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Redefine's Five Most Important Stories of 2016

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Ammon Bundy in caricature | Image: DonkeyHotey, some rights reserved

We listed the ten most popular Redefine stories of 2016 earlier this week. But as we all learned painfully in middle school, popularity doesn’t always equal importance. So to continue our retrospective of 2016, here, in no particular order, are five of the most important stories we covered this year. No matter how many page views they got, we think they deserved more.

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Attacks on Public Lands

2016 started with an armed right-wing takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon, and ended, more or less, with the election of a Presidential candidate who has endorsed many of the stated goals of ultraconservative opponents of private lands. We examined the history of the movement to privatize America’s public lands — National Forests, BLM lands, National Wildlife Refuges, and even National Parks — and its connection to racist hate groups in October.

It’s important to note that the idea of privatizing public lands isn’t the exclusive property of conservatives: in California, a Democratic Party-controlled state, the Coastal Commission ousted its strongly protectionist Executive Director in favor of someone friendlier to developers who would damage the publicly owned beaches, while the Democratic Governor looked on.

And there’s the last eight years of de facto privatization of desert lands leased to renewable energy developers, lands which will never be restored to their original condition once bulldozed and paved. But while Democrats tend to be sneaky about their privatization, Republicans proudly advertise their intentions to sell your public lands off to the highest bidder. Look for further attempts to sell off our public lands in the first months of the Trump Administration.

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Sacred Stone Camp on the Standing Rock Reservation | Photo: Joe Bruskysome rights reserved

Standing Rock

Before April 1, 2016, few Americans might have guessed that the signature environmental campaign of the year would be launched by and center on Native people. But when Standing Rock Sioux elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard and others founded the Sacred Stone Camp April 1, to bear witness against the proposed construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline underneath a dammed stretch of the Missouri River adjacent to the Standing Rock Reservation, they launched a movement like few in American history.

They also endured what many impartial observers have described as excessive and unnecessary violence against non-violent activists, ranging from freelance security firms loosing attack dogs on elders to law enforcement turning firehoses on activists in sub-freezing weather.

At Redefine, we pointed out parallels between the Standing Rock Sioux’ work and that of Native people in the California deserts, all of them working to save their lands from energy companies, but with the environmentalists who support Standing Rock largely supporting the energy companies in the desert. When the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced in December that it wouldn’t give the pipeline company an easement under the river without a full environmental review, we countered the popular assumption that the issue was over. And we also had something to say about comparisons between Standing Rock’s water protectors and the group of militants in the previous item in this list.

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January 1995 flooding in the Sacramento River basin | Photo: USDA

Delta Tunnels

For decades, the state’s water planners have been trying to find a better way to divert water from the Sacramento River into the aqueducts of the State Water Project and Central Valley Project. At present, both projects use huge pumps to suck water out of the southern Delta, while Sacramento River water is sent in that direction though a complex maze of channels and sloughs.

The water planners have good reasons for wanting to do things differently: the pumps make water in the Delta essentially flow upstream, which disrupts fish migration — with devastating effects on species like Chinook salmon and the Delta smelt. Using the Delta’s channels as conveyances also expose the whole system to the risk of catastrophic failure if a levee collapses along the way, as for example during an earthquake.

So in that sense, building two 30-mile tunnels to send water under the Delta makes a certain kind of sense. But the likely cost, both in terms of dollars and environmental effects, are staggering, and at year’s end the project seems stalemated.

We’ve reported on the tunnels proposal for several years; in 2016, we noted that new sea level rise projections could make the project obsolete by mid-century, and that taxpayers will likely end up footing the $16 billion bill for the project despite promises to the contrary. We also commented on Senator Dianne Feinstein’s end-of-year Hail Mary pass to ensure that whatever plan the water planners come up with to divert water from the Sacramento to southern farms and suburbs, the Endangered Species Act won’t get too badly in the way.  

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A member of the Lassen Pack, California's newest wolf family | Photo: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Predators

California’s big carnivores certainly had an interesting time of it in 2016. In the north, one large predator — the gray wolf — expanded its tentative presence in the state, much to the delight of wildlife lovers, though with some concerns raised by livestock growers at the Shasta end of the state. In November, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife announced that a new mated pair of wolves had set up housekeeping in Lassen County, with pups possible in 2017 if they haven’t had them already. Shortly thereafter, CDFW released its five-years-in-the-making Conservation Plan for  gray wolves, which was met with mixed but generally somewhat positive reviews.

At the other end of the state, California’s other large predator has had a difficult time, at least in the Santa Monica Mountains and other ranges in the L.A. Metro Area. The reason: highways that aren’t designed with wildlife migration in mind. Roadkill incidents regularly take the lives of Los Angeles’ pumas, and the population in the Santa Monica Mountains is suffering from inbreeding. There’s hope, though: work is progressing on a puma crossing (usable by other wildlife, as well) at Liberty Canyon, near Agoura Hills. And though conflicts between the big cats and their human neighbors are near-inevitable as we further encroach on their habitat, it seems as though common sense prevailed in one or two of those conflicts in 2016.

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A yard in Des Moines, Iowa | Photo: Tony Webstersome rights reserved

The Election

The coming changeover in government is obviously a yuge environmental story, and we looked at it from a few different angles. Before the election, we dissected the four most notable parties’ environmental platforms: Redefine’s sister KCET department Ballot Brief put together a great summary of our work.

We also took an extended look at Donald Trump’s signature campaign issue, the Border Wall, which may not ever become a reality. We looked at the Wall’s likely effects on climate change (bad), on water and floods and public safety (bad), and on wildlife (really bad).

Post election, we started what will likely be a major theme over the next years: discussing the Trump Administration’s effect on the environment. For one thing, California will be more or less on its own in setting groundbreaking environmental policy on climate and other issues. But though it’s been frustrating trying to get definitive answers about some of Trump’s Cabinet picks, we reported that the guy he put in charge of job searches for the Interior Department was likely bad news for California water issues.

It looks like we’ll have our jobs cut out for us in 2017.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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