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VT legislature accepts turbine noise limits, drops setback requirement

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More restrictive noise limits on industrial wind turbines are one key step closer to implementation in Vermont. In May, the Public Service Board proposed that the current 45dB limit be reduced to 42dB during the day and 39dB at night, along with a setback requirement of 10x the turbine height (4000-5000ft for modern turbines). A legislative committee has been reviewing the proposal to assure it complies with the “legislative intent” behind the bill that called for revised standards, and this month that committee dropped the setback requirement, then in its next meeting accepted the noise limits.

A key element in the legislative intent was to encourage continued expansion of renewable energy in Vermont. The PSB was charged with crafting a policy to balance this goal with concerns that the previous siting standards were leading to noise complaints and health concerns. Residents near three wind projects have filed complaints that the 45dB limit has been exceeded, and/or that it did not achieve its stated aim of keeping noise inside homes below 30dB. Sound studies carried out after these complaints have found noise levels a few decibels over the targets, at times; in addition, there is much debate over exactly how much outside noise is reduced as it enters the house.  It appears that the 6dB reduction in nighttime noise levels is likely to resolve many or most of these potential problems.

The proposed day and night limits are in part designed to facilitate the use of turbines that utilize now-standard “noise reduced operation” at night when needed; NRO settings change the blade angles to reduce noise (and, to some degree, power output) by about 3dB. (See this PSB letter discussing its final proposal, including responses to comments submitted on the draft.)

While lower sound limits will surely help reduce the extent of complaints, noise violations are complex to enforce; this is why setback limits are often used as a way to achieve similar aims. The challenge there is that setbacks don’t account for situations (topography and wind direction) that can reduce noise levels, so they can be overly restrictive. The PSB aimed to counter this concern by incorporating a process whereby the setback requirements could be reduced if the wind company showed they could do so without exceeding the noise standards. But the legislative oversight committee rejected this approach, opting to rely solely on noise limits.

As a practical matter, achieving the 39dB limit will require setbacks of several thousand feet in most cases. This has caused wind advocates to decry the change, claiming that ridgetop energy will be effectively banned. Margaret Cheney, a member of the PSB (which changed its name in July to the Public Utility Commission) stressed that the rules as proposed should not stop wind development and that they would not have offered standards that would do so. The PSB/PUC believes that wind developers can take advantage of the “participating landowner” provisions to negotiate agreements with neighbors who live close enough that the 39dB limit may be difficult to meet. As the PSB letter noted, “It is the Board’s goal that more ‘buy-in’ from neighbors during the planning process will lead to projects with more support and less controversy.”

To explore the recent history of rulemaking and noise issues in Vermont, see this collection of earlier AEInews coverage.

End of the line for Falmouth wind turbines

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The Falmouth Board of Selectmen have decided not to continue the legal battle over two wind turbines that began operation at the town’s wastewater treatment facility in 2010 and 2012. The decision comes in the wake of a ruling from Massachusetts Superior Court last week that called for immediate cessation of turbine operations. Wind 1 has been shut off since 2015 by a previous court ruling, and Wind 2 has been operating only during the day after being found to exceed the background ambient noise at night by more than is allowed. The turbines have been challenged on several legal fronts, including the initial permitting, nuisance, and decreased property values. The town will now grapple with the costs of dismantling and paying off loans taken to erect the turbines; most of the financial obligations are to state-funded clean energy programs, and there is hope that some or most will be forgiven, though nothing is certain on that front.

In the recent case that apparently broke the camel’s back for the Selectmen, the judge affirmed a 2013 Zoning Board of Appeals nuisance ruling that called for the Building Commissioner to “take whatever steps necessary to eliminate the nuisance” at the property of Barry and Diane Funfar. The town appealed that ruling (legally challenging its own Zoning Board of Appeals), and this case was addressing that appeal. Several other cases remain in the pipeline, but the Selectmen’s decision should lead to an end to the legal battles.  While the judge in this case affirmed the nuisance experienced by the Funfars, he rejected the property value claim, noting that the most reliable data, from sales in 2012 and 2013, show a 3% decline in value in the Funfar’s neighborhood, not enough to point to the turbines as a deciding factor.

Mr. Funfar, who used to spend much of his time creating extensive gardens in his yard, had found himself unable to be outside, and eventually, even to stay in the house.  The Funfars had begun spending time in the Dominican Republic to escape the noise impacts.  “It’s rather euphoric,” he said after the ruling was announced. “We had a very good life here in our retirement, and I had my grandkids up here all the time helping me in my yard, and we can get some of that back now….It’s just such a tremendous relief to me and it’s still taken these past couple of days to sink in.”

Susan Moran, chair of the Board of Selectmen, noted that “As a board, despite all our personal differences and philosophies, we feel we have done all we can do to honor the town meeting ballot votes in 2013 as well as the 2015 nonbinding vote for the town to continue to operate the two turbines.” Appealing this decision and continuing to fight the other challenges would leave the town “right where we have been for the last seven years — with uncertainly and mounting legal expenses,” Moran said.

Christina C. Rawley, a member of the Falmouth Climate Action Team, which had fought to keep the turbines operating, said, “It’s very upsetting and extremely disappointing. We’re all sort of [taken aback] by it and trying to decide now what is the best way forward.” At the same time, Rawley stressed that “We are not coldhearted people by any means….and it was never anybody’s intent to harm anyone. How does a town or a nation make [its] decisions is what is at question here. How can we possibly meet the problems that are outstanding in our society?”

Since the very beginning of all this, the Falmouth situation has been a good example of the pitfalls of siting turbines close to densely populated neighborhoods. Few wind turbines have so many homes so close; at least 184 homes within a half mile of just these two turbines (a third turbine, privately owned, continues to operate; the legal challenges have been primarily directed at the town-run turbines). With so many homes so close, it was inevitable that a critical mass of impacted neighbors would arise.

In 2012, the town spent several months on a collaborative Wind Turbines Options Process that brought together town officials, impacted neighbors, and renewable energy advocates to explore whether the town could find ways to address or compensate those struggling with the noise. The possibility of the town buying some of the homes that had been most affected was on the table. At that time, about 10% of those within a half mile had lodged formal complaints (7 out of 18 homes within a quarter mile, and 12 of 166 from a quarter to half mile).  Likewise, in 2010, amidst the initial outcry about unexpected noise levels after the first turbine went live, the town sent log sheets to 300 homes, for residents to note the times when noise was an issue for them; about a dozen were returned, or under 5%. We can presume that more people were bothered than participated in these initiatives, but it remains the case that it’s generally a relatively small percentage of the population that is especially sensitive to noise impacts.

This is one reason that towns have taken a wide range of approaches to wind turbine siting, ranging from minimal setbacks of as little as 500-1000 feet (in areas that don’t mind that their residents will regularly hear the turbines), to moderate setbacks of 1200-2000 feet (accepting that some residents will experience troublesome noise at times), to precautionary setbacks of 4000 feet or more, which hope to avoid causing noise intrusions for even the more sensitive members of the community. All of these approaches can be justified; the question is how any given town chooses to balance economic benefit (often high in farm and ranch communities), climate-change mitigation (minimal for any given project, but necessary collectively), changes to sense of place (also a factor in many rural communities), and impacts on the most noise-sensitive or otherwise susceptible members of their community.

The reality of life-changing impacts on a relatively small proportion of those hearing turbines is an especially fraught element in the debate; many infrastructure projects or industrial developments cause similar rates of disruption among their nearby neighbors. Courts and local governments have come down on different sides of this sensitive question, and it is here where towns will continue to face the most difficult and distressing decisions.

VT PSB moderates stricter turbine noise limits

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The Vermont Public Service Board has released its final proposed rule for wind turbine noise.  After taking comments on the draft released a couple of months ago, the PSB chose to increase the proposed night time limit from 35dBA to 39dBA; the daytime limit remains 42dBA, three decibels lower than the current limit.

The rule now goes to the state legislature, where the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules must sign off on them; the key question there will be whether the proposed rules are consistent with the state’s commitment to renewable energy, and whether the rules reflect the intent of the legislation that called for the PSB to develop new noise limits.  According to VTDigger, the sponsor of that bill, Chris Bray has said that “he trusts at this point that board members arrived at defensible sound limits, expressing confidence that the three-person PSB has the knowledge to come up with reasonable standards that also protect turbine neighbors from unreasonable harm.” Bray noted also that the dire predictions of wind supporters that stricter rules will preclude further development are similar to those raised when the state adopted new net-metering rules for solar power, which solar advocates decried as a death-knell for solar in Vermont; instead, solar development has boomed, mostly in areas such as brownfields, landfills, and old parking lots where the state was hoping new projects would be concentrated. “I think that’s good news,” Bray said. “Maybe two years from now we’ll look at the [wind turbine sound] rules and say, ‘This represents good news.’” Read the rest of this entry »

Shipping industry embracing voluntary noise guidelines

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Turning science into policy is a long, slow road.  The 2004 launch of the Acoustic Ecology Institute more or less coincided with the emergence of shipping noise as an environmental concern; symposia held by the National Marine Fisheries Service (now NOAA Fisheries) in 2004 and the Marine Mammal Commission in 2005 marked the start of growing scientific awareness that moderate chronic noise may be a bigger issue for marine life than the loud, transient sounds of sonar and airguns.  AEI has focused on this key question from the start in special reports and our ongoing news/science coverage.

In 2014, the International Maritime Organization (IMO) completed an at times sluggish six-year process and adopted voluntary noise reduction guidelines for large ships. Since then, the pace seems to be picking up as the shipping industry, port authorities, and eco-certification programs have all begun embracing the need to slow or reverse the long-term trends of increasing shipping noise in most of the world’s oceans.

This month, the port industry trade magazine Port Strategy included a long feature article that brings the story up to date.  Among the new and encouraging developments is the work of Green Marine, a sustainability-certification outfit that works with 28 shipping companies and 38 ports in the US and Canada, including biggies like Seattle and New Orleans.  After partnering with Transport Canada last year on a review of the current state of science in Understanding Anthropogenic Noise, Green Marine has now announced shipping-noise criteria that will be rolled out this year as a voluntary add-on for shipping companies that are part of their certification program, then will become a mandatory element of the Green Marine certification in 2018.  The 5-stage criterion is modest to start, with increasing degrees of commitment (it’s unclear whether companies are expected to continually deepen their commitments, or not).  The exciting news is that shipping companies are voluntarily committing to go beyond what’s required by current regulations; Green Marine Executive Director David Bolduc says:

“It is important to underline that the maritime companies and ports that are certified by Green Marine have voluntarily accepted to adopt the new underwater noise evaluation criteria with no regulations obliging them to do so. These participants made the commitment to address the issue more easily. For others, it was a relatively new issue; they needed to learn about noise, its sources, its potential impacts, and the mitigation measures.

“The indicator is a great tool to help them understand underwater noise and, most importantly, address this emerging issue. [It] is the result of collaboration among the industry, environmental organisations, the scientific community, and government representatives. Two intensive years of research and discussions were necessary to develop the five-level criteria.”

Meanwhile, following up on an AEI note from January, the Port of Vancouver’s inclusion of quiet ship guidelines as part of its reduced-fee Eco-Action initiative has generated its first takers: “We’ve heard anecdotally from some vessel sectors that they plan to upgrade their fleets to meet the new incentive standards,” says the port. “In the first quarter of 2017, two vessels have applied and been awarded a bronze level discount.”

And in the US, NOAA released an Ocean Noise Strategy Roadmap in late 2016 that will become the framework for ongoing research and management of ocean noise, including an emphasis on managing acoustic habitat.  All this points to the next decade becoming a real turning point, as the past fifteen years of increasing awareness is channeled into constructive action to begin reducing our noise footprint in the seas.

 

 

Oil companies spurn Trump’s enthusiasm for Arctic oil, gas

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Despite the noises coming from the Trump administration and Alaska’s elected officials, it appears that any new initiatives to expand offshore oil and gas development in the Arctic will be falling on deaf ears among fossil fuel companies.

“We think there is almost no rationale for Arctic exploration,” Goldman Sachs commodity expert Michele Della Vigna said in late March. “Immensely complex, expensive projects like the Arctic we think can move too high on the cost curve to be economically doable.” Indeed, unless oil again approaches $100 a barrel, these areas are likely to be ignored; just last year, oil companies gave up on hundreds of leases in the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas that they had spent $2.5 billion to acquire back when prices were high enough to justify their plans there.

Despite President Trump’s oft-repeated pledge to open up America’s “vast untapped domestic energy reserves,” the fact is that even without the offshore Arctic or the Atlantic coast (both excluded from new leasing from 2017-2022 by the Obama administration), the areas already open to offshore development “make available more than 70% of the economically recoverable resources, which is ample opportunity for oil and gas development to meet the nation’s energy needs.”

For more details, and maps of the Arctic and Atlantic leasing areas, see this AEInews report from January 2017.
UPDATE, 4/28: Just after writing this, notice of the latest Trump Executive Order crossed my desk, this one explicitly targeting the offshore areas removed from the 2017-2022 lease sales by Obama’s team. Meanwhile, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski introduced a bill to re-open Arctic waters; and for added freakiness factor, a NC Congresswoman has introduced a bill to force a lease sale within a year, and exempting this effort from NEPA (ie EIS) provisions for five years!  If any of these proceed into action on leasing, no doubt a court challenge will ensue, centered on the presumed non-reversibility of Obama’s last-month actions.
UPDATE, 5/2: This is encouraging news: the Supreme Court has declined to hear an appeal of a lower court ruling that upheld the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s designation of a vast area of the Alaskan ice shelf as critical habitat for polar bears.  The oil and gas industry argued that its short-term activities should not be limited by concerns over longer-term global warming; ie that their ships, drilling, etc. are not in and of themselves responsible for any global warming.  The lower court ruling is not necessarily based on on the idea that oil and gas development should be stopped in the name of climate caution; rather, it simply upholds the FWS contention that the ice shelf is threatened by warming, and that this habit should be spared further intrusions in order to maximize the chances that the polar bears can survive. It’s reassuring that the current Supreme Court was not interested in pushing back against such climate-driven policies.

Warming spurs new 400km undersea sound channel in Arctic

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Beaufort icebreaker cropIn yet another unforeseen consequence of global warming, scientists have begun charting the extent of a new underwater sound channel in the Beaufort Sea north of Alaska. As recently as the 1970’s, the water here was coldest just below the ice, but in recent decades two warmer layers have developed, one in the first 50 meters of water, and the second at around 200 meters deep.  Since sound in water tends toward the coldest layers, it used to be dissipated by the rough bottom side of the ice, but now it’s reflected between the warm layers and travels much farther. Research in 2014 and 2016 documented sound transmission across 400 kilometers (250 miles), four times farther than before the emergence of this channel, dubbed the Beaufort Lens.

The near-surface has been warmed by an increased flow of meltwater from rivers and by larger ice-free areas exposed to the sun; this slightly warmer surface water has long been present in summer, but used to disappear in winter.  Meanwhile, warmer waters entering the Beaufort from the North Pacific through the Bering Strait (and perhaps even from the Atlantic, through northern Canada) have contributed to the growth of the deeper warm layer. As is the case for most ocean noise research, the US Navy is a key funder; they’re interested in how increased noise transmission might “dramatically impact the effectiveness of sonar operations.”

The full extent of the Beaufort Lens sound channel is not yet known; further research is planned in the spring of 2018. The area affected is likely to vary with annual changes in the influx of warmer waters and to expand over time as longer-term climate change progresses. Increased shipping traffic is projected to be a major factor in rising ocean noise levels in the Arctic over the coming decades; oil and gas exploration could add to the din if the offshore oil industry rethinks its abandonment of these waters in recent years. In addition, general background noise in some areas could also increase thanks to longer-range transmission of whale calls, which have always been one of the primary sources of ambient sound in these waters.

Vancouver reduces harbor rates for quiet ships

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The Port of Vancouver has enacted a new incentive program to encourage tankers and other ships to adopt noise-quieting technologies.  Beginning on January 1, 2017, ships that have achieved any one of three widely recognized noise-reduction criteria will receive a 47% discount on harbor fees. Ships that have adapted wake flow or cavitation noise technologies will receive a smaller 23% discount.

bc-port-of-vancouversm

This is great news, and we encourage other ports to follow in Vancouver’s enlightened footsteps. It is entirely possible to stop the steady increases in global shipping noise, and even to reverse these trends of the past few decades. Twenty years from now, our oceans can be quieter than they are today, and the isolated pockets still free of humanity’s noise footprints could expand, providing new hope for the world’s ocean creatures.

Much ado about not much in Obama’s offshore oil bans

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While I was certainly glad to hear that President Obama has declared most of the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas in the Alaskan arctic “indefinitely off limits” to oil and gas development, the roar of approval from the media and environmentally-minded public was louder than the action actually merits. And the Atlantic withdrawals appear next to meaningless. I know we should never look a gift horse in the mouth, but even a quick glance reveals more gum than enamel in this one. Nonetheless, I’ll take an over-enthusiastic celebratory shout over even the fading ghost of the chance of much more enduring and disruptive roars from seismic surveys, crazy-loud engines on stabilized drilling platforms, and decades of crew transport and tanker traffic. It’s not for nothing that diverse group of scientists and activists have been calling on Obama to do just this for the past couple of years.

Still, I’m here to temper the joy. Before looking at the maps that put the modest impact of this move in perspective, there’s a red flag right up top that deserves a bit more clarification. All commenters, enviros and energy companies alike, seem to agree that this withdrawal is more consequential than the November announcement by the Department of Interior that no lease sales would be offered in either the Arctic or Atlantic for the upcoming 2017-2022 leasing period, a decision that’s won’t be finalized until July and could have been vulnerable to reversal by the incoming administration. Obama’s new declaration likely closes the door on such a rapid reconsideration of these upcoming five-year plans. But notice that the magic word in the withdrawals is “indefinitely,” not “permanently.” It seems that the door is left open to reconsideration: the White House statement detailing the withdrawal states that the “indefinitely off limits” designation is “to be reviewed every five years through a climate and marine science-based life-cycle assessment.” (To be fair, the text is somewhat ambiguous as to whether this 5-year review applies to both the US and Canadian actions, or just the latter.)

UPDATE, 1/11/17: The outgoing administration tied up a worrisome loose end this week by denying six pending applications to do exploratory seismic surveys in the Mid- and South-Atlantic planning areas. This is a one-time denial; future re-applications can be considered at any time. New surveys will be necessary to inform any future lease sales in these areas.

So for now, let’s celebrate that at least the first term of a Trump administration has its hands fairly well tied in its ambitions to expand US offshore oil production from its current focus on the Gulf of Mexico and in a 200 mile strip of waters along Alaska’s Arctic coast. Wait, what’s that? Yep, the big withdrawal announcement doesn’t remove any of the areas already being actively developed off Alaska’s northern shores (brown in this map):

artic-obama-withdrawal-map

The good news is that there are currently only a handful of producing wells in that brown strip, on three of the five lease areas owned by one company, Hilcorp, just offshore from Deadhorse (they’re the tiny green areas in the next map, below). In fact, out of the peak of 480 lease tracts in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas that had been acquired by energy companies as of 2008, only 43 leases (including 53 lease blocks) are still even nominally in the planning pipeline; 42 of them are in this area that remains available to future leasing as well. Falling oil prices, disappointing test well production, and both logistical and increased regulatory hurdles have led many of the companies that were once so enthused about moving into these waters to formally abandon their leases.

Here’s a look at where things stood as recently as July 2015, when the Chukchi was still the focus of industry hopes and dreams: Read the rest of this entry »

VT towns reject wind farm & town-wide personal payments

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Two central Vermont towns have voted against plans to build a wind farm on the hills along their border, despite a late-in-the-game offer from wind developers to mitigate some of the downsides by making direct annual cash payments to residents. While landowners that host turbines always receive payments from wind developers, and some projects have included “good neighbor” payments to nearby landowners, this is the first time I know of in which a project extended a cash-payment program to include all local citizens.*

The votes were not close, with over 60% of voters in both towns giving thumbs-down to the wind farms. Iberdola, the developer, had pledged to respect the voters and discontinue its efforts to build there if they lost.

A key factor for many locals was the unusually high number of homes relatively close to the ridge where the turbines were slated to be built (click image to enlarge). As compared to two other large projects in the state (Sheffield and Lowell Mountain), this project had a concentration of homes close enough to more or less guarantee that the turbines would be easily heard regularly—over a hundred within a mile, and another 150 between a mile and a mile and a half. This increased home density (4-6x more than Sheffield or Lowell) continued out to 2 miles, where noise could be audible at times.

What to make of the payment offers?
While many locals took offense at what could easily be seen as an attempt to buy their votes, the cash payments plan was also a long overdue acknowledgement that the presence of turbines in a community does amount to a “dis-amenity,” a negative contribution to local sense of place and quality of life. Read the rest of this entry »

5th vote in Dixfield retains embattled wind ordinance

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ME Timberwinds~Dixfield-2mi simulationYou really need to have a history degree to keep track of the twists and turns in the 4-years-and-counting Dixfield Wind Energy Saga. Ever since the adoption of a wind ordinance in 2012, local citizens, Planning Board, and Selectmen in this Maine town have been proposing revisions that have been rejected by voters.  The 2012 ordinance, which still stands, includes a 2000-foot setback and noise limits in accordance with state standards of 55dB day/42dB night.  In both 2013 and 2015, the updated ordinances contained some stricter standards (both include low-frequency standards and the 2015 one would have doubled the setbacks and lowered the night noise limit to 35dB), but both times the voters narrowly rejected the changes. Local officials have remained concerned that some of the zoning language in the 2012 ordinance is unenforceable, and this spring, they once again took a shot at finding a middle ground by resubmitting the language they liked in the 2015 attempt, but tweaked to return the noise limits to the state standard; as one Planning Board member put it, “The vote on the proposed wind power ordinance has provisions that both sides dislike. Maybe that makes it a reasonable compromise.”  But that, too, failed to win support in a June 2016 vote. These 2012-2016 votes were all narrow victories for the pro-windfarm contingent in town, which maintained that the setbacks would preclude development and the low-frequency noise requirements would require cumbersome monitoring.

Now a 5th vote in November 2016 has once again rejected a change, this time a proposal to simply nullify the 2012 town ordinance and let the state regulate the wind farms, which is now the preferred option by those who want the town to get out of the way and let the wind farm proceed. It was once again very close, 616-642 (14 switched votes would have changed the outcome), and I guess it marks the first loss by the pro-wind group, but no one will be happy with the outcome—local officials still say the 2012 version is unenforceable and advocates for greater local control have repeatedly pushed for more stringent standards.  So the merry-go-round will continue spinning, the gold ring still out of reach for all concerned.

For a recap of the tortured history, click on through to read the post I put together in June 2015 recounting the events up till then—including, in fact, a vote recount that dramatically overturned the one previous victory by the more cautionary contingent.

Read the rest of this entry »

Not OK!—Military jets mar Olympic National Park wilderness experience

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Pat McMahon says it so well that I’ll simply reprint this letter to the editor, published in the Peninsula Daily News:

LETTER: Jet noise takes away from natural beauty
Olympic National Park has lost a vital component with the persistent sounds of jets overhead.

Many of us visit national parks as a way to balance the rigors of everyday life with an experience of wilderness and solitude.

During the last week of June, while participating in the annual sea otter census near Hoh Head north of the Hoh River, my colleague and I experienced persistent and loud military jet noise.  The noise would suddenly erupt as the aircraft transitioned from land to sea. One of the abrupt sounds echoed such that we thought we might be experiencing the beginnings of a landslide. During the three days I participated in the sea otter census, we experienced persistent, loud jet sounds most of the day.

One week later while backpacking with my grandchildren at Toleak Point, we experienced the same persistent, loud jet noise. It was not what I was expecting on a coastal wilderness hike in Olympic National Park.

We have suffered a loss in Olympic National Park, where you will no longer be able to get lost in the natural sounds of moving water and marine animals. When you least expect it, the loud sounds of military aircraft will take you away from peacefulness and remind you of the reality of everyday life. There are over 7 billion humans on our planet now, and we need quiet natural places more than ever. Someplace to go where your spirit can regenerate.

It is so sad that we have lost this component of Olympic National Park.

Pat McMahon,
Sekiu, Washington

New court ruling on Navy sonar has big implications

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A new court ruling could fundamentally change the standards that the Navy and National Marine Fisheries Service have been using to regulate Navy sonar, by requiring more areas to be set aside as off-limits to the Navy’s routine peacetime operations.  A federal appeals court has ruled that simply determining that Navy activities will have “negligible impact” on populations is not sufficient; regulators must also, and separately, set standards for sonar use that assure the “least practicable adverse impact” on marine mammals and their habitats.  (Download the ruling; it’s only 35 pages, not a bad read!)  As those who have been following the evolution of the NMFS’s ongoing cycle of five-year authorizations for Navy activities will know, the routine procedure has been to dutifully tally the numbers of animals that may be affected—generally they predict relatively few injuries or deaths (more when explosives training is involved), as well as behavioral effects on millions of animals—and then to determine that the long term effects on each species’ population levels will be negligible.  This negligible-impact finding then allows NMFS to issue permits allowing for the predicted effects.

NMFS has been presuming that negligible impact is sufficient to also satisfy the requirement for “least practicable impact.”  Their basic argument was that you can’t get a lower impact than negligible.  However, there were a couple of flaws in this approach.  First, the threshold for population-level effects in this permit was presumed to be 12% of the regional population of any given species being able to hear, and have their behavior potentially changed, by sonar transmissions; clearly, there IS room to reduce this degree of impact.  But more importantly to this court, the NMFS’s approach to determining what areas are “biologically important,” and so worthy of some protection from routine sonar operations, was found to violate the “least practicable impact” standard—and it appears that designating more protected habitat will be essential to meeting this standard.

Note: This court case concerns the SURTASS-LFA low-frequency active sonar, currently deployed on four US surveillance vessels, rather than the mid-frequency active sonar that has been the focus of most of the previous legal wrangling.  This LFA lawsuit challenged routine, peacetime use of the sonar worldwide; by contrast, all the mid-frequency challenges up til now have only sought to constrain testing and training activities in Naval training ranges off the US coasts, not its widespread routine use by over a hundred Navy ships around the world.  So this case has a limited immediate scope, though the underlying theme of setting aside more areas as off-limits is a core element of all the sonar and naval training legal challenges, and this new clarification by the courts on the separate requirement for “least practicable impact” could apply to all NMFS permitting.  

This court ruling does not prescribe a new management plan; it merely found that the current one does not meet the letter of the law.  This case is now remanded back to the district court for further deliberation.  However, we are approaching the end of the 5-year authorizations that have been challenged here (2012-2017), so the most likely consequence of this ruling is that the NEXT round of authorizations, due in 2017, will need to take more care in meeting the “least practicable impact” standard, either by expanding the areas off-limits to sonar, or by more adequately justifying why NMFS feels they are meeting this standard in other ways.

An apparently deciding factor in the court ruling was a 2010 white paper written by four NMFS “subject matter experts,” Read the rest of this entry »

Taming ship traffic in the warming Arctic

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Ship traffic through Canada’s Northwest Passage has more than doubled since 2004 and tripled since the 1980s, mostly thanks to much longer open-water seasons as the Arctic continues to warm.  Today’s 300-350 voyages per year is expected to double again as both mining and tourism rise in the years ahead.

In response, there are increasing calls to manage the increased ship traffic, both to improve safety and minimize environmental impacts.  A new report from Pew Charitable Trusts draws on recent data, previous Canadian government reports, and First Nations concerns to make the case. “Corridors give people a roadmap to follow,” said Louie Porta, one of the report’s authors. “A robust corridor system is a recommendation for vessels to stick to a very, very small portion of the Arctic waters as opposed to now, where there are no limits – vessels can basically go wherever they want.”  The map below shows 2014 ship tracks criss-crossing key biologically important areas in the western part of the Northwest Passage; here’s a link to the full map.

Pew report-2014 ship tracksCROP

According to an in-depth article on the excellent new website Arctic Deeply:

Government and Inuit groups have identified at least 38 areas of ecological and biological significance (EBSAs) occupying nearly 50 percent of Canadian Arctic waters. “There’s a high concurrence of vessel traffic patterns and areas of biological significance. We can’t say that ships can’t go where the environment is significant, but it’s possible to create a more flexible, dynamic policy that identifies what times of year ships can be in certain locations,” said Porta. . . . Under the proposed framework, shipping corridors would be identified by integrating human and vessel safety, environmental protection and Inuit rights.

The Canadian Coastguard has been working on a similar plan to concentrate shipping traffic.  However, their current proposal for the Beaufort Sea allows shipping in 45% of regional ecological, biological and Inuit areas of significance, while the Pew report’s recommended lanes overlap just 25% of these key areas.

Arctic shipping is a much bigger issue than just the Northwest Passage.  Arctic Deeply has been quick to dive into this important topic, including a recent piece on the impact of Arctic shipping noise on whales, and a long Q&A with a geographer who focuses on climate change and the Arctic.

 

Navy agrees to exclusion zones for sonar, explosives training

News, Sonar No Comments »

mapsWEBAfter being slammed by a federal judge in March, the US Navy has agreed to keep sonar training and explosives testing and training out of several biologically important areas off the California and Hawaii coasts.  This week, settlement talks with NRDC, Earthjustice, and other plaintiffs resulted in a final order, which will remain in effect through 2018, when the current round of permits expire.  This is a substantial victory for the environmental groups, the first legal affirmation of a long-standing argument that the Navy can and should keep its loudest activities out of areas where whales and other sea creatures congregate.  It’s especially notable after losing a similar case targeting the Northwest Training Range Complex last year, in which the judge ruled that the Navy had suitably considered the question of whether exclusion zones would reduce harm to animals.  This time, a different federal judge was much more amenable to the fundamental idea that the Navy can achieve its training mission without totally unfettered access to all corners of the seas.

While mid-frequency active sonar has received the most attention, recent EIS’s and permits for Navy training and testing activities have made it clear that explosives trigger the vast majority of the potential injuries and deaths, as well as a huge number of the behavioral reactions that are also of concern to environmental advocates.  This agreement totally bans in-water explosive testing and training from an area between Santa Catalina and San Nicolas Islands off southern California and from nearly all Hawaiian near-shore areas (the exception being the waters between Hawaii and Maui).  Mid-frequency active sonar “major training exercises” will be excluded from the two of the four zones around Hawaii island and a zone west of Molokai; while both major exercises and small-group or single-boat sonar are banned in a nearshore area off San Diego during the five months each year when Blue whales are present.  Meanwhile, sonar activity will continue as part of large training exercises several times per year in other nearshore Hawaiian waters; waters farther offshore and between the specified exclusion zones will also remain available for sonar and explosives training and testing.

UPDATE, 11/13/15: Unsurprisingly, this recent court ruling did not derail the ongoing finalization of a similar 5-year permit for Navy training in another area, off the Pacific Northwest coast of WA, OR, and northern CA.  NMFS has signaled its approval of Navy plans there; it was a similar NMFS action that triggered the lawsuit and recent settlement in the southern California/Hawaii training range.  It appears that while there are some bombing and live fire exercises planned in the PacNW training range, those activities may be less extensive or intense; no mortalities are predicted to occur.

“This settlement proves what we’ve been saying all along,” said Marsha Green, president of the Ocean Mammal Institute, in a statement. “The Navy can meet its training and testing needs and, at the same time, provide significant protections to whales and dolphins by limiting the use of sonar and explosives in vital habitat.”

It’s not clear how often the exclusion zones have been actively used for these now-banned exercises in the past; the Naval Training Ranges include vast expanses of ocean around Hawaii and off the California coast. We do know that four dolphins died in 2011 after an explosive exercise in the area between the two Californian islands, and presumably routine smaller-unit sonar training has ranged through some of the near-shore waters now off-limits.  The exclusion zones range from 15-30 miles wide around Hawaiian shorelines; the San Diego exclusion zone extends about 15 miles offshore and along 30 miles of coast, while the offshore area between the two Californian islands is nearly 60 miles long and around 15 miles wide.  Within these areas, injuries and deaths should now be generally avoided (though the Navy contends that such incidents are already extremely rare; see this post for a deep dive into the question of the estimated “take” numbers).  However, the large numbers of behavioral reactions, or Level B takes, are unlikely to be reduced much at all by these changes, since they occur at much greater distances (70% of Level B takes occur at 25-50 miles).  Indeed, even the exclusion zones themselves may well experience sound levels high enough to trigger behavioral changes when exercises take place in nearby waters; however, the most disruptive behavioral reactions, such as interruptions in feeding or mating, or disruptions of mother-calf interactions, should be reduced significantly within the exclusion zones.  And, this settlement could set the stage for more exclusion zones in the next round of 5-year impact assessments and permits covering training ranges in waters along most parts of the US coastline.

Wind farm plan abandoned after UK policy changes

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Recent policy changes by the UK government have spurred the developers of the Nocton Fen wind farm to pull the plug on their project.  The new government policy accelerated a planned end to wind farm subsidies, setting an end date of April 2016, and added a requirement that all wind projects receive approval by nearby residents via a local or neighborhood plan.

NoctonFen-windfarmWEB

In response to these changes, Swedish wind developer Vattenfall held a six-week local consultation, and this week announced it would not proceed with the project:

Graham Davey, Vattenfall’s Project Manager for the Nocton Fen Wind Energy Project, said: “It’s obviously disappointing to stop development of Nocton Fen as it would have delivered significant benefit locally and generated affordable, clean and renewable energy for tens of thousands of homes every year.

“It was clear that proposed changes to onshore wind planning in England introduced increased risk in the process. Stopping the scheme now is a sensible decision.

North Kesteven District Council Leader, Councillor Marion Brighton OBE, spoke for the locals, saying, “We welcome Vattenfall’s decision and appreciate them making this announcement so soon after the close of their recent statutory pre-application engagement. Their proposals would have been unreasonably intrusive in terms of the landscape character and amenity of local communities and I am sure that this decision not to proceed will be of significant comfort in bringing clarity on Vattenfall’s position in light of the Government’s recent policy announcements.”

This particular wind farm would have been built on the estate of vacuum cleaner tycoon James Dyson, and had raised local ire from the start due to its proximity to a local landmark, the Lincoln Cathedral; the turbines would be twice its height. “Lincoln Cathedral defines the landscape for miles in each direction,” said Melvin Grosvenor, who lives in the village of Baumber, 10 miles west of the proposed site. “This [wind farm] would spoil the long-distance view that has existed for a thousand years and change the character of the whole area.”

There are currently 250 wind farm proposals, totaling 2500 turbines, that may be similarly affected by the policy changes; time will tell whether the UK’s on-shore wind industry grinds to a halt, or adapts and finds a way forward.  It’s unclear from recent reports whether the loss of subsidies is deal-killer for wind developers, or whether some projects may be viable without subsidies, if they are far enough from neighbors to gain local support.

UK Sounds of our Shores spurs public enthusiasm

Arts, News No Comments »

Screen Shot 2015-08-10 at 9.08.54 AMA summer-long project of the British Library and the National Trust, Sounds of Our Shores, has attracted hundreds of submissions from every part of the country. A click on that link will take you to their online collection of sounds, presented in an easy-to-browse format.  This recent article from Yorkshire captures some of the enthusiasm that the project has spurred among both the public and the organizers.

Musician Martyn Ware will weave some of the recordings into a new composition later this year.  He urged people to “go to the coast, close your eyes and reawaken the most underrated sense of all – hearing – and pay attention to the beauty of your sensory environment and you will be repaid a thousandfold.”

For National Trust ranger for the Yorkshire Coast, Zoe Frank, the region’s coastline had varied and exciting sounds to offer.  She said: “There are so many, but my favourites would include Ravenscar, when, as you walk along the clifftops, you can hear the seals on the beach below. It can be quite an eerie sound, almost like barking.” The “deafening” sounds of kittiwakes during nesting season at Saltburn, and the trickling waterfall at Hayburn Wyke, which runs into the sea just up the coast from Scarborough, also make up some of the “wonderful” natural sounds of the Yorkshire coastline, Ms Frank said.

It’s not all tranquil nature along the coast, though.  Harbors alive with fishing boats, street sounds in villages, and the region’s railway heritage all capture the ears of contributors:

Danielle Ramsey, marketing manager of the North Yorkshire Moors Railway said the “lullaby” of the steam trains as they make their way from the market town of Pickering, across the Moors and the national park through to Whitby, was “one of those sounds you won’t find anywhere else.”

“The mixture of the sound of the engines with the waves, and the train tooting as it leaves Whitby for the Moors, is very special,” she said. “There’s a sense of excitement when you hear a steam train, as you go past every bridge there will be people waiting, with their camera phones ready, after hearing it approaching.”

Oil industry noise headed for arctic waters

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean, Ocean energy, Seismic Surveys No Comments »

Shell Oil is gearing up to do the first new exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea off northwestern Alaska.  The project has been in the pipeline for years, and has faced numerous legal challenges (mostly regarding the danger of a spill and climate imperatives) and logistical snafus (the most extreme being a drill ship that ran aground).  Just last month, a consortium of environmental groups filed a suit challenging the most recent permits; there has yet to be a ruling.  The expansion of oil and gas development from Alaska’s north slope to offshore waters will create a marked increase in human noise in an ocean region that is currently relatively free of our intrusions.  Exploration leases have been sold in both the Chukchi Sea (left below) and Beaufort Sea (right below).

BeaufortChukchiLease2008WEBlg

Earlier this year, the Obama administration officially put some areas in these waters off limits, but a close inspection of the maps presented then reveal that virtually none of these areas were planned for development when the above map was created in 2008; the exclusion zones appear to match the near-shore areas excluded above (one exception: a small portion of the Chukchi zone is now off-limits).

Noise concerns extend far beyond the drilling itself, or even the seismic surveys that take place prior to drilling and during the life of the project.  The drill rigs come along with a support fleet of 30 other boats and several aircraft, promising a steady din in the area.  “In the Arctic, I can’t emphasize how novel an activity this is,” says NRDC attorney Giulia Good Stefani. “It really is a whole new level of disturbance for an area already experiencing rapid change and stress.” Concerns extend from whales to walruses, seals, and polar bears.

A wide array of ongoing research is underway, aiming to characterize the current soundscape in arctic waters. Read the rest of this entry »

FAA spurns opportunity for quiet area protection in traffic pattern updates

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Vehicles, Wildlands 1 Comment »

FAA metroplexesWEBA new Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) effort to modernize air traffic flow around major cities is ignoring the chance to do slight re-routing that would minimize air traffic over dwindling areas of natural quiet.  The FAA is in the midst of a multi-year process to update the traffic patterns in and out of airports in 17 metropolitan areas.  Each “metroplex” is served by multiple airports, and the FAA’s goal is to increase efficiency and on-time performance, using a number of strategies, including more precise coordination of flights into shared flight paths.  This includes some effort to consolidate flight corridors, which has the good news/bad news effect of reducing air traffic noise over many areas, while increasing it in some of the new corridors.  Unfortunately, some of the new concentrations of activity are over areas that were previously sanctuaries of natural quiet.

The National Park Service’s Natural Sounds and Night Skies Program got involved early in this process, in the hopes that the new traffic schemes could reduce air traffic over relatively quiet park and wilderness lands.  Over the past twenty years, the NPS has pioneered efforts to highlight and protect natural soundscapes; their monitoring and management techniques are gradually being adopted by public lands managers in other state and federal agencies.  While deep wilderness settings are often the focus of these efforts (e.g. Grand Canyon, Yellowstone), many NPS holdings closer to urban areas provide easily accessible experiences of natural quiet.

A recent in-depth article in the East Bay Express looks at the way this has unfolded in the FAA’s planning of the Northern California Metroplex around the San Francisco bay area.  The FAA has largely spurned the input from NPS, which hoped to protect or improve natural quiet opportunities in the Point Reyes National Seashore and in Yosemite National Park.  Despite formal NPS requests, Read the rest of this entry »

2011 stranding blamed on Royal Navy bomb explosions

Effects of Noise on Wildlife, News, Ocean No Comments »

bomb site and kyleIn July 2011, 70 pilot whales were spotted in the shallow Kyle of Durness on the north coast of Scotland; as the tide went out, at least 39 were stranded.  Quick efforts by locals and live-stranding groups managed to refloat 20 animals, but 19 perished.  This month, a report commissioned by the UK’s governing agency, DEFRA, concluded that a series of bomb-disposal explosions were the most likely cause of the stranding.  It’s a good reminder that much of the potential impact on wildlife from Navy exercises is from traditional ordinance, rather than sonar.

While pilot whales are relatively common around Scotland, and there have been numerous strandings through the years, it’s unusual that they would venture into such a shallow, tidal bay.  It seems likely that the pod was in the area relatively near shore (either following food, or transiting between feeding locations) when several bombs were exploded on the day before the stranding (yellow pointer on image).  Navigational error (perhaps caused by hearing impairment) left them in the mouth of the bay (red pointer), 3-5 miles away, rather than offshore; the strandings had just begun when the final bomb was exploded the next day, which likely drove more animals into the shallows.

The report suggests that some whales may well have been close enough to suffer temporary or permanent hearing damage.  In the most damning finding, it appears clear that monitoring for nearby animals was cursory at best, done only from small inflatable boats: Read the rest of this entry »

Active sonars continue to proliferate; India is powering up next

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Atlas-Elektronik-to-Supply-Sonar-for-Royal-Thai-Navys-New-Frigate.This week the Indian Navy confirmed its purchase of six low-frequency Active Towed Array Sonar (ACTAS) units, for use in tracking Chinese subs in the Indian Ocean.  With a stated detection range of 60km (37mi), it appears that this system puts out far less sound than low frequency systems used by the US (SURTASS LFAS) or the British (Sonar 2087), both of which are effective to at least 100 nautical miles, and can be detected at much greater distances.  It is remarkably hard to find information about the proliferation of these systems; the German-made ACTAS system is presumably being used elsewhere as well, while the UK Sonar 2087 is deployed on several UK Navy ships, and was recently also purchased by Chilean Navy.  So far, the US Navy has plans to outfit 4 ships with its SURTASS LFA system, and it is used regularly in the western Pacific, monitoring Chinese and North Korean activity. While environmental groups continue to challenge US deployment of LFAS and to add biological safeguards to training programs using mid-frequency active sonar (see AEI coverage of both), these and similar systems continue to spread into waters around the world.

Pipeline expansion to add 700 tanker transits in already-saturated southern BC waters

Animal Communication, News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

Bioacousticians and marine advocates have been closely following plans for the Northern Gateway pipeline in British Columbia, which would greatly increase ship traffic in some coastal waterways that are relatively quiet so far; see previous AEInews coverage.  But another pipeline project, farther along in the permitting process, could push the already stressed waters of southern BC and northern Washington to the acoustic breaking point.  The Trans Mountain Pipeline, built in 1953 and expanded several times since then, is gearing up to nearly triple its capacity and make adaptations that will allow heavy tar sands oil to be moved to the Pacific coast for shipment to Asia.

379-kitimatmapWEBThe expanded Trans Mountain Pipeline would have 75% of the capacity of the proposed Keystone KL pipeline to the Gulf of Mexico, so it has triggered active resistance on similar climate change grounds as Keystone.  At the same time, ocean advocates are stressing the cumulative impact of the additional 720 tanker transits that would occur in already-busy waters that include critical habitats for killer whales, sea lions, and other species.  At this point, most of the additional capacity is targeted for Burnaby, BC (increasing monthly tanker arrivals from 5 to 34), though the pipeline also serves terminals in northern Washington state. (Some of the current capacity is refined and used in North America, but virtually all of the increased capacity will be shipped overseas; thus the tanker traffic will increase 7-fold despite the smaller capacity increase.)

The Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans has just released a review of the Trans Mountain proposal, which is currently being considered by the National Energy Board (NEB), and finds it lacking, saying it contains “insufficient information” to adequately assess the threats posed both by underwater noise and ship strikes. “The assessment considers noise from a single project-related ship, without taking into account the additive and cumulative effects of existing noise,” Fisheries and Oceans Canada concludes.

Marine advocates second that concern.  Margot Venton, a staff lawyer with Ecojustice, stresses that “The critical habitat is basically as noisy as it can be. We need to make it quieter.” Misty MacDuffee, a fisheries ecologist with Raincoast Conservation Foundation, said anything that impedes the ability of whales to feed is a serious concern. “It’s just the growing din,” she said. “They are trying to [communicate and hunt] in an increasingly loud environment.” (Thanks to the Globe and Mail for their coverage and all these quotes.)

The NEB review is slated to be concluded by July; the federal government will then take six months to consider the NEB’s recommendation and make a final decision.  If approved, construction could begin in 2016 and be completed the following year.

UPDATE, 7/14/16: The NEB has recommended that the pipeline be approved, despite the likelihood that additional ship traffic will saturate the acoustic environment to the point that ship noise is present in some areas nearly 100% of the time (currently 85%).  Transmountain will need to meet 157 conditions, but they’re confident that will be achievable.  The final stage of the approval process is a final decision from the Canadian government, which is expected by the end of this year.

Listening array documenting rare natural quiet on BC coast, in face of development proposals

Bioacoustics, News, Ocean, shipping No Comments »

PacificWild, a British Columbian environmental organization, has deployed a network of 6 hydrophones in waters along the northern coast of that province.  This region of offshore islands and dramatic forested fjords is relatively wild, and quiet, especially as compared to the shipping-intensive region in southern BC around Vancouver Island and nearby Puget Sound in Washington State. But development proposals (including tar sands and other oil and gas ports) may mean up to 3000 supertankers per year will pass through these northern waters, bringing an expansion of the acoustic smog that already blankets most of the world’s oceans.

farshot      closeshot

Ian McAllister of Pacific Wild stresses that “Most of the species that are acoustically sensitive rely on a quiet ocean in order to communicate, in order to forage, in order to survive here,” and notes that the hydrophone array will gather crucial baseline acoustic data that can help inform management decisions to be made in the next few years.

Live streams of the hydrophones are available, though at most times, there’s not all that much going on; a collection of highlights, as well as streams, is available on this page. To learn more about the project, see PacificWild’s website, or take a look at this brief video (see it here if it doesn’t load for you).

Navy, NMFS slammed by judge over training permits

News, Ocean, Science, Sonar No Comments »

The Navy and NMFS suffered a stunning legal defeat over the latest 5-year EIS and permits governing training exercises in Hawaii, California, and waters in between.  In marked contrast to other recent court rulings, which found fault with some procedural issues but largely backed the Navy and NMFS’s collaborative planning results (see detailed AEI summaries of 2014 rulings on the Pacific Northwest training range and global low-frequency sonar permits), US District Court Judge Susan Moki Olway vehemently rejected several key aspects of the permitting for the Hawaii-Southern California Training and Testing (“HSTT”) Study Area. (Note: while sonar has been the focus of most public concern, these trainings also involve live ammunition, explosions, etc., that are responsible for most of the anticipated behavioral disruptions and nearly all the injuries and deaths.)

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The primary target of the legal challenges was the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), which issues the permits (Letters of Authorization) and the Biological Opinion that underly the permit conditions and take numbers. The Navy’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) was not directly challenged (a Supreme Court ruling has left the Navy with broad discretion and little room for legal challenges), but the EIS is accepted as sufficient by NMFS, and Judge Olway made a point of chastising NMFS for being too quick to simply adopt much of the Navy’s reasoning about both the impact on animal populations and the practicality (or lack thereof) of keeping training activities out of some areas.

The ruling seems to call for a fairly substantial revision of the EIS, the Biological Opinion, and the take numbers authorized by the permits; still, it may be likely that these documents can indeed be revised to fix the shortcomings identified by the Court, without substantially reducing the training activities being planned.  Also, an appeal to a higher court is possible, or likely, given the broad implications of the ruling.

UPDATE, September 2015: As it turned out, the Navy and NRDC negotiated a settlement, adding a few exclusion zones for the duration of the current five-year authorization. It remains to be seen how the larger issues raised by the ruling may affect the next round of Navy EIS and NMFS authorizations.

Nonetheless, this ruling is the most fundamental challenge to the current Navy and NMFS planning process since the original lawsuits that helped trigger the Navy to begin producing EISs and NMFS to issue permits.  Among the key issues that were successfully challenged:

Read the rest of this entry »

New boat-triggered foghorn system spurs longing for soothing ambience along the fog-shrouded coastline

Human impacts, News No Comments »

In seaside communities up and down the Maine coast, a new foghorn-triggering system being rolled out by the Coast Guard is spurring passionate pushback.  The hardware supporting the old system—which turned on foghorns whenever humidity rose above a threshold and kept the gentle blasts going for hours at a time—is being replaced by a new system that is triggered by radio pulses from boats, so that the foghorns are activated only for short periods as boats are in transit nearby.  The Coast Guard says that the old moisture-based hardware is wearing out, and the manufacturer no longer makes new parts, necessitating the change-over.

portland head light in fogWEBJane Dillon of York, who gathered 350 signatures in favor of a return to the old system, said opinions about the old foghorn often divided people in York, with longer-established residents firmly standing by their love of the horn’s tone, which she called “that haunting sound that brings me back to the days when sailors were out there hoping for safety.” In Kennebunkport, Tom Bradbury agreed: “There’s a sense that someone is on guard, watching over those who are on the water. We find it a very pleasing, comforting sound.”  At Kennebunkport’s Cape Porpoise, Goat Island Light was one of the first ones to be outfitted with the new system, after the old hardware failed six times in six years; but after an outcry, the Coast Guard temporarily replaced the old unit, and plans to do more public outreach to prepare citizens for the change.  Similarly, roll-outs in other communities along the coast will be accompanied by increased engagement with communities ahead of time.  Meanwhile, concerns are being raised about the safety of small boats without the VHS radios necessary to trigger the new system; but with the old system’s parts going out of circulation, options are limited.

Unless an alternative source for the moisture-triggered hardware magically appears, the call of the foghorn seems likely to become a signal that boats are passing by, rather than being a soothing voice of the coastline when shrouded in fog.

Forest Service to limit snowmobiles to designated trails, areas

Default, News, Vehicles, Wildlands No Comments »

snowmobiles white mountainsTen years after the US Forest Service started requiring off-highway vehicles to stick to designated routes, a similar policy has now been adopted for snowmobiles.  When the OHV policy was developed, much of the concern was on streamside erosion and damage to meadows, so similar limitations were not considered as important for vehicles traveling over snow.  However, from the start, cross-country skiers and snowshoers pushed for limits to snowmobiles, as well, stressing the impact of motor noise, which can travel far across mountain basins in otherwise very quiet landscapes.  In recent decades, as snowmobiles have become more powerful, remote high-country snowfields popular with skiers have been attracting more snowmobiles as well.

Now, the Forest Service will require each National Forest to designate specific areas for snowmobile use.  Unlike OHVs, which are generally limited to trails and roads (with modest excursions off roads allowed for hunters), the snowmobile rule allows extensive areas to be opened to snowmobiles.  While generally very pleased with the new policy, the Winter Wildlands Alliance (a leading quiet recreation advocacy group) expressed concerns that this areas can be nearly as large as a ranger district.

Over 40% of National Forests that get consistent snow cover already manage snowmobiles as required under the new rule, so nothing will change there.  In other forests, user groups have collaborated to achieve similar ends:

“About four years ago, we worked with snowmobile groups to reach an understanding about riding areas near Stevens Peak,” said John Latta of Spokane, co-founder of the Inland Northwest Backcountry Alliance. “The people that sit down with us have gray hair and like to ride the trails. We have a pretty good understanding of each other’s needs.”

Still, some riders have broken these informal agreements, so the new rules will help alleviate such problems.  Snowmobile groups tend to support the measures as well; Paul Turcke, a lawyer who works with the Idaho State Snowmobile Association and Blue Ribbon Coalition, said “We want people to have a plan so they know where they can and can’t go and coexist with other users.  We hope this is a step in the right direction.”