LOGGING ON

While the U.K. mulls a controversial plan to sell off England's public forests, the Obama administration announced very different plans this week for American woodlands. The U.S. Forest Service wants to take more control over the country's national forests, hoping to "break a legal logjam," as the AP reports, and resolve old disputes between the logging industry and conservation groups. Agency officials say the new rules would expand wildlife protections and improve water quality, but some critics say the 94-page proposal would also weaken safeguards adopted almost 30 years ago by the Reagan administration.

"When you get right down to it, there are a lot of 'mays' but not that many 'musts'," Jane Danowitz of the Pew Environment Group tells the Los Angeles Times. "We're disappointed," adds Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen. "They do a little thing here or there that's good. But this is a significant rollback of protections for wildlife and habitat." The problem, according to critics, is that the new rules would give too much power to individual forest managers, although the administration argues that's a good thing, wresting control from Washington bureaucrats and empowering local scientists. "Rather than responding to the political pressure of the time, it would be much better to say to the scientists, 'What is the best way to make this forest the most resilient it can be,'" Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack tells the AP.

Not all environmentalists disapprove of the plan — the director of the Natural Resources Defense Council's Forest Project, for one, says he finds "a lot to like." For example, the current rules require only that forests retain "viable populations" of certain vertebrate animals, while the new rules would focus more broadly on maintaining healthy ecosystems as a whole, including invertebrates and plants. "If we maintain or restore the structure, the function, the composition of ecosystems and watersheds," one federal official explains, "we're going to provide for diversity of the vast majority of species." The plan also places protections for trees and brush near waterways, a key step toward ensuring logging operations don't harm water quality. Following a 90-day public comment period, the proposed rules would become final at the end of the year.

(Sources: Associated Press, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, U.S. Forest Service, Guardian)

OYSTER OUSTER

Earth's wild oysters are on the verge of collapsing, according to a new study in the journal BioScience, with more than 85 percent of the planet's native oyster reefs already gone. Three-quarters of the remaining oysters live in North America, but as the study's authors report, they're not exactly thriving, either. Many are "functionally extinct," meaning they've faded out of ecological relevance — and that's a big deal, points out TIME food writer Josh Ozersky, since oysters historically built entire habitats from scratch, filtered dirty water and improved the quality of coastlines. Now they're clinging to existence, some 250 million years after they first evolved.

This oyster crash is similar to other cases of overfishing, Ozersky writes, such as that of bluefin tuna and wild salmon. Struggling, small-scale fishermen collect all they can without worrying about overall populations, while stiff competition and rising demand prevent large-scale commercial fleets from stopping to consider sustainability. There are plenty of industry advocates who still deny that wild oysters are in trouble, but environmentalists also share some blame for perpetuating the crisis, according to Ozersky, since their "reflexive abhorrence of farmed seafood" helps maintain demand for the wild kind. Most oysters sold in restaurants and grocery stores now are farm-raised, helping prevent consumers from feeling the pain of wild oysters. "But that continuing convenience," Ozersky writes, "doesn't minimize the tawdry demise of a wild animal that has thrived on this planet for a quarter of a billion years."

The ship hasn't quite sailed yet on saving — or even restoring — the world's last wild oyster reefs. Conservation efforts off the U.S. Mid-Atlantic Coast offer some hope, although there are plenty of other x-factors muddying the animals' outlook, not the least of which is the potential for disasters like the 2010 Gulf oil spill. In fact, the Gulf of Mexico is one of wild oyster's last remaining holdouts, yet at least half of them were wiped out by the oil spill and the ensuing attempts to clean it up.

(Sources: TIME, BioScience)

PIPE NIGHTMARES

Yet another deadly explosion has drawn attention to the aging network of natural gas pipelines zigzagging across the U.S., the Wall Street Journal reports. Five people were killed this week when a gas line apparently blew up in Allentown, Pa., triggering a giant fireball and sending shock waves through countless communities nationwide that live alongside similarly precarious pipelines.

The Allentown explosion was the country's third major natural-gas blast in six months. Local officials say they can't yet confirm that a natural gas line exploded, but they are certain that leaking gas fueled the fire after the blast, which occurred around 10:45 p.m. Wednesday. The blaze flattened two houses, set several others on fire and damaged 47 buildings in all. Rescue crews had to fight through ice and concrete before finally shutting off the flow of gas by 3:45 a.m. Thursday. "We're assuming it was a natural gas explosion," says a spokesman for UGI Utilities Inc. "Even if we confirm that, we're still not sure if the natural gas came from a leak in the main, in one of the service lines feeding homes and businesses in the area, or even inside one of the homes."

This most recent explosion follows another in Philadelphia on Jan. 18, in which a utility worker was killed and six others were injured while responding to a report of gas odors in a residential neighborhood. And on Sept. 9 of last year, eight people died and 37 homes were destroyed when a large gas pipeline blew up in San Bruno, Calif. According to federal data cited by the WSJ, gas-line accidents caused 291 deaths and 1,193 injuries from 1990 to March 2010, even before the recent spate of explosions. Many U.S. gas lines have outlived their expected life spans, and often haven't been serviced in decades. The Allentown pipe had been in use since 1928, for example, while a 1949 pipe is being blamed for the San Bruno blast. "The toll keeps rising," says U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has introduced a bill to improve gas-pipeline safety. "The age of these pipelines is going to continue to cause consternation."

(Source: Wall Street Journal)

NO GREEN LIGHT

Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are widely considered one of the most environmentally friendly light sources available, using far less energy than incandescent or fluorescent bulbs, and without the toxic mercury vapor found in the latter. But according to a new study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, not even LEDs can escape the environmental trade-offs that seem to plague almost every type of lighting technology. That's because LEDs contain lead, arsenic and a dozen other potentially dangerous substances, the study's authors found.

"LEDs are touted as the next generation of lighting. But as we try to find better products that do not deplete energy resources or contribute to global warming, we have to be vigilant about the toxicity hazards of those marketed as replacements," says Oladele Ogunseitan, chair of the University of California-Irvine's Department of Population Health & Disease Prevention. Along with other UC-Irvine researchers, Ogunseitan crushed, leached and tested a variety of LEDs, from Christmas lights and traffic lights to car headlights and brake lights. According to their results, low-intensity red LEDs contain up to eight times the amount of lead permitted by California law, although brighter and higher-intensity lights typically have more toxins than dimmer ones. White LEDs seem to contain the least lead, although they still hold large amounts of nickel. "We find the low-intensity red LEDs exhibit significant cancer and noncancer potentials due to the high content of arsenic and lead," the researchers report.

Arsenic and lead have been linked to a variety of cancers by hundreds of previous studies, the authors point out, as well as neurological damage, kidney disease, high blood pressure and other illnesses. The copper found in some LEDs also presents an environmental threat, since it can poison aquatic life if it accumulates in rivers or lakes. While breaking open a single LED and breathing the fumes likely wouldn't give someone cancer, Ogunseitan points out that it could be a tipping point on top of long-term exposure to other carcinogens, and notes that children are especially at risk if they eat the bulbs.

(Source: e! Science News)

THIS DAY IN HISTORY

Antarctica ice-drilling begins, an extinct bird makes an encore appearance, and more.

Russell McLendon

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Photo (sunlight shining through trees): U.S. Forest Service

Photo (dead oysters): ZUMA Press

Photo (natural gas pipeline): ZUMA Press

Photo (light-emitting diodes): ZUMA Press

Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Weekend Briefing 2/11/2011
U.S. rethinks forest plans, wild oysters near collapse, LEDs contain lead, and a natural gas pipeline explodes.