Conservation News: Roads, an Oil Drill Ban, and Great Apes

Road-Building Just Might Be Behind Why Our Wild is Disappearing

When one considers which of the many human threats to nature have the most damaging effect, global warming, overhunting, and loss of habitat comes to mind. However, a new study suggests that it is in fact, road-building.

Many of us have been trained to see road-building as something positive, conjuring images of promoting economic growth, after multiple history lessons. However, an unprecedented spate of road building is happening now. It is expected that by 2050, 25 million kilometers or 15.5 million miles of new paved roads will be laid. And that’s causing many environmental researchers to perceive roads about as positively as a butterfly might see a spider web that’s just fatally trapped it.

This new study, which was led by Pierre Ibisch at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development in Germany, attempted to map all the roads and remaining ecosystems across Earth’s entire land surface. Its conclusion: roads have already sliced and diced up Earth’s ecosystems into some 600,000 pieces. More than half of these areas are less than 1 km2 or about 0.38 mi2 in size. Only 7% of the fragments are than 100 km2 or 38.6 mi2.

Remaining roadless areas across the Earth. P. Ibisch et al. Science (2016)

Roads often open a Pandora’s box of ills for wilderness areas, promoting illegal deforestation, fires, mining, and hunting.

Take the Brazilian Amazon as an example, existing research shows that 95% of all forest destruction occurs within 3.4 miles or 5.5 km of roads. The razing of the Amazon and other tropical forests is particularly dangerous because the process of destroying the ecosystem produce more greenhouse gases than all motorised vehicles currently on Earth.

In addition, animals are also affected via vehicle roadkill, habitat loss, and hunting. In the past decade, poachers invading the Congo Basin along the expanding network of logging roads have snared and gunned down ⅔ of all forest elephants for their valuable ivory tusks.

Despite the alarming news, Ibisch and his colleagues’ study still probably underestimates this growing problem. It is likely that the researchers missed half or more of all the roads on the planet. Although they used current records, keeping track of roads is a difficult task. Particularly in developing nations, illegal roads can appear overnight and many of these countries lack the capacity to govern, much less map, their unruly frontier regions. Even with satellites, computers, and our advanced technology, there are multiple factors that will lead even the smartest of computers to map roads inconsistently. These include the weather (if it is cloudy, most roads cannot be detected from space) as well as the diverse variety of road types, habitats, topographies, sun angles, and linear features such as canals and other geographical landmarks.

So, Ibisch and his colleagues relied upon human eyes to map roads. They used a global crowdsourcing platform known as OpenStreetMap, which uses thousands of volunteers to map Earth’s roads. But, the authors of the study acknowledged that human mappers have worked far more prolifically in some areas than others. For example, wealthier nations such as Switzerland and Australia have accurate road maps. But, in countries like Indonesia, Peru, or Cameroon, great swathes of land have been poorly studied.

Deforestation along roads in the Brazilian Amazon. Google Earth

This new study reflects earlier statistics: Earth’s wilderness areas have shrunk by a tenth in just the past two decades. Forests such as the Amazon, Congo Basin, and Borneo are shrinking the fastest.

This leads to a dilemma. On one hand, it is critical for developing nations to lay down more and better roads. However, on the other, much of this ongoing road development is poorly planned or chaotic, leading to severe environmental damage if left unchecked.

One solution is via a global road-mapping strategy that guides us where to build or to avoid roads. This promotes the idea that roads can give humans and societies access to regions to improve food production while restricting them in places that can cause environmental calamities.

However, whatever solution that will be implemented needs to be implemented soon. If this matter is not addressed quickly and thoroughly, it is possible that the world’s last wild places will be reduced to nothing. This would not only be an immediate harm to the animals and the ecosystem itself, but will have long-lasting ripple effects that can cause greater changes on Earth as a whole.

The global road-building explosion is shattering nature

STUDY: A global map of roadless areas and their conservation status

Before He’s Out, Obama Places a Permanent Ban on Offshore Oil and Gas Drilling

Last Tuesday, President Obama announced what he called a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic Seaboard. This announcement would ban drilling in about 96& of federally owned Arctic waters, or about 115 million acres, a pristine region home to several endangered species including polar bears and bowhead whales. His declaration would also block drilling off the Atlantic Coast around a series of coral canyons in 3.8 million acres stretching from Norfolk, Virginia to the Canadian border.


“These actions … protect a sensitive and unique ecosystem that is unlike any other region on earth,” said Mr. Obama in a statement. “They reflect the scientific assessment that even with the high safety standards that both our countries have put in place, the risks of an oil spill in this region are significant and our ability to clean up from a spill in the region’s harsh conditions is limited.”

In his time in office, Obama has used executive actions to put restrictions on new leases in the waters surrounding the United States. Because they are executive actions, it is possible for succeeding presidents to overturn them. But this time, he made sure that his environmental legacy could not be quickly reversed by the president-elect, Donald J. Trump.

To do this, Obama relied on an obscure provision of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which he said gives him the authority to act unilaterally. This law allows presidents to withdraw lands from future leasing and has been used by past administrations to restrict oil exploration on the West and East coasts. However, every ban on leases was given an expiration date. So the fate of Obama’s declaration of a permanent ban will almost certainly be decided by the federal courts.

“It’s never been done before,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at Vermont Law School. “There is no case law on this. It’s uncharted waters.”

Opponents are already lobbying against the declaration and many of them expect that Trump will be able to successfully and legally reverse the ban.

“We don’t see how this could be permanent,” said Andrew Radford, a senior policy adviser with the American Petroleum Institute, which lobbies for oil companies. He points to previous examples of President George W. Bush reinstating about 50 million acres to fossil fuel leases. “We’re hopeful that the Trump administration will take a look at this to reverse that decision and we look forward to working with them to make that happen.”

And a few are bit disgruntled at news.

“Instead of building on our nation’s position as a global energy leader, today’s unilateral mandate could put America back on a path of energy dependence for decades to come,” said Dan Naatz, senior vice president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. “We disagree with this last-minute political rhetoric coming from the Obama administration and contest this decision by the outgoing administration as disingenuous. With exactly one month left in office, President Obama chose to succumb to environmental extremists demands to keep our nation’s affordable and abundant energy supplies away from those who need it the most by keeping them in the ground.”

The Polar Pioneer was the first of two oil drilling rigs. Royal Dutch Shell was outfitting for Arctic oil exploration before the company ended its contract last year. Credit: Elaine Thompson

But, Obama’s legal experts remain confident that the ban will withstand legal challenge.

“We believe there is a strong legal basis for these withdrawals,” said one senior administration official, predicting the moves would “go forward and will stand the test of time. The action has the force of law. There is no authority for a future president to withdraw it.”

He points to the specific language of the law. “The president of the United States may, from time to time, withdraw from disposition any of the unleased lands of the Outer Continental Shelf.”

Nowhere does the law say that a future president can reinstate those areas, says the senior administration official.

The official compared Obama’s use of the 1953 offshore drilling law to the president’s authority to designate national monuments, granted under the 1906 Antiquities Act. No presidential-designated monument under that law has since been removed by a later president. And he noted that Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower, Richard M. Nixon, George Bush and Bill Clinton all used the 1953 law to protect portions of federal waters. None of those designations have been undone.

Jason Hutt, a lawyer with Bracewell who has worked for energy companies against Obama administration actions, comments: “The statute does not say, ‘A president can reinstate.’ It only seems to be one directional.”

Protesters from last year when Shell was approved for drilling in the Arctic. Credit: EcoWatch

Experts believe that the only avenue for Republicans to undo the ban is for Congress to go back and amend the 1953 law, explicitly allowing presidents to reverse the drilling bans of their predecessors, a challenge in a Senate with 52 Republicans.

“They’ll be arguing about this for years. However, that would require a 60-vote Senate majority to clear procedural hurdlers in the courts,” said Mr. Parenteau, the Vermont law professor. “It would be surprising if the Republican Congress didn’t do anything about it in the meantime.”

This move is one of the many efforts by President Obama to protect what environmental policies he can from a successor who has vowed to roll them back. Trump has mocked climate change as a hoax perpetrated by China and has attacked Obama’s environmental regulations as job killers. More importantly, he has promised to make fossil fuel mining and drilling across the nation’s lands and waters a central feature of his economic program. As such, it is unlikely for Trump to let Obama’s drilling ban to go unchallenged.

To prevent mass rollback of his most recent environmental regulations, Obama and his administration during the past few months has built firewalls around his environmental policies. The president, in concert with United Nations leaders, is also rushing countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, putting the multinational accord into force in record time, before Trump’s inauguration. This would make it near impossible for Trump to back out off unless he is elected for a second term. They hope that these new firewalls will prevent the president-elect from undoing environmental policies, or at least keep him at bay for several years.

Obama Bans Drilling in Parts of the Atlantic and the Arctic

Eyeing Trump, Obama takes new action to ban Arctic drilling

The Survival of Africa’s Great Apes Requires Palm Industry Support

This week, the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) is advocating a collaboration between the international conservation community and palm oil developers in order to create sustainable strategies that will save fragile ecosystems and the species that inhabit them, particularly apes.

Industrial-scale oil palm plantation, Cameroon. Photo: World Bank/Flore de Preneuf

Their recommendation follows the release of a new report, Palm Oil Paradox: Sustainable Solutions to Save the Great Apes, the result of a two-year study of palm oil development in Southeast Asia. It includes steps required to ensure that the loss of biodiversity that occurred in that region is not repeated as the crop expands into Africa. This report was produced by UN Environment through the Great Apes Survival Partnership(GRASP), an alliance of 105 governments, conservation organizations, research institutions, UN agencies, and private companies committed to ensuring the long-term survival of great apes and their habitat. The report was released at the 14th Roundtable on the Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) meeting in Bangkok.

“This report recognizes that palm oil is here to stay and the hard line boycotts are unlikely to achieve success,” said GRASP coordinator Doug Cress. “Right now, all of the chimpanzees, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans in the world are classified as endangered or critically endangered, so we need to find a way to work constructively with a commodity that can either hasten extinction or offer a way forward. Palm Oil Paradox makes it clear that finding common ground with palm oil developers makes sense.”

Conservationists have been working to prevent a repeat of the southeast Asian destruction that lead to the plight of the orangutan. Since then, they have kept the palm oil industry on the defensive for decades. However, as the $62 billion industry expands at breakneck pace into Africa, conservationists fear that the continent’s great apes could become its new symbol unless significant changes are made.

“Lessons learned from south-east Asia showed that fighting oil palm development doesn’t really work,” says Marc Ancrenaz, an orangutan expert with the NGO Hutan who co-authored the Palm Oil Paradox report. “Oil palm development is going to stay and to expand. Rather than ignoring the consequences […], conservationists should better engage with this industry to try to influence their practices on the ground.”

A cross river gorilla. Photograph: Alamy

So the stakes are high. The bonobo, for example, is only found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 99% of its range is suitable for oil palm production.

The report’s authors recommend that palm oil companies must implement “no-go zones” to ensure that forests housing so-called “priority populations” of gorillas, chimps, or bonobos remain untouched. Prioritizing populations may mean that some small, fragmented populations will be lost. However, Serge Wich, a professor at Liverpool John Moores University and report co-author, says that this method will ensure the survival of the bulk of Africa’s great apes, all of which are either listed as critically endangered or endangered by IUCN.

This approach will also include environmental experts from the start as well as strictly enforcing no-kill policies. Due to limited resources that governments in these countries face, conservationists would team up with companies to help fund on-the-ground surveys to establish and enforce no-go zones for apes and other wildlife that would prevent many palm companies from fully developing in these areas. The authors recommend that companies incorporate best management practices, such as gaining certification through the Roundtable, installing a no-kill policy, and creating wildlife corridors for animals to move through and around plantations.

In addition, palm oil companies must employ full-time environmental management teams will monitor, manage, and protect great apes and high conservation value (HCV) forests.

Another editor, Dr. Erik Meijaard, also comments on the growing situation. “It’s time we recognized that the land-use choices we make as human beings can have devastating results not just for ourselves, but for biodiversity,” he urged. “The climatic conditions that now occur regularly in Southeast Asia – floods, the fires, the temperature rises – are no accident.”

These conditions are the result of poor land use decisions and ignoring the costs of deforestation. He expressed a hope that the report would be seen as a resource for better planning in the future.

Fields of oil palm plantation seedlings, like these seen growing in Indonesia, provide little habitat for wildlife. Credit: Rhett A. Butler

“Africa may seem vast and limitless as a future site for palm oil, but Borneo and Sumatra once did, too. Better management in palm oil is possible. The evidence is there that great apes can be managed in oil palm plantations. But the good examples are vastly outnumbered by the bad ones, and that needs to change,” he said.

Although sustainable palm oil accounts for some 20 per cent of global production, only half is sold. UNEP advocates expanding the current market for sustainable palm oil in order to drive conservation efforts that would support the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Survival of Africa’s great apes requires palm industry support, says report

Report: Conservationists, palm oil industry should collaborate on protecting great apes, fragile ecosystems


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