Badlands Journal
The Unforgettable Commencement Address by Paul Hawken to the Class of 2009, University of Portland, May 3, 2009...Badlands Journal editorial board.http://www.badlandsjournal.com/2009-08-14/007363
The Unforgettable Commencement Address by Paul Hawken to the Class of 2009, University of Portland, May 3, 2009
When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” Boy, no pressure there.
But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.
“…the earth needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”
This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water, soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really good food, but all that is changing.
There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.
When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description. Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.
You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the world has ever seen. Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea, not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants, businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers, weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders, grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.
There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is true. Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.
Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely unknown Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood and their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit.. And today tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and non-governmental organizations, of companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.
“Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.”
The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.
The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago, and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90 percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the universe, exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science would discover that each living creature was a “little universe, formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”
“We are here because the dream of every cell is to become two cells.”
So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body? Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second question: who is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a deep innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the past. Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the stars come out every night, and we watch television.
This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened, not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.
Paul Hawken is a renowned entrepreneur, visionary environmental activist, and author of many books, most recently Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw
It Coming. He was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters by University president Father Bill Beauchamp, C.S.C., in May, when he delivered this superb speech. www.paulhawken.com
Merced Sun-Star
Scores of dead fish in Atwater canal prompt investigations...CAROL REITER
ATWATER -- Hundreds of dead fish that filled canals around the southwest rural area of Atwater on Thursday afternoon were probably killed by a lack of oxygen.
The fish, mostly carp and catfish, were found floating in a canal at Highway 140 and Bert Crane Road. A call to the agricultural commissioner's office sparked a state investigation.
The dead fish were in a canal fed by the Atwater wastewater treatment plant. Warden Andy Roberts of the California Department of Fish and Game said the fish probably died because of low flow in the canals.
"The water stopped flowing long enough that the water became hot and depleted of oxygen," Roberts said. The treatment plant is regulated so that it cannot release too much water into canals, but Roberts said there's no minimum that the plant has to release. Because the wastewater flows into many lateral canals, there are signs on the canals stating that the water has come from a treatment plant and people shouldn't swim in it or drink it.
The fish ranged in size from just a few inches up to almost two feet long. Smaller fish and crawdads didn't seem to be affected by the water problems.
Although Roberts believes, after a preliminary probe, that it was low oxygen, a complete investigation will be done on the water, soil and the dead fish.
Officials from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board in Fresno were also on the scene, but didn't want to comment because they hadn't started their investigation into the fish kill.
Roberts said other factors besides low oxygen and hot water could have killed the fish, although his preliminary investigation hadn't turned up anything.
"It could be pesticides or something from the wastewater treatment plant," Roberts said. He said he'd walked the agricultural fields around the canals, and there was no sign of any pesticide spraying.
A biologist from the agricultural commissioner's office was also on scene earlier in the day, documenting the fact that there were dead fish. If any pesticide poisoning is found, the ag commissioner's office will take over the investigation.
Roberts has been working in the Merced and Mariposa area for the past three years, and this was a first for him.
"I've never seen this before," he said. "Those fish could have been killed by anything."
Roberts also reminded people that they shouldn't eat any of the fish found near the canals unless they are caught alive and fresh. The dead fish will probably be cleaned up by scavengers such as birds, raccoons and coyotes, he said.
Loose Lips: Wal-Mart keeping tabs on its support
In case anyone thought support for the Wal-Mart distribution center was waning, the big box chain is coming up with fresh figures to see how the public feels about its Merced project.
A survey two years ago showed that 80 percent of people here support the project. Who'd think the world's largest retail had self-esteem problems?
Lips' abode got a call the other night from a friendly woman with Voter Consumer Research in College Station, Texas, wanting us to answer some questions. Somehow Wal-Mart forgot to scrub us from the list of phone numbers.
First, she asked, "Who do we support in the mayor's race? Michael Gabriault-Acosta, Bill Spriggs or Rick O-um-Oh-ser-e-oh." Hard to say at this point.
The poll segued into a series of questions about whether we supported the Wal-Mart distribution center and what we thought of the opponents' criticism. By this time, Lips was scribbling notes as fast as the pollster.
We approached head Walmart mouthpiece Aaron Rios at a company event to learn more about the survey. Like a good spokesman, Rios couldn't say anything about the survey.
If we were a gambler, we'd bet the figures will be revealed just before the project goes before local leaders. Unless somehow the project's support has gone the way of health care reform.
Facing angry crowds, politicians try new health care tack...MICHAEL DOYLE, Sun-Star Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- Congressional town hall meetings can now be a contact sport, prompting San Joaquin Valley lawmakers to try different strategies for meeting with constituents.
All five congressmen who represent the Valley between Stockton and Visalia are conversing with voters throughout the August recess.
Not everyone, though, is holding the kind of wide-open health care dialogue that's grown unruly elsewhere.
"It's just a hot issue," Rep. Devin Nunes. R-Visalia, said Thursday. Some lawmakers are holding traditional town halls. Some are meeting with select groups.
Some, including Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, are emphasizing targeted meetings and telephone conference calls.
"He is making himself accessible to his constituents in many large group settings, which will be much more productive than the town halls which, these days, only serve as venues for those who only wish to disrupt a serious discussion of the issues," Cardoza's press secretary, Mike Jensen, said Thursday.
Telephone conference calls, often dubbed telephone town halls by congressional offices, have become one popular alternative.
On Wednesday night, separate telephone town halls were convened by Rep. George Radanovich, R-Mariposa, and Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton.
McNerney drew about 5,000 participants, from a congressional district that stretches from Manteca to Morgan Hill, said his spokeswoman Sarah Hersh.
Radanovich's policy counsel, Tricia Geringer, said that roughly 3,500 residents of Modesto, Turlock, Madera and Fresno participated during at least part of Radanovich's hourlong program Wednesday.
"People like it," Geringer said. "It's a good opportunity to be involved."
Jensen said Cardoza conducted similar telephone sessions in June and July, drawing 4,280 participants in the first program and 5,231 in the second.
Telephone town halls enable lawmakers to reach large audiences at once, and also to exert maximum control. There are no insulting placards or alluring cameras to interfere with civility.
On Wednesday, Geringer said, Radanovich fielded several dozen questions.
By contrast, in-person public sessions potentially leave lawmakers more vulnerable. Some raucous sessions have become YouTube and cable television sensations.
On Thursday, at a site yet to be determined in Clovis, Nunes plans a public session to walk constituents through the current House health care package, which reached some 1,017 pages before being narrowly approved by the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Aug. 1.
"This is an issue that's complicated, and for the first time we're getting really thoughtful e-mails and questions, as we should," Nunes said.
The possibility of a public flare-up is also drawing more media attention, like the three television camera crews that showed up Thursday for a Fresno event where Nunes spoke.
Radanovich wants to schedule a town hall meeting by this fall, Geringer said.
Like Cardoza, Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, does not have any town hall sessions planned. Both Democrats have been participating in numerous constituent meetings; for instance, with health care professionals.
"We do have a variety of health care meetings scheduled," Costa's press secretary, Bret Rumbeck, noted Thursday, citing several sessions set for next week.
Costa was to have participated in a Fresno health care forum on Aug. 7, but University of California at San Francisco organizers abruptly canceled it, citing scheduling conflicts.
In recent days, other Democrats have reconsidered their town hall decisions. Notably, Rep. Brian Baird, D-Wash., apologized late Wednesday for referring to protesters' "brown shirt" tactics and in a turnaround declared he would now hold five town hall programs in coming weeks.
"My hope and trust is that we can have the kinds of informative exchanges that I have valued for so long and that reveal the very best of public discourse," Baird said."
Health care: let's debate, not shout
Our current system is broken, now we need to negotiate a plan to fix it...Our View
All the shouting at town hall meetings on health care reform doesn't change the fact that the current system is badly broken.
The debate must be on how best to fix the system, and we won't get to that fundamental question if the various factions refuse to listen to what the other side has to say.
There's nothing wrong with asking tough questions and being skeptical of the proposal before Congress. But shouting down speakers you don't agree with is not healthy for a political system that already suffers from too much cynicism.
Health care represents one-sixth of our economy and it's unwise to move quickly on solutions without knowing the unintended consequences of the proposal that's more than 1,000 pages long. But that doesn't mean stay with the status quo.
There are 47 million Americans without health insurance, and we all pay for their health care through our taxes and increased insurance premiums. They jam hospital emergency rooms for routine care, taking valuable resources needed for real medical emergencies.
In California, a 2007 study found that every family with health insurance paid a "hidden tax" of $1,186 a year when unpaid medical bills of the uninsured get "cost shifted" to the insured and taxpayers. That should concern those who support the current system.
In Rep. Dennis Cardoza's congressional district, he said there are 150,000 without health insurance. In addition, here in the Valley there is a shortage of doctors and other medical professionals. The medical school planned at UC Merced will be focused on fixing that shortage.
There also must be fairness brought into a system that allows insurance companies to deny coverage for pre-existing conditions. There must be a method to allow workers to move from job to job without worrying about whether they'll have health coverage.
The escalating costs of health care must be slowed while not compromising care. We have previously expressed our concern that the proposal before Congress doesn't meet that goal.
The Congressional Budget Office said the reform proposal would not "reduce the trajectory of federal health spending by a significant amount." These issues must be debated and resolved.
But that won't happen as long as opponents use this issue to make political points in preparation for next year's mid-term elections.
Stop shouting and start negotiating a bill that improves our flawed health care system.
Letter: We need tort reform...GREGORY O'CONNOR, Merced
Editor: Having bureaucrats determine if individuals need a medical procedure is a terrible mistake.
Washington needs to slow down here. More input needs to come from the very voters who put these congressmen and senators into office. More input needs to come from medical professionals. More emphasis needs to be made in regards to tort reform.
Outrageous and unmanageable malpractice insurance premiums for doctors translate into outrageous, unmanageable health care premiums for employers and patients.
I call upon Rep. Dennis Cardoza to hold a town hall meeting to address these concerns.
Letter: Water issue...MIKE MOREHOUSE, Merced
Editor: This is a letter I wrote to Rep. Dennis Cardoza:
Thanks for responding to my letter concerning the water crisis facing our farming communities. But your attempt to fault the "crisis of water" on a drought does not address the problem and by blaming the Department of Interior and its bureaucratic agencies is obviating Congress' responsibilities.
Congress established the Department of Interior, complete with the laws that guide its actions, therefore, Congress can override those powers through legislation. Will you lead the fight?
Congress, with friends in the radical environmental movement, has caused this crisis, and I am puzzled as to why? Congress refuses to break the stranglehold that these radicals have on our lives and our local issues, even as it destroys what once was a world-class agricultural economy.
It seems that environmentalists call the shots and Congress jumps. You, sir, were put in office to serve your constituents not some far-flung "shut-down America" group.
For Congress to use the issue of "save the fish" as talking points, while cities like Dos Palos, Mendota and Firebaugh become financial ghost towns is beyond reality and is pure idiocy to the power of 10.
Los Banos Enterprise
Bypass time line may need adjusting...Corey Pride
The country's current economic climate may cause the planned start of construction for the Highway 152 bypass to be delayed, a Merced County Association of Governments official said in recent weeks.
MCAG Director Jesse Brown said although there has been a little less than $10 million set aside to acquire land for the bypass, the 2013 date for the start of construction probably won't be met.
"At this point and time my thinking is it's very unlikely," Brown said.
Money is the issue that could delay the $218 million project.
Brown said the economy has slowed Regional Transportation Impact Fees throughout the county. RTIF is charged to new businesses based on how many car trips they are likely to generate. Forty seven percent of the total RTIF funding from the county and every city in it, except Livingston, is scheduled to go toward the bypass. The fee is one of the bypass' main funding sources.
Other funding mechanisms appear to have stalled as well. Public Works Director Mark Fachin said a request for federal stimulus package dollars for the bypass was rejected. Brown said the state of California is not budgeting money for capital projects because of its financial issues.
As it stands now, the bypass' first phase, Santa Fe Grade to Highway 165, is scheduled to be completed by 2015 at a cost of $68 million. The second and third phases of the project will cost a combined $150 million. The bypass is in the engineering and design phase and does have some of the funding it needs, but not enough.
The bypass is believed by many to be necessary to deal with increased traffic levels and projected gridlock on Highway 152 in the coming decades. Mayor Tommy Jones said it's imperative that officials keep trying to lobby for the funding for the bypass.
"You must plan ahead during difficult times," Jones said. "The last thing I want is 10 years from now the kids come to me saying you knew this was going to happen."
Sacramento Bee
Suburban Sacramento land rush? Big homebuilders buy up 'finished' lots...Jim Wasserman
Sacramento's new-home sales are still down and out, but some capital-area builders are betting money that the region's suburbs will soon resume their growth boom.
They've begun snapping up ready-to-build home lots at prices ranging from $25,000 to $67,000, setting the stage for a new suburban land rush.
The phenomenon suggests that a real estate market in decline for four years may be resetting for a new business cycle, some say.
Builders looking for land are focusing on "finished" lots, which already have government approvals, streets and utilities.
"They just have to pour a slab and start building," said Kathryn Boyce, Sacramento analyst for Costa Mesa consultant Hanley Wood Market Intelligence.
Capital-area builders say prices for finished lots have risen 20 percent since April as giant public builders muscle back into the region's land game for the first time since 2005.
Boyce said the land rush is greatest in Placer County, followed by Folsom and Elk Grove.
Hanley Wood counts 17,251 finished lots in El Dorado, Placer, Sacramento, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties. Many are owned by lenders that repossessed them. Others are owned by development firms that need to raise cash. Investors own still more.
The recent escalation in land prices has led some in the industry to question whether they can make money when so many homes are priced at $250,000 or less.
"Prices might be going up too fast," said Tim Lewis, owner of Roseville-based Tim Lewis Communities.
Lewis recently bought lots at two projects in the capital region and one in Reno – his first in that city. "I'm cautiously looking at projects, but I'm certainly not on a buying frenzy like some of these publics (publicly traded builders) might be," he said.
Even with the recent rise, land prices in the Sacramento region are nowhere near the dizzying levels of five years ago. At the height of the real estate boom in 2004, builders paid up to $150,000 for finished lots in Roseville, and up to $120,000 in Natomas and Elk Grove.
Still, the renewed scouting and buying by building giants has sent a buzz through an industry that has endured prolonged downsizing and financial trauma.
"There is a consensus out there that we are at the bottom or pretty darn close," said James Radler, a Roseville-based land broker with Park Place Land Advisors of Irvine.
Radler and others say publicly traded home builders such as Los Angeles-based KB Home, Texas-based D.R. Horton, New Jersey's K. Hovnanian Homes and Meritage Homes, headquartered in Arizona, are among those looking at lots and buying. Others in the game include private Arizona-based building giant Taylor Morrison. All are among the capital region's top builders.
"These guys need lots," Rad- ler said. "If they don't do deals, they don't build homes, and if they don't build homes they aren't in business."
Most of the builders didn't respond to Bee inquiries, which is not surprising, say those who watch the industry. Said Boyce, "They're trying to position themselves without anybody knowing."
"They all want to be under the radar as much as they can," added Dean Wehrli, vice president and Sacramento analyst for Sullivan Group Real Estate Advisors of San Diego.
During the housing downturn that began after area home prices peaked four years ago this month, many large builders sold off home lots to maintain balance sheets. A few closed down divisions and left the area. Now, though capital-area home building remains sluggish – just 1,764 sales the first half of 2009 – firms are competing again for lots in a market they expect to begin rising as early as 2010.
Industry analysts say big Wall Street home builders, especially, need more lots to keep operations going while waiting for a new cycle.
"They essentially haven't done any buying for four years," said Radler.
The supply of lots is also constrained by the closing of Natomas to new building permits through 2011. That region, popular with buyers and builders for much of this decade, is under a building-permit moratorium until levee fixes bring 100-year flood protection.
The building freeze has worked in favor of Placer County, and Roseville, especially, which accounted for 26 percent of the capital's new-home sales in the second quarter of 2009, according to the Gregory Group, a Folsom industry consultant. During the real estate crash, the affluent city has remained the region's strongest new-home market.
Boyce said builders are buying lots throughout Placer County – in west Roseville, at Rocklin's Whitney Ranch and in Lincoln. Radler, too, confirmed the Placer County rush.
"That's where it seems everybody wants to be. That's the first choice," he said.
"We're looking all over the region," said Russ Davis, vice president of Folsom-based Elliott Homes. "Whether it makes economic sense or not is always the question."
Davis said the firm has decided for that reason against buying raw land in Placer Vineyards, a potential zone of future home building southwest of Roseville's current growth area. A plan approved by the Placer County Board of Supervisors last year there proposes 14,132 homes. But lawsuits have challenged the approval, adding to previous delays in readying the land for a new wave of housing.
"We're not actively pursuing it," said Davis. "We've looked at it a couple times. But it doesn't make economic sense for us."
Michigan-based Pulte Homes, though not buying new lots yet in the Sacramento region, plans to start soon after finalizing a merger next week with Dallas-based Centex Homes. That merger will make the combined entity the region's market giant, accounting for almost one in five sales.
"We're looking to buy. Inventory is shrinking," said Chris Cady, Pulte's Sacramento division president.
Also back in the hunt amid a run-up in lot prices is Kevin Carson, Sacramento division president for a startup builder, the New Home Co. That's an Orange County-based venture launched by former executives of John Laing Homes, which crashed and closed earlier this year.
Carson, Laing's chief Sacramento executive since 1999, said the firm aims to start at least one new-home community quarterly in the region, primarily in the "move-up" category. Among options: buying back some of the Laing land that went back to lenders after the company folded.
Carson isn't thrilled about suddenly accelerating land costs at a time of cheaper home sales prices, saying, "It's not a good trend. If the land keeps escalating in price it will take us right out of affordability."
But bigger signals about the housing market keep him searching. He said, "Signs are certainly looking toward cycling out of this."
Central Valley Business Times
Link found between Central Valley pesticides, frog declines
• Study centers on Central Valley
• ‘Frogs are like the canary in the coal mine’
Amphibians are struggling to survive around the world due to loss of habitat, a virulent fungus and now, a third reason – pesticides, says Don Sparling, associate professor of zoology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
Mr. Sparling, a researcher and associate director of the Cooperative Wildlife Research Laboratory at SIUC, has been involved with the issue for years. The second edition of his textbook and reference, “Ecotoxicology of Amphibians and Reptiles,” is due out early next year. His most recent study was published in the August edition of “Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry.”
Along with other researchers, he recently discovered that the same chemicals that make California’s Central Valley so successful as a farming area also make the nearby Sierra Mountains deadly for frogs. Specifically, the study looked at Pacific tree frogs and foothill yellow-legged frogs, both of which are native to the mountain meadows and are declining in population.
Mr. Sparling and the team found neurotoxin pesticides are finding their way up out of the valley and into the snow and eventually the streams where the frogs live and breed.
And the results are devastating.
Using laboratories at SIUC, Mr. Sparling and his graduate students found that as little as 0.3 parts per billion of endosulfan -- the active ingredient in many pesticides -- in water is enough to kill half of the frogs living in it.
“At 0.8 parts per billion, we lose all of them,” Mr. Sparling says. “We always thought there was an association between pesticides and declining amphibian populations, and we’re building up a body of evidence to show this is the case.”
His research studies the effects of “environmentally realistic” amounts of pesticides on amphibians, such as frogs. California’s Central Valley, with its great diversity of farming and heavy use of chemicals, along with its nearby mountains and declining amphibian populations, provided the perfect opportunity.
“The Central Valley is an extremely intense agriculture area, with everything from grapes to peaches, to nuts and tomatoes grown there,” Mr. Sparling says. “Along with that, you have literally hundreds of thousands of pounds of active-ingredient pesticides, this is before it’s diluted, applied each year in this area.”
Mr. Sparling and his colleagues looked at whether the pesticides were involved in the amphibian population declines. A main question they faced involved finding out how the chemicals worked their way up out of the valley and up into the Sierra.
Using sampling techniques, the team found the chemicals were indeed making their way into the frogs’ environment, most likely by wind.
“These pesticides are applied by airplanes and we found that the wind would blow some of it up into the mountains, for instance,” says Mr. Sparling. “In other cases, these chemicals would volatize after being applied, turning into a gaseous state, which could also be picked up and spread into the mountains by wind.”
Timing was also a major factor in the damage caused by the chemicals. Chemicals applied in late winter and early spring would find their way into snows packed in the cooler mountain region. As the snow melted each year, the chemical released into the streams just as frogs begin to breed.
“As soon as ice is out of those streams, frogs start breeding,” Mr. Sparling says. “The newly hatched frog larvae are at their most vulnerable right at this time, when the chemicals are getting into the water.”
Chemical exposure causes death and abnormalities in the tadpoles, in some cases causing their signature long tail to develop off-center, resulting in an animal capable of swimming only in a tight circular “corkscrew” pattern that makes it easy pickings for a hungry fish. It also causes drastic differences in the rate of growth and other problems.
“The sub-lethal effects of chemicals are probably even more important than outright killing,” in terms of affecting the population, he says. “It’s more insidious.” Contamination levels far below the lethal range may cause such effects.
The foothill yellow-legged frog is especially susceptible to the chemicals such as endosulfans, which kill by essentially overloading the nervous system and rendering breathing muscles useless. Europe and Australia each have banned the use of the chemical as a pesticide, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also is studying the issue, Mr. Sparling says.
The researcher says he is optimistic humans can find ways to both farm on a large enough scale to feed the population and protect non-pest animals.
“To produce crops to provide for the world we have to use pesticides, and I’m not anti-pesticide,” he says. “But it’s important for us as scientists, agriculturalists and environmental protectors to make sure we continue developing pesticides that are as protective as possible of non-target animals as can be, both in the chemicals we use and application methods.”
Mr. Sparling continues working on the issue, helping graduate students examine the effects of the interaction of the chemicals -- the cocktail neurotoxins -- on frog populations, looking at whether they interfere with one another, synergize or have an additive effect. He also is looking at the effect of each chemical on the mountain yellow-legged frog, a relative of the foothill yellow-legged frog that lives at higher elevations.
Monitoring the frog populations’ health is critical to humans as they seek to protect the environment from unintended consequences.
“Frogs are like the canary in the coal mine. They serve as early alarms for the environment,” Mr. Sparling says. “They also provide a large and important link between the aquatic and terrestrial environments. If amphibians go, a huge link will be gone.”
San Francisco Chronicle
A lawsuit filed today in San Francisco seeks to protect a tiny fish that is nearing extinction in the waterways of the Delta...David Perlman
SAN FRANCISCO -- A lawsuit filed today in San Francisco seeks to protect a tiny fish that is nearing extinction in the waterways of the Delta.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a national advocacy group, filed the suit in federal district court claiming that protection for the little minnow's species was illegally withdrawn by the Bush administration in 2003 after it had been listed as "threatened" by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service four years earlier.
Known as the Sacramento splittail, or Pogonichthys macrolepidotus, the species was once abundant from Redding on the Sacramento River to Friant Dam on the San Joaquin, but its population has been declining for years because of water diversions, pesticide pollution and other disruptions to its habitat, according to the center's biologists.
The lawsuit involving the splittail is one of a number of suits the center has filed seeking to reverse withdrawals of protection for many threatened and endangered species of plants and animals - known as "delisting" - that occurred during the Bush administration years.
Obama asks court to block forest road building...MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Obama administration says it will defend a 2001 rule imposed by President Bill Clinton that blocked road construction and other development on tens of millions of acres of remote national forests.
The administration's decision was contained in court papers filed Thursday in a case in Wyoming that could help settle the fate of remote federal forests. The administration is siding with environmentalists in the case.
Conflicting court opinions have variously upheld and blocked the so-called Roadless Rule, which prohibited commercial logging, mining and other development on about 58 million acres of national forest in 38 states and Puerto Rico. A subsequent Bush administration rule had cleared the way for more commercial activity there.
A spokesman for the Justice Department said the appeal notice, filed in U.S. District Court in Wyoming, meets a Friday deadline to preserve the government's right to pursue the appeal.
The administration has not made a final decision on whether it will appeal the case, he said.
A federal appeals court threw out the 2005 Bush roadless rule last week, saying the rule "had the effect of permanently repealing uniform, nationwide, substantive protections that were afforded to inventoried roadless areas" in national forests.
The California-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the 2001 rule offered greater protection to remote forests than the 2005 rule.
The Aug. 5 ruling, one of dozens in recent years related to roadless forests, was not the final word on the issue.
The Wyoming case is pending in the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where environmental groups are appealing a ruling by a federal judge repealing the Clinton roadless rule. Arguments are expected this fall before an appeals panel in Denver.
Environmentalists called the Obama administration's decision to defend the Clinton-era rule a major step toward resolving the roadless issue in their favor.
"We are grateful that the Obama administration is upholding and honoring the commitment of the president to uphold and enforce the 2001 roadless rule," said Kristen Boyles, a lawyer for the environmental group Earthjustice, which represents a coalition of environmental groups in both appeals. Obama had said during the presidential campaign that he supports roadless values.
The latest filing "shows that the Obama administration is going to stand behind the need for nationwide roadless protection," Boyles said.
Vilsack calls for renewed emphasis on forests...MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON, (AP) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is urging more attentive management of forests, calling them valuable environmental and economic attributes that are in need of restoration and conservation.
Such an approach would combat climate change, protect water resources and improve forest conditions, he said in a speech prepared for delivery later Friday. Not only that, the changes would create thousands of jobs, Vilsack added.
"Declining forest health and the effects of our changing climate have resulted in an increasing number of catastrophic wildfires and insect outbreaks that have consumed the time and resources of the Forest Service," the former Iowa governor said in remarks obtained by The Associated Press.
"It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America's forest lands with an eye toward the future," he said. "This will require an unprecedented, all-lands approach that engages the American people and stakeholders. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and
landscapes that sustain us."
Vilsack is set to deliver the speech, his first address on the Forest Service, later Friday in Seattle. He was urging "a collaborative management approach with a heavy focus on restoring" natural resources.
The Forest Service manages national forests and grasslands encompassing about 193 million acres — an area equivalent to the size of Texas. Still, more than 80 percent of forests in the United States are outside the National Forest System. Vilsack said the Obama administration will seek to increase cooperation with states and private land owners, including businesses, individuals and Native American tribes.
The administration's plan calls for the Forest Service to help develop "green jobs" that help restore forests while using them as "carbon sinks" to help offset global warming, Vilsack said.
Some conservation work has already begun, he said. The Forest Service has allocated about $1.5 billion through the economic stimulus law for conservation and forest health. A total of 512 projects are aimed at creating jobs and promoting forest rehabilitation through projects such as removal of small trees and underbrush that serve as fuel for wildfires.
At least 30 projects will promote development of biofuels from trees, Vilsack said.
On the Net: Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us
Conservationists secure rest of Franklin Canyon...Richard Procter, Chronicle Sacramento Bureau
The California red-legged frog, the western pond turtle and other special-status species residing in Franklin Canyon's natural habitat can relax now that an East Bay land conservation group has secured the entire area for preservation.
The Muir Heritage Land Trust signed an amended agreement this month that adds 60 acres to the 423 acres of Franklin Canyon the group purchased last year. The group will have until June to raise $2.6 million to complete the transaction.
Franklin Canyon, located in Hercules, has been the target of development projects on several occasions because of the terrain's flat and building-friendly nature. Each time, Hercules voters have stopped such projects in their tracks, most recently in 2001 when they rejected a proposal for the area that included 500 houses, a hotel, office buildings and stores.
The land trust had been in continuous negotiation with the property owners, a consortium of investors, since the initial agreement was signed last year. The continued negotiations were a result of the extreme desirability of the final 60 acres, which had been identified as the most easy-to-develop part of the property.
"I think the owners essentially thought the 60 should be worth more, so we didn't come to an agreement on price," said Linus Eukel, executive director of the land trust. But this year, "they came to the realization that it was a fair price."
The final acreage was purchased for $830,000.
While the trust raises money from private contributors and foundations to pay for its newest acquisition, it will be completing a $3 million restoration of a bordering property, Fernandez Ranch. The restoration project, which began Tuesday, is expected to be completed by October and creates public access to the area by adding trails and a new bridge.
Together, the properties create 1,185 acres of contiguous preserved habitat in the Rodeo Creek watershed.
Plotting the path of renewable power lines...David R. Baker
A new state report tries to tackle one of the touchiest issues in California's effort to expand renewable power, suggesting possible routes for new transmission lines to carry electricity from wind farms and solar plants.
Power lines often generate intense opposition from environmentalists and landowners. But without new lines, the solar power plants and wind farms planned throughout California won't be able to ship their electricity to the towns and cities that need it.
So several state agencies, electrical utilities, renewable power developers and environmental groups have joined together to figure out where to put new lines, hoping to prevent public fights. The effort, called the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative, released its latest report this week.
The report examines where transmission lines are needed most, will cost the least and will cause the least harm to the environment. It doesn't recommend exact routes, nor does it specify how many lines must be built.
Instead, it presents options, suggesting broad pathways for lines that can link planned renewable power projects to the grid. Most of the proposed lines are in the Southern California desert, while one stretches to the Oregon border.
In concept at least, two lines would run through eastern Contra Costa and Alameda counties, while another would link Tracy to the South Bay. Building all the lines would cost $15.7 billion, but not all of them would need to be built.
"It gives us a sense, based on the environmental input and the economic input, where we should be concentrating our efforts," said Jeffrey Byron, a member of the California Energy Commission, one of the state agencies involved. "We want to utilize existing wires and right-of-ways first, but we do know we're going to need new transmission lines."
Environment, economy
The initiative won't prevent all power-line battles, participants say. But it does attempt to strike a balance between environmental and economic concerns in a way that could become a model for the rest of the country. President Obama has made upgrading and expanding the country's electrical grid a key part of his energy plans.
"We're transforming the way we power the economy. That's an audacious thing to do," said Carl Zichella, regional director for the Sierra Club, who is working on the transmission initiative. "And there are some people whose point of view is limited to their backyards. I think they have a valid point of view, but they don't get a veto."
The report uses as its starting point Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's goal of getting 33 percent of California's electricity from renewable sources by the year 2020. It identifies places where large solar power plants, geothermal plants or wind farms have already been proposed, as well as areas where they are likely to be proposed in the future.
Together, those places could generate as much as 77,526 megawatts of electricity, more than all of California uses on a typical summer day. A megawatt is a snapshot figure, representing the amount of electricity flowing across the grid in an instant, and 1 megawatt is enough to power 750 homes.
Obstacles to transmission
The report examines possible routes for transmission lines to carry all that electricity. It also illustrates some of the obstacles. For example, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has proposed creating a national monument in the Southern California desert that would overlap some of the renewable energy zones studied in the report.
If created, the Mojave Desert National Monument could block the development of 11,700 megawatts of renewable power, according to the report.
Report online: To read the Renewable Energy Transmission Initiative's findings, go to: www.energy.ca.gov/reti/documents.
Lawsuit Filed Challenging Removal of Protection for Sacramento Splittail...Dan Bacher
The Center for Biological Diversity Thursday filed a lawsuit challenging the Bush regime's corrupt, politically tainted decision to remove the Sacramento splittail from protection under the Endangered Species Act. The dramatic decline of the native fish occurs as Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Schwarzenegger Democrats in the California Legislature are pushing a plan to build a peripheral canal that will likely result in the extinction of splittail, Delta smelt, longfin smelt, Sacramento River chinook salmon, Central Valley steelhead and green sturgeon.
”It should be a no-brainer for the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration to clean up this shameful relict of the Bush legacy and again protect the splittail,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The splittail has severely declined since delisting; federal protection is needed to prevent the extinction of splittail and other native fish species that share its habitat in the Delta and Central Valley.”
For Immediate Release, August 13, 2009
Contact: Jeff Miller, Center for Biological Diversity, (510) 499-9185
Lawsuit Filed Challenging Improper Bush-era Removal of
Endangered Species Protection for Sacramento Splittail
SAN FRANCISCO— The Center for Biological Diversity today filed a lawsuit challenging a politically tainted decision by the Bush administration to strip the Sacramento splittail, an imperiled fish species native to the Central Valley and San Francisco Bay-Delta, of Endangered Species Act protections – a 2003 decision engineered by disgraced former Bush administration official Julie MacDonald. The lawsuit is part of a larger campaign on the part of the Center for Biological Diversity to undo Bush-administration decisions that weakened protections for dozens of endangered species.
“The Bush administration regularly put industry interests over conservation and let politics dictate endangered species decisions, but the delisting of the splittail was one of the most outrageous cases of political interference, manipulation of science, and blatant conflict of interest,” said Jeff Miller, conservation advocate with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Three investigations by the inspector general and a report by the Government Accountability Office to Congress concluded that Julie MacDonald illegally tampered with the splittail listing decision.”
”It should be a no-brainer for the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Obama administration to clean up this shameful relict of the Bush legacy and again protect the splittail,” said Miller. “The splittail has severely declined since delisting; federal protection is needed to prevent the extinction of splittail and other native fish species that share its habitat in the Delta and Central Valley.”
Conservation groups petitioned for Endangered Species Act protection for the splittail in 1992 and the Fish and Wildlife Service proposed listing the species in 1994. The agency delayed listing until a Center lawsuit and court order forced the Service to take action. In 1999 the splittail was listed as a threatened species. After litigation by water agencies challenging the listing, a court ordered the Service to review the status of the splittail. In 2003 the Service removed the splittail from the threatened list despite strong consensus by agency scientists and fisheries experts that it should retain its protected status.
The delisting decision, which expressly ignored the most recent splittail population trend studies, was overseen by Bush administration official Julie MacDonald, former deputy assistant secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks at the Department of the Interior. MacDonald resigned in disgrace following a scathing misconduct investigation by the Interior Department’s inspector general revealing the depths of her corruption. MacDonald, who owned an 80-acre farm in the Yolo Bypass – a floodplain that is key habitat for the splittail – edited the splittail decision in a manner that appeared to benefit her financial interests. Two subsequent inspector general investigations concluded that MacDonald should have recused herself from the listing review process, and that she edited and interfered with the scientific data used in the decision.
The Sacramento splittail (Pogonichthys macrolepidotus) is a minnow native to the upper San Francisco Estuary and the Central Valley. Splittail are primarily freshwater fish but can tolerate moderately salty water. They are found mostly in slow-moving marshy sections of rivers and dead-end sloughs, though floodplains are important for spawning. The splittail once occurred in lakes and rivers throughout the Central Valley as far north as Redding on the Sacramento River and as far south as the Friant Dam on the San Joaquin River, as well as in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. Massive water diversions and alteration of important spawning and rearing habitat have driven the species to near extinction. Formerly common in the Sacramento, San Joaquin, Feather, and American rivers, the splittail is extirpated from all but a fraction of its former range and now is largely restricted to the Delta, Suisun Bay, Suisun Marsh, and Napa Marsh.
The splittail is estimated to be only 35 to 60 percent as abundant in the Delta as it was in 1940, and the percentage decline over the species’ historic range is much greater. Splittail numbers in the Delta have declined steadily since 1980, and in 1992 numbers declined to the lowest on record. Although population levels appear to fluctuate widely from year to year based on freshwater outflow, since the 2003 delisting of the species available data (2003-2007) shows splittail abundance has dropped to low levels for five consecutive years. The remnant populations of splittail in the Delta require adequate freshwater outflow and periodic floodplain inundation to thrive. Splittail are threatened by unsustainable water diversions, the effects of dams, wetlands habitat loss, pesticide impacts, and predation and competition by introduced species.
The manipulation of science for the benefit of private interests reached new heights at the Fish and Wildlife Service under the Bush administration. By suppressing, twisting, and ignoring information from its own biologists, the administration illegally removed or withheld Endangered Species Act protections for numerous species. In many cases, government and university scientists carefully documented the unauthorized editing of scientific documents, the overruling of scientific experts, and the falsification of economic analyses. Many of the illegal decisions were engineered by MacDonald.
The Center kicked off a Cleaning up the Bush Legacy Campaign in 2007, seeking to reinstate protections for 60 imperiled species and more than 8 million acres of habitat wrongly denied federal protection because of political interference. The campaign has already met with significant success: in response to Center lawsuits, the Fish and Wildlife Service has agreed to redo critical habitat designations for 19 species and reconsidered listing the rare, highly imperiled Mexican garter snake as an endangered.
Unsustainable water diversions from the Delta have caused the collapse of many fish runs in the Delta and Central Valley. Since 2002, delta smelt, longfin smelt, threadfin shad, Sacramento splittail, and striped bass have declined catastrophically and the state's largest salmon run of Central Valley fall-run chinook is suffering from record decline, forcing cancellation of commercial and recreational salmon fishing in California for the second straight year. White and green sturgeon numbers in San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento River have also fallen to alarmingly low levels. The southern green sturgeon population was federally listed as threatened in 2006.
Because federal and state agencies have so mismanaged the Bay-Delta, California’s largest and most important estuary, courts and federal agencies have begun to order changes in water export operations to protect fish populations. In 2007, an Alameda County court ruled that the California Department of Water Resources had been illegally pumping water out of the Delta without a permit to kill delta smelt and other fish species listed under the California Endangered Species Act. A federal court also rejected a federal “biological opinion” allowing high water exports and ordered reduced Delta pumping. In 2008, a federal judge invalidated a water plan that would have allowed more pumping from the Delta at the expense of protected salmon and steelhead trout. Earlier this year the National Marine Fisheries Service determined that pumping operations of the Central Valley Project jeopardize the long-term survival of winter and spring-run Chinook salmon, green sturgeon, Central Valley steelhead, and orcas that feed on the salmon, and mandated a 5-7% reduction in Delta water exports to save salmon.
More information on the Sacramento splittail
The Center for Biological Diversity is a nonprofit conservation organization with 225,000 members and online activists dedicated to protecting endangered species and wild places. http://www.biologicaldiversity.org
Roll Call
Former Staffers, Lobbyists Likely to Testify in Ring Case...Jennifer Yachnin...8-13-09
A multitude of former House and Senate aides are expected to take the witness stand when the trial of former House aide and lobbyist Kevin Ring begins next month.
Federal prosecutors said Thursday that they could call as many as 15 witnesses against Ring, who is charged in the ongoing influence-peddling investigation of disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, including former Hill aides and lobbyists, several of whom have cut plea agreements.
Among those expected to testify are Todd Boulanger, an aide to then-Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) and later one of Abramoff’s deputies who pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to defraud the government; Neil Volz, chief of staff to then-Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio) who became a lobbyist and pleaded guilty in 2006 to helping Abramoff bribe Ney; John Albaugh, chief of staff to then-Rep. Ernest Istook (R-Okla.), who pleaded guilty in 2008 to conspiracy to commit honest services fraud; and Anne Copland, a former aide to Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) who pleaded guilty in March to honest services wire fraud.
In addition, numerous Members could be identified during the trial — including many who are not directly connected to charges in the case, but whose names are raised by the alleged co-conspirators in e-mail exchanges offered as evidence — including notable former lawmakers such as ex-Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.), Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
A proposed exhibit list filed with the court also indicates that the wife of ex-Rep. John Doolittle (R-Calif.), Julie Doolittle, has also been named as a co-conspirator in the case. Ring is accused of negotiating with Abramoff to hire the wife of “Representative 5,” who is not identified in the government’s indictment.
The exhibit list includes communications between Julie Doolittle and Abramoff about her employment.
“Though Ring is not on every exhibit regarding the job for Julia Doolittle, he is on several. Those he is not on, such as this exhibit in which Julia Doolittle wrote that she looked forward to working with Abramoff, place Ring’s involvement in procuring the job in context and show the end result, that Abramoff in fact hired Julia Doolittle,” the government wrote in court documents. “Moreover, Ring is responsible for acts of his coconspirators taken in furtherance of the conspiracy. His coconspirators include Abramoff and Julia Doolittle.”
Ring’s attorneys have requested that the exhibits be rejected by the court, asserting they are irrelevant.
“The government has included a collection of documents relating to Julia Doolittle’s job that were not sent by, to, or carbon copied to Mr. Ring. There is no evidence that Mr. Ring had any involvement in the details of her work, or played any role in choosing what work she would do. These documents are not relevant,” the defense team wrote in court documents.
It is not yet known whether Ring, who has denied charges of bribery and conspiracy to commit fraud, will testify in his own defense.
During a pretrial hearing Thursday to discuss the more than 1,200 proposed exhibits, U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle also revealed that Ring had rejected a plea bargain in July.
That offer would have required Ring to plead guilty to corruption charges carrying a maximum sentence of five years in prison. Prosecutors could not provide an immediate estimate of the maximum sentence Ring would face if he is found guilty of the indictment pending against him, but noted that charges of fraud alone could carry a term of up to 20 years.
CNN Money
Keep your cash safe
Here's what you need to know about protecting your money in the case of a bank failure...Jessica Dickler
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As yet another bank faces collapse, consumers are worried about their cash.
So far this year, 72 banks have failed, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Struggling southern regional bank Colonial Bank could be the 73rd.
But individuals with deposits at Colonial, or any other troubled bank, are insured by the FDIC for up to $250,000. And in the FDIC's 75-year history, no customer has ever lost an insured deposit.
"When your money is in a bank that is FDIC insured it is backed by the full force of the United States government, and it doesn't get any better than that," said Carol Kaplan, a spokeswoman with the American Bankers Association.
So, if your cash is in an account with less than $250,000 at a bank insured by the FDIC, "there is virtually no way you are going to lose your money," Kaplan said.
Consumers who are worried that their account may exceed the $250,000 mark can spread funds around by opening additional accounts within the same bank -- as long as they are under different names, like a joint account with your spouse or a trust for your children. Consumers can also shield themselves from losses by opening up different accounts with less than $250,000 under the same name, as long as they are at different banks.
Kaplan suggests that account holders speak to a bank employee about strategies to get additional FDIC insurance. Banks will help people reorganize their funds to get full coverage or set up a sweep account, which will automatically move any amount in excess of $250,000 to another bank.
To calculate their personal exposure, consumers can go to http://www.fdic.gov/ and click on the Electronic Deposit Insurance Estimator, also known as EDIE.
When your bank fails
In the case of a bank failure, the FDIC assumes control of the troubled institution and will try to arrange a quick sale to a different bank. If another buyer does not immediately step up, the FDIC will remain in control of the bank until a buyer can be found.
Even under these circumstances consumers can access their deposits within a couple of days, if not immediately, Kaplan said.
But the odds of a bank failure are still relatively rare. The current crop of bank failures hardly comes close to what happened during the savings & loan crisis two decades ago. Between 1987 and 1991more than 1,900 financial institutions went under -- with 534 failures in 1989 alone.
The FDIC disclosed that it was closely watching 305 financial institutions on its "problem bank list" at the end of the first quarter. While that number is higher than it has been in the last few years, there were 2,165 on the list in 1987. The FDIC does not publish the names of the troubled banks for fear of spurring a bank run.
If Colonial fails, mortgages get more scarce
Colonial BancGroup controls 25% of all warehouse-lending funds. If the bank fails and that money disappears, mortgage loans will be even harder to get...Colin Barr
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The potential collapse of Colonial BancGroup poses another hazard to the still-shaky housing market: Mortgages could become even harder to get.
The Southern regional bank, based in Montgomery, Ala., is the largest remaining player in warehouse lending, which provides short-term financing to independent mortgage bankers. At one time, these mortgage bankers originated half of all U.S. home loans using these funds.
Today, the warehouse lending market is decimated. In 2007 it was worth an estimated $200 billion; now there is just $25 billion available -- 25% of which belongs to Colonial. If Colonial fails, those funds become even more scarce.
"It's like if they shut down half the concession stands at the baseball game," said Scott Stern, CEO of the Lenders One mortgage bankers group in St. Louis. "It means the guy who's last in line is going to have to wait a lot longer to get a hot dog, and in this market who knows what the price is going to be when he gets there?"
The money began drying up when investors started shunning mortgages not guaranteed by government-backed agencies such as Fannie Mae. These loans, made by the independent mortgage bankers, had become closely associated with the worst excesses of the housing bubble.
Among the biggest players in the market were Countrywide, rescued last year by Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), and Washington Mutual, which collapsed last September. This year, two other prominent lenders had to unwind their warehouse business: National City, the troubled Cleveland bank acquired last fall by PNC (PNC, Fortune 500); and Guaranty Bank, the Texas thrift that warned last month that it expects to be taken over by regulators.
To be sure, everyone isn't fleeing the market. ResCap, a troubled home lender owned by the government-supported GMAC finance company, said earlier this year that it would expand its warehouse lending business. Citi said this month it expects to put $2 billion into warehouse lines this year.
But with small banks failing and pulling back and many larger players, such as JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo, not aggressively pursuing new business, few expect the new entries to reopen the market.
Thus the industry is lobbying Washington to give government-backed Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and Ginnie Mae a bigger role in warehouse lending.
But with those entities already backing some 90% of current U.S. mortgage originations -- and taxpayers on the hook for potentially hundreds of billions of dollars of losses at Fannie and Freddie -- that idea is proving a hard sell.
Still, mortgage bankers are hoping the latest tremors in the banking industry will make Washington more receptive.
"We're trying to show people how important this is, but I'm not sure the urgency is there," said Glen Corso, a longtime mortgage industry executive who now heads the Warehouse Lending Project that's advocating an expanded federal role. "We'd like to see a private solution, obviously, but failing that we need to get something in place to keep financing flowing."
BB&T to buy Colonial bank - report
Southern regional bank Colonial BancGroup, on verge of failure according to judge, could see rival grab its branches and deposits...Chris Isidore
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Troubled Colonial BancGroup appeared to be on the verge of failure Friday as a federal judge ordered a freeze of its assets, and a wire service reported that its deposits and branches are to be purchased by rival BB&T.
The Montgomery, Ala., bank, which has 355 branches spread across Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Nevada, and Texas, would be the sixth largest bank failure in U.S. history and by far the largest failure of 2009.
With about $25 billion in assets, Colonial is 100 times larger than the typical bank to have failed this year.
Financial wire service Dow Jones reported that BB&T will buy Colonial's deposits and branches, but not the loans and other financial assets it holds. Terms were not known.
Colonial spokeswoman Mary Tolbert had no comment on the report, nor did BB&T spokeswoman Cynthia Williams or FDIC spokesman David Barr.
BB&T, based in Winston-Salem, N.C., is also a regional banking power, with 1,500 branches across the Southeast. It is also a major mortgage lender.
Most customers of Colonial should not be affected by the closing. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the federal agency that has protected bank deposits since the Great Depression, will guarantee account balances up to $250,000.
Trust fund hit: Still, the failure of Colonial will be another blow to the FDIC trust fund, which has had to cover 72 bank failures so far in 2009.
The fund took a $35.1 billion hit in 2008, and an additional $4.3 billion decline in the first quarter of this year, leaving it with assets of only $13 billion as of March 31. But most of last year's decline was due to $25 billion the agency set aside to cover future losses.
Little more than a year ago, bank failures were relatively rare, with only four occurring in the first six months of last year. The collapse of IndyMac, a major mortgage lender, in July 2008, signaled a rash of failures to follow. IndyMac cost the FDIC about $10.7 billion by itself, and is the most expensive failure in history.
Colonial could end up as the second-most expensive bank failure, according to Chip MacDonald, a banking lawyer at Jones Day, given its active position in providing mortgage financing through mortgage brokers and other lenders across the Southeast.
"It's probably going to be cheaper than IndyMac, but my guess is it could be $5 billion to $7 billion," he said. "That's a significant share of the FDIC fund."
It is now a rare Friday night that the agency does not seize the assets of a newly failed bank. And the number of banks judged as troubled has soared to 305 as of March 31, up from only 90 a year earlier. Those 305 problem banks on the FDIC's confidential list have combined assets of $220 billion.
The trust fund that covers the deposits is paid by banks, and the weaker banks have seen those premiums rise about 14% in the last year. The agency has also announced a special one-time assessment on bank assets that will raise $5.6 billion for the fund this September. But those funds will come from money that the banks will not lend out to businesses and consumers in hopes of reviving the economy.
Legal problems: MacDonald said that Colonial is also unusual because of the allegations of criminal wrongdoing at the bank.
Colonial disclosed on Aug. 4 that federal agents had executed a search warrant at its warehouse mortgage lending offices in Orlando, Fla. It also had been forced to sign a cease and desist order with the Federal Reserve and regulators at the end of last month related to its accounting practices and recognition of losses, which limited its abilities to make dividends or other payments to investors.
The agents who searched its offices came from the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program, even though Colonial never received TARP funds.
Colonial applied for TARP assistance but had been told it needed to be able raise an additional $300 million in private capital to be eligible for the federal assistance. On March 31 Colonial announced it had found such an investor in Taylor, Bean & Whitaker Mortgage Co., a major non-bank mortgage lender based in Florida. But that deal collapsed, and TBW halted operations on Aug. 5 as its offices were also searched by federal agents.
The bank had issued a statement to investors in November saying it had applied for TARP and had no reason to believe its application was being processed through the normal channels. After it later disclosed the need to raise the additional $300 million in capital to get TARP, it was hit by a shareholder suit.
The possible sale of Colonial to BB&T also comes a day after U.S. District Judge Adalberto Jordan ruled in favor of Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), which had requested a temporary restraining order to keep Colonial from liquidating or transferring assets worth $1 billion.
"Viewing Colonial's contractual breach in conjunction with the fact that Colonial is on the brink of collapse and is suspected of criminal accounting irregularities, the potential for immediate substantial injury to Bank of America is clear," the judge said in his order.
The lawsuit that prompted the order was filed by Bank of America. It involved more than 6,000 mortgages issued by its subsidiary and held in trust by Colonial. According to the motion, Bank of America is owed more than $1 billion in assets, but Colonial has failed to pay the amount owed.
Last month, the bank said in a statement that it had "substantial doubt about Colonial's ability to continue" due to uncertainties about its ability to increase its capital levels.
Shares of Colonial (CNB), which have fallen 80% in 2009, were not trading Friday. But shares of BB&T (BBT, Fortune 500) gained nearly 9% on the report of the acquisition.