Badlands Journal
State of the birds and of the Endangered Species Act...Badlands Journal editorial board
The unprecedented "State of the Birds" Report 2009 caused a small stir in some circles during a week otherwise devoted to stories of unprecedented extortion by finance, insurance and real estate representatives in and out of the Obama administration.
The Wall Street Journal, in an apparent lapse of syntactical clarity, offered this line:
Among the more than 800 bird species in the U.S., 67 are listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government, the report says.
Certainly under the Bush administration, including the former president's parting shot at gutting the Endangered Species Administration (see last posting by Badlands), a wide variety of wildlife species in the US have been endangered or threatened by the actions and especially the non-actions of federal government agencies charged with their protection. As the collected works of former Department of Interior Inspector General, Earl E. Devaney, documented, these agencies were frequently in the pockets of the extortionists now destroying the national human habitat and economy. The most outrageous case Devaney investigated, involved oil and gas leases in Colorado, home state of Obama's Secretary of Interior, Ken Salazar.
The Wall Street Journal continues:
Oil and gas development in the West, meanwhile, is affecting birds such as the Greater Sage-Grouse by fragmenting big blocks of their breeding grounds, the report says...The Obama administration has signaled it plans to take a more critical look at projects funded by the government that could threaten wildlife. It said earlier this month that it would put on hold a regulation issued by the Bush administration last December that would have allowed federal agencies to bypass consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service when deciding whether new projects such as dams and roads could harm wildlife.
As the Center for Biological Diversity alert in our last posting indicates, there is a difference between a "signal" and a deed. Salazar is a known friend of oil and gas developers in the West, and the Obama administration has not yet closed the door on Bush's regulation changes. According to the bill, Salazar is only authorized to roll back Bush's ESA-gutting regulations for 60 days and the clock is ticking. What are Obama and Salazar waiting for? Blue Dog approval?
Abuse of that ESA, especially here in the foreclosure-rate capital of the nation, and in Florida, during the entire Bush regime, was an integral part of the national strategy of finance, insurance and real estate special interests -- with the greedy, witless aid of local, state and federal politicians in their pay and resource agencies -- that destroyed the global economy with toxic securities based on sliced and diced subprime mortgages. These are the same special interests, "too large to fail," now extorting trillions from taxpayers in bailouts.
Unemployment is almost 20 percent in Merced. State and local government here, as in many other places in the country, badly need relief funds (called "stimulus"), but if we can't find the imagination to make public work without suspending environmental law and regulation, it will be the result a hangover from a decade of ignoring the global environmental crisis. Earlier this month, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, our local Blue Dog big shot who has moved to Maryland, called on President Obama and the governor to declare his rotten borough "an economic disaster area." The 18th congressional district contains three cities, Stockton, Modesto and Merced, with the highest foreclosure rates in the nation for most of the last two years. Nor, according to the local press, is there any end in sight as housing prices continue to plummet and foreclosure rates to rise.
Efforts to gut the ESA during the Bush administration started with the three legislative attempts made by our famous local duo, the Pomboza -- former Rep. Richard Pombo, Buffalo Slayer-Tracy, and Cardoza. In the midterm elections of 2006, environmentalists conducted a successful campaign to unseat Pombo, then chair of the former House Resources Committee (restored to its earlier title, Natural Resources Committee, in 2007 by Democratic Speaker Pelosi, D-SF).
The bird report is a fine piece of work. We urge readers to go to the website and read it and appreciate, particularly, the fine photography. The Interior department sponsored this collaboration of federal and state agencies, national environmental groups and universities. Fourteen scientists and 36 communicators, web designers and videographers produced it. Although rational people of good will may differ regarding the state of grasslands, wetlands and their associated species, the bird report is a compelling art work, complete with statistics and a whole section devoted to Hawaii, one of the president's home states.
All Salazar has to do is sign his name once or twice to restore the old Endangered Species Act. In a period that promises New Deal-like public works projects, it would be absurd if federal resource agencies that oversee the ESA were to receive larger budgets to administer a law that removes their important authority of consultation on environmental impacts with other federal agencies building those public works projects.
But this is no time to believe in bad dreams.
Badlands Journal editorial board
Wall Street Journal
Nearly One-Third of U.S. Bird Species Seen at Risk...STEPHEN POWER
WASHINGTON -- Nearly a third of the nation's 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in "significant decline" because of habitat loss, invasive species and other threats, according to a report released Thursday by the Obama administration that could ultimately lay a foundation for more regulation of development in certain areas.
The report cites among the threats to bird species energy development, suburban sprawl and agricultural practices.
For example, the report says high commodity prices for corn and other grain caused by growing demand for food and bio-fuels have put pressure on farmers to convert grasslands to crops, threatening birds' habitat. Oil and gas development in the West, meanwhile, is affecting birds such as the Greater Sage-Grouse by fragmenting big blocks of their breeding grounds, the report says.
The Obama administration has signaled it plans to take a more critical look at projects funded by the government that could threaten wildlife. It said earlier this month that it would put on hold a regulation issued by the Bush administration last December that would have allowed federal agencies to bypass consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service when deciding whether new projects such as dams and roads could harm wildlife.
"We're hoping there will be greater heed to the science and just a greater consideration of wildlife" under the new administration, said Steve Holmer, a spokesman for the American Bird Conservancy. Mr. Holmer said actions to protect birds have tangible benefits, in the form of insect control and economic activity generated by bird watching.
A study by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found that wildlife watching generates $122 billion in economic output annually.
Among the more than 800 bird species in the U.S., 67 are listed as endangered or threatened by the federal government, the report says. In addition, more than 184 species are designated as species of "conservation concern," the report says.
The report says the birds of Hawaii -- home to more than a third of all the bird species listed as endangered or threatened in the U.S. -- are in greatest peril. Since humans colonized the islands in 300 A.D., according to the report, 71 Hawaiian bird species have gone extinct, and 10 haven't been seen in as long as 40 years.
The report is based on 40 years of data analyzed by the wildlife service, U.S. Geological Survey, state wildlife agencies and nonprofit groups, including the American Bird Conservancy and the National Audubon Society.
For full report, see State of Birds, 2009 Report, http://www.stateofthebirds.org/
2009 News Release
Secretary Salazar Releases Study Showing Widespread Declines in Bird Populations, Highlights Role of Partnerships in Conservation
Washington, D.C. – Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar today released the first ever comprehensive report on bird populations in the United States, showing that nearly a third of the nation’s 800 bird species are endangered, threatened or in significant decline due to habitat loss, invasive species, and other threats.
At the same time, the report highlights examples, including many species of waterfowl, where habitat restoration and conservation have reversed previous declines, offering hope that it is not too late to take action to save declining populations.
“Just as they were when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring nearly 50 years ago, birds today are a bellwether of the health of land, water and ecosystems,” Salazar said. “From shorebirds in New England to warblers in Michigan to songbirds in Hawaii, we are seeing disturbing downward population trends that should set off environmental alarm bells. We must work together now to ensure we never hear the deafening silence in our forests, fields and backyards that Rachel Carson warned us about.”
The report, The U.S. State of the Birds, synthesizes data from three long-running bird censuses conducted by thousands of citizen scientists and professional biologists.
In particular, it calls attention to the crisis in Hawaii, where more birds are in danger of extinction than anywhere else in the United States. In addition, the report indicates a 40 percent decline in grassland birds over the past 40 years, a 30 percent decline in birds of arid-lands, and high concern for many coastal shorebirds. Furthermore, 39 percent of species dependent on U.S. oceans have declined.
However, the report also reveals convincing evidence that birds can respond quickly and positively to conservation action. The data show dramatic increases in many wetland birds such as pelicans, herons, egrets, osprey, and ducks, a testament to numerous cooperative conservation partnerships that have resulted in protection, enhancement and management of more than 30 million wetland acres.
“These results emphasize that investment in wetlands conservation has paid huge dividends,” said Kenneth Rosenberg, director of Conservation Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “Now we need to invest similarly in other neglected habitats where birds are undergoing the steepest declines.”
“Habitats such as those in Hawaii are on the verge of losing entire suites of unique bird species,” said Dr. David Pashley, American Bird Conservancy’s Vice President for Conservation Programs. “In addition to habitat loss, birds also face many other man-made threats such as pesticides, predation by cats, and collisions with windows, towers and buildings. By solving these challenges we can preserve a growing economic engine – the popular pastime of birdwatching that involves millions of Americans – and improve our quality of life.”
“While some bird species are holding their own, many once common species are declining sharply in population. Habitat availability and quality is the key to healthy, thriving bird populations,” said Dave Mehlman of The Nature Conservancy.
Surveys conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S. Geological Survey, including the annual Breeding Bird Survey, combined with data gathered through volunteer citizen science program such as the National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, show once abundant birds such as the northern bobwhite and marbled murrelet are declining significantly. The possibility of extinction also remains a cold reality for many endangered birds.
“Citizen science plays a critical role in monitoring and understanding the threats to these birds and their habitats, and only citizen involvement can help address them,” said National Audubon Society’s Bird Conservation Director, Greg Butcher. “Conservation action can only make a real difference when concerned people support the kind of vital habitat restoration and protection measures this report explores.”
Birds are beautiful, as well as economically important and a priceless part of America's natural heritage. Birds are also highly sensitive to environmental pollution and climate change, making them critical indicators of the health of the environment on which we all depend.
The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are Federally-listed as endangered or threatened. In addition, more than 184 species are designated as species of conservation concern due to a small distribution, high-level of threats, or declining populations.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service coordinated creation of the new report as part of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative, which includes partners from American Bird Conservancy, the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Klamath Bird Observatory, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Key Findings Summary
Key Findings
The State of the Birds
United States of America 2009
Many of our nation’s birds are sending us an important and troubling message about the state of our environment, according to an unprecedented report based on 40 years of data analyzed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Geological Survey, state government wildlife agencies, and nongovernmental organizations. The report also shows that investment in conservation works, exemplified by the remarkable recoveries of waterfowl after more than 30 million acres of wetlands were restored and managed. Birds are beautiful, economically important, and a priceless part of America's natural heritage--and they are critical indicators of the health of the environment upon which we all depend.
The U.S. State of the Birds report offers heartening evidence that strategic land management and conservation action can reverse declines of birds.
Wetlands: Although many wetland birds show troubling declines, conservation programs have protected millions of acres and contributed to thriving populations of hunted waterfowl, herons, egrets, and other birds. Lesser Scaup, Northern Pintail, and several sea ducks are showing troubling declines, but most geese are increasing dramatically and many ducks have held steady.
Waterfowl: On the whole, 39 species of hunted waterfowl have increased by more than 100% during the past 40 years. Successful waterfowl conservation is a model for widespread habitat protection.
The report also reveals sobering declines of bird populations during the past 40 years--a warning signal of the failing health of our ecosystems. For example;
Hawaiian Islands: Threatened by habitat destruction, invasive species, and disease, nearly all native Hawaiian bird species are in danger of extinction if urgent conservation measures are not implemented immediately. Since humans colonized the islands in 300 AD, 71 Hawaiian bird species have gone extinct; 10 others have not been seen in as long as 40 years.
Oceans: At least 39% of U.S. bird species restricted to ocean habitats are declining and almost half are of conservation concern, indicating deteriorating ocean conditions. Management policies and sustainable fishing regulations are essential to ensure the health of our oceans.
Coasts: Half of all coastally migrating shorebirds have declined, indicating stress in coastal habitats besieged by development, disturbance, and dwindling food supplies.
Aridlands: The aridland birds indicator shows a 30% decline over the past 40 years. Unplanned urban sprawl is by far the greatest threat to aridland birds. A regional system of protected areas can enhance quality of life for people and enable birds to survive.
Grasslands: The grassland bird indicator shows nearly a 40% decline in the past 40 years, based on birds that breed exclusively in grasslands. Farm conservation programs provide millions of acres of protected grasslands that are essential for the birds in a landscape where little native prairie remains.
Additional Findings
Forests: Representing eastern, western, boreal, and subtropical forests, the forest birds indicator dropped by roughly 10% from 1968 through 1980, then increased slightly. In eastern forests, the indicator dropped by nearly 25%. Sustainable forestry, landowner incentives for forest preservation, and urban greenspace initiatives can protect natural resources and help ensure the long-term viability of many forest birds.
Arctic: Because the Arctic is so remote, we lack quantitative information for most species. Arctic-nesting geese are increasing dramatically, but 38% of species that breed in arctic and alpine regions are of conservation concern. The future of arctic habitats and birds depends on our ability to curb global climate change and to explore energy resources with minimal impact to wildlife.
Game Birds: Of 19 resident game bird species, 47% of species of conservation concern. Cooperative partnerships have implemented landscape-level management benefiting both game and non-game bird species.
Marsh Birds: Secretive marsh birds are not well covered by current surveys, but the data we do have suggest relatively stable populations that fluctuate with wet and dry conditions. Marsh birds respond quickly to management and restoration efforts, and even small marshes can support large numbers of birds.
Urban Birds: More than 100 species of native birds inhabit urban or suburban environments. The indicator for these birds shows an increase of 20% over the past 40 years, driven primarily by a small number of very successful species such as gulls and doves. Creating greenspace for birds in cities can help adaptable urban birds as well as migrants stopping over during their long journeys.
Endangered Species: Four American bird species have gone extinct since the birth of our nation, including the Passenger Pigeon, once the world’s most abundant bird. The possibility of extinction is still a cold reality for many birds: 13 species may no longer exist in the wild (10 birds from Hawaii, plus Bachman’s Warbler, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, and Eskimo Curlew). Several species face unprecedented conflict with humans from development, for example, in peninsular Florida, mid-continental prairies, coastal California, Texas hill country, and the Pacific Northwest.
•The United States is home to a tremendous diversity of native birds, with more than 800 species inhabiting terrestrial, coastal, and ocean habitats, including Hawaii. Among these species, 67 are federally listed as endangered or threatened. Additionally, more than 184 are species of conservation concern because of their small distribution, high threats, or declining populations.
•Habitat availability and quality is the key to healthy, thriving bird populations. That is why the report explores different habitat types and the threats they and the birds that depend on them face--and offers recommendations to protect and restore them.
•The U.S. State of the Birds report is the result of an unprecedented partnership among the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), state wildlife agencies, American Bird Conservancy, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, National Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy, and other conservation organizations.
 •Using new statistical techniques developed by U.S. Geological Survey and Audubon scientists, the report integrates long-term trend data from three bird population surveys: the North American Breeding Bird Survey administered by the USGS and the Canadian Wildlife Service, National Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, and the USFWS and Canadian Wildlife Service Spring Waterfowl Survey.
•Each year, thousands of citizen-science participants from across the United States contribute data to these important surveys. However, little is known about the population trends of birds in many habitats, hampering our ability to help them. Greater monitoring efforts are needed to ensure that we can identify where birds need help--while we still have time to make a difference.
Suggested Citation for this Report:
North American Bird Conservation Initiative, U.S. Committee, 2009. The State of the Birds, United States of America, 2009. U.S. Department of Interior: Washington, DC. 36 pages.
A Special Thank You to Volunteers
Our understanding of the long-term health of birds depends largely on the thousands of bird watchers and biologists who volunteer each year for the Breeding Bird Survey, Christmas Bird Count, or many other monitoring programs. The dedication and skill of these citizen scientists reflects their love of birds and the natural world, as well as their concern for the health of habitats and our environment. Without the continued involvement of this army of volunteer observers, this and any future State of the Birds reports would simply not be possible. For more on how to participate in bird-monitoring programs see our Resources section.
Project Leads: Bob Ford, Paul Schmidt
Science Team: Brad Andres, Laurel Barnhill, Bob Blohm, Brad Bortner, Greg Butcher, Jorge Coppen, Charles Francis, Debbie Hahn, Mark Koneff, David Mehlman, David Pashley, Kenneth V. Rosenberg, John R. Sauer, Jennifer Wheeler
Lead Analyst: John R. Sauer
Communications Team: John Bowman, Connie Bruce, Miyoko Chu, Ashley Dayer, Steve Holmer, Alicia King, Sabina Lee, Pat Leonard, Ellen Marcus, Gemma Radko, Nicholas Throckmorton, Blythe Thomas, Nancy Severance, Joshua Winchell
Web team: Pat Leonard, Greg Delisle, Miyoko Chu, Gemma Radko, Susan Steiner Spear
Video team: John Bowman, Jason Kates van Staveren, Cameron Rognan, Union Green (Tony Marchesani, Douglas Kagan, Nelson Martinez, Nancy Hreha, Ellen Mineau), The Station (Jose Maria Norton, Hugh Broder), John Benjamin Hickey-Narrator. Videographers: Timothy Barksdale, David O. Brown, Eric Liner, Larry Arbanas, James Goetz, Benjamin Clock.
We thank the following people for reviewing or contributing to the development of this report:
John Alexander, Eleanora Babij, Breck Carmichael, Tom Cooper, Martha Desmond, Dan Dessecker, George Fenwick, John Fitzpatrick, Krishna Gifford, Richard Gregory, Catherine Hickey, Dave Howell, Dave Krueper, Marcia Maslonek, Larry Neel, Daniel K. Niven, Mike Parr, Melissa Pitkin, Terry Rich, Diane Tessaglia-Hymes, Scott Yaich, Emily Silverman, George Wallace, Jeff Wells, Roger Wells.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service took the lead in creating this report through an unprecedented partnership involving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, State wildlife agencies, and nongovernmental organizations as a subcommittee of the U.S. North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI).
The website, video, and printed report were produced for the partnership by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Merced Sun-Star
Approaching record territory, Merced County jobless rate heads higher...CORINNE REILLY
Merced County's unemployment rate climbed again last month, to 19.9 percent.
That's up considerably from January's 18.9 percent and the county's year-ago unemployment rate of 13.6 percent.
Joblessness here is now quickly approaching the highest level ever recorded, 21.7 percent in February 1996.
The latest figures were released Friday by the state's Employment Development Department.
The data show that Merced County's unemployment level was far higher last month than both the state's 10.9 percent and the nation's 8.9 percent.
And only three California counties had higher unemployment than Merced in February: Colusa, Imperial and Trinity.
California's unemployment rate rose for the 11th straight month, to its highest level in 26 years.
In response to the data released Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement calling unemployment the most urgent problem facing the state.
"There is no higher priority in California today than putting our economy back on track and creating jobs for those who find themselves without a means to provide for their families," Schwarzenegger said.
Like employers across the nation, countless local companies have laid off workers in recent months as they've closed their doors or attempted to stay afloat amid the global recession.
Merced County's unemployment rate has been climbing since September.
Most of the jobs lost locally last month were in the trade, transportation and utilities sectors, the EDD data show. Only the leisure and hospitality sector gained jobs last month, all of them in food services.
Pedro Vargas, a state labor market consultant based in Merced, said he had anticipated some gains in construction jobs. "It was disappointing not to see that," Vargas said.
To view a collection of personal stories about job loss submitted to the Sun-Star by readers, or to offer your own story, go to www.mercedsunstar.com/jobloss.
For information on how to file for unemployment benefits, go towww.edd.ca.gov.
Interactive map: Unemployment in California...Source: California Employment Development Department
This interactive map shows the month-to-month changes in California's unemployment rate by county. Just one year ago, half of California's counties had unemployment rates below 8 percent, a distinction only four can claim today.
Housing Authority worker accused of embezzling $78,000 from Merced County...SCOTT JASON
A 15-year employee of the Merced County Housing Authority was arrested Friday on suspicion of diverting public funds, embezzlement and for making illegal loans.
Mark Wilson, 48, was arrested by district attorney officers at his Atwater home.
Investigators believe Wilson embezzled more than $78,000 in the past couple of years by issuing himself checks from the agency's Section 8 fund, Supervising Investigator Wayne Hutton said.
Attorney John Garcia, who represents Wilson, declined to say whether his client maintains his innocence.
He noted his client has been cooperating with investigators. "He's an honorable guy," Garcia said. "There are always explanations for a person's conduct."
Thousands of checks are issued every month from the account Wilson used to cut himself checks, Hutton explained.
The Housing Authority gets copies of every check cashed by banks as part of its accounting procedures. Twelve checks are put on each page of the report.
Wilson would cover his name with someone else's, then photocopy the sheet of paper so no one would notice that a check was made out to him, Hutton said.
"(He) did a remarkable job of covering his tracks," Hutton said.
This plan went unnoticed until a new accounting system was installed. Hutton said Wilson issued himself a $4,966 check with a number that had already used.
The bank caught the error and contacted the Housing Authority officials, who then called the District Attorney's Office, he said.
During the probe, investigators also found evidence that Wilson made five personal loans that violated the California constitution.
Wilson was charging up to 70 percent interest, which qualifies as loan-sharking. In one case, a person borrowed $6,500 and had to pay back $9,000 in four months, Chief Investigator Pat Lunney said.
Overrun by waste: Large agriculture operations add billions to our economy but what price are we paying?...JONAH OWEN LAMB
A brown frothy mix of water tumbled from the mouth of a 42-inch pipeline to a cinderblock basin covered with slime, its rim shining with the gloss of accumulated muck.
The air smelled of boiled sour chicken.
Beyond the pit of churning water, 12 brown ponds spread across a patch of earth edged by dirt roads.
"Welcome to the chicken sewer," said Larry Parlin, as he looked at Livingston's Industrial Waste Water facility, which his company, Environmental Management Services, runs for the city.
Waste it might be, but it's no sewer. The 283 million gallons of water in the ponds came from the nearby Foster Farms chicken processing plant. The water that is used to clean chickens in the nearby plant ends up here.
Five days a week, roughly 4.4 million gallons of water empties into these ponds along the Merced River. It is through these ponds that the plant's dirty water is meant to be cleansed. About half the water is spread across nearby reclamation fields, said Parlin. The rest seeps into the soil below where toxins, in theory, filter out. Leftover solids are trucked away and used as fertilizer.
But the ponds haven't been working as they should. They are leaching nitrates into the soil and groundwater -- nitrates that in some cases are high above the levels deemed safe by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board, which regulates wastewater discharges.
"That's what needs to be addressed and treated," said Parlin.
Welcome to one of the most serious tradeoffs of the 21st century: as America and the world gird to become green, they're finding that ecology and economy sometimes don't stroll hand in hand into an unpolluted sunset.
The cost of cleaning and greening has to come from somewhere. Increasingly, that cost is being paid by consumers in the form of higher prices passed along by businesses trying to meet ever-stricter environmental regulations.
Another factor is that residents of communities where some companies may pollute have to decide whether the jobs offered at those companies are enough to offset any environmental harm that may occur. With an unemployment rate pushing 20 percent, Mercedians have to ask themselves whether the fate of a fairy shrimp or more chicken guano in their soil matters more to them than a world-class research university or a decent-paying blue-collar job.
Hilmar Cheese Co., for instance, may well inject saltier water into surrounding soil. But no company in the county is engaged in more philanthropic outreach than the firm founded by local families a generation ago.
It's not an either-or choice, but as such, its resolution will affect both the environment and the economy in years ahead. It's all about value judgments, and there are no simple answers when the green of the environment conflicts with the green of a paycheck.
However Mercedians decide, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board hasn't been sitting on its hands. In 2006, after a series of violations and notices, the Foster Farms Livingston facility was issued a cease-and-desist order demanding the site clean up its act.
The order listed a series of violations: the unlined ponds allowed water with nitrate levels four to five times above the regulated levels to seep into the ground below. At least 190,000 cubic yards of sludge had accumulated in the ponds as well, which further contributed to high levels of nitrates in the soil.
Eventually, the water board reached a settlement with Foster Farms and the city of Livingston to build a modern wastewater plant with a larger capacity. The project is slated for completion some time in 2011.
Afterwards, Foster Farms will clean up the abandoned facility along the river. In the meantime, the river of waste from Foster Farms and the ponds' nitrates continue to pollute the groundwater below the site. In October 2008, two wells on the site registered nitrate levels two to four times above the levels the water board allows.
A Foster Farms representative could not be reached but the company's Web site noted their stance on waste and the environment: "At each stage of our operations, from poultry ranches to processing, packaging, shipping, distribution and corporate offices, we have implemented environmental initiatives that promote recycling and reuse, increase energy efficiency, reduce and eliminate waste, and improve air quality, while protecting our precious natural resources."
Bigger operations
Livingston's industrial wastewater facility is just part of the county's problem with animal-related wastewater created by an increasingly industrialized farming sector.
After Tulare County, Merced has the most dairy cows and dairies in the state, with 335 dairies here, according to the Merced County Public Health Department. The county's cow population in 2007 was 243,762. That year those cows produced more than 29 million tons of manure.
Merced County also has the second-largest poultry industry in the state, second only to Fresno County, according to 2002 data, the most recent available from the regional water board.
Today, there are 45 poultry facilities in the county, according to the county agricultural department. In 2007, there were 91.6 million chickens processed for meat in the county and roughly seven million egg laying hens. In total they produced 471,326 tons of poultry manure.
Regulators refer to industrial farms with large numbers of animals living in close proximity as confined animal feeding operations (CAFO).
Their waste is only the first part of a chain that ends in finished products. In Merced, that mainly means chickens and cheese.
Besides the second-highest population of bovines in the state, Merced also has the single largest cheese plant in the country and the biggest chicken plant on the West Coast. The milk from many of the county's dairies, as well as many chickens from chicken farms, ends up at one of these two plants.
The cumulative effects of these industries' pollutants haven't been good.
For cows, that has meant the effects from their massive manure output. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the proper management of dairy waste is "one of the state's most pressing environmental issues."
Chickens produce waste too, but much of it comes at the end of their lives. One of the byproducts from chicken processing, like that of Foster Farm's waste ponds, and cow manure is nitrate.
Nitrates, perhaps the most common and dangerous pollutant from these industries, can sicken and even kill infants if it gets into the water supply, according to Merced County's Department of Health
Merced County may be a bucolic place filled with flowering almond orchards, but some of the worst pollution in the county -- groundwater pollution -- is connected to some of the very industries that are at the heart of the area's economy.
To be sure, the economic benefits of these industries are undeniable. Hilmar Cheese employs 750 people at its plant, 40 of whom work at the water treatment plant. And according to David Sunding of the Department of Agricultural & Resource Economics for the University of California, Berkeley, the economic impact of Hilmar Cheese in Merced was more than $1.8 billion in 2005.
And, overall, the dairy industry that supplies the plant with milk and employs people across the county, has an economic impact in the region in the billions of dollars, according to the Western United Dairymen, an industry group.
Foster Farms equally influences the local economy. The company employs 3,500 people alone in Merced County and their economic contribution through payroll is $112 million a year.
Foster Farms and Hilmar Cheese are at the tail end of a long process that begins in feedlots across the county and ends up as products on our dinner table and also as waste.
Waste is widespread
The fingerprint of waste from animal farming can be found across the county.
The county's nitrate pollution problem, for instance, is spread almost evenly. According to the county's Public Health Department, almost every city in the county and their environs have problems with nitrate pollution.
While there are many causes of nitrate pollution, from fertilizer to sewage, some research indicates that dairies play a role in this pollution.
Research by UC Davis groundwater hydrologist Thomas Harder found significant nitrate and salinity levels at five dairies in Stanislaus and Merced counties. The 2001-2002 study indicated that animal manure is a contributor to these substances in the groundwater.
Part of the pollution from dairies has been a result of the industry consolidation, said David Sholes, a senior engineer for the water board's confined animal unit. "They did get way bigger in the last 20 years," he said. That consolidation has increased farm waste concentration levels "equivalent to that of a small city," points out the EPA.
In 1993, the state had 4,000 dairies that produced 2.7 million gallons of milk. By 1998, the number of dairies shrank to 2,700 but milk production was up by 20 percent, according to the EPA.
Until 2007 there was little or no direct regulation of the dairy industry's waste, said Sholes.
In 2007, that changed with the first regulations explicitly for dairy waste. The statewide effort, called the general order, has put into effect a series of waste management steps all dairies must live up to. "This is a huge new effort. It's the first time we have tried to regulate an industry this large," Sholes said.
The industry has until 2012 to become fully compliant with the new rules, said Michael Marsh of the Western United Dairymen. Until then there are efforts to educate dairymen on how to make these changes. "The biggest challenge that farmers have right now is financial," he said.
He blamed much of the industry's consolidation on the cost of complying with the state's environmental rules. He also dismisses the idea that there has been any direct connection between high nitrate levels and the dairy industry.
There may be new rules forcing farmers to clean up their act, but the regulators are not always on the ball, said Layne Friedrich with Lawyers for Clean Water, a group suing the regional water board over dairy regulations. "I think that people who are on the ground writing permits are concerned about water quality. I think that upper management and the board members are worried and working with the industry and not protecting water quality -- as their mandate says," she said. She also said regulators are short on personnel, limiting their ability to check on sites.
Mass waste
The towering operation that is Hilmar Cheese's plant in Hilmar spans more than 40 acres and stands above the flat Valley floor. Beyond the visitor center and cafe, trucks off-load milk from as many as 235 dairies.
Each day, the world's biggest cheese plant pumps out 1.4 million pounds of product.
At some point, all that cheese leads to waste. And in the case of Hilmar that means water -- salty water. About 2 million gallons of water a day passes through its $100 million wastewater plant. Some of the water is reused, the rest spread across nearby fields.
But not everyone has been happy with the plant's wastewater cleaning in recent years.
From 2002 to 2004, according to regional water board filings, Hilmar exceeded its allowed salt limits, dumping a total of 821 million gallons of high salt content water. In a report filed in 2003, the board noted that Hilmar had an "extensive violation history."
In 2006, the water board fined Hilmar Cheese $4 million for failing to reduce the salinity in its waste discharges. Eventually they came to a compromise. Hilmar paid a $1 million fine and limited the waste. The new agreement basically allowed Hilmar to discharge a limited amount of water above the recommended salt levels.
"In the last three years we have never filed a late or incomplete report and have never been out of compliance with the settlement agreement," said Burton Fleischer, Hilmar Cheese's environmental director.
In any case, for the last 18 months the permit has allowed Hilmar to dump 1.2 million gallons of salty water -- three times above the levels originally permitted.
Fleischer said that even though the permit allows them to discharge 1.2 million gallons of the saltier water, they release on average only 900,000 gallons of it a day.
That's not the end of Hilmar's wastewater woes. There's a cleanup order investigating to what extent surrounding groundwater was affected by Hilmar's discharges. It will be a few years yet before any result.
For the rest of the county events will unfold as they have, moving forward slowly one dairy at a time, one wastewater treatment plant at a time. Despite new regulations and private cleanup efforts, the costs of concentrated industrial farming in Merced County will have to be paid for.
It will be paid for in the higher cost of doing business to lessen the toll taken on the local environment.
Lots of waste...Merced Sun-Star
Merced County's 243,762 cows constitute the state's second largest population of bovines. In 2007, they produced 29 million tons of manure.
Merced County also has the second largest poultry industry in the state with 45 poultry facilities. Much of their waste is trucked away from animal feeding operations.
Hilmar Cheese Co. discharges roughly 2 million gallons of water a day from its Hilmar Cheese plant, 900,000 of which contains three to four times the level of salt originally called for by state regulators.
Livingston's industrial wastewater treatment facility, which exists to service Foster Farms' chicken processing plant's wastewater, takes in 4.4 million gallons of waste a day. To this day nitrates leach into the soil below the facility at levels two to four times what Environmental Protection Agency regulations call for.
Nitrates sources include fertilizers, sewage and natural deposits. Elevated levels of nitrates in the drinking water supply have been associated with an infant blood disorder commonly known as "blue baby syndrome."
Salt discharges associated with wastewater contributes to the salinity in Central Valley's ground water supply, which in Merced is the main source of drinking water.
Modesto Bee
Gravel project appealed...Tim Moran
A proposed gravel mine near the Tuolumne River southwest of La Grange has drawn opposition from a handful of area residents concerned about water contamination and safety issues.
The residents filed an appeal of the Stanislaus County Planning Commission's approval of the project last month. It is scheduled to be heard at the March 31 Board of Supervisors meeting.
The project is on Lake Road between Turlock Lake and La Grange. Residents are concerned with how the project will affect ground and surface water and potential safety problems.
Delaney Aggregates would be a sand and gravel mine on 40 acres of an 80-acre property owned by Mildred Zanker. Jim Brisco Enterprises of Merced would develop the project. The mining operation would include four mining pits, ranging from two to 22 acres, dug to a maximum depth of 40 feet.
The property would be mined over 10 years. The mining pits would be left as ponds when the project is finished.
The site is relatively flat and strewn with cobbles, the round rocks found in the river bed, along with sand and smaller rock. The cobbles are left from gold dredging in the area that took place in the 1940s and 1950s. During the 1960s and 1970s, dredged material from the site was taken and used as fill for the Don Pedro Dam, according to George Morrow, president of Jim Brisco Enterprises. The land is used for cattle grazing, although vegetation is sparse.
Morrow sees several niche markets for the sand, rocks and gravel, from landscape rock to well casing fill and restoration of the salmon beds in the river.
Morrow points to a letter from California Department of Transportation Director Will Kempton to counties urging them to approve new sand and gravel mining operations in the state. The letter, sent in September, contends that more mining operations will reduce the distance trucks have to travel to construction sites, saving money and eliminating air pollution.
The appeal contends that residents in the area weren't given enough time to respond to the proposal and raises the water and safety issues. Contaminated water from the mining pits will flow into the river during flood years, according to documents filed with the appeal.
Mercury contamination?
Barbara Miller-Crum, who lives in one of about 10 ranchettes along the river east of the site, said a study of a county-owned site next to the property found mercury contamination from the previous gold mining operations.
Morrow said he had a consulting company test for several potential contaminants including mercury and the tests were negative.
"How can that be? There was mercury on the adjacent property," Miller-Crum said.
Miller-Crum also raised safety problems related to public access to the property and the truck trips the project would add on Lake Road. The road is used by cattle trucks from a nearby feedlot and Hughson school district buses, she said, and has deteriorated.
Morrow said the truck traffic shouldn't pose a problem. The trucks will be traveling one mile on Lake Road to Highway 132, he said, and with a load of sand and gravel, they likely will not reach speeds above 30 mph.
The project would contribute 5.5 cents per ton of material hauled out for maintenance and improvement of Lake Road, according to planning documents. The mining operation will be at least 50 feet from the road.
If the Board of Supervisors rejects the appeal, the mining operation could begin quickly with portable rock screeners and construction equipment, Morrow said. Although the recession has curtailed demand for the material, the rocks and sand could be sorted by size and stockpiled for when the economy picks up, he said.
Jim Brisco Enterprises is a small operation, Morrow said, and he has spent $220,000 on various studies and environmental reviews to get the mining project approved.
Miller-Crum said the homesites along the river can be traced back to the 1850s, and residents are just trying to protect what they have.
"We want clean water, fish, peace and protection," she said.
The Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors has scheduled a hearing on the appeal at 9:15 a.m. on March 31 in the basement chambers at 1010 10th St., Modesto.
Storms allow slight boost in federal water supply...last updated: March 20, 2009 05:00:18 PM
FRESNO, Calif. -- Many farmers, cities and industries in California that buy water from the federal government can expect to get a little more this summer.
The Bureau of Reclamation says recent storms will allow them to boost the amount of water shipped to customers north of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.
But farmers on the San Joaquin Valley's parched west side still will get none of their federal water allotments this year. The cutbacks have already led to jobs losses, fallowed fields and water rationing.
A recent study from the University of California, Davis estimated that $1.6 billion in agriculture-related wages and as many as 60,000 jobs across the valley will be lost in the coming months due to dwindling water.
Up to two-thirds of the 600,000 acres in Westlands Water District will be left barren this year, said Sarah Woolf, a spokeswoman for the district, which provides irrigation to about 600 valley farms.
More than half of the normal lettuce crop grown in the district won't be planted, and there will be a significant drop in cantaloupe, broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus crops as well, Woolf said.
February rain and snow storms boosted reservoirs and brought the Sierra Nevada snowpack to about 90 percent of normal.
Still, state officials warn California remains in a dangerous drought. Water also must be reserved for fish in the fragile delta ecosystem.
Turlock golfers score with 5-1 vote...Tim Moran...3-20-09
Turlock golfers young and old won over agriculture and concerns about zoning precedents Thursday evening at the Stanislaus County Planning Commission.
The commission voted 5-1 in favor of a new golf driving range despite a planning staff recommendation to deny the project. Commissioner Marie Assali cast the dissenting vote. Commissioners Annabel Gammon and Michael Navarro were absent.
The driving range and golf center would be on the north side of Taylor Road, east of Golden State Boulevard and Highway 99. The 39-acre property is planted with almond trees and is bordered on three sides by agricultural property.
Turlock is to the south, with residential and commercial uses.
The planning staff report found that the soil on the property is prime farmland, and the publicly used driving range would restrict the ability of surrounding farmland to spray pesticides and fertilizers. The rezoning also would set a precedent for more development on the north side of Taylor Road, said planner Joshua Mann.
Dennis Wilson of Horizon Consulting in Modesto argued that the driving range is needed in Turlock because high school teams and senior citizens have to travel to Stevinson to practice. Wilson contended that the soil is not well-suited to orchard crops and that conflicts with surrounding farmers would be minimal.
Wilson said Turlock, the Turlock Unified School District and Pitman High School golf coach Matt Jeans support the project.
Assali said the farmers bordering the project will have to get permits for spraying and creating noise and dust because of the public use.
"I can't support that. It's hard enough to farm as it is," she said.
Commissioner Jim Poore said he saw the project as a good transition use between the farmland and the planned development commercial uses to the west, which include Patchett's Ford auto dealership.
The chemical drift of farm spraying already is a concern because of the residential subdivision to the south, he said.
"I do think it's a good project for the benefit of the community," Poore said.
In other action, the commission approved a rezoning of 114.8 acres near Westley from agriculture to planned development, despite objections of neighboring property owners.
The property, on Gaffery Road, is the site of Sun Dry Products. Sun Dry recycles ag products, processes commercial feed products and recycles a variety of construction debris such as pallets and wallboard.
The business is part of the county's waste management plan, and permits were obtained from the state for the recycling uses in 2006. But the ag zoning of the property did not fit those uses, and Sun Dry operator Jim Davis has been working with county departments since then to iron out details of the zoning change.
Several area residents complained of the heavy truck traffic and poor condition of the roads around the site, but planning staff said a 5.5 cent per ton fee is being collected to widen and resurface the road. The fee would raise an estimated $35,000 a year, and other area businesses also would contribute, according to staff.
The commission approved the rezoning on a unanimous vote. The rezoning will be forwarded to the county Board of Supervisors for a final vote.
Fresno Bee
San Joaquin parkway to grow with land buy...Russell Clemings
More than half a square mile of the San Joaquin River bottom will be added to the river parkway under a deal announced Friday.
The San Joaquin River Conservancy, a state agency that acquires land for the parkway, said it has bought 321 acres previously owned by the Gibson family and now mined for gravel by Vulcan Materials Co.
Melinda Marks, the conservancy's executive officer, said her agency will continue renting the land to Vulcan until a lease and land-use permit expire in the next decade.
After that, the land will be reclaimed with recreational trails and added to the parkway as funding permits. Some parts of the site already have been reclaimed for wetlands and waterfowl habitat.
"The advantage of acquiring the property now is the conservancy will be involved in the reclamation," Marks said.
The land is between Old Friant Road and the river west of the Copper River Country Club. The $6.4 million purchase was made using funds from Proposition 40, a $2.6 billion bond issue approved by California voters in 2002.
Dave Koehler, executive director of the nonprofit San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust, called the purchase "a key acquisition" and said it would help achieve a long-term parkway goal of linking together a continuous expanse of protected land from Friant Dam to Highway 99.
"In the long run, the counties of Fresno and Madera get to have a tremendous asset in their back yards," Koehler said.
The new property is adjacent to the parkway's signature Lewis S. Eaton trail. Marks said long-term plans call for the trail to be extended into it. Horseback-riding trails and other amenities also are being considered.
For now, the property remains closed to public access while gravel extraction continues. Rent that the conservancy receives from Vulcan is earmarked for other parkway programs.
Marks estimated that the property could be opened to the public as soon as six to seven years from now, depending on funding availability.
Gibson family members include Earl and Beverly Knobloch and the late Joyce Gibson. Part of the proceeds go to California State University, Fresno, which received a $2 million bequest from Joyce Gibson last year. The money is designated for the university's equine program and its Rue and Gwen Gibson Farm Market, the conservancy said. 
Feinstein opposes solar-power plans in Mojave Desert...KEVIN FREKING - Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON California's Mojave Desert may seem ideally suited for solar energy production, but concern over what several proposed projects might do to the aesthetics of the region and its tortoise population is setting up a potential clash between conservationists and companies seeking to develop renewable energy.
Nineteen companies have submitted applications to build solar or wind facilities on a parcel of 500,000 desert acres, but Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Friday such development would violate the spirit of what conservationists had intended when they donated much of the land to the public.
Feinstein said Friday she intends to push legislation that would turn the land into a national monument, which would allow for existing uses to continue while preventing future development.
The Wildlands Conservancy orchestrated the government's purchase of the land between 1999-2004. It negotiated a discount sale from the real estate arm of the former Santa Fe and Southern Pacific Railroad and then contributed $40 million to help pay for the purchase. David Myers, the conservancy's executive director, said the solar projects would do great harm to the region's desert tortoise population.
"It would destroy the entire Mojave Desert ecosystem," said David Myers, executive director of The Wildlands Conservancy.
Feinstein said the lands in question were donated or purchased with the intent that they would be protected forever. But the Bureau of Land Management considers the land now open to all types of development, except mining. That policy led the state to consider large swaths of the land for future renewable energy production.
"This is unacceptable," Feinstein said in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. "I urge you to direct the BLM to suspend any further consideration of leases to develop former railroad lands for renewable energy or for any other purpose."
In a speech last year, Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger complained about environmental concerns slowing down the approval of solar plants in California.
"If we cannot put solar power plants in the Mojave desert, I don't know where the hell we can put it," Schwarzenegger said at Yale University.
But Karen Douglas, chairman of the California Energy Commission, said Feinstein's proposal could be a "win-win" for energy and conservation. The governor's office said Douglas was speaking on the administration's behalf.
"The opportunity we see in the Feinstein bill is to jump-start our own efforts to find the best sites for development and to come up with a broader conservation plan that mitigates the impact of the development," Douglas said.
Douglas said that if the national monument lines were drawn without consideration of renewable energy then a conflict was likely, but it's early enough in the planning process that she's confident the state will be able to get more solar and wind projects up and running without hurting the environment.
"We think we can do both," Douglas said. "We think this is an opportunity to accelerate both."
Greg Miller of the Bureau of Land Management said there are 14 solar energy and five wind energy projects that have submitted applications seeking to develop on what's referred to as the former Catellus lands. None of the projects are close to being approved, he said.
The land lies in the southeast corner of California, between the existing Mojave National Preserve on the north and Joshua Tree National Park on the south.
"They all have to go through a rigorous environmental analysis now," Miller said. "It will be at best close to two years out before we get some of these grants approved."
Feinstein's spokesman, Gil Duran, said the senator looks forward to working with the governor and the Interior Department on the issue.
"There's plenty of room in America's deserts for the bold expansion of renewable energy projects," Duran said.
NRA appeals ruling blocking guns in national parks...MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer
WASHINGTON The National Rifle Association on Friday appealed a federal court ruling that blocked a Bush administration policy allowing people to carry concealed, loaded guns in national parks.
The decision, issued Thursday by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly, halted a regulation from the waning days of the Bush administration. The rule, which took effect in January, allowed visitors to carry a loaded gun into a park or wildlife refuge as long as the person had a permit for a concealed weapon and the state where the park or refuge was located allowed concealed firearms. Previously, guns in parks had been severely restricted.
Chris W. Cox, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said the group will pursue all legal and legislative options. The NRA had pushed for the Bush rule change and was granted legal standing in a lawsuit brought by gun-control advocates and environmental groups.
"We didn't give up in the fight to change the old, outdated rule and we are going to pursue every legal and legislative avenue to defend the American people's right to self-defense," Cox said Friday.
In her 44-page ruling, Judge Kollar-Kotelly called the Interior Department's rule-making process "astoundingly flawed" and said officials failed to evaluate the possible environmental impacts of the rule change, as required by law. The judge set an April 20 deadline for the Interior Department to indicate its likely response to the preliminary injunction she granted.
The Obama administration had said it was reviewing the Bush rule but had defended it in court. A spokeswoman for Interior Secretary Ken Salazar says the department is reviewing its options.
Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who pushed for the Bush rule change, said Friday he was not giving up.
"I'm an avid supporter of the Second Amendment, and I will continue to fight on behalf of gun owners," Baucus said. "I will continue to push so that any law-abiding citizen, in accordance with state law, can carry their guns in national parks."
Meanwhile, several groups representing park employees praised the judge's ruling.
"We have said from the beginning that the (Interior Department) was proposing a solution for a problem that did not exist," said Bill Wade, former superintendent of Virginia's Shenandoah National Park and chairman of the executive council of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "The department presented no evidence during its rule making that a change was needed."
U.S. Court of Appeals Rules in Favor of ATA in Lawsuit Against Ports...American Trucking Associations...3-20-09...Press Release
ARLINGTON, Va., March 20 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled in favor of the American Trucking Associations (ATA) today in its lawsuit seeking an injunction against the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach Concession Plans. The three-judge panel ruled unanimously to remand the case to the U.S. District Court and indicated that the judge should grant the ATA an injunction against all or part of the Concession Plans.
"In short, motor carriers should not be required to adhere to the various unconstitutional provisions in the Ports' (concession) agreements, and are likely to suffer irrevocably if forced to do that or give up their businesses," the court's opinion said. ATA had not challenged the ports' Clean Truck Program, which bans older trucks and uses a container fee to subsidize the purchase of newer, cleaner trucks.
"We are extremely pleased with the decision," says Robert Digges Jr., ATA Vice President and Chief Counsel. "The Judges understood that most of the elements of the Plans are not about safety, but rather are a regulatory effort by the Ports to create what they believe would be a more efficient drayage system."
As of Oct. 1, 2008, any motor carrier out of compliance with a Port's Concession agreement had been barred from entering that Port, a situation that caused motor carriers to suffer both short and long-term capital losses and injuries to business goodwill.
"The Court clearly understood the plight of the motor carriers and the no-win situation that the Concession Plans present them; refuse to comply and lose their customers and possibly their businesses or comply and bear the costs of totally restructuring their business model," Digges said.
The Court of Appeal's instructions to the District Court made clear that many elements of the Concession Plans must be enjoined, but leaves it to the District Court as to whether the entire Concession Plans should be halted. The Court of Appeals indicated one aspect that must be enjoined is the Port of Los Angeles' ban on owner-operators. "That requirement is dead," said Curtis Whalen, Executive Director of the Intermodal Motor Carrier Conference (IMCC) of the ATA. The Port of Long Beach Concession Plan did not ban owner-operators.
Digges said ATA will work expeditiously with the District Court to structure an injunction that implements the decision and protects the interests of the motor carrier industry. The Court of Appeals decision said it would not entertain any petition for rehearing, although the Ports could appeal to the Supreme Court.
More information about the challenge of the Ports' Concession Plan can be found at ATA's website, www.truckline.com.
The American Trucking Associations is the largest national trade association for the trucking industry. Through a federation of other trucking groups, industry-related conferences, and its 50 affiliated state trucking associations, ATA represents more than 37,000 members covering every type of motor carrier in the United States.
Cats Versus Birds: The Debate Continues...Alley Cat Rescue...Press Release...3-20-09 
MT. RAINIER, Md., March 20 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ With a new report out from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the debate of bird versus cat continues. According to a statement from Darin Schroeder, Vice President for Conservation Advocacy for the American Bird Conservancy, "[all] across America, birds face a gauntlet of threats to their survival including pesticides, collisions, domestic cats, and habitat loss." Schroeder says that the U.S. continues to permit imported produce that has been treated with banned pesticides, and that the ever-changing skyline contributes to "hundreds of millions of birds [dying] each year by colliding with towers and buildings." He also discusses unsustainable land use practices, such as the continued logging of old-growth forests as a contributing factor in the decline of bird populations. However, it always comes back to the cats. Schroeder says that cats take a "heavy toll" on wildlife when they are permitted outdoors, mentioning feral colonies that are "allowed to persist."
Alley Cat Rescue responds to the report with the following points:
Number one, two studies most often quoted are the Stanley Temple study and the Churcher /Lawton study. Some groups use these studies in misguided efforts to discredit work to humanely control feral cats. Over sixty studies have been done on different continents all showing three very important points: 
 --  Primarily, cats are opportunistic feeders, and will utilize whatever food source is most prevalent, including supplemental feeding by humans, garbage and carrion (Berkeley, 2001; Winograd, 2003).
 --  Cats are rodent specialists. Of the cats that rely on hunting, the majority of their diet consists of mammals (Berkeley, 2001; Fitzgerald, 1988). The feline hunting style of wait and pounce is unsuitable for flying birds. Frequently, the flying birds consumed are injured or already dead (Berkeley, 2001).
 --  Cats may prey on a population without destroying it. If this
weren't so, we would no longer have any mice around. Many
international biologists agree with biologist C.J. Mead that "any
bird populations on the continents that could not withstand these levels of predation from cats and other predators would have disappeared long ago..."
Number two, the combined efforts of rescue groups and individuals to trap-neuter-return (TNR) feral cats helps to manage the perceived problems associated with feral cat colonies. Removing colonies and total eradication methods are ineffective, plus highly costly. Where there are humans, there will be cats. Removing a colony of cats will only lead to a "vacuum effect" (Tabor, Roger, "The Wild Life of the Domestic Cat," p. 183 (1983). The empty space created will allow for other cats to quickly move in and repopulate the area. And in some cases, eradication is counterproductive, and the removable of cats causes an explosion in the local rodent populations. (This simply creates another problem.) TNR cats are sterilized (and vaccinated); the reproductive cycle is stopped, a rabies buffer between wildlife and humans is created, and an established colony will keep out other cats by its presence.
Number three, more resources need to be put into low-cost spay/neuter programs to help individuals sterilize their pets and prevent unwanted litters in the first place. Prevention is a BIG part of the solution. We need to decriminalize the feeding of stray/feral cats, and provide public education programs to decrease the number of homeless cats. Working with cat organizations instead of against them is the key to solving the homeless pet population problem.
In 2003, an article published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association "evaluate[d] the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return program, with adoption whenever possible, on the dynamics of a free-roaming cat population." The article states "at completion of the study in 2002, the population had decreased by 66%, from 68 to 23 cats." With the following as their conclusion: "a comprehensive long-term program of neutering followed by adoption or return to the resident colony can result in reduction of free-roaming cat populations in urban areas." (J Am Vet Med Assoc 2003;222:42-46) As more of these studies and observations are performed, TNR is becoming a more accepted method of controlling the feral cat population, and even cities like Baltimore, MD, are adopting TNR as their preferred method of control.
In the end, ACR believes all animals, whether exotic, alien, introduced, non-native, or so-called pests, are sentient beings and should be given humane care and treatment. If a species needs control in order to preserve another, then all humane, non-lethal methods should be utilized. In this day and age, everyone should be trying to instill more compassionate ethics towards the earth and all of her inhabitants.
About Alley Cat Rescue
Alley Cat Rescue is an international nonprofit organization dedicated to the welfare of stray and feral cats. ACR has operated spay clinics in Mexico and spayed/neutered over 22,000 in MD. We are a no-kill shelter and we strongly advocate TNR programs for feral cats. We operate an adoption program at a local PETsMART store. ACR has been awarded the Independent Charities of Americas "Best in America" Seal of Approval, and our newsletter has won many awards from the Cat Writers Association. For more information visit our website at www.saveacat.org.
Sacramento Bee
2 corporate credit unions taken over by government...AP Business Writer
WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators on Friday seized control of two large institutions that provide wholesale financing for U.S. credit unions, a move they say was needed to stabilize the credit union system.
The National Credit Union Administration said it has taken over and put into conservatorship the two corporate credit unions, U.S. Central Federal Credit Union, based in Lenexa, Kan., and Western Corporate Federal Credit Union, in San Dimas, Calif. U.S. Central has about $34 billion in assets while Western Corporate, known as WesCorp, has an estimated $23 billion in assets.
A conservatorship enables the government to operate a financial institution. Corporate credit unions provide financing and investment services to the much larger population of retail credit unions. Some of the 28 corporate credit unions in the U.S. have sustained steep losses on paper from the depressed value of the mortgage-linked securities they hold.
The NCUA, which oversees some 7,800 federally insured credit unions, said it "will continue to take any and all steps necessary to preserve a well-functioning system of corporate credit unions and to protect the assets of (retail credit unions) and their members during the ... financial market dislocation."
The financial services provided by the two corporate credit unions "will continue uninterrupted" and there will be no direct impact on the 90 million members of retail credit unions nationwide, the NCUA said in a news release.
It said retail credit unions, which are cooperatives owned by their members, remain financially strong - with net worth exceeding 10 percent of assets, and sustained growth in assets and membership despite the deep recession.
The NCUA staff recently completed a "stress test" of the mortgage- and other asset-backed securities held by all corporate credit unions, including U.S. Central and WesCorp, and found that "an unacceptably high concentration of risk" was contained in those two institutions, the agency said Friday. Securities held by the two have continued to lose value since late January, reducing their available cash and worsening a "loss of confidence" on the part of their member credit unions, the NCUA said.
In January, the NCUA injected $1 billion of capital into U.S. Central. At the same time, the agency moved to guarantee tens of billions of dollars in uninsured deposits at corporate credit unions overall, the latest in a series of actions to shore them up in the face of financial stress.
The NCUA said it would automatically guarantee uninsured deposits at all corporate credit unions through February and then on a voluntary basis through Dec. 31, 2010.
The agency's insurance fund is financed by fees paid by credit unions. As is the case with banks and thrifts, regular deposit accounts in federally insured credit unions are covered up to $250,000.
In December, the agency made more than $40 billion available to support several corporate credit unions with a new borrowing from the Treasury Department and provided another $2 billion to help struggling homeowners.
The NCUA also has proposed restructuring the corporate credit union system with an eye to enhancing its stability.
U.S. Central has said it expected to report a substantial loss for 2008, due to around $1.2 billion in charges for impairments in its holdings of mortgage-backed securities.
San Francisco Chronicle
State water supply vulnerable to quakes, floods...Kelly Zito
Earthquakes and severe storms could destroy hundreds of miles of mostly earthen levees in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in coming decades, according to a state report that provides the most detail yet on the vulnerabilities of the hub of California's water system.
Among the findings in the 1,000-page report released Friday by the Department of Water Resources: There is a 40 percent chance that a major earthquake will flood 27 delta islands between now and 2030, costing billions in repairs and knocking out the water source for 25 million Californians for more than a year.
"There are some risks (to the levees) that can be mitigated pretty well by existing programs," said Dave Mraz, head of the department's Delta-Suisun Marsh Office, "But there is one risk that's very difficult to deal with - seismic."
The report, the first of a two-part analysis of the risks facing the delta, found that the 1,100 miles of levees that protect 60 or so islands at the confluence of the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are growing more susceptible to breaches due to age, storms, rising sea levels and subsidence of some land by 25 feet or more.
Without intervention, researchers predicted, about 140 levees could fail in the next century due to storms or rising seas. An earthquake of magnitude 6.7 or greater could result in fatalities, flooding of islands and costs of $15 billion. Levees have failed about 160 times in the past 109 years.
The second part of the report, to be released this fall, will focus on ways to head off those worst-case scenarios, including raising the height of levees throughout the estuary or building a so-called peripheral canal that would route water from the Sacramento River to large pumps in the southern delta. The delta acts as a giant funnel, channeling meltwaters from the Sierra Nevada to long pipelines that deliver water to two-thirds of the state - mostly the Central Valley and Southern California, but some to the Bay Area.
Critics argue the report overstates the dangers posed by earthquakes and might simply bolster the state administration's push to build a peripheral canal. A peripheral canal proposal was defeated in 1982, but the idea has gained new momentum as the delta deteriorates and demands on the water supply grow greater. Some worry a canal will simply distribute more water to Southern California and push out farmers who have been growing crops in the delta for generations.
"They keep painting a picture that the levees are doomed, the levees are doomed - and that's a reason to build a peripheral canal," said Barbara Barrigan-Parrilla, director of Restore the Delta, a group of residents, businesses, farmers that oppose the canal. "If we know the seismic threat, we should be in there now doing levee fortification."
State officials say they have increased the amount of money for reinforcing and repairing the levees - some of which date back to the Gold Rush era - from $12 million in the 1990s to $50 million last year. Still, that may not be enough to protect key islands from floods.
In addition to supporting thousands of residents, some delta islands have important highways, rail lines, power lines and natural gas facilities that could be wiped out by raging waters. Levees are also important to water quality. If multiple islands are submerged, salt water could push farther east, diluting freshwater and increasing costs to purify it.
Because different islands within the delta have different values - economic, residential, environmental - Mraz said his agency is attempting to make sure all of the levees receive a certain amount of funding. But he did acknowledge that in the face of a catastrophic event, the agency would have to prioritize which islands to save.
Steve Mello, who farms 2,500 acres on Tyler Island, worries that under either situation - floods or a peripheral canal - his family business could collapse.
Tyler Island "is on the bubble in terms of whether it would be reclaimed" in a flood, Mello said. "What I worry about more, though, is a peripheral canal ... and arguments that say 25 million people in (Los Angeles) need this water more than you."
To read the full report, go to: www.water.ca.gov/floodmgmt/dsmo/sab/drmsp.
Critics question safety of storing coal slurry...VICKI SMITH, Associated Press Writer
Morgantown, W.Va. (AP) -- Regulators in a handful of Appalachian states that let coal companies inject slurry into abandoned mines say they're confident the practice is safe, but an Associated Press survey shows they lack scientific data to answer citizens who believe aquifers, water wells and their own health are at risk.
None of the five states contacted by AP has studied the chemical composition of slurry, a byproduct left when clay, sulfur and other impurities are removed from coal to make it burn more efficiently. For decades, slurry has been injected into abandoned, underground mines in Appalachia as a cheap alternative to building massive dams or filtration and drying systems.
But hundreds of West Virginians are suing coal companies in two cases, claiming chemicals and metals in the slurry have leaked into aquifers, contaminated well water and caused health problems ranging from kidney disease to cancer.
An e-mail survey of environmental regulators in West Virginia, Kentucky, Alabama, Pennsylvania and Ohio found none of the states track exactly how much slurry is pumped underground.
"There's just a complete lack of oversight by any of the agencies that are supposed to be regulating this," activist Vivian Stockman of the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition charges. "In our opinion, this is hazardous waste and it should be regulated and monitored."
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has allowed states for decades to use old underground mines as "backfill wells" for waste, documenting at least 5,000 sites in 17 states at last count in 1999. But EPA figures also include sites for storing sludge, ash, sand and other materials, making it impossible to know how many contain liquid coal slurry.
The AP's review suggests the injection of coal slurry is rare in Pennsylvania and Ohio, which reported two injection sites each. Alabama operators reported 11 active sites, Kentucky 14, and West Virginia permits for 15 companies to inject slurry.
The industry insists the wells are safer than dams, which can fail and flood communities.
Jason Bostic, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, says injection sites are chosen with health and safety — not just geology — as primary concerns. If the practice weren't safe, he adds, EPA wouldn't allow it.
Neither EPA nor the state regulatory agencies contacted by the AP has ever confirmed a link between a slurry injection site and contaminated drinking water.
But Stephen Lester, science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Va., argues that's because scientists lack sufficient tools to track materials injected deep underground. A pollution link that may seem obvious to someone with black or orange water streaming from the tap, he says, cannot be easily proven.
"So you end up with an engineer declaring what he believes is the case and a community saying, 'Well, here's what we have,'" Lester says. "Almost invariably, the regulator is going to side with the person who has the degrees."
While Lester's group has not tracked coal waste, it has documented 43 leaks of other waste at 473 industrial injection wells nationwide since 1973. Half of those contaminated groundwater.
Kentucky Coal Association President Bill Caylor insists injection is safe and says slurry is essentially coal, dirt, water and harmless chemicals that help suspended solids clump together. He points to a 2005 report in which a Kentucky task force concluded slurry "has no more heavy metals than the soil nearby or the soil in your backyard."
But the study, done after the failure of a 300 million-gallon Martin County Coal Corp. dam, focused on short-term surface exposure — not long-term ingestion of slurry.
No one can declare underground injection safe without meaningful scientific study, says organic chemist Bill Orem, with the U.S. Geologic Survey in Reston, Va.
"Does coal slurry have a health impact? I don't know. And for somebody to say it has no health impact is not correct, either," Orem says.
Coal contains substances that are potentially toxic and carcinogenic, Orem says, and his agency is eager to study both the composition of slurry and the potential health hazards.
But the agency has neither the invitation nor the access it needs: Waste areas and injection sites are on private property, and coal operators usually deny access to get samples.
"If we could get access to the sites," Orem says, "we would do this for nothing."
West Virginia regulators are having water and slurry samples from six injection sites analyzed by an outside lab and expect to report their findings in May. But one state legislator has already introduced a bill to impose a moratorium on injections until more is known.
EPA hasn't studied underground injection of coal waste in a decade but said in 2002 its existing rules were adequate to protect groundwater. In response to recent AP questions, EPA pointed to the 2002 document.
While EPA does administer some injection programs, it has acknowledged many states run their own, with regulations that "vary significantly in their scope and stringency."
Allen Hershkowitz, a senior scientist at the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council, has studied underground injection for decades and says the regulatory framework is "fraught with loopholes."
"EPA has been particularly negligent when it comes to coal waste management," he said. "Frankly, it would not be an unfair characterization to say EPA's behavior when it comes to coal waste management borders on criminal."
Underground injection is neither ecologically nor economically defensible, Hershkowitz said, and allowing it subsidizes the industry and discourages waste-disposal innovation.
"Everything about this is wrong," he said.
Contra Costa Times
Earthquakes pose major threat to Delta levees, report finds...Mike Taugher
The odds are even that a major earthquake or flood will take out 30 or more Delta islands sometime in the next 25 years, with most of the threat coming from earthquakes, the most comprehensive assessment ever on the Delta's levees concludes.
The report, the first phase of a $13 million study on Delta levees, finds widespread flooding on 30 or more islands is all but inevitable in the next 100 years — a finding that carries major implications for one of California's most important sources of water for 23 million residents and the health of the West Coast's largest estuary.
"Under business as usual practices, the Delta region as it exists today is unsustainable," the report concluded.
When Delta islands flood, seawater is drawn toward intakes for water supply projects that serve parts of the Bay Area, the San Joaquin Valley and Southern California.
"The area served by the Contra Costa Water District ... is an example of an area at high economic risk from water supply disruption ... since other sources of water are not readily available," the report said.
Critics contend the study is biased toward exaggerating risk in the Delta because that would lend support to the state's plans to build a controversial $10 billion canal around the Delta.
The levees go back 150 years to when the estuary was a vast inland marsh, when laborers pushed up berms to allow farmers to grow crops behind them. Today, 1,300 miles of levees guide channels that direct drinking water and provide fish habitat, while protecting farmland, residences and property, especially in the Sacramento and Stockton areas.
But the biggest concern, perhaps, for state water managers it the potential loss of Sherman Island or others in the western part of the Delta that have the potential to gulp seawater toward water intakes and force water delivery projects out of commission for months at a time.
No levee has ever been damaged by an earthquake. The report found that if the great 1906 earthquake on the San Andreas fault struck today, it would cause only minor to moderate damage in the Delta.
A consultant who reviewed the study last year for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was sharply critical of what he said "incomprehensibly high" overestimates of the threat posed by floods and earthquakes.
"If these probabilities are incorrect, the entire ... analysis is incorrect," the reviewer wrote. The consultant, who recommended the estimates be recalculated, could not be reached Friday.
State officials said they made some changes to the earlier draft but defended predictions of widespread levee failures over the next 100 years.
First, Delta levees are increasingly vulnerable to seismic forces because, as time goes on, the land behind the levees subsides, or sinks, and that increases the force of water on the other side.
Also, the faults closest to the Delta — especially the Hayward fault — pose greater threats than the San Andreas.
And, finally, earthquake specialists say that because seismic activity has been relatively quiet since the 1906 earthquake, stresses could be building and might unleash major earthquakes in the near future, said Dave Mraz, head of the Delta and Suisun Marsh branch of the Department of Water Resources.
The second phase of the Delta Risk Management Strategy is due this fall and will recommend strategies for addressing levees' fragility, including the possibility of a canal around the Delta.
State water officials are working on an environmental study of such a canal, and a separate process is under way to get wildlife permits for if it is built. Voters rejected such a canal in 1982.
Los Angeles Times
Federal court orders judge to reconsider stance on clean-truck program
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that District Judge Christina Snyder should grant all or part of a request for an injunction halting the implementation of new port rules that affect truckers...Louis Sahagun and David Zahniser
A federal appeals court on Friday ordered a judge to reconsider her refusal to block portions of a clean-truck program at the nation's busiest port complex.
In an opinion that dismayed environmentalists and labor leaders, the three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals based in San Francisco ruled that U.S. District Judge Christina Snyder should grant all or part of the American Trucking Assn.'s request for an injunction halting the implementation of new rules that apply to truck drivers at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
In the Los Angeles port, the rules prohibit drivers from being independent contractors -- a provision sought by the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and backed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. In both cities, however, the rules require trucking companies to disclose their financial data and adhere to certain parking requirements.
Trucking industry officials have argued that the program's various provisions impose an unfair economic burden and violate federal law, which prohibits local governments from regulating the price, route or service of motor vehicles.
The appellate judges said the trucking association is likely to prevail in court on at least some of its arguments and should not have to follow the provisions before a final ruling is issued.
"In short, motor carriers should not be required to adhere to the various unconstitutional provisions in the Ports' agreements," the panel said in a 28-page opinion, "and are likely to suffer irrevocably if forced to do that or give up their businesses."
Trucking association officials said they were pleased with the decision.
"The court clearly understood the plight of the motor carriers," said Robert Digges Jr., the association's vice president and chief counsel.
Backers of the clean-truck program pointed out that Friday's ruling does not endanger the ports' efforts to subsidize the purchase of newer, cleaner-burning trucks. It also did not find fault with the fees used to pay for the new trucks, said Deputy Mayor Janelle Erickson.
"We're very pleased that the heart of the program is being upheld," she said, "and that dirty trucks are being taken off the road and the air is getting cleaner."
Still, some supporters of the truck program criticized the ruling.
"This decision places in jeopardy the clean-air goals at the ports, as well as every port infrastructure expansion project that relies on clean trucks," said attorney David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group.
For the appellate judges, one concern was the Port of Los Angeles provision that would have placed the burden of owning, operating and maintaining newer, cleaner big rigs -- and hiring drivers to operate them -- on trucking and shipping companies.
The employee provision had been pushed aggressively by the Teamsters and by the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. The measure was also backed by Change to Win, a Washington, D.C.-based labor coalition that contributed $500,000 to Villaraigosa's campaign for passage of a telephone users' tax last year.
Harbor officials said the new employee rules would allow them to exert more influence over trucking companies, creating greater safeguards over unsafe, negligent or reckless driving. The appellate panel questioned the rule, however, saying the hiring rules had little to do with vehicle safety.
"It's very clear from the judges' decision that they see the ban on owner-operators as invalid and unconstitutional," said Clayton W. Boyce, a trucking association spokesman.
Washington Post
NASCAR, With a Concierge
Declining Attendance Has Brought a New Look to the Track. Now, High Rollers Can Enjoy Flat Screens and Fresh Flowers...Liz Clarke
The 6-foot vinyl fencing has been erected, the closed-circuit TV lines to the private patios are being installed, and the wireless infrastructure is all but complete.
All that remains at Burnout Alley, the luxury motor-coach compound overlooking the backstretch of Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, is a bit of landscaping before the April 2-5 NASCAR weekend.
That's when a few dozen stock car racing fans, who will pay $15,000 a year for the privilege, will pull their million-dollar motor coaches trackside to take in NASCAR's ear-splitting sounds from their own 30-by-60-foot gated compound while cooking T-bones on the patio, watching the action on flat-screen TVs, ordering groceries from a custom shopping list (delivery included) and, if the occasion warrants, asking the concierge service to order flowers and make dinner reservations.
Similar digs will soon be available at Lowe's Motor Speedway just north of Charlotte. Included in the deal at both tracks are 10 tickets and VIP pit-road passes for three race weekends each season.
While both projects entail new construction, they don't represent a building boom quite so much as a "re-purposing." Both are taking shape where grandstands have been razed for lack of demand.
Five years ago, those grandstands were full. But as economic conditions have worsened, more and more of those seats have been going unsold -- an embarrassing affirmation that hard times have come to NASCAR, once the country's fastest growing sport.
While other tracks have slashed ticket prices, Texas Motor Speedway took the radical step of tearing down 21,000 seats -- more than 13 percent of its 159,000-seat capacity. It's the sports-marketing equivalent of plowing under crops in response to a troubled economy and, in this case, planting something with greater cash potential.
"There's a much bigger thing at play here than creating spots to put motor coaches in," says Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway. "It's about marketing, finance and economics. With the economy being what it is, we're trying to find ways to have some contraction -- yet not on the revenue side. We're constantly playing with the formula of supply and demand."
All sports are struggling at the box office these days.
After its member schools failed to sell their allotment of tickets to the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament this month, the league offered them to the general public for the first time since 1966. Still, it ended up with roughly 10,000 unsold seats in Atlanta's Georgia Dome.
The New York Yankees have taken out full-page ads to find buyers for unsold premium seats at their gleaming new baseball palace. The NBA's Detroit Pistons had their 259-game sellout streak at The Palace end in February.
And the long-suffering New Jersey Nets of the NBA have reportedly turned to a seat-filling service that caters to New York theatergoers to expand their audience.
Hugh Hayes, owner of Play-By-Play, can't confirm whether the Nets are among his clients (discretion is a hallmark of the service) but says that sports teams make up a growing segment of his business. Play-By-Play members pay $99 a year for the chance to attend an unlimited number of New York area plays, concerts, dance performances and games for free. All members must do is pay a $3.50 service fee per ticket, dress appropriately for the event and not divulge they are using the service, out of respect for full-price customers.
The upside for a producer is the chance of having a packed house and the buzz it generates.
"Word of mouth is the best form of advertising," says Hayes, a former producer himself. "But empty seats do not talk."
Nor do empty seats eat hot dogs, buy programs or pay to park, which makes them especially lamentable for sports teams.
The primary marketing tack for most NASCAR promoters has been to reduce prices, add value or use a combination of both.
International Speedway Corporation, whose holdings include Daytona International Speedway and Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway, reduced prices on more than 150,000 NASCAR seats across its tracks for the 2009 season. Backstretch tickets for February's Daytona 500 were slashed from $99 to $55, the lowest price for admission since 1995.
In addition, ISC lowered concession prices at some venues and upgraded its older seats, replacing aluminum benches with individual seats with backs.
"Our focus is on conveying the message that there is nothing like being at the race -- hearing it, smelling it, tasting it, seeing it yourself," says Lenny Santiago, ISC's director of marketing communications. "The onus is on us to make that experience enjoyable and unforgettable."
Bristol Motor Speedway in southeastern Tennessee has added value in the extreme for this weekend's NASCAR race. Faced with the prospect of snapping its 25-year streak of sellouts, track president Jeff Byrd challenged his marketing staff this winter to come up with something that would "make a Bristol fan in Wisconsin de-winterize his RV and drive to Tennessee in March."
With help from the sport's top drivers, who share concerns about the dip in attendance, the track staged a free festival Friday night headlined by a rock band featuring Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick and a Wii boxing tournament involving Kasey Kahne and Elliott Sadler.
On tap tonight is a 35-lap all-star race involving racing legends Junior Johnson, Cale Yarborough and Rusty Wallace.
With perks like that, the track expects a sellout for tomorrow's 500-mile race without discounting tickets, which remain $93, $125 and $133 each.
"Our race fans just weren't beating down the door telling us we want cheap tickets," Byrd said. "They said: "Give us more to do! Fill up our days and nights. We're there on vacation!' "
In the meantime, track officials at Texas and Lowe's balk at the suggestion that the teardowns represent an acknowledgment that they overbuilt during NASCAR's go-go days.
Owned by a public company, Speedway Motorsports Inc., both venues face pressure to constantly increase revenue, whether by hosting more events, boosting capacity or creating sources of income.
"I don't think you would say we overbuilt, if you back it up 12 or 15 years," says Marcus Smith, president of Lowe's Motor Speedway, whose capacity will shrink from about 160,000 by a few thousand. "We had these seats that weren't as great as our other seats. We needed to upgrade those seats or go the route of the luxury motor spaces."
As Gossage sees it, the beauty of re-purposing 21,000 backstretch seats to Burnout Alley is threefold. It increases the demand for the remaining grandstand tickets. It adds to the cachet of the race, with the stands more likely to be full. And it generates revenue that wasn't there before. At $15,000 each, 35 of the 47 camping spaces already have been sold, bringing in $525,000 in revenue.
"We built it right for its time, and it certainly paid for itself," Gossage said of the Texas speedway. "But the world has changed in the 13 years since we built this place."
Wall Street Journal
What You Can Do to Fight Wal-Mart
When a Wal-Mart comes to town, trying to compete with the big-box store by reducing prices does not help, concludes a two-year study by the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H.
The study found that after a new Wal-Mart store opened, local supermarkets in seven regions of the U.S. suffered sales declines of 17%, while mass merchandisers saw sales fall 40% and drug stores saw a 6% decline in sales.
And when prices were reduced or when the assortment carried by the local store was reduced, sales dropped further, to an average of 20% to 25%.
“Trying to be similar to Wal-Mart does not help,”says Kusum Ailawadi, professor of marketing at Dartmouth, who along with her co-authors studied 90 businesses and their weekly sales data for 46 product categories and compared them to corresponding control stores in markets unaffected by Wal-Mart. “It’s much better to be different.”
She says that local retailers should generally move away from lower-tier products and expand their product assortment to different brands, such as natural or organic items.
Prof. Ailawadi also offered these tips:
1. Supermarkets should offer deeper promotions and begin selling a higher percentage of top-tier national brands and private labels.
2. Drug stores should offer frequent promotions on a wide assortment of products and increase the total variety of products they sell.
3. Mass merchandisers, though, have no choice but to reduce prices but not reduce the assortment of their products.
Prof. Ailawadi tried to contact Wal-Mart, but says she wasn’t able to get hold of a representative to look at her study. Although the report focused much more on larger retailers rather than mom-and-pop stores, I asked her how small businesses should react to her study.
“They should be scared,” she says. “There’s no doubt about it. There’s a very large impact with an entry by Wal-Mart. … It’s no use to blindly cut prices [because] … price-sensitive consumers will move to Wal-Mart anyway. The ones that are left are less price sensitive.”
CNN Money
3 banks fail - 20 so far this year
The FDIC estimates that the cost of the three failures will run in excess of $200 million. One bank was not able to find a buyer, two others were...Catherine Clifford
NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Bank regulators closed three banks Friday, marking the 18th, 19th and 20th failures this year.
The FDIC estimates that the combined cost of the bank failures to its deposit insurance fund will be approximately $207 million.
The announcements mark the ninth week in the past ten that bank failures have been reported.
FirstCity Bank, based in Stockbridge, Ga., with $297 million of assets and $278 million of deposits as of March 18, was closed by state regulators, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which was named the receiver.
The FDIC, unable to find a bank to take the assets of FirstCity, said on Monday it will mail the bank's former customers checks to cover insured funds.
A message on First City's Web site said that "an assuming bank could not be located."
According to an FDIC representative, the assets of the failed bank in Georgia were not attractive to buyers. "There was no franchise value," wrote David Barr, spokesperson for the FDIC, in an email. "More than half the deposits were out of area and the assets were highly concentrated in development loans. We had interest until they saw the deposit and asset makeup."
Direct deposits from the federal government - like Social Security and veterans payments - to First City account holders will go directly to SunTrust Bank.
First City customers with brokered deposits need to be in touch with their brokers. The FDIC will reimburse insured, brokered deposits after the brokers provide the FDIC with the appropriate documentation.
The FDIC fully insures individual accounts up to $250,000 through the end of 2009. When the bank was closed down, the failed bank had about $778,000 in deposits that exceeded the insurance limits, according to the FDIC, although that total could fluctuate as the FDIC hears from the customers.
The FDIC estimates the bank failure will cost its fund approximately $100 million.
Starting Monday, depositors of Stockbridge, Ga.-based bank can go to the FDIC Web site, http://www2.fdic.gov/dip/Index.asp, to obtain the status of their account. A customer can enter his or her bank account number into the field on that site to get an update.
Two more banks fail
Teambank National Association of Paola, Kan., and Colorado National Bank of Colorado Springs, Colo., were closed later on Friday by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
The FDIC was named the receiver for both banks. The FDIC entered into a purchase and assumption agreement with Herring Bank of Amarillo, Texas, to assume all of the deposits of Colorado National and with Great Southern Bank of Springfield, Mo., to assume all of the deposits of Teambank.
The four offices of Colorado National will reopen as branches of Herring Bank and the 17 offices of Teambank will reopen as branches of Great Southern Bank on Saturday. Depositors of the failed banks will automatically become depositors of the purchasing banks.
As of the end of 2008, Colorado National had total assets of $123.5 million and total deposits of $82.7 million. Herring Bank purchased approximately $117.3 million in assets at a discount of $4.2 million, and will pay a 1% premium on deposits. The FDIC will hold the rest of the assets to dispose of later.
The FDIC estimates that the cost to the Deposit Insurance Fund of the failed Colorado National Bank will be $9 million.
At the end of 2008, Teambank had total assets of $669.8 million and total deposits of $492.8 million. The Great Southern bank will assume $474 million in deposits and the FDIC will pay out $18.8 million to the broker and agreed to purchase $656.5 million in assets at a discount of $100 million, and pay a 1% premium on deposits. The FDIC will retain the rest of the failed banks' assets.
The FDIC estimates that the cost to the Deposit Insurance Fund of the failed Teambank will be $98 million.
Over the weekend, depositors of both failed banks can access their money by writing checks or using ATM or debit cards. Checks drawn on the bank will continue to be processed. Loan customers should continue to make their payments as usual.
Banks in the spotlight
Banks have been hit hard by risky, mortgage based assets during the mortgage meltdown. The Troubled Asset Relief Program, a $700 billion rescue, was enacted last fall to recapitalize the struggling banking system and encourage lending.
Even as smaller, regional banks tumble, the government has made it a priority to prop up major financial institutions like Citigroup (C, Fortune 500) and Bank of America.
Friday, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernankedefended the distribution of bailout cash to big financial companies in a speech before a group of community bankers in Phoenix, Ariz. "I do not think we have had a realistic alternative to preventing such failures," he said.
In all of 2008, 25 banks failed. Sheila Bair, chairman of the FDIC, said Friday that she expected bank failures to cost about $65 billion over the next five years.