On The Green Road Through Middle America

Earthjustice president sees firsthand environmental bests and worsts

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What does it take to peel back the abstractions of email, press reports, and legal briefs and really see some of what is at stake in Earthjustice’s work? It’s as easy as getting away from the computer, out of airports, and off the interstate.

Over the last couple of weeks I was lucky enough to travel across the Great Plains and the Rockies. Everywhere I went, I saw our country wrestling with the big challenges of energy supply and climate change, biodiversity and wildlands protection, and the human consequences of poorly enforced environmental standards.

Signs of change in our energy economy are everywhere. Across Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota, I kept running into wide-load 18 wheelers hauling giant pieces of wind towers to the sites of new wind farms. One of the truck drivers told me that the towers were made in Texas. Some of the small towns practically had to shut down their main streets to let the rigs through.

Meanwhile, town after town has placed a big bet on the fickle future of corn-based ethanol. I drove through many farming villages that have lost population for decades and have shuttered their downtowns but have built new ethanol plants and converted hay and wheat fields into miles and miles of corn. Corn acreage is hitting record levels in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and South Dakota, which means big increases in pumping from the Ogallala aquifer, fertilizer use, and herbicide applications. Bad news for future water supplies on the plains and for the Gulf of Mexico’s infamous dead zone, yet with no real benefit for the climate.

Two days later, crossing Wyoming’s Powder River Basin, I looked with a mix of awe and horror at the gargantuan scale of the Dry Fork open pit coal mine and the new coal-burning power plant being built across the road. The mine will send 1600 tons of coal per hour by conveyor belt to be burned in the generating plant, which the state has allowed to be built without state-of-the-art pollution controls or any measures to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. This is exactly the wrong thing to do to address climate change, so Earthjustice is challenging the generating plant’s air permit—we argued the appeal in the Wyoming Supreme Court last week.

My travels then took me across the state to the magnificent wilds of Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons, where I watched grizzly bears and on a mountain hike saw stands of dead whitebark pines on which the bears depend for food. The trees were killed by pine bark beetles whose numbers have exploded due to the warming climate. Our lawsuit against the Fish and Wildlife Service challenging the decision to remove the grizzlies from the endangered species list is aimed at exposing, and remedying, the government’s refusal to take this critical change in the grizzly’s prospects for recovery into account.

Two more examples. After the Tetons, I spent a day in southeastern Idaho near the Smoky Canyon phosphate mine, where Earthjustice is challenging mine expansion into a national forest roadless area and working with local residents and advocacy groups to force a clean-up of the mine’s legacy of contaminating area waters with selenium. Pristine-appearing streams that drain the mine site have elevated levels of this toxic metal, exceeding EPA standards, so the rare native cutthroat trout that abound in the streams are best caught and released rather than eaten. In fact, the USDA determined last week that the recent deaths of 18 cattle near another Idaho phosphate mine site were due to selenium contamination. Our case challenging the Smoky Canyon mine expansion is on appeal in the Ninth Circuit.

Finally, I met with wilderness advocates in central Colorado who are organizing for Congressional protection of tens of thousands of acres of premier Rocky Mountain roadless areas in the White River National Forest. A backpacking trip took me into this country and I was very proud of Earthjustice’s steadfast, take-no-prisoners approach to protecting all 58 million acres of roadless areas over the last eight years. Our success has enabled local wilderness groups to now seize a new opportunity to gain permanent protection for targeted areas while we continue to work for lasting nation-wide protections.

Throughout these travels, I met with and was humbled by people giving their all to protect and improve our environment, starting with the places they live and the places they love to visit. A couple of times, people asked me how, in the face of accelerating climate change and often discouraging political news, we at Earthjustice keep on with our work. The answer is simple: we keep going because we get to work with such dedicated and capable people, because the issues we take on are so important, and because we are rewarded with seeing lasting results from the our successes.

Trip Van Noppen served as Earthjustice’s president from 2008 until he retired in 2018. A North Carolina native, Trip said of his experience: “Serving as the steward of Earthjustice for the last decade has been the greatest honor of my life.”