June 16, 2008

Don’t trash Joshua Tree National Park

by Seth Shteir
High Country News

Which word doesn’t belong with “national park?” Wildflowers, wildlife, hiking, night sky, garbage dump? No doubt you answered “garbage dump,” yet the biggest landfill in the United States may be developed right next to California’s Joshua Tree National Park.

Fortunately, a lawsuit filed by the National Parks Conservation Association and others is trying to halt this misguided proposal. The lawsuit, currently under appeal in the federal Circuit Court of Appeals in Pasadena, argues that the landfill fails to serve the public interest, that a land exchange making the dump possible was improper, and the environmental impact statement flawed.

"Who would have thought that a federal agency that is supposed to be looking out for the best interests of U.S. citizens would have allowed this ridiculous proposal to come this far?” says Ron Sundergill, Pacific Region director of the National Parks Conservation Association.

The dump would receive 20,000 tons of trash each day from all over southern California, and over its 117-year lifetime, 700 billion pounds of trash would accumulate, towering 1,500 feet high over the rock-studded desert. What’s harder to believe is that the landfill would be surrounded on three sides by Joshua Tree National Park.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that a dump this size would destabilize the fragile desert ecosystem. Losers almost certainly would be desert bighorn and the endangered desert tortoise; winners would be predatory ravens benefiting from the new free food. Noise and light pollution from the trucks and machinery would definitely impair the naturalness of the park, and although some will argue that the nation needs more landfills, it’s hard to make the case that this particular project is in the best interest of the public.

The way the deal came about is also questionable. The BLM’s land transfer with Kaiser Ventures was improper because it disregarded the Federal Lands Management Policy Act. The act states that land transfers cannot significantly conflict with management on adjacent federal lands. Yet by trading land to create the nation’s biggest dump, the BLM undermined the Park Service’s management of sensitive lands within Joshua Tree National Park.

It’s not just the ecological ramifications of this battleship-sized landfill that should have people worried. A National Parks Conservation Association report showed that in 2001, the 1.3 million visitors to Joshua tree contributed $46.3 million to the local economy and supported 1,115 jobs. Desert tortoises and bighorn sheep wouldn’t be the only species harmed by the Eagle Mountain Landfill.

The national parks nonprofit and other individuals also say that the land exchange between the BLM and Kaiser Ventures was flawed. When the public land necessary for the exchange was appraised, the BLM identified its value in vague terms -- “holding for speculative investment and future capital appreciation” -- instead of acknowledging that its acquisition by Kaiser Ventures would likely mean it would become a major landfill. This resulted in an undervalued appraisal and taxpayers getting a raw deal. Ultimately, the swap of 3,481 acres of public land brought in a mere $20,100. Kaiser’s non-contiguous parcels that were transferred to the BLM also added little value to public lands. The parcels lie along the Eagle Mountain Rail Line, the very rail line that would haul trash to the landfill.

Although the National Park Service has accepted the environmental impact statement for the Eagle Mountain Landfill, some federal agency representatives say they remain concerned about the impact of the dump. It is the National Parks Conservation Association and other park-lovers who have taken on the job of challenging the EIS because of its narrowly defined statement of purpose. The EIS is, in fact, a facsimile of Kaiser Venture’s business plan, and the effect of its narrow purpose statement led to limited alternatives. For example, there is no mention anywhere in the EIS of investigating other landfill sites on BLM land or increasing the size and use of existing landfills.

Allowing the nation’s largest landfill next to a national park is a little like building a roller coaster next door to an elementary school. It’s simply a poor idea. Let’s hope that the court understands that a national park visited by millions of people each year can’t be neighbors to a noisy, spreading landfill. The tragedy, though, is that a court must make this decision.

Seth Shteir is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is vice president of the San Fernando Valley Audubon Society in southern California.