The Outside Blog

Dispatches : Politics

Yao Ming Goes to Africa to Raise Awareness of Ivory Poaching

Screen Shot 2012-08-17 at 8.58.49 AMYao Ming in Kenya’s Samburu National Reserve. Photo: Kristian Schmidt/WildAid

Yao Ming is a giant man, but he paled in comparison to the corpse of the elephant stripped of ivory that lay at his feet in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya. The 7' 6", 310-pound, retired center from China, a former player for the NBA's Houston Rockets, landed in Africa on August 10 to raise awareness about the ills of poaching. His loyal fan base in China, where ivory is viewed as a status symbol whose price is rising, makes him an appealing celebrity to conservation organizations like WildAid. In 2006, he stopped eating shark fin soup and later began a campaign to prevent its consumption in China. This August in Africa, he visited endangered white rhinos, stood over the corpse of that dead elephant, and visited rooms stockpiled with loads of ivory seized so that it could not be shipped overseas. “I think we need to increase the public awareness of what ivory is made of,” Yao told the Associated Press. “The elephants, including rhinos, their numbers are decreasing.”

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Allie Bombach on Movers and Shakers

Allie_on_boat
Allie Bombach on location. Photo: Miguel Tercero

What is it about movers and shakers? What makes them tick? Filmmaker Allie Bombach wants to know and is using her MoveShake film series to uncover some answers. The year-long project debuted in early June with the release of two films, one about Shannon Galpin, who founded Mountain2Mountain, which works to empower women and children in conflict zones, and one about Julio Solis, a sea turtle poacher-turned-savior in Baja, Mexico.

I spoke with Bombach about the film series and what we can expect to see in the upcoming installments.

What is MoveShake and why did you start the project?
Allie Bombach: MoveShake is a film series about environmental and social justice change-makers. It stemmed from wanting to know what it takes to be a mover and shaker. What is this personality that gets people to not just sign up with an organization, but to see something that has not yet been done and then decide to do it? We're not trying to convince the audience that they need to do the same, but I see these films as a great way to start an inward conversion. The point is to inspire.

Also, the films all focus on their subject's superpowers. Shannon Galpin is fearless and dedicated to what she is doing. That takes a certain kind of tenacity that not all of us have. For Julio, his ability to bring together his community is his superpower. So whether your superpower is accounting or you are able to make films, it's about searching yourself to see what you are good at.

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Get Off My River: Inside the Battle to Keep the Skykomish Wild

Sunset_falls_bridge
The South Fork of the Skykomish, just above Sunset Falls. Photo: Mary Catherine O'Connor

When I lived for a short time in Index, Washington, a climbing and boating hotspot on the Skykomish River in the north central Cascades, it felt like equal parts Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. But despite its eccentric residents and quirky vibe, Index is like Mayberry compared to the South Fork of the Skykomish, a sprawling community of river cabins and trailers, near where the south and north forks of the river merge.

For me, the South Fork was shrouded in mystery and clouds (literally, usually). The residents, I was told, tended to be fiercely libertarian. I had always gotten a kind of Get Off My Land vibe from the area, but that was around 15 years ago. Maybe things had changed? So when I found out that the local utility district wants to build a small hydropower dam on the river, and that a friend of mine has a family cabin on the South Fork, I saw a chance to both report on the dam proposal and to delve into that, um, intriguing community.

Here is the soundbite version of what I learned: the dam might just happen—and it could really alter the river—and the people of the South Fork are very nice, articulate and welcoming ... except for the ones who aren't.

TIME MACHINE
Everything seemed quite familiar as I pulled off Highway 2, past the trailhead for Lake Serene, and saw the first of many No Trespassing signs posted at the mouth of each driveway and side road along the washboard dirt road that winds along the river. With the car windows down, I could hear the roar of Sunset Falls as soon as it came into view. The Snohomish County Public Utility District (PUD) hopes to convert the power of that Cascadian water into electrons.

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The 20 States With the Worst Toxic Air Pollution From Power Plants

Screen Shot 2012-08-09 at 2.22.37 PM

The National Resources Defense Council's latest annual "Toxic Power" report contains good news for air quality, namely that toxic air pollution from power plants decreased roughly 19 percent from 2009 to 2010. The improvement came as many plants switched to burning natural gas instead of coal and as some plants installed new pollution controls looking to meet anticipated health protections set by the Environmental Protection Agency. "I was very pleased to see a drop of nearly 20 percent between 2009 and 2010, even before the EPA standards were fully finalized or the dramatic shifts had occurred in the gas market," says John Walke, the clean air director for NRDC. "We just lived through 2011 and I know that those trends only accelerated during that year. This is a good news story with isolated aberrations like Kentucky."

Toxic air pollution in Kentucky increased by about 27 percent in 2010, which led to roughly 10 million more pounds of toxins being released in the air. The increase alone matches the amount of toxic air pollution released by the state in the number 10 spot, Texas. 

The other good news the NRDC is trumpeting? New EPA standards, set in 2011 to take effect in 2015, will further improve air quality. Here's a summary from the report about how the new standard will help:

Compared to 2010 levels, the standard will reduce mercury pollution from 34 tons to seven tons, a 79 percent reduction, by 2015. Sulfur dioxide pollution will be reduced from 5,140,000 tons in 2010 to 1,900,000 tons in 2015, a 63 percent reduction. Another dangerous acid gas, hydrochloric acid, will be reduced from 106,000 tons in 2010 to 5,500 tons in 2015, a 95 percent reduction.

With those and other pollution reductions resulting from the standard, as many as 11,000 premature deaths and 130,000 asthma attacks, 5,700 hospital visits, 4,700 heart attacks, and 2,800 cases of chronic bronchitis will be avoided in 2016. The public health improvements are also estimated to save $37 billion to $90 billion in health costs, and prevent up to 540,000 missed work or “sick” days each year.

The bad news?

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Are Gear Makers Good Lobbyists?

Subaru_bumper_stickersWe all live downstream. Photo: Flickr/Kevin Krejci

Next week, tens of thousands of manufacturers, retailers, media and marketers of outdoor gear will convene in Salt Lake City for the Outdoor Retailer (OR) Summer Market. Among them will be many individuals to whom hawking gear designed for outdoor recreation is part and parcel of a larger mission to protect the wild places and natural playground in which those toys are used.

But as Greg Hanscom makes clear in the cover story of the current issue of High Country News, the influence that lobbying groups linked to the outdoor industry enjoyed during the early years of the Obama Administration is waning. Fast.

The story (available in full here, for HCN subscribers) revolves around Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Salt Lake City-based Black Diamond Equipment and a firebrand who in the early 2000s successfully rallied the outdoor industry around the fight to preserve public lands. Metcalf and collaborators in the Outdoor Industry Association found that the outdoor industry held some sway. When former Utah Governor Michael Leavitt wanted to sacrifice public lands for development, they threatened to pull OR, and the many millions of dollars it brings with it, out of Salt Lake City. Leavitt not only backed off, he assembled a panel of outdoor industry types to advise him on land-use policies.

More victories followed, including the 2009 passage of public lands legislation that protects millions of acres of wilderness. Since then, however, progress has slowed and the OIA and the Conservation Alliance have had to fight harder for influence in Washington, D.C. The 2010 election "swept anti-government, anti-conservation Tea Party Republicans into power in the U.S. House of Representatives," wrote Hanscom in High Country News.

So what is the industry doing to regain Congressional attention?

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