Visiting editor Dwain Zack: Valley must grow less
Editor's note: Each quarter, two or three community members serve as visiting editors, attending weekly editorial board meetings and learning about community issues and how the Opinions pages are assembled. We invite them to share their views. These opinions were written by our first-quarter visiting editors. They chose their topics.
While the debate within the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint process centers on different visions of housing densities, squeezing the same number of people into a smaller space only forestalls the huge problems facing the valley. Instead of debating the form that future growth will take (18 people per acre vs. 31), we should ask ourselves what amount of growth is appropriate.
At the heart of the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint process are assumptions about future population growth. According to www.valleyblueprint.org, "Our Valley is predicted to almost triple by 2050 to more than 9 million people. This new population is equivalent to adding 11 new cities the size of Fresno."
Today, we face major air quality issues and have a growing shortage of water. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can mitigate the problems caused by a tripling of our population with good urban planning.
The blueprint process is based on the idea that this massive influx of population is inevitable, that we can do nothing to slow or stop it, that our only option is to attempt to limit urban sprawl by agreeing to higher population densities.
Yes, higher density housing is needed. Yes, we need a smart regional plan for the future. But in order to secure a cleaner, brighter tomorrow for our region, we must also limit the growth of our cities. We must face the fact that there is a limit to the number of people this valley can house without ruining our quality of life.
Valley Blueprint moves toward hard choices on urban density...Editorial
When so many are worried about this year's paychecks and when so many houses sit vacant due to foreclosures, it's hard to be thinking 40 years into the future and planning for growth in the Valley.
Hard, but important.
On Monday, there's a public summit at the Convention Center (from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.) on the San Joaquin Valley Blueprint, a two-year process to develop guidelines for growth in the Valley through 2050.
When a consensus emerges, it will go to a regional panel of 16 political leaders -- two from each of the eight Valley counties. They will pick a preferred growth plan and send it back to each county for a vote in the spring. The valleywide plan will not impose mandates on local governments, but is expected to influence their plans.
Since the Blueprint process began, the Legislature and the governor enacted Senate Bill 375, which requires local governments to consider greenhouse-gas emissions in their planning efforts. SB 375 ties access to state transportation funds to compliance with California's greenhouse-gas initiative. The Blueprint should help the Valley comply with SB 375.
One of the most controversial elements of the Blueprint is setting goals for overall residential densities. Proposals range from the current practice of about 13 people (or four homes) per acre, to 18 people per acre, on up to 31 people per acre.
Some say the higher figure is wrong for the Valley, with its tradition of suburban living and large rural expanses. Others believe the higher figure is necessary because of concerns about the environment, traffic congestion and the loss of farmland to development.
Resistance to change is always strong. But we really have no choice -- we must raise urban densities. The historical pattern of sprawl we have followed for decades in the Valley is no longer sustainable.
It makes the Valley's bad air worse. It requires infrastructure we can no longer afford. It paves over farmland that can never be replaced. It lengthens increasingly expensive commutes and it contributes to our indefensible dependence on imported oil.
Higher density -- even 31 people per acre -- does not mean the end of suburban lifestyles. Lower densities would still be possible in some areas, so long as the average is met.
We believe the higher figure is appropriate. But densities will have to rise in any case. The status quo -- less farmland, more congestion, dirtier air -- is unsustainable.
Repaired Delta levee leaking again...Matt Weiser
A Delta levee that burst in 2004 is leaking again, though officials differ on whether to call it an emergency.
The levee on Upper Jones Tract in San Joaquin County burst along Middle River, just north of Highway 4, on June 3, 2004. It flooded the 2,000-acre tract and 2,000 more acres on adjoining Lower Jones tract.
But the repair apparently began leaking at an unusually fast rate several months ago. That prompted officials at Reclamation District 2039, which maintains levees on the tract, to declare an emergency.
Dante Nomellini, a Stockton attorney for the neighboring district on Lower Jones Tract, said the leakage definitely qualifies as an emergency. The two districts are linked by a railroad underpass, and both would flood if the levee broke.
California's Department of Water Resources, however, has not decided to declare the leak an emergency. It said the situation requires monitoring, although it has granted money to get repair work started.
The Jones Tract leak underscores the tricky business of fixing Delta levees – a vast network of barriers at risk because many are old and not considered strong enough to defend against severe flood conditions.
The 2004 break in the Jones Tract levee is a wake-up call because it highlights the ever-present threats to Delta levees: It occurred on a sunny day, not in a storm, and officials eventually blamed either a porous foundation or rodent burrowing.
Delta water is an important supply for two-thirds of California residents and millions of acres of farmland. Levees in the estuary protect that freshwater supply from contamination by salty tides. Another levee break on Jones Tract could draw a surge of saltwater into the estuary, requiring water deliveries to be halted.
Leaks are common at many levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta because they are built from poorly engineered soils atop uncertain foundations.
Mike Mirmazaheri, Delta levee program manager for the state Department of Water Resources, said it's not unusual for seepage at a repair site to worsen over time.
Repaired levees in the Delta are especially prone to leakage because the fix usually must be performed underwater.
On Upper Jones Tract, the 2004 break was closed by filling the bottom of the void with large rocks, then adding smaller rocks and dirt on top.
As the material settles, Mirmazaheri said, it sometimes leaves voids within the levee that increase seepage.
To plug the Jones Tract leak, DWR granted the levee district $50,000 to design a fix, and another $300,000 to subsidize construction.
But it wants the district to first commit to repair any environmental damage caused by the work, which requires an agreement with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
It also wants the district to monitor the rate of seepage and slumping in the levee itself, to determine how severe the problem might be.
Mirmazaheri said there is little risk of a sudden failure.
"If it continues seeping through, and if it continues settling, then it could potentially fail in the future," he said. "When or how soon, these are questions we don't really have an answer to. That's why monitoring becomes important."
But Nomellini said water leaking through the Jones Tract levee is not cloudy or muddy, a classic danger sign that the levee is eroding from within.
"This isn't normal leakage. It's no time to fool around," Nomellini said.
UC Merced courts freshmen rejected by other UC schools...Robert Faturechi
MERCED – Just hours after the University of California regents cut 2,300 freshman spots for next fall, Patricia Fels – a counselor at Sacramento Country Day School – asked a class of some 15 graduating seniors to raise their hands if they'd be willing to attend UC Merced, assuming they were rejected everywhere else.
One lonely hand rose.
Raise your hand if you've ever visited UC Merced, she asked.
Not a hand.
Have any of you even visited the Web site, she pleaded.
Such have been the challenges administrators at the University of California's newest campus have faced since opening their doors in 2005. Many graduating seniors are automatically writing off the small Central Valley campus.
With the university system facing deep funding cuts, this year might be different. While spots at several of the more popular campuses are being slashed, UC Merced will be expanding its freshman enrollment.
UC-eligible seniors who are rejected at other campuses will likely be offered a spot at Merced, forcing many with their hearts set on a four-year UC education to take a second look.
According to numbers released last week, UC Merced took in just 9,065 freshman applications for fall 2009, slightly fewer than last year and less than half as many as UC Riverside, previously the least popular UC campus.
"The biggest challenge is getting folks here and explaining who we are," said Kevin Browne, associate vice chancellor for enrollment. "We just want a chance to tell our story. If you want to go surfing every morning, we're not the best choice but I'm not sure that's the best filter for your college selection process."
Campus fosters friendships
Flat green and yellow fields span as far as the eye can see around UC Merced's 105-acre campus. Patches of trees and brush and low brown hills on the horizon are the only breaks in the monotony of the landscape here.
The campus, near Lake Yosemite in the heart of the Central Valley, was built on the outskirts of Merced, allowing for expansion in the coming years but isolating students today.
At first glance, the school fits many of its most pervasive criticisms: too small, too remote, too dull, but the overwhelming sentiment from the undergrads here is that they couldn't be happier.
Kelly Aquina, a senior from San Jose studying psychology, sits in the de facto student union on the lower floor of the library building, chatting with a friend from work. As a member of Merced's pioneer freshman class, she's got only one semester left before she graduates.
"I've always grown up in cities, and coming to Merced is really different," she said. "But since the campus is so small, you make these really close friendships, and Merced becomes home."
Though she admits the party scene is slow and says she could hardly call the drinking holes in downtown Merced bars, Aquina said the close relationships she's cultivated with other students and faculty have made up for the lack of a college-style nightlife.
"Friends from high school tell me they don't even know their professors," she said. "When I see my professors around, we say hi. How do you not have that experience when these are the people who are going to write your letters of rec?"
Research chances are wider
The close relationship between undergraduates and faculty is the central selling point for administrators looking to draw high school seniors and transfers.
The student-to-faculty ratio at UC Merced is 14-to-1, compared to roughly 20-to-1 UC-wide.
With roughly 2,500 undergrads, the school is still years away from reaching the enrollment levels at more established UC campuses, allowing students the small classes and close attention typically found only at small liberal arts universities.
At the same time, faculty members engage in research that wouldn't be possible without the muscle that comes with the UC brand.
That blend allows undergrads the research opportunities generally available only on the graduate level.
Gregg Herken, a history professor, has already collaborated with 11 of his undergraduate students to write a book on the founding of UC Merced.
Reclining in front of his office window, with miles of open field behind him, Herken slapped down the manuscript for the book, titled "The Fairy Shrimp Chronicles."
"When these students are applying to grad school, they can hold this up and say, 'This is a book I helped write,' " he said. "You couldn't do a project like this at a big university."
The title of the book refers to the endangered crustaceans discovered in nearby vernal pools, forcing the university to delay construction and shift the campus about a mile away from its original site. The fairy shrimp has become something of an underground mascot at the campus, officially represented by the native bobcat.
Christopher Ferri, a junior from Sacramento studying physics, said UC Merced was his "back-up back-up" choice when he was applying to schools. After he was rejected from every other campus he applied to, coming to Merced was something of a consolation prize, but he's since thrived.
Ferri got his first research gig during his freshman year, and he now works alongside faculty at a condensed and soft matter physics lab, studying plasmonics and, as he put it, "playing with big lasers." His work will be published in two academic journals this year, a high distinction for an undergrad.
"UC Merced is awesome for that, and that's what they should be telling the world," he said. "But you don't really hear about that."
Students liven up the scene
Though Ferri said he wishes there was more to see and do around campus, the Sacramento native has kept himself busy on campus. The college newspaper, the Prodigy, rarely covers student government, so Ferri takes it upon himself to attend meetings "just to remind them the public is watching."
Self-starters like Ferri have been key in the school's development.
Nick Nakamura, a senior, started a petition along with some friends during freshman year to start a Greek system.
Administrators took notice after the freshmen secured 400 signatures, a significant number during the school's maiden year, and the process got under way. Nakamura's group of friends held open meetings and promoted the organization through word of mouth.
"People just started to trickle in," he said.
Nakamura's fraternity Sigma Chi, boasting some 30 members, will be installed in March, with three more fraternities and two sororities set to follow by the end of the semester.
Other students have taken to more creative ways of livening up Merced's social scene.
Senior Dave Gonzalez, from Santa Clarita, stood outside the library with three friends, planning a recent night's festivities. A local bar in downtown Merced – roughly a 10-minute car or bus ride from campus – hosts a weekly rock-paper-scissors tournament, with the winner claiming a hundred-dollar prize.
Gonzalez hoped to rally enough of his friends out to ensure that a UC Merced student would win.
The four seniors, friends since freshman year, described the student body at Merced as tightly knit. They rarely come across a new face.
"Here, almost all the seniors know all the seniors," said Jack Stratton, an economics major from Orange County. "It's like high school."
SSJID helps farmers weather droughts...Dennis Wyatt
It’s ironic, in a way, that South San Joaquin Irrigation District is celebrating its 100th anniversary as California enters a third year of drought.
The first major drought hit the South County in 1924. It was so devastating major financial losses were suffered by farmers as well as the communities they traded in.
The SSJID’s first round of irrigation in 1924 was March 29. The district ran out of water and was completely dry when it ended after giving farmers 20 minutes per acre to tap into water. Spring run-off was weak. By the end of April, 22,000 acre feet had accumulated in Woodward Reservoir that holds 36,000 acre feet. Farmers were given their second irrigation run in late April but that was limited to 15 minutes.
The third and last round of irrigation came on June 3, 1924 when the remaining water was released. Irrigation normally takes place from March until October.
The building of Goodwin Dam on the Stanislaus River above Knights Ferry in 1913 and the completion of irrigation canals triggered the rapid spread of farming and prosperity around Manteca, Ripon, and Escalon. As agricultural growth taxed the young SSJID system, the Woodward Reservoir storage facility was added in 1916.
Those two improvements, though, weren’t enough though when drought hit. Voters in 1924 eagerly approved bonds for the Melones Dam. The dam was completed in 1926 and was credited with adding $700,000 in annual crop production (1926 numbers) to the South County region. The Melones Dam also was responsible for avoiding a repeat of 1924 twice when dry years produced little rain or snow.
The Tri-Dam Project on the Stanislaus River – a partnership with Oakdale Irrigation District – in 1955 added additional water resources. The Bureau of Reclamation eventually replaced Melones Dam with New Melones while SSJID and OID continued to have water rights secured by the original dam.
SSJID weathered the drought of 1977 and again in 1982 providing virtually full deliveries. They expect to do the same thing this water year.
San Francisco Chronicle
Property tax revenue plummets with home values...Carolyn Said
California could pay the price for the foreclosure crisis for years to come, thanks to Proposition 13, the 1978 voter initiative that caps property taxes.
As banks feverishly dump foreclosed homes at cut-rate prices, and as neighboring homes change hands at similar bargain-basement rates, those amounts are enshrined as the new basis for determining property tax until the homes are sold again. Under Prop. 13, that basis can rise a maximum of just 2 percent a year, even if the home is worth significantly more. The consequence is likely to be a revenue crunch for the public services funded by property tax revenues.
"This is going to have a long-term impact on the state budget and on local budgets," said Jean Ross, executive director of the nonpartisan California Budget Project in Sacramento. "It means that even after the economy recovers, state and local government budgets will not recover fully."
Gus Kramer, Contra Costa assessor, puts it in stark terms.
"It's going to be an absolute economic disaster in Contra Costa County and surrounding areas," he said. "Everyone thinks this is like the last recession with values going down and that when they come back there will be a resurgence - but it's not going to be like that. It will be years before (the tax roll) recovers because all these people are selling (distressed) homes, banks are selling at deep discounts, values are going down from 50 percent to 75 percent. The people buying them will hold onto them for five, six, seven years. The tax base is not going to recover anytime soon."
Here's an example: A four-bedroom home in Antioch sold for $700,000 in 2005. Annual property taxes were $7,000, or 1 percent of the purchase price. If the home goes into foreclosure and sells for $400,000, a common scenario in a county where values have plummeted, the new tax would be $4,000 - or $3,000 less.
Consider that almost 250,000 homes in California were repossessed by lenders last year, according to ForeclosureRadar.com, and you get a sense of the mega dollars lost to the cities, counties, K-12 schools, community colleges and special districts that rely on property tax revenue.
$377 million bite
Loans on those properties amount to $107.8 billion, ForeclosureRadar said. Assume the loans roughly equaled the previous purchase prices, and make a conservative estimate that the foreclosed properties got resold for 35 percent less than those previous prices. That means $37.7 billion in property values has been wiped out - which amounts to a $377 million bite out of annual property taxes that will persist until the properties are resold.
In the 31 years since Prop. 13 was enacted, property tax revenue has increased every year - until now.
During the real estate boom, property taxes soared as homes changed hands at ever-increasing prices. But in the current fiscal year, property tax collections around the state are falling short of projections, although they are up slightly or unchanged in many counties. Current property taxes are based on homes' assessed value as of Jan. 1, 2008. Since then, values have plunged more, which will be reflected in the bills to be paid starting in November. Those taxes will be based on homes' values as of Jan. 1 this year.
"With property taxes, it's a slow-motion reaction," said Marianne O'Malley, an analyst in the California Legislative Analyst's Office.
A forecast from consulting firm Beacon Economics predicts that property tax revenue in the state will fall 6.1 percent in the next fiscal year, which runs from July 1 to June 30, 2010. The following year will see a 3.6 percent decline, followed by a more modest 0.8 percent drop, it predicts. Only in 2012-13 will property tax revenues rise again and then only by 1 percent, Beacon projects.
Even when homes do not change hands, their property taxes can fall. Proposition 8, approved in 1978 as an amendment to Prop. 13, allows for assessed values to decline when market values fall. With prices plunging around the state, hundreds of thousands of property owners will pay lower property taxes in coming months. But as values recover, Prop. 8 allows the assessed values to rise back to the previous amount.
Property taxes are divvied up according to complex formulas that vary for each municipality. The basic 1 percent tax is split among K-12 schools, community colleges, counties, towns and special districts. On top of that, many areas have additional, voter-approved assessments for bonds and special districts.
State has to cover shortfall
A drop in property tax revenue wallops the state, because it is obligated to make up any significant loss to the schools. The Legislative Analyst's Office projects the state will have to pony up almost $1.5 billion to K-14 schools over the next three years to compensate for declining property taxes. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has already said the state will have to make up $430 million this year for school funding because property taxes have lagged projections.
"That $430 million in essence will get built into every year going forward," Ross said. "More school costs will shift onto the state."
Unlike schools, counties and communities have no backstop when property tax revenue falls short.
"Property tax is the bread and butter of our discretionary revenues - it's how counties provide libraries, sheriff's patrols, maintain the jails, district attorneys, prosecution, all the countywide services are funded through the property tax," said Paul McIntosh, executive director of the California State Association of Counties, the advocacy group for the state's 58 counties. "When you see a decline in that, without a decline in demand for those services, it will have a tremendous impact."
Prop. 13 means "there is going to be a long-term hangover from this for quite some time," McIntosh said. "You're resetting the (valuation) bar low; it will take quite a while for those properties to turn over and those values to grow back to what they were just a few years ago."
Alameda County Supervisor Keith Carson thinks the cash crunch may be what it takes for voters to reconsider how government services are funded - including Prop. 13, long considered an untouchable "third rail" of California politics.
"Maybe we need to revisit not just Prop. 13 but our entire funding formula for local government," he said. "As bad as it gets, that's when it forces people to think and to move outside their comfort level and outside the box to address the crisis. Maybe we need to revisit these antiquated ways in which we deal with revenue streams to local government. At some point, it's going to take an initiative, and it would have to be one from the people. It took an initiative for Prop. 13, and it's going to take one again."
Who gets property taxes?
Each county and town has its own formula for allocating property taxes. Here is how the basic 1% tax is divvied up in Contra Costa County. On top of the 1%, many areas have voter-approved additional assessments for bonds and special districts.
-- Schools (K-12 and community colleges) - 48%
-- Special districts - 19%
-- County - 13%
-- Redevelopment agencies - 12%
-- Cities - 8%
Source: Contra Costa County
Under Proposition 13,real estate is reappraised only when ownership changes hands or new construction is completed. Otherwise, property assessments cannot be increased by more than 2% annually, based on the California Consumer Price Index. The tax rate is 1% plus any voter-approved bonds, fees or special charges.
Los Angeles Times
Congress may make $7,500 home buyer tax credit more attractive
Few consumers have tried to claim the credit because it had to be repaid over 15 years. But there's a good chance that they could be relieved of the repayment requirement...Kenneth R. Harney
Reporting from Washington — Should you give the $7,500 home buyer tax credit a second look? Now that Congress may be on the verge of transforming it into a true tax credit -- one that never has to be paid back -- you just might want to do so.
On Jan. 15, the House Democratic leadership outlined its $825-billion economic-stimulus package, loaded with $275 billion in tax cuts and $550 billion in new spending on healthcare, education, alternative energy and infrastructure improvements.
Tucked away in the tax section was a significant improvement to last July's congressional effort to stimulate home sales. That program offered a credit of as much as $7,500 to buyers who had never bought a house or hadn't owned one during the previous three years. To qualify, taxpayers would need to complete a home purchase between April 8, 2008, and July 1, 2009.
But relatively few consumers were attracted to the plan because unlike virtually all other federal tax credits, this one had to be repaid in full to the Internal Revenue Service over a 15-year period. The $7,500 was more like an interest-free installment loan from the government than a straightforward reduction on buyers' tax bills.
Although final details on a revised credit are still subject to negotiations between the House and Senate -- and to passage of the economic-stimulus package itself -- there's a good chance that buyers who sought the credit in 2008, and new purchasers in 2009, will be relieved of the repayment requirement.
According to industry estimates, removing the repayment rule could lead to an additional 202,000 purchases this year. The National Assn. of Realtors is pushing for the July 1 deadline to be extended to Dec. 31, opening the door to even more sales.
Meanwhile, the IRS has come out with two recent advisories on the credit, plus a new Form 5405 for taxpayers interested in claiming the $7,500 benefit, either for 2008 or 2009. You can download a copy of the form at www.irs.gov in the publications and forms section.
Based on the latest IRS guidance, here's what you need to know if you're thinking about buying a house this year -- taking advantage not only of lower prices and record low mortgage rates, but a temporary tax credit that may well turn out to be nonrepayable:
* The $7,500 is available to singles, married couples filing jointly and unmarried co-purchasers, provided they meet the nonownership test for the previous three years. Married couples filing singly can claim as much as $3,750 each. Unmarried individuals can allocate the credit on their filings according to their respective ownership shares or capital investments in the house.
* Only principal residences -- or in the IRS' words, "the one you live in most of the time" -- are eligible. No second homes, investment properties or houses outside the U.S. pass the test. But the definition of "home" extends far beyond conventional houses sited on lots. It "can be a . . . houseboat, housetrailer, cooperative apartment, condominium or other type of residence," according to Form 5405.
* Even if it's your first home purchase, you are not eligible if your adjusted gross income is more than $95,000 (single filer) or $170,000 (married joint filers). Married couples with incomes between $150,000 and $170,000 are eligible for reduced credits, based on a phase-out schedule. Single filers with incomes between $75,000 and $95,000 also are subject to reduced credit limits. District of Columbia residents who are eligible for the city's first-time home buyer credit are barred from use of the federal tax credit. Taxpayers who use tax-exempt mortgage bonds issued by state or local governments to finance home purchases also are ineligible.
* You can't claim the $7,500 credit if you buy your house from a "related person," meaning a spouse, parents, grandparents, children or a corporation or partnership in which you own more than 50% of the stock or capital interests.
If you pass all these tests, and get the purchase done by the deadline date Congress decides as part of the final stimulus package, you should be able to take $7,500 off your federal tax bottom line and not worry about paying it back.
Bush legacy leaves uphill climb for U.S. parks, critics say
Some National Park Service veterans say it may take decades for the agency to undo policies that tended to favor commercial interests and energy projects over conservation...Julie Cart
Reporting from Arches National Park, Utah — Kate Cannon gazed across the high red desert to the snowy La Sal Mountains rising in sharp relief at the horizon. That view of uninterrupted nature is what draws nearly a million yearly visitors to this remote part of southeast Utah.
"Look at the mountains," said Cannon, superintendent of Arches and neighboring Canyonlands national parks. "You can see them. Part of the majesty of this country is the grand sweeping views. The visitors do love it."
Cannon has been focusing on this view after the federal Bureau of Land Management decided in November to auction oil and gas leases on 360,000 acres of public land in Utah, including 93 parcels on or near the boundaries of these parks and nearby Dinosaur National Monument.
The leasing decision was put on hold by a judge Jan. 17, after protests from the park service and environmentalists who complained that the view from the famed sandstone arches and spires would be despoiled by the new roads, heavy equipment, drilling platforms and veil of dust that would accompany the exploration for fossil fuels.
But it is only a temporary victory on the heels of what some in the park service see as a string of defeats in which the nation's parks often acquiesced to the encroachment of commercial interests and energy projects during the eight years of the Bush administration. Among the recently approved projects is a uranium mine two miles from a Grand Canyon visitors center.
Critics of the Bush administration -- former park directors among them -- say its emphasis on commerce over conservation left a legacy that the national parks could be grappling with for decades to come.
Though some of President Bush's actions could be erased with a stroke of his successor's pen, other policies, such as exploration and drilling leases, could take months or years of costly effort to undo -- and would probably be subject to legal challenges.
A hint of the new administration's approach came on President Obama's first day in office, when he put on hold a number of controversial, last-minute environmental rules rushed in by Bush administration officials.
Current and former officials say the National Park Service has taken an unaccustomed back seat to its sister agency, the Bureau of Land Management, which began calling the shots on public lands. The BLM handles the bulk of federal oil and gas leasing that Bush said was key to increasing the nation's energy independence.
"The agency has been demoralized; the employees of the National Park Service have been beaten down," said Bill Wade, former superintendent at Shenandoah National Park and cofounder of a park service retirees group that has been critical of the Bush administration. "The feeling is that their professional expertise and judgment hasn't counted for much; their scientific and research experience hasn't contributed to decisions."
Interviews and reports from the Interior Department's inspector general show a department in disarray.
Some park service veterans are waiting to see what transpires under Obama's Interior secretary, former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). In his first message to employees last week, Salazar said he would stress stewardship and conservation on the nation's 630 million acres of public land.
"If we get lucky and we have a good strong National Park Service director, a lot of this can be reversed quite quickly," said Roger Kennedy, a former park service director and director emeritus of the National Museum of American History.
The leading contender to head the park service appears to be respected agency veteran Jon Jarvis, the Pacific regional director based in Oakland.
Interior spokesman Chris Paolino denied that the department has favored the BLM over the park service.
"There has been and continues to be a great commitment to work cooperatively, with input from all agencies, particularly the National Park Service, with issues of air and water quality surrounding the parks," Paolino said. "That cooperation will continue to be strong."
Bush spoke glowingly of the 84-million-acre park system. As a presidential candidate in 2000 and 2004, he pledged to eliminate the service's nearly $5-billion maintenance backlog by 2005; the most recent estimate to repair and upgrade the nation's parks is $8.7 billion.
Still, the Bush administration managed to keep the park service budget intact, Paolino said. "The park service has the largest operating budget in its history, and that's because of the president."
Beyond issues of infrastructure, former Interior officials and park service directors from both parties say Bush left behind a demoralized department.
Beginning in 2004, Interior's inspector general cited a "culture of fear" and of "ethical failure," and in one report concluded: "Simply stated, short of a crime, anything goes at the highest levels of the Department of Interior."
Following orders from Washington, BLM offices around the West worked to accelerate the pace of domestic energy production and won key concessions that placed oil and gas projects near and within national parks.
Interior veterans said ratcheting down the BLM's power to overrule the park service could be accomplished only by new rules of engagement set out by Salazar.
Some park service veterans argue that commercial projects crowding parks violate the 1916 Organic Act, which mandated that parks' air, water and other resources be preserved "unimpaired" for future generations.
"You cannot save parks, you cannot meet the mandate of the Organic Act simply by managing within park boundaries," said Denis Galvin, a 38-year park service veteran who was the agency's acting director during Bush's first year. "So, oil and gas leases next to Arches -- you've got to have some say what goes on outside parks."
The first blow to parks, critics say, came in the early months of the Bush administration, when Interior overturned the Clinton-era ban on snowmobiles in Yellowstone National Park. The issue has ping-ponged around the courts the last eight years, with judges repeatedly ruling that snow machines impair park resources.
In another controversial act, a Bush appointee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Interior Paul Hoffman, tried to weaken environmental rules and allow more commercial enterprises in parks. Interior backed away from most of the proposed changes, but Wade, of the park service retirees group, said the episode was telling.
"It was a boldfaced attempt to change the mission of the National Park Service," Wade said, adding that the Obama administration -- by its selection of a parks chief -- could reaffirm the agency's dedication to preservation.
More recently, Bush appointees approved a rule change allowing visitors to carry concealed weapons in parks -- a decision decried by every living former park service director, the agency's law enforcement employees and members of the public who sent comments.
All of this occurred as visitation declined and soul searching began about how to make parks more attractive to an increasingly multicultural society, a task that will continue under the Obama administration.
"I think that we've had to expend tremendous energy over the last few years defending the parks and rejustifying their importance to the country," said Stephen Martin, superintendent at Grand Canyon.
But some say the most challenging task for new park officials will be to restore confidence to the battered agency.
"When you look at the cumulative effect of all of these things," Wade said, "it's going to take a long time to dig out from under the rubble."
Warming Trends Alter Conservation
Experts Think Old Paradigm of Fixed Boundaries Will Not Work as Sea Levels Rise...Juliet Eilperin
At the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge on Maryland's Eastern Shore, sea-level rise threatens to drown the brackish marsh on which migrating shorebirds depend. In Northern California, the shrinking snowpack has reduced stream flows that sustain the delta smelt, a federally threatened fish species. Higher summer temperatures in northern Minnesota have depressed the birthrates of the area's once-populous moose, and just 20 inhabit the Agassiz National Wildlife Refuge that was designed in part to shelter them.
As climate change begins to transform the environment in the United States and overseas, policymakers and environmentalists are realizing that the old paradigm of setting aside tracts of land or sea to preserve species that might otherwise disappear is no longer sufficient. It was an idea that worked in 1872, when one of the reasons cited for establishing Yellowstone National Park was to help preserve the few remaining buffalo.
But as temperatures rise and animals and even plants migrate to more hospitable habitats, fixed boundaries set years ago no longer provide the protection some species need. Experts are exploring new strategies, focusing on such steps as protecting migration corridors, collecting and transplanting seeds, making sanctuary boundaries flexible and managing forests in novel ways.
"We have focused on one single principle: You protect the place where the animals live," said Lawrence A. Selzer, president and chief executive of the Conservation Fund. "That's fine as long as everything's static."
Now, with rapid change, federal agencies, including the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Forest Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are beginning to draft management policies that take global warming into account.
NOAA Assistant Administrator Richard W. Spinrad advocates creation of a national climate service to give agencies across the federal government better access to scientific projections so they can anticipate and plan for eventualities such as extended droughts and changes in water flows.
"Many people felt this was a marginal issue to their particular missions, and now they're realizing it's not," Spinrad said, adding that the new thinking reflects "the accelerated pace in which we are seeing the direct impact of climate change on the environment. . . . The need for a national climate service is as strong now as the need for a National Weather Bureau was 120 years ago."
Coming up with concrete strategies for coping with warming trends is a tougher challenge. Anne Morkill, who manages the Key Deer National Wildlife Refuge north of Key West, Fla., said her staff is working with the Nature Conservancy and Florida International University on models of sea-level rise to determine to what extent saltwater intrusion will erode the rocky pine habitat that supports the Key deer and other species. The refuge was created in 1957 to protect the rare subspecies of white-tailed deer, which became geographically isolated 20,000 years ago; after dwindling to a low of 25, the population now stands at 500 to 700.
Refuge managers could try to relocate the deer, Morkill said, but "a Key deer outside the Florida Keys is no longer a Key deer." Moreover, she said, officials need to ask themselves: "How much resources should we use today to preserve a habitat that may disappear in 50 years?"
Protecting wildlife, these experts say, can involve setting aside more land for species to migrate, protecting higher-elevation habitats that have lower temperatures and rooting out invasive species that threaten native ones. Scientists are suggesting that managers of marine sanctuaries look for coral reefs capable of withstanding higher temperatures and change sanctuary boundaries if necessary.
"You can change those lines as long as that flexibility is written into the policy," said David Obura, who directs the nonprofit research and advocacy group Coastal Oceans Research and Development in the Indian Ocean.
Teri Rowles, lead marine mammal veterinarian at NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service, said scientists have recently spotted gray whales north of Barrow, Alaska, in the early months and a humpback whale in the North Slope area, signs that arctic animals are moving north to seek new territory. "That puts them in new areas we have not had to manage before," she said.
Dan Ashe, science adviser to Fish and Wildlife Director H. Dale Hall, said agencies such as his need "to think on much broader scales about conservation" and shift from basing their projections on past climate patterns to an uncertain future. "We have to be much more predictive, which is an uncomfortable place for us to be," Ashe said.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne created a climate change task force in March 2007 that outlined 80 climate policy options on Dec. 3; the Fish and Wildlife Service issued a more detailed draft climate plan less than two weeks later, urging the agency to find ways to connect broader landscapes and assess which species are at the highest risk because of global warming.
"It would have been better if we had started to address it sooner," Ashe said, "but right now we're in a pretty good spot."
But Patty Glick, senior global warming specialist for the group National Wildlife Federation, said that "it's only in the last year or so the federal agencies are starting to take notice" of how higher temperatures will affect conservation efforts.
Academics and conservation groups have just begun to calculate the costs of trying to protect landscapes and species in light of climate change. The Wildlife Federation has called on the government to set aside $7.2 billion annually for the next two decades to help natural resources in the United States adapt to global warming. Sandy Andelman, who directs Conservation International's tropical ecology, assessment and monitoring network, University of Minnesota environmental economist Stephen Polasky and colleagues have calculated that it could cost at least $5.8 billion overall to safeguard biodiversity in the humid tropics unless the world slashes its greenhouse-gas emissions quickly.
The researchers suggest that countries use some of the future revenue generated from auctioning off greenhouse-gas pollution permits to fund these conservation efforts, but Polasky acknowledged it might be hard to "outcompete" other interest groups that will seek to channel these funds to programs such as "green" technology projects or energy subsidies for low-income Americans.
To prod government officials, conservation activists have begun making projections about the future state of sensitive habitats across the globe. In May, the Wildlife Federation published a report estimating that the sea level would rise 27 inches by 2100 and that the Chesapeake Bay region -- including Blackwater -- would lose more than 90 percent of its tidal fresh marsh, tidal swamp and brackish marsh by the end of the century. The group said the projections were conservative.
The Nature Conservancy has calculated that just maintaining California's Mount Hamilton wilderness in the face of warming will cost more than $100 million over the next 30 years, triple the current cost, for activities such as land acquisition and restoration and relocation of species.
"The cost analysis is giving a heads-up this is definitely business unusual," said Rebecca Shaw, the conservancy's director of science in California. "We're not going to meet our management goals, and, if we do, we're going to bankrupt the state in the process."
Still, environmentalists say there are ways to prepare for such an unpredictable future. Thomas Dwyer, who directs conservation programs for the northern Pacific flyway at Ducks Unlimited, said he is hoping to preserve wetlands for migrating waterfowl by acquiring conservation easements on farmland lying behind dikes along the Pacific Northwest coast to "let the sea migrate inland" as its level rises. If the water rises high enough, Dwyer reasons, some owners might be willing to let conservation groups buy their undeveloped land and breach the dikes.
"We just need to look down the road 30 or 40 years and make sure we can have options to restore these estuaries," he said.
New York Times
Green-Light Specials, Now at Wal-Mart...STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM and MICHAEL BARBARO
IT was billed the Choice Meeting: a secret two-day conference in Arkansas in 2005 pairing Wal-Mart Stores, a symbol of scorched-earth global capitalism, with some of the nation’s most influential environmentalists. And it began with a zinger.
“Tell me why I should care about an endangered mouse in Arizona?” asked H. Lee Scott Jr., the retail giant’s chief executive, only partly in jest.
At the time, Wal-Mart was the target of a well-orchestrated assault focusing on its labor practices and environmental record. It was also straining to keep its legendary growth on track. Mr. Scott, hungry for ways to protect and transform his company, began to see environmental sustainability as a way to achieve two goals: improve Wal-Mart’s bottom line and its reputation.
So he presented his colleagues with a radical option — the “choice” that gave the meeting its name — encouraging them to adopt a sustainability program to remake the entire company, from the materials used to build stores to the light bulbs stocked on its shelves. Although participants were conflicted, a vote on the initiative was unanimous: Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and biggest buyer of manufactured goods, would go green.
By virtue of its herculean size, Wal-Mart eventually dragged much of corporate America along with it, leading mighty suppliers like General Electric and Procter & Gamble to transform their own business practices.
Under Mr. Scott, who is retiring this month at the age of 59, the company that democratized consumption in the United States — enabling working-class families to buy former luxuries like inexpensive flat-screen televisions, down comforters and porterhouse steaks — has begun to democratize environmental sustainability.
For decades, many consumers felt that going green was a luxury, too, reserved primarily for those with enough money — and time on their hands — to buy groceries at natural food stores and organic clothing from specialty retailers.
Today, the roughly 200 million customers who pass through Wal-Mart’s doors each year buy fluorescent light bulbs that use up to 75 percent less electricity than incandescent bulbs, concentrated laundry detergent that uses 50 percent less water and prescription drugs that contain 50 percent less packaging.
“If all this sustainability stuff is just for the well-to-do, it’s not going to make a difference,” said Jib Ellison, the founder of Blu Skye, a sustainability consultant who has worked with Wal-Mart.
As the saying goes, Wal-Mart has also done well by doing good. Along with the McDonald’s Corporation, it was one of only two companies in the Dow Jones industrial average whose share price rose last year.
When Wal-Mart first embraced green initiatives, its fortunes were sagging. After blanketing the country with its giant, all-in-one stores, it began cannibalizing its own sales. Older stores looked tattered and tired, and Wal-Mart’s flirtation with higher-end merchandise, like skinny jeans with fur trim, alienated low-income shoppers who preferred unadorned basics.
By renovating thousands of its stores, ratcheting down the pace of its breakneck expansion and all but abandoning its upscale ambitions, it turned around its lagging sales. But its deft financial rejiggering still didn’t burnish its reputation, which had become a business problem, too.
A confidential 2004 report, prepared by McKinsey & Company for Wal-Mart, found that 2 percent to 8 percent of Wal-Mart consumers surveyed had ceased shopping at the chain because of “negative press they have heard.” Wal-Mart executives and Wall Street analysts began referring to the problem as “headline risk.”
So the company, known for bitterly rebutting critics or simply ignoring them, began working closely with activists to improve its labor, health care and environmental records.
It is hard to measure the financial return of a good image. But no one at Wal-Mart talks about headline risk anymore because the headlines have become largely positive.
Profits climbed to $12.7 billion in the 2008 fiscal year, from $11.2 billion in the 2006 fiscal year, while sales jumped to $375 billion, from $312.4 billion, during the same period. The percentage of employees on Wal-Mart’s health insurance plan rose to 50.2 percent, from 44 percent.
And since the Choice Meeting, sustainability efforts have saved Wal-Mart hundreds of millions of dollars, according to people familiar with the company’s environmental initiatives. Wal-Mart declined to provide exact figures about its savings.
“It wasn’t a matter of telling our story better,” said Mr. Scott said in recent interview. “We had to create a better story.”
WAL-MART, of course, didn’t change overnight. It was pushed — or, more accurately, shoved — into wrenching reforms.
When Mr. Scott became chief executive in 2000, the company was a Wall Street darling. With nearly 4,000 stores and more than a million employees, it had edged out Goliaths like Sears and Kmart. But its size and success invited scrutiny. In 2005, two union-backed groups, Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart, set up shop in Washington and started a public relations assault against the company.
At one point, Wal-Mart Watch set up an automated phone system to recruit whistle-blowers to share secrets about the retailer.
In 2005, Wal-Mart Watch obtained an internal memorandum showing that 46 percent of Wal-Mart workers’ children were uninsured or on Medicaid. The memo proposed further ways to cut employees’ health and retiree benefits — at a time when the company was ringing up annual earnings of more than $11 billion.
Meanwhile, environmental groups accused Wal-Mart of being a polluter. Mr. Scott and his team hunkered down, hurling back a litany of statistics and facts in Wal-Mart’s defense.
As the company’s reputation unwound, so did its business. Its stock price fell roughly 20 percent between 2000 and 2005, a drop that executives and analysts attributed, in part, to investors’ anxieties about Wal-Mart’s image. Sales growth lagged behind that of its chief rival, Target, and Wal-Mart faced growing resistance to its expansion.
Inside Wal-Mart headquarters, in Bentonville, Ark., rumors swirled about Mr. Scott’s future, and board members became restless. In the end, directors stood by Mr. Scott, but told him he had to overhaul Wal-Mart’s image.
“What I would tell Lee is that there was a great deal of misunderstanding about the company and that we had to address it head on,” said Jose H. Villarreal, a director from 1998 to 2006 and a partner in the law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.
MR. SCOTT — the son of a gas-station owner — joined Wal-Mart’s trucking department in 1979 and rose to the C.E.O. post in 2000. He acknowledged in an interview that while he was running Wal-Mart, his board “sensitized” him to critics.
He began meeting with minority groups, politicians and environmentalists. Some meetings were awkward; others were punctuated by tirades. But as it turned out, most critics did not want Wal-Mart to disappear. They wanted it to be better.
Mr. Scott used some of his opponents’ ideas to make that happen, believing that sustainability could become an advantage — saving the company money, reinvigorating its culture, allowing it to sell better merchandise and attracting and retaining talent.
Engaging outside consultants and critics to help with that transformation was a huge change for the retailer, which prized its independence. To outsiders, it was a sign that Wal-Mart was adopting a new attitude.
“There was a time where people in business believed all they had to do was run their business,” said David D. Glass, Mr. Scott’s predecessor as C.E.O. “But it doesn’t work that way anymore. There is an accountability that goes way beyond that.”
After the Choice Meeting, Mr. Scott went through a kind of Outward Bound phase, known within Wal-Mart as “Eat What You Cook” — a mantra that encourages executives to experience firsthand the impact of their decisions.
For Mr. Scott, that meant driving to a New Hampshire mountaintop to discuss climate change with scientists. He slept on a bunk bed in submarine-size quarters with visitors including Steven Hamburg, then an environmental studies professor at Brown University and author of a 1994 report criticizing Wal-Mart’s environmental efforts.
Mr. Hamburg, now chief scientist for the Environmental Defense Fund, told Mr. Scott that Wal-Mart’s earlier green initiatives were just window dressing. “So he challenged me back and said, ‘Well, we’ve taken another run at this and we’d love to have your input,’ ” Mr. Hamburg recalls.
Shortly after that conversation, Mr. Scott told the world that Wal-Mart was embracing sustainability. He laid out ambitious, possibly unattainable, long-term goals for the company: running its operations solely on renewable energy, creating zero waste and selling products that sustain the earth’s resources and environment.
Wal-Mart’s suppliers had little choice but to follow its lead.
In came the fluorescent bulbs. In 2007 alone, Wal-Mart sold more than 100 million of them. For a manufacturer, selling a bulb that lasts longer means fewer sold. But it would hurt to lose Wal-Mart as a customer. So G.E. and others ramped up production of fluorescent bulbs.
By selling only concentrated liquid laundry detergent, an effort it began last year, Wal-Mart says, its customers will save more than 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic resin, 125 million pounds of cardboard and 520,000 gallons of diesel fuel over three years.
“Lee pushed me,” said A. G. Lafley, chief executive of Procter & Gamble, and “we totally, totally changed the way we manufacture liquid laundry detergents in the U.S. and, now, around the world.”
Wal-Mart says it now saves itself $3.5 million a year just by recycling loose plastic and selling it to processors. After changing the design of its trucks and how efficiently it loads them, its fleet had a 25 percent improvement in fuel efficiency. Amory B. Lovins, a MacArthur fellow and chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit research organization, said Wal-Mart would save nearly $500 million a year in fuel costs by 2020.
While environmentalists give Wal-Mart kudos for the changes it has made, they say that much of what it has achieved so far amounts to collecting low-hanging fruit. The company sells tens of thousands of products, and has demanded the overhaul of only a handful, they say. “The jury’s out in the long term,” Mr. Hamburg says.
Wal-Mart has revised health care plans and labor practices in recent years, also important facets of its makeover.
In the last few years, it has helped its employees get access to lower-cost prescription drugs and taken steps to prevent labor abuses. For years, some store managers forced employees to work without pay, after clocking out, according to scores of lawsuits. To prevent this, Wal-Mart has programmed cash registers to shut down after an employee has exceeded a certain number of hours. It has also told managers to make sure that employees take lunch and rest breaks.
Last month, Wal-Mart settled dozens of lawsuits contending that it forced employees to work off the clock. The settlement will cost Wal-Mart at least $352 million, possibly far more, according to the company.
Still, many activists, especially in the labor world, remain deeply dissatisfied.
A major class-action sexual discrimination lawsuit is pending against the company. And labor leaders argue that Wal-Mart has simply found new ways to fatten its profits without tangibly improving the lives of its employees. It pays its workers, on average, less than $20,000 a year, and many of them pay thousands of dollars a year in medical bills.
“He had the chance to be the Henry Ford of his generation, especially in the last few years, as the stock price soared,” said Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, of Mr. Scott. “He could have found a way to share the wealth. Instead, he became the epitome of the greed that has brought our economy to where it is today.”
Mr. Scott declined to comment. But Wal-Mart says that its average wage, $10.83 an hour for full-time workers, are competitive in the retailing industry, and that its health plans are accessible to a wider range of workers than those of some of its rivals.
Wal-Mart will need to keep building on its recent successes. While most retail chains have had double-digit declines during the current economic turndown, Wal-Mart had a 1.7 percent sales increase in December at stores open at least a year.
Yet that number was lower than analysts’ expectations, leading some to predict more trouble ahead for Wal-Mart and the rest of the retail industry.
Come February, it will be the job of Michael T. Duke, 58, who has led Wal-Mart’s international operations since 2005, to steer the company through the downturn.
As for Mr. Scott, he will serve as chairman of the executive committee of Wal-Mart’s board until 2011. And he intends to increase the retailer’s lobbying muscle in Washington, especially regarding health care, energy and sustainability.
“As businesses, we have a responsibility to society,” he said this month, speaking to members of the National Retail Federation in his last public speech as Wal-Mart chief. “Let me be clear about this point. There is no conflict between delivering value to shareholders, and helping solve bigger societal problems.”