After four dusty days spent slithering through slot canyons and scrambling over boulders in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this morning’s walk is notably refreshing. Steve Defa, a 59-year-old psychotherapist from Escalante, Utah, is leading me up a sandy wash shaded by big ponderosa pines and smaller pinyons. The air is fragrant with pine needles and sage after last night’s rain; the air pleasantly cool.
After a mile or so, we emerge into the canyon country for which the monument is known. Sandstone walls pocked with shadows and studded with green rise on either side. “This is backpacking heaven,” Defa says of his 1.9 million-acre backyard. “There’s more here than a person will ever get to in a lifetime.”
Soon, though, he picks up a tar ball the size of a brussels sprout and rolls it in his hand. I notice a young conifer bent sideways from a flood, its upper branches looking like they’ve been dipped in tar. Plants growing in the wash are black and brittle. “This is where it really begins,” Defa tells me, ducking under some bare willows. An acrid smell creeps into the fresh morning air; it smells like hot summer days of my childhood, when the new asphalt poured into cracks in the pavement became soft and gooey and I’d poke it with a stick.
A quarter-mile more and we come to an eight-inch layer of crude, dried to the consistency of warm asphalt and mixed with gravel and rocks. The layer extends four miles up Little Valley Wash, varying in depth and composition as it meanders across the landscape like a greasy black snake. Similar scenes can be found in three nearby washes, all of which drain into the Escalante River – a tributary of the Colorado – and all of which spill down from Death Ridge, a plateau on which Houston-based Citation Oil operates 19 wells.
A month ago, two hunting guides on the trail of a trophy buck stumbled upon the oil. They reported it to the Bureau of Land Management, which responded with a team of geologists, petroleum engineers, biologists, botanists and law enforcement officials. The group is still in the process of combing the drainage for more damage and investigating the faulty well (which has already been shut down). No one knows yet just how much oil is on the ground – Defa guesses up to 1,000 barrels altogether; the BLM simply calls it “significant.” And no one knows how old the oil is: Some of it may be more than three decades old, some just a few months.
Adding to the mess is Citation Oil’s seeming attempts to deflect blame. Two years ago, the company was busted for another spill in the same region. As with this spill, they failed to report it to the state as required by law and seem to have suggested that the spills occurred before they took over the wells, which have been in operation since the 1960s.
For Defa, such transgressions are unforgiveable. He began hiking and backpacking this country when he was a boy growing up near Salt Lake City, and moved here six years ago to be closer to the scarcely populated wilderness he loves. But the relatively new integration of Defa and roughly 200 other outdoorsy types into the predominately conservative, Mormon community of Escalante (population 800) over the past 18 years hasn’t been without cultural tension. Many locals were opposed to the national monument designation in 1996; most newcomers not only support it, but often profit from it, and the recent brouhaha over the oil spill has only worsened relations. The hunters who found the spill refuse to reveal their identities for fear of retribution from the local community.
Instead, Defa has voluntarily become the face of local environmentalists’ response to the spill, as well as of an anti-fracking coalition that formed last fall after a different oil company proposed testing on private land in town. Now, he says, many locals won’t give him the obligatory two-finger salute when their pickups pass on the street. “I’m the kind of person who doesn’t care, so that helps,” he quips. When I ask if he’d call himself an environmentalist, he grins. “I’ve been called worse.”
Defa’s joking aside, the spill highlights an issue faced by towns across the Southwest, from Durango to Moab. As tourism and recreation overtake resource extraction as the primary economic driver in some places, resentment between locals and “move-ins,” as they’re called in Escalante, bubbles to the surface. Tourism now makes up 89 percent of the economy in the counties surrounding Grand Staircase-Escalante, but rarely provides the kind of lifelong, retirement-with-benefits job security that extractive industries once could. Escalante residents who long for that kind of stability view Defa’s efforts to call national attention to the spill as undermining it.
“We took a pretty strident stance and called for the suspension of (Citation’s) leases,” Defa admits. “We think this is a country that needs real protection.”
While federal officials haven’t (and likely won’t) suspend Citation’s leases, the spill has raised questions about drilling in a region becoming increasingly popular among outdoor enthusiasts. If the hunters hadn’t happened upon the spill, would it have been eventually covered with sand and gravel and faded unnoticed into the landscape? How many other “significant” oil spills in remote places go unreported? And most immediately pressing, what’s the best way to clean up off-road, off-trail contamination in a wild place? Spills like Exxon-Valdez have taught scientists that scalding water, heavy machinery and hordes of well-intentioned but poorly trained volunteers can sometimes harm the environment as much as the actual spill. Yet left untouched, flash floods could stir up the oil and move it further into the drainage.
“To clean this up, you’d have to ruin the canyon to some extent,” Defa says, peering at the damage from beneath a blue baseball cap. “You’re not going to get this out with a shovel.”
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.
Several months ago, an old friend and sometime source contacted me with a tip on a big local story going down here in Durango, with statewide and even national implications. I had been looking around the immediate region for something into which I could dig my investigative reporting teeth. This might be it. A week or so later, we met in the local coffee shop, its walls decorated by mountain bikes hanging like fine art with prices to match. At a table next to us, a compact, overly-tanned woman with biceps like tennis balls spoke sternly to another woman — a personal trainer berating her client. My friend leaned across the table and gave me the scoop:
The City is building a park. On the river. With a boat ramp.
I waited for the punchline, for the details of how some developer was bribing city officials to get the go-ahead to turn the park into a condo complex and oil field with a McDonald's attached. None arrived. Who, I thought, could have a problem with a park? Plenty of folks, it turns out. Over the next several weeks I would be contacted by a handful of others who strongly oppose the City’s park plans, and the public comment process regarding it has turned into a bit of a s*&t storm. To be clear, these aren’t some sort of Agenda 21, anti-public land nut jobs who oppose all parks, they just don’t like some of the details of this particular one.
As upsetting to opponents as the development itself is what it will bring: More of the inner-tubing, paddle-boarding, river-rafting, beach-partying masses that have already colonized large swaths of the river during the warmer months of the year. But it’s also what the development represents. In its quest to be an amenity-rich, recreation-based town rather than the extraction based one it once was, critics say, Durango has finally gone too far.
The problem park — its name is Oxbow Preserve — consists of 44 acres of land just north of this town of 15,000 people. The City acquired the land from private owners back in 2012 with the help of $400,000 in statewide lottery funds that are doled out for such things. Generally speaking, the land acquisition itself wasn’t controversial: It would preserve a nice stretch of the river as open space with public access, benefit wildlife and allow the City to stretch the riverside bike path further afield.
After acquiring the land, the City announced that it would keep its hands off 38 acres, leaving it as open space and wildlife habitat. No worries there. Yet the remaining six acres would be developed as a park, with not only the bike path going through, but also a driveway, parking lot, restrooms and a boat ramp, accessible to commercial outfitters. This development -- the ramp in particular -- is what's fueling the fight.
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With armed militia on one side, armed federal agents on the other, and about 900 cows in the middle, the Bureau of Land Management last Saturday called off its roundup of rancher Cliven Bundy’s “trespass cattle,” releasing the 300 or so cows it had already collected back into the desert.
BLM director Neil Kornze said that the agency made the call to protect both their agents and members of the public, after armed pro-Bundy supporters, many of them belonging to antigovernment militias, made a highly public show of force that heightened tensions during the multi-day standoff in Clark County’s Gold Butte region, 80 miles east of Las Vegas.
After 20 years of flouting the law, Bundy owes the BLM over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and fines and has defied two court orders. Former agency insiders and legal experts say the feds may have little choice now but to round up Bundy himself. Some of the armed militia members who showed up at the scene could face legal action as well. Nonetheless, the outcome of the standoff may set back the BLM’s future dealings with other recalcitrant cattlemen. It likely damages the agency’s public image, and may encourage the idea that the agency will capitulate if threatened with force.
“In 40 years of working for BLM and with BLM, (the Bundy standoff) is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Mike Ford, former deputy director of the Nevada BLM. “All that people have seen on the national news – their vision of BLM right now is uniformed, gun-toting police officers.”
Rob Mrowka, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the recent events seem to have already emboldened other livestock producers with anti-government leanings to challenge federal law. Mrowka had heard through sources with the BLM that the agency has received calls in other states this week from ranchers wanting to renegotiate public lands grazing terms.
In terms of how to resolve the Bundy issue in particular, “I do think the agency and the government have some options available to them,” said Bob Abbey, who was Nevada state director of the BLM between 1997 and 2005, national BLM director between 2010 and 2012, and who dealt with Bundy on several occasions during his tenure. “One thing would be to meet with the judge and see if the judge were willing to issue a contempt of court citation against Mr. Bundy,” which would allow the agency to put him behind bars for ignoring court orders.
The Department of Justice is staying mum on the issue for now, while the BLM has said only that Bundy will be dealt with “administratively and judicially.” Sen. Harry Reid, De-Nev., who has called Bundy and his militia supporters “domestic terrorists,” said Thursday that a task force has been formed to address the issue. A sizable number of militia men are still camped near the Bundy ranch.
In retrospect, the agency’s handling of last week’s roundup could arguably have been better. Abbey suggested that having BLM agents on the ground specifically to address protesters’ concerns may have helped keep the crowds more tempered. That didn’t appear to happen last week, and the BLM hasn’t responded to requests for comment on how they dealt with the standoff.
Bundy’s “Last Man Standing” position and the standoff that ensued are extreme, but hardly new to the world of public lands ranching. Since at least the Sagebrush Rebellion days, a virtual war over the federal ownership and regulation of the West’s public lands has flared on and off. Some cases in point:
In 1991 Nevada rancher Wayne Hage claimed rights to roughly 752,000 acres of public land, in a case that stayed tangled in the courts for decades. In 1997, illegal cattle grazing in Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument proved a bigger headache than fossil hunters. And in 2004, 70-year-old rancher Wally Klump refused to move 28 head of cattle from public land in the Arizona mountains. He sat in jail for a year in contempt of court until he finally agreed to remove his cattle.
These rebels and Bundy have their supporters, like those who are calling the rancher a hero victimized by federal overreach. Yet not all the likely backers are on Bundy’s side. The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association issued a statement Wednesday expressing sympathy for Bundy’s situation, lamenting federal regulations that favor the environment over grazing. But it also said, “We cannot advocate operating outside the law to solve problems.” Even ultraconservative pundit Glenn Beck has come out against the Bundy camp protesters, and points out, “There’s about 10 or 15 percent of the people (who support Bundy and) are talking about this online who don’t care what the facts are. They just want a fight.”
From both sides of the political spectrum, Bundy’s critics say the rancher’s professed staunch allegiance to the state is inconsistent with his refusal to recognize that the Nevada state constitution upholds federal ownership of the land his cattle graze.
And while the buzz about all this drones on, the long-term repercussions for Bundy and the BLM remain unclear. For now, the agency is still doing more listening than talking. The Southern Nevada BLM communications office voicemail politely asks callers to comment on the “trespass cattle” after the tone. “Rest assured,” the voice says, “that all messages are being listened to each night.”
Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.
Temperatures were in the single digits on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation in early February when Debbie Dogskin began to take off her clothes. In the throes of late stage hypothermia, people act irrationally as cold clouds their thinking.
The 61-year old was found dead in a friend’s mobile home, an empty propane tank outside. Trailers in this frigid corner of the northern prairie are often patched together with ill-fitting doors and drafty windows. Inside some homes, “you can find frost in the corners of rooms up on the ceiling,” Rev. John Floberg of the Standing Rock’s Episcopal Church told the Episcopal News Service.
Like many parts of the country, the Standing Rock Reservation experienced a severe propane shortage this winter. Unusually cold temperatures in the Midwest combined with the fact that farmers used more propane than they normally do to dry out a huge harvest of wet grain at the end of the season sent fuel prices through the roof. The week before Dogskin died, propane was selling for $4.57 a gallon in North Dakota. That’s almost three times higher than in winter 2013.
Yet some 250 miles away, oil rigs tapping Bakken shale were burning off millions of cubic feet of propane-rich natural gas a day – the same gas that, if captured, refined and sold, could have kept Dogskin’s trailer warm.
The waste is largely an infrastructure problem, says Ryan Salmon, the senior manager for the oil and gas program at Ceres, a national non-profit focused on sustainable investing. Unlike oil, which can be easily stored on site in a tank, natural gas is hard to compress and store. It must first be captured at the wellhead and transported via pipeline to a processing facility. The pace of new drilling has been so fast, Salmon says, that the pipeline infrastructure hasn’t caught up. Plus, comparatively low natural gas prices mean pipelines would take a long time to pay for themselves. In December 2013, flaring in North Dakota hit a new record: 36 percent of all natural gas produced as a byproduct of drilling for oil went up in smoke. The amount of flaring is even higher on the Fort Berthold reservation, the swath of tribal land at the center of the Bakken oil boom, where infrastructure is even more lacking than elsewhere in the state.
In 2013, New Belgium Brewing, the Fort Collins, Colo.-based purveyor of libations like Fat Tire and Ranger, whipped up exactly 792,292 barrels of beer. Considering each barrel is capable of filling somewhere in the range of 60 six-packs, that production made for plenty of happy drinkers (including, on more than one occasion, yours truly). But New Belgium also satisfied non-human consumers, too, by selling 64 million pounds of “spent grain” – the ingredients left behind after the brewing process – to beef and dairy farmers, who feed the porridge-like substance to their cows.
“For hundreds of years, brewers have had this great symbiosis with farmers,” says Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s director of media relations. “It’s a very elegant system.”
While many operations give away their used grains, selling the stuff can be a lucrative sideline: Spent grain goes for about $50 per ton nationwide, and total annual sales add up to around $160 million (most of it to the big boys, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors). Now, though, brewers claim this centuries-old harmony is threatened by new Food and Drug Administration rules that could make it harder for beer-makers to sell or donate their spent grain as cattle feed.
The proposed regulation stems from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), legislation designed to prevent food contamination. That’s a worthy goal: Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks are distressingly common, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 48 million people are sickened – and 3,000 killed – by foodborne illnesses annually. The FSMA seeks to reduce that toll through measures like increased inspections and quality control for food imports, and the law drew praise from food safety advocates when it was signed in 2010.
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Moab, Utah seems to be coming full circle. Early prospectors discovered useful minerals – uranium, vanadium, potash and manganese – near the farming and ranching outpost, and in the 1950s, Moab became known as the “Uranium Capital of the World.” Thirty years later, the boom was over, the mines closed down, and homes stood empty.
Moab then reinvented its economy to exploit another natural resource – the stunning redrock scenery. The area became a major tourist destination with two national parks, a state park, and world-class mountain biking, jeeping, ATV riding, river rafting and rock climbing.
Now, the Moab area seems to be swinging back toward industrialization, with a stack of new proposals for wells, mines and pipelines -- even as it’s still mopping up the 16-million-ton uranium tailings pile left by the last boom. The Grand County council and some business leaders believe that energy development and recreation can coexist, but many locals fear that a wholesale return to extraction will drive away tourists and ruin the landscape. The Deseret News reports:
As winter fades to bright green spring in northwest Montana, three men are hitting the pavement in the towns of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, shaking hands at local businesses and visiting Rotary Clubs like politicians on the campaign trail. The comparison isn’t far off: the men are the new faces of Glacier National Park, and they’re eager to build relationships with the surrounding communities.
Among them are new park superintendent Jeff Mow and the CEO of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Mark Preiss, who’s arrived with a plan to triple his organization’s annual giving. The most-discussed newcomer, however, is Xanterra, the giant concessionaire owned by billionaire Phil Anschutz. Last fall, the National Park Service ended a long-standing relationship with former concessionaire Glacier Park, Inc. (GPI) – which has been part of Glacier since the park’s inception in 1910 – and granted Xanterra a 16-year contract to operate Glacier’s lodges, dining establishments and fleet of red busses.
Critics of the decision dismiss Xanterra’s arrival as a Walmart-esque takeover – another example of a national corporation monopolizing its industry and giving a local business the boot. But though Xanterra’s presence in town hasn’t been without controversy (and its first season hasn’t yet begun), the company has thus far proven a good neighbor. The third member of the trio is former GPI employee Marc Ducharme, who’s been hired to manage Xanterra’s operations in the park. Other GPI employees have also been put into high-ranking positions. And with GPI maintaining a presence at several private lodges, the new deal may ultimately mean more jobs for the region.
“It all seems really healthy to me,” says Rhonda Fitzgerald, owner of the Garden Wall Inn in Whitefish and a member of the state tourism council. Fitzgerald also hopes Xanterra will bring its stellar environmental record to the region: In Yellowstone (where the concessionaire last year won a 20-year extension of its contract), Xanterra has implemented a recycling program in nearby towns and buys local produce for its restaurants. “They’ve really walked the walk,” Fitzgerald says.
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In the summer of 2010, construction began on the Ruby Pipeline, a 680-mile interstate artery for carrying as much as 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Opal Hub in southwestern Wyoming to the Malin Hub in southern Oregon. The project crossed sensitive sagebrush plains and something like 1,000 creeks and rivers, and the Center for Biological Diversity and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe tried to stop the line in the courts due to its impact on endangered fish and sacred lands. Yet unlike, say, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Ruby garnered very little national or even regional attention or controversy. After all, it was just another strand in the web of pipelines and transmission lines that crisscross the Western landscape.
At the same time, another proposed project was moving forward in southern Oregon. The Jordan Cove LNG import terminal, on a spit in Coos Bay, had received Federal Energy Regulation Commission approval several months earlier to unload liquefied natural gas from special tanker ships coming from Asia, Russia or the Middle East, re-gasify it, and then put it in the still-to-be-built Pacific Connector pipeline, which would carry it back down to the Malin Hub — the Ruby’s termination point. From there, the imported natural gas would be shipped to California and the Pacific Northwest.
A few years earlier, when planning began on both projects, demand for natural gas was high and domestic supplies limited. But by the time the Ruby Pipeline was under construction, the two projects together didn’t make a lot of sense. The demand for all that natural gas simply wasn’t there any more, and by 2010, prices had crashed from a high of nearly $11 per thousand cubic feet to just $4, rendering the notion of importing LNG absurd. It was nothing a change of a couple of letters couldn't fix: After long pooh-poohing the idea of natural gas exports, the Jordan Cove proponents changed their import terminal proposal into one for an export terminal.
In late March, the Department of Energy granted conditional approval to Jordan Cove to export up to .8 billion cubic feet of LNG per day to nations that do not have a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Though the approval — the first of its kind on the West Coast aside from Alaska — was not a surprise, it did come a bit more quickly than anticipated, perhaps due to new pressure from politicians from natural gas-producing states who are trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to globalize U.S. natural gas, ostensibly in order to weaken Russia, the main supplier of gas to Europe.
By no means is the terminal a done deal. Proponents of the $7.5 billion project still must navigate oodles of federal and state red tape before they can begin construction, not to mention stiff opposition from various quarters.
Rancher Cliven Bundy claims he fired the Bureau of Land Management about 20 years ago.
“When I decided that I was paying grazing fees for somebody to manage me out of business, I said, ‘Hell no,’ ” Bundy says in a video of a presentation he gave in February. “And what did I tell them? I no longer need your service as a manager over my ranch, and I’m not going to pay you for that no more.”
“As far as I’m concerned,” he adds, “the BLM don’t exist.” The federal government might as well not, either.
Despite a running tab of court injunctions, complaints and conservation conflicts involving the BLM, the National Park Service, Clark County and environmental groups, and nearly $1 million in fines, Bundy has continued to run cattle on the federally-owned Bunkerville Allotment in the southern tip of Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas. Over the years, the Department of Justice has more than once canceled BLM plans to round up the trespass cattle after blatant threats of violence from Bundy and his supporters, says Alan O’Neill, retired superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area adjacent to the allotment. The sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco that fueled the ‘90s anti-government militia movement were fresh, he explains. “We were trying everything we could to resolve the issue peacefully. But he got more and more recalcitrant.”
This week, though, the BLM finally began rounding up Bundy’s estimated 900 cattle from a 1,200 square-mile area, putting an end to the illegal grazing once and for all. The agency isn’t saying exactly why now is the time to act; O’Neill suspects that the threat of lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity against the local and federal government for not implementing existing court orders may have forced the agency’s hand.
The situation quickly escalated. One of Bundy’s sons was arrested Sunday for refusing to stay off the lands BLM has closed during the cattle roundup. Videos from Wednesday show Bundy family members and supporters, including out-of-state militia members, angrily cursing and gesturing at BLM agents attempting to contain them within a “First Amendment Area” set up for protesting. More out-of-state militia members claim to be on the way, saying “they’re going in with force.” While Gov. Brian Sandoval disapproves of BLM’s handling of the situation, others applauded the agency for showing restraint in the face of threats. It was Bundy’s own promise to “be more physical” with the BLM during the impoundment operation, after all, that led the agency to set up strict public protest areas and press policies in the first place. “This is incendiary stuff,” former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan said on a Nevada news show Thursday, expressing fear of more violence on the way. “Some of these folks are frankly half a bubble off...People really believe that the federal government has no jurisdiction over anything.”
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Add this to the list of why deserts are awesome: they can suck a bunch of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.
For ten years, researchers in southern Nevada piped extra carbon dioxide into the Mojave Desert’s air. Their goal was to learn about the capacity of arid ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide as we continue to burn fossils fuels. In their study published this week in journal Nature Climate Change, they discovered that when they suffused the air above research plots with carbon dioxide levels equivalent to those anticipated by 2050, plants still removed lots of carbon from the atmosphere.
Upon digging up the plots at the end of the experiment, researchers found that the areas living in a simulation of 2050’s carbon-rich atmosphere stored about 20 percent more carbon in the soil compared to untreated desert. That storage came from plants using carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which they then pumped into the soil through their roots. It may not sound surprising that more carbon dioxide in the air leads to more of it stored in the soil, but there are limits to how much carbon ecosystems can absorb. And with scrappy shrubs instead of massive trees, it wasn't a given that the desert could take up quite so much.
And if arid and semi-arid ecosystems worldwide are as carbon-hungry as the Mojave, that’s good news. It means those dry lands, which cover about 47 percent of the non-ocean Earth, have a great potential to mop up the carbon dioxide we’re adding to the atmosphere. The study’s authors estimate that deserts and semi-arid places may absorb four to eight percent of global carbon emissions by 2045, assuming they all act like the Mojave did between 1999 and 2009. The researchers also estimate that deserts already account for 15 to 28 percent of the current land-based uptake of carbon emissions today.