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Sierra Magazine
Lay of the Land

It's a Man's World | Drill Rigs in Paradise | Human Footprint

It's a Man's World

Is male potency more important than preventing pregnancy?

"If men could get pregnant," said pioneering feminist Flo Kennedy, "abortion would be a sacrament." The same sentiment is revealed in the way the nation's health insurers are treating the advent of Viagra, Pfizer's new wonder drug. As soon as it hit the market, many insurers rushed to include it in their programs as a cure for the medical problem of male impotence. By May 1, almost half of all Viagra prescriptions were covered by insurers.

Women seeking to avoid becoming pregnant by their Viagra-popping partners may not be so fortunate. Almost 40 years after the introduction of the Pill, only 15 percent of traditional indemnity insurance plans cover all five of the most common reversible contraceptives-the Pill, diaphragm, IUD, Norplant, and Depo-Provera. (On the other hand, nine out of ten insurance plans pay for sterilization.) Health maintenance organizations are somewhat better: 84 percent cover the Pill, but less than 40 percent cover all five contraceptive methods. The majority of U.S. workers with health insurance, however, are covered by the more restrictive conventional plans.

"It doesn't seem fair to us," says Dr. Luella Klein, director of Women's Health Issues for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "Impotence is a medical condition, but so is unintended pregnancy."

A simple cost/benefit analysis would seem to argue strongly for comprehensive contraception coverage. Women who do not use contraception, notes Klein, can expect 15 to 24 pregnancies during their fertile years. Two out of three insurers pay for abortion, and virtually all pay for prenatal care and childbirth. Those costs would be offset, the Congressional Budget Office has found, if insurers provided contraceptive services.

The health-care industry, however, has already figured out the angle on this one. Since few women want to undergo 15 to 24 abortions or births, they will pay for contraceptives out of their own pockets. All the insurer has to do is cover the cost of mistakes and planned births. Despite making 75 cents on the dollar of a man's wages, the average woman pays 68 percent more for health care-much of it for contraceptives. Given that nine out of ten women in the United States practice contraception, that's a bundle saved for insurers.

This system helps fuel the astounding rate of unintended pregnancy in the United States. One out of two pregnancies-about 3.6 million every year-is unplanned, a rate double that of other developed countries. Nearly half of these pregnancies end in abortion.

"Insurance companies are subsidizing population growth by paying for Viagra, yet many refuse to cover the contraception that women need to help them plan their families," says Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope. "It would be laughable if it weren't such a gross example of gender inequity."

Seeking to address that inequity, Senators Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Harry Reid (D-Nev.) introduced legislation requiring health-care providers who cover prescription drugs to pay for prescription contraceptive drugs and devices. In July, the House passed a bill requiring any health plan for federal employees that pays for prescriptions to also pay for prescription contraceptives; author Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) called it "the biggest victory for reproductive rights since the Republicans took over the House."

Neither of these ideas is new, but the enormous publicity over Viagra has given them new life. While Pfizer is now trying to determine what benefits its product might have for women, shaming lawmakers into legislating gender-equity in reproductive health care could be Viagra's greatest gift. —Paul Rauber


Drill Rigs in Paradise

The oil-and-gas industry encircles Yellowstone

Running through the Rocky Mountain West and far into Canada are complex geologic folds and faults known as the Overthrust Belt, coveted by the oil-and-gas industry for its profit potential. Industry is focusing on the geologic overview here, with a landscape of drill rigs, pipelines, compressors, and roads as the goal. Since 1985, Alberta alone has gained 78,000 wells and 786,000 miles of new road, sufficient to circle the earth 31 times.

It's a grand vision, but it runs up hard against an even grander one: established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park has been called "America's best idea," one that led to a worldwide parks movement. The Greater Yellowstone ecosystem stretches out from this renowned core, taking in Grand Teton National Park and surrounding wildlands. Its 18 million acres is home to nesting bald eagles, herds of elk and bison, endangered grizzlies, and abundant deer, moose, and bighorn. The last refuge for native strains of cutthroat trout, its streams feed all of the nation's three major river systems, the Mississippi, the Colorado, and the Columbia.

Roads are absent from almost two-thirds, or 11 million acres, of Greater Yellowstone. But on the 4.4 million acres of this area still unprotected by law, roads and pipelines are threatening the ecosystem's heart. In Wyoming, where industry pressure is greatest, most Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land is already leased for oil-and-gas development, so the focus has shifted to national forests where leases have not yet been sold.

Will they be? Industry hopes hinge on decisions now being made by the seven supervisors of the national forests that surround the parks. When it comes to oil and gas, though, these seven decision-makers don't agree.

Environmentalists hoped that most of the supervisors would follow the lead of Lewis and Clark Forest to the north, which in 1997 decided not to allow leasing in Montana's Rocky Mountain Front. Only Gallatin National Forest has not done so, however, choosing not to lease any critical, or "situation one," grizzly habitat near Yellowstone. Most other supervisors are bowing to the oil-and-gas lobby. In Montana, Beaverhead National Forest has proposed opening over 1.6 million acres, or 99 percent of its non-wilderness lands, including wilderness study areas. In Idaho, Targhee National Forest, known for clearcutting the western boundary of Yellowstone Park, has a plan that would open between 94 and 100 percent of available lands. In Wyoming, Shoshone National Forest Supervisor Rebecca Aus has opened 960,000 out of 1 million acres available.

"We believe that we can do this program and protect the environmental quality," Aus claims. Yet much of the Shoshone is roadless, and harbors grizzlies, wolves, lynx, and northern goshawk. Six groups, including the Sierra Club, have teamed up to file a protest of Aus' action with the Wyoming BLM, which handles all federal oil-and-gas leases.

Still undecided is the fate of Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest. About 700,000 of its 3.4 million acres are under lease in the Wyoming Range, a narrow southwestern extension of the Yellowstone ecosystem, where sour-gas wells, roads, pipelines, and a large dehydration plant have been built. Industry proposals target points near Jackson Hole that would cut between Grand Teton National Park and the Wind River Range, the ecosystem's southeastern leg.

Additional leases are proposed for remote Moccasin Basin, just 30 miles south of Yellowstone Park on the Continental Divide. On the ground, this would mean all-weather roads, pipelines, and industrial traffic severing the ecosystem's southern extensions. It would also subject wilderness skies to acid-forming emissions: a recent EIS for the Jonah II gas field south of Pinedale predicts 61 days each year of impaired visibility.

Bridger-Teton National Forest has received over 2,000 letters opposing leasing. Remarkably for drill-happy Wyoming, one of them came from Teton County, which realizes that a gas boom could spell eventual bust for an economy based on unspoiled landscapes. At current U.S. consumption rates, no more than three days' supply of natural gas would be produced from all the forest's proposed wells, according to Scott Fitzwilliams, an information officer for the Bridger-Teton. "Is it worth it?" he asks.

That question traverses agency, state, and even national boundaries. Beyond looms the spectacle of the drive for cheap oil and gas turning Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks into biological cages. As Louisa Willcox of the Sierra Club Grizzly Project says, "Unless there is a long-term plan to reconnect wildland habitat in the United States and Canada, grizzlies are history, wolves are history." And so, perhaps, is the idea of Greater Yellowstone as an ecosystem. -C. L. Rawlins

If you'd like to help, please write to Bridger-Teton National Forest Supervisor Tom Puchlerz at 304 N. Cache, Box 1888, Jackson, WY 83001, and tell him that you oppose all new oil-and-gas leasing in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem.


The Human Footprint

Take a step back and consider humanity's impact on the planet:

  • Between one-third and one-half of the land surface of Earth has been transformed or degraded by human action.

  • The carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased by nearly 30 percent since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.

  • Earth's forested areas have shrunk by about one-third since the rise of agriculture-based civilization.

  • Roughly one percent of the world's water is fresh and available for human use; more than half of that is already in use by humanity.

  • About one-quarter of the bird species on Earth have been driven to extinction.

  • The world's population is expected to grow from 5.9 billion today to between 8 and 10 billion by the year 2050.

Source: "Human Domination of Earth's Ecosystems," by Peter M. Vitousek, et al., Science, July 25, 1997, and the United Nations Population Division


Next They'll Want Gretzky Back

The Sierra Club correctly predicted that the North American Free Trade Agreement would be used to challenge member-nations' environmental laws. Now it may be used to challenge something some people take much more seriously: professional hockey. Prominent Toronto attorney Barry Appleton (who also represents a U.S. company suing Canada for a quarter of a billion dollars for banning its possibly neurotoxic gasoline additive MMT) is urging Canada to use NAFTA to challenge local subsidies for U.S. hockey teams.

Appleton argues that the "national treatment" section of NAFTA makes it illegal for U.S. counties or municipalities to provide financing to their National Hockey League teams "unless the same benefits are made available to all teams playing in that locality." Otherwise, visiting Canadian hockey teams and their Canadian investors would be at a disadvantage-an outcome NAFTA is supposed to prevent. Under this interpretation, Canada couldn't ban industrial poisons legal in the United States -- but it would have a better shot at the Stanley Cup. — Paul Rauber


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