems across the entire chain.

That’s about as nice as Greenpeace gets in the report. While second-place finisher Kroger Co. gets kudos for being the only U.S. retailer of its size to phase out single-use plastic checkout bags (by 2025) and for setting plastics recycling goals for its own branded products, Greenpeace chastises the grocery behemoth with more than 2,400 stores in 31 states for not already taking much bolder steps to scale way back on single-use plastic: “These goals might have been totally rad in the 1990s, but given its size and the scale of the plastic pollution crisis in 2019, Kroger must do far more to reduce its plastic footprint.”

Greenpeace didn’t have much nice to say about third place finisher Albertsons, either, and is incensed that the company participates in Hefty’s EnergyBag Program whereby non-recyclable plastics are incinerated or turned back into fossil fuels. “Plastic incineration in any form threatens human health and the climate,” says Greenpeace. “Albertsons must immediately stop participating in this program.”

Whole Foods’ 11th place finish on the list begs the question of how the chain known for its green and healthy food selection could be so bad on plastics. Greenpeace says the chain has largely focused on recycling initiatives and using more light weight plastics but needs to “up its game to reduce and ultimately end its reliance on single-use plastics.” Whole Foods’ past groundbreaking efforts in plastics reduction—it was the first large nationwide U.S. retailer to ban single-use checkout bags as well as plastic straws and then microbeads—aren’t lost on Greenpeace. But given the scale of the plastic pollution crisis, Greenpeace says Whole Foods “needs to do much more.”

While Greenpeace is working hard to pressure these corporations to go above and beyond minimal efforts to reduce single-use plastics, it’s up to individual consumers to really drive the point home by bringing their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, staying away from products swaddled in unnecessary amounts of throwaway plastic, and complaining to store managers about all the plastic wrap everywhere.

CONTACTS: Greenpeace’s “Shopping For Plastic 2019,” greenpeace.org/usa/shopping-for-plastic-2019; “Say NO To Dow’s Dirty EnergyBag,” no-burn.org/dirtyenergybag.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.





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