Crying Whale

Environmental groups sent out a worldwide call to save the gray whale from a Mexican salt plant. They got millions of dollars and thousands of new members. But scientists found no threat to the whales.

"Our message was, 'This is a pristine area. Do not touch it, period,'" says Konishi.

Ironically, in a chapter for an upcoming book, Andres Rozental and Mark Spalding admit that President Zedillo's decision to pull the plug on the plant "is a bad precedent for Mexico, even if most believe that not building the facility was the right decision, because once again the legal process for project review was subverted and the competent authority sidelined."

Spalding is hardly apologetic for the environmental groups' short-circuiting of Mexico's environmental review process. Using the whale was the only way, he says, "Because I just don't know if it would have worked, arguing that we have to protect it because it's a World Heritage site."

Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
courtsey of IFAW/S. Cook
Actor Pierce Brosnan stands on a mobile billboard promoting the International Fund for Animal Welfare campaign.
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.
Don Lewis
NRDC consultant Mark Spalding.


In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.

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Read the entire series

To this day, he believes the studies showing no effect on the gray whales, conducted by numerous scientists for the EIA, "cannot be believed. The only way I would trust any of it is if they had created a trust fund and gotten an independent body to put contracts out to bid so that ESSA was not directly paying for the outcome."

While several top North American scientists not involved in the EIA studies told New Times that the studies were solid and the scientists who conducted them were ethical and above reproach, Spalding insists those scientists' reputations are ruined.

"ESSA put at risk some really good scientists, like Jorge Urban, an absolutely wonderful guy, and Paul Dayton at Scripps, who is well-liked throughout the conservation community for his work on coral reefs and eel grass. It's a horrible thing for his reputation and Jorge's reputation to have gone through that."

So this is where things sit, uncomfortably, today.

One side insists the salt plant battle gave the environmental movement a vital new people-based global political strategy for saving threatened "biological gems," even in the daunting Third World.

The other side insists the battle is a classic study of how environmental powerhouses can manipulate the public fear about threats to charismatic species, even when no serious threat can be found.

In fact, in the complex human struggle that arose over the salt plant at San Ignacio, both views may turn out to be correct.

Where Things Stand Today

There can be little question that, as a result of the salt plant battle, the mechanisms for waging environmental wars have been fundamentally changed at a national and even global level.

These days, the NRDC and IFAW and dozens of other groups are using the Internet to hammer Washington, D.C., over its energy and environmental stands, especially over President George W. Bush's proposal to drill for oil in the migrating range and calving grounds of the porcupine caribou herd in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

In the fight in the Arctic, Robert Redford has signed on as the angry celebrity for NRDC. "Robert Redford's letter says, basically, 'I have never done this before but I feel it's very important, please take this letter and send it to your family and friends,'" says Lopez. "That is opening up a whole new world of people."

By late summer, she says, 148,000 non-members of NRDC had visited the NRDC Web site and taken action, such as sending an e-mail to Congress opposing oil exploration in the refuge. Moreover, 250,000 of their members had swamped Washington with letters and e-mail, and NRDC is still growing fast.

"We just went over the 500,000 mark on our membership, and I am banking on staying over half a million, depending on how dopey Bush is," about drilling for oil in the Arctic, says Lopez.

The group has launched a new campaign it calls BioGems, in which it urges non-members and members alike to take action, mostly via the Internet, to protect special species and ecosystems from development around the world and demand immediate action on problems such as children exposed to lead paint.

Their reach is potent, and can be lightning-fast.

"We got a call from a guy about a road development in Chile, this horrible thing that was going to happen basically right now, like on a Friday," says Lopez. "We sent out a message to our BioGems defenders, telling them we had this desperate vote coming on Tuesday, so 'Could you please click here and enter your e-mail address?'"

When the activist entered his or her address, the NRDC software sent a fax from that person's e-mail address to the other end -- in this case, to amazed officials in a town in Chile who received 2,000 faxes from the United States, and stopped the road project cold.

Big changes have come to grassroots activists in Mexico as well. Under the now-ousted PRI, the government had controlled every aspect of development and job creation, often with little regard to the environment. But just a few months ago, local Baja activists stopped a luxury hotel development on an untrammeled twin lagoon two hours south of Ensenada.

"One of the things the environmental movement gives people, when it wins in a place like Laguna San Ignacio, is the belief that you can fight city hall," says Mark Spalding.

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