As we reported in October, the first investigation of Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire, in which 19 hotshots were killed this summer, drew extremely cautious conclusions. No "direct causes" of the accident were identified, no one was blamed. Policies and protocols, the report said, were not violated. It was almost strangely timid, leaving some to wonder: How could 19 young men have lost their lives if so few mistakes were made?
That report was commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, the agency that oversaw the firefighting effort on Yarnell Hill. Now, a separate investigation, this one from the Arizona Division of Occupational Health and Safety, has been completed -- and it reached much more damning conclusions. The Associated Press calls it a "stinging rebuke" of the first investigation.
Worst of all, it bluntly concluded that protection of "non-defensible structures" -- houses that didn't have adequate clearings around them to allow firefighters to safely fight encroaching flames -- was prioritized above firefighter safety. Firefighters should have been told to stand down before the storm arrived that blew the fire up, lead investigator Marshall Krotenberg told the Arizona Industrial Commission, which administers and enforces worker safety laws. "The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it," Krotenberg said, according to the AP. "But there was no plan to move people out of the way."
Protecting private properties -- often ones built hazardously close to thick forests, and with poorly cleared buffer zones or none at all -- is increasingly part of wildland firefighters' job description. According to a recent Arizona Republic investigation:
Often, communities don’t get the “defensible space” religion until after a disaster, opting to enjoy the thick greenery and overlook its dangers.
When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered to help Yarnell-area residents clear chaparral from their properties last year, only four stepped forward, according to Jack Rauh, who helped found the Peeples Valley Fire Department and worked for years as a fire assessor, trying to convince people to clean up their land.
Last year, the Yarnell fire chief passed up a $15,000 grant for brush clearing, citing a lack of volunteers to do the work.
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Imagine taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride among an elk herd numbering in the thousands. At the National Elk Refuge, such an adventure is available to winter visitors from mid-December through early April. (These) rides are the most popular winter activity, allowing riders a unique wildlife viewing experience and an incredible opportunity for photography
That’s how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website touts the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson, Wyo. Up to 7,000 elk spend winters on the refuge, munching alfalfa pellets and thrilling visitors, who come within yards of the majestic creatures during sleigh rides.
In four dozen other feedgrounds scattered across five Western states, roughly 32,000 elk get free winter rations, courtesy of taxpayers. But crowding that many ungulates into a relatively small area provides opportunities not only for amazing photos, but also for the spread of all sorts of diseases.
Conservationists have been warning of the danger for decades. Back in 1994, the Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee reported, “The evidence is overwhelming that winter feeding of elk has proven to perpetuate and enhance the spread of diseases, especially brucellosis. Once certain contagious diseases become endemic within a population of elk, bison, or other wildlife, they become very difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate.” A 2002 HCN story noted that, “Brucellosis (a disease that causes ungulates to abort) is virtually non-existent in Wyoming elk that have never used feedgrounds. In fact, the farther elk are from feedgrounds, the better their rate of calf survival.”
The coal train was one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Paonia, Colo., the hometown of High Country News. When it chugged through town, whistle blasting, my bedroom windows rattled like teeth in the cold. If I was on the phone, I would tell the person on the other line to hold on until it passed. I remember another recent transplant explaining her similar experience on our community Facebook page and asking the crowd if she would ever get used to the whistle blowing in the middle of the night. Yes, she was told, but just remember: that trainload of coal pays the bills for many people here in the valley.
Soon there may be fewer trains. One of our local coal mines (there are three in the valley) just laid off most of its nearly 300 miners after a fire and an underground roof collapse forced the company to abandon its longwall, a massive piece of equipment that can cost $50 million. Now, workers at another local mine are worried they could lose their jobs, too, if the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public power company in the country, doesn’t renew its coal contract, which expires at the end of the year.
TVA has been buying Colorado coal since the early 1990s, when the first President Bush amended the Clean Air Act to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants. To meet the new regulations, Eastern utilities like TVA, which formerly got a lot of its coal from the Southeast, began substituting with Western coal, which is generally less sulfuric.
I have two daughters, ages 12 and 14. They’ve lived in the Southwest for most of those years, and they’ve never seen the Grand Canyon. This, in my wife’s eyes at least, is a sin. My sin.
“Why don’t you take them if it’s so important?”
“Hey, you’re Mister Southwest guy. I took them to see the Mona Lisa. It’s your responsibility to show them the Grand Canyon.”
I have my own long list of Western places I have taken my kids, and I have my own high-minded, maybe even snobby reasons for leaving the crowded overlooks at the Grand Canyon off that list for 14 years. But I won’t bore you with that. It’s all just cheap justification anyway. I have deprived my children from seeing one of the wonders of the natural world, and I’m the worst parent ever.
For Thanksgiving this year, we headed south and west to California to visit my family-in-law and get a little bit of ocean time before winter’s harshness hit. The first night we made it to Flagstaff, and when we awoke in our hotel, three inches of snow covered the ground. As I choked down the watery coffee at the hotel breakfast, I heard one of the hotel staff telling another family about the different driving options to get to the Grand Canyon. There was a blinding flash of light and in it I saw redemption.
“On the way back home,” I announced, tracing our route on my tattered AAA Indian Country map, “we’re going to the Grand Canyon!” And thus, combined with my pledge to eat at as many frozen yogurt places as possible on this trip, I would regain the parental high road.
But first, we continued westward through a climatic menagerie. Just a few hours after seeing crunched and flipped cars along a slushy I-40 outside of Flagstaff, we saw big trucks towing jet skis down by Lake Havasu. As we sped through a stretch of vast desert under a moody sky south of Needles, my 14-year-old demanded we stop. She is a photographer, and the social media sites Tumblr and Instagram have a thing for open desert, especially if they are adorned by a ribbon of road stretching into infinity. Photographers on these sites are paid in “notes” or “likes” or “follows,” and measured in this currency, my daughter is about 600 times wealthier than I am, though I once had some success with a shot of a highway underpass.
Walking around amongst the ocotillo, their long fingers reaching into the cloudy sky, we found all kinds of surprising detritus to photograph: A door from a cabinet, an RC Cola can that my kids found fascinating (it had the 70s era flip top of my youth). We saw a flying saucer and found a shiny hubcap that, when launched into the wind, hovered in the strangely humid air for what seemed like forever. We saw a fence covered in old shoes. In Palm Desert it was 80 degrees, the morning’s snow a faded memory, and bougainvillea hung lasciviously from the stuccoed walls of gated communities.
To me, the sheer scale of California is both baffling and spectacular, whether it’s the freeways that fill up canyons and flow over hills as though they weren’t even there, or the avocado orchards clinging to hillsides; the vast beaten-down terrain of Pendleton Marine base, or the long line at the In-N-Out Burger somewhere on the northern edge of Los Angeles sprawl where I ate my first fast food burger in years, all smothered in American cheese, onions and some mystery sauce, not more than 15 feet from the I-405 off ramp. When traveling, one must adhere to local tradition.
In six lanes of traffic, traveling at ungodly speeds (my wife drove, of course) we passed through a bustling oilfield right in LA’s urban heart. We gazed upon a 340-ton boulder suspended over a concrete trench. We hiked through the Devil’s Punchbowl. We saw hundreds of wind turbines, a giant kinetic sculpture, glowing white on the Tehachapi Mountains, and inadvertently stumbled into Barstow and its outlet stores on Black Friday, only to see a consumer frenzy in the desert.
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The struggle to protect Browns Canyon, a rugged stretch of the Arkansas River in central Colorado, has been waxing and waning since the area was first studied for wilderness designation in the 1970s. Several attempts to create a new federal wilderness have been floated since then, and though they’ve come tantalizingly close, none have yet passed.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wants to change that. A former Outward Bound director, wilderness proponent and mountaineer (he’s climbed Denali, Aconcagua and 26,000 feet of Everest), Udall announced on Tuesday the culmination of a project he’s been working on for 18 months: a bill to create a brand new, 22,000-acre National Monument in Browns Canyon, including 10,500 acres of wilderness. After soliciting thousands of comments and holding several public meetings, Udall seems to have found a recipe for success – the support of local businesses, national monument designation (which offers more flexible management than pure wilderness), and unchanged access for hunters, ranchers, off-roaders and human-powered recreation such as rafting.
“There’s tremendous support on the ground,” says Matt Keller, the national monument campaign director for advocacy group The Wilderness Society. “Senator Udall and his staff have done a tremendous job listening to people’s concerns and addressing them.”
But noticeably absent from the discussion has been Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Republican who represents Chaffee County, where the Canyon is. Though he has yet to make an official statement, Lamborn’s spokesman told High Country News Wednesday that the Congressman does not support Udall’s bill, and still has “concerns over the lack of consensus … from certain residents.”
In northern Arizona, a tiny cactus, not more than 3.5 inches tall, lifts a creamy yellow flower above the desert rock each spring. Roughly 1,000 of these rare plants still grow, living 10 to 15 years and rising from the earth to flower each season before sinking back after fruiting. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Fickeisen plains cactus as a candidate for federal protection in 1980, but for 33 years, no decision was made. On Oct. 1 of this year, it became a protected species.
This cactus is just one of many plants and animals moved off the Endangered Species Act candidate list this year as the FWS worked through the process of evaluation and peer review, narrowing the waitlist to 146 species, down from 192 last year. It’s the first time in decades that the number of species awaiting designation has fallen so low. “We are moving a volume that we haven’t in a number of years,” says Gary Frazer, assistant director for Ecological Services at the FWS.
Agreements from 2011 that the FWS signed with WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity are the reason the candidate list is getting so much attention. Before the agreements, starting in the early 2000s, petitions to protect rare species were piling up on FWS desks, sometimes in batches of hundreds, Frazer says. It became impossible to deal with the influx, and the agency was soon stymied by lawsuits over missed deadlines. The agreements set deadlines for the FWS to work through the petitions as well as a backlog of candidate species that were deemed worthy of a closer look, but still in “purgatory,” as Tierra Curry, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, calls it. In return, the agency gets some respite from lawsuits and new petitions. Curry says that most of the 252 candidate species listed in the agreements will likely get ESA protection. Candidates that make it this far in the petition process don’t often get turned down. “That’s why our agreement is so exciting,” Curry says. The FWS is now obligated to make a decision on all 252 candidates by 2016, as well as work through the petitions.
There are just four days left before the legislative year ends and Congress calls it good – or mediocre, as it may be – for 2013. This Congress passed the fewest number of laws since 1947, earning the unfortunate title of “least productive in history.” So it should come as no surprise that several major pieces of legislation are still hanging in the balance, in need of a miracle to make it to President Obama’s desk before we ring in the New Year.
Here are a few bills recently introduced, and some that have been kicking around for ages, that we’re paying particular attention to at High Country News.
For starters, the much-anticipated farm bill, originally created to help an agricultural industry reeling from the Great Depression, is nine weeks past deadline. The bill allocates some $97 billion in federal money each year, and as HCN has reported, has big implications for crop insurance, conservation programs and food security, among other things. There’s been renewed effort this week to defy partisan antics and get it passed. "Sometimes things take forever, but when all the gears notch up correctly, it can move at lightning speed," Congressman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the farm bill conference committee, told reporters. If it’s still untouched in January 2014, food prices will likely rise as ag programs go unfunded.
The Grazing Improvement Act, introduced two years ago by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in November. The law would extend grazing permits from the current 10 years to up to 20, and generally expedite the process for gaining permits to Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. Proponents of the bill say that those two agencies “have consistently — for more than a decade — carried a backlog of grazing permit renewals due to overwhelming and unnecessary National Environmental Protection Agency assessments.” The Sierra Club and other environmental groups say the bill would exempt grazing allotments from environmental review. A similar bill, sponsored by Congressman Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, awaits action in the House.
In the dark of a far-north winter night, amidst 70-mph winds, the nine-member crew of the tugboat Alert released its towline and set the Kulluk oilrig adrift on heaving seas. Loaded with about 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid, the Kulluk ran aground off uninhabited Sitkalidak Island 45 minutes later. It was New Year’s Eve, 2012, and the Alert and the Aiviq, another boat contracted by Royal Dutch Shell, had been towing the Kulluk from Shell’s first exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s north coast, to a Seattle shipyard, when they were caught in the terrible Gulf of Alaska storm.
Fortunately the rig didn’t spill any fuel. But the accident was just the latest in a long line of mishaps that plagued Shell’s Arctic drilling efforts last year, reports Fuel Fix, leading the company to suspend its efforts for the 2013 season. Ships drifted out of control or caught fire; a spill containment barge was damaged during certification tests after months of construction delays; air pollution violations landed the company $1.1 million in Environmental Protection Agency fines this September.
The incidents have become a primary refrain for Arctic drilling opponents leading up to the close today of the public comment period for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s 2016 Chukchi Sea lease sale, and to the Interior Department’s long-anticipated proposed offshore Arctic drilling rules, which were recently delayed until February. Canadian officials are also evaluating proposals to drill that country’s portion of the neighboring Beaufort Sea. And a group of jailed Greenpeace activists were released on bail last week after climbing onto an offshore drilling platform belonging to Russia’s state-run Gazprom in protest of that nation’s Arctic drilling program.
“We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”
-- From Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser
The Beat Coffeehouse, in Downtown Las Vegas, feels a bit like a fishbowl. Whether the fish are inside the coffee shop or out on the sidewalk and streets depends, I suppose, on one’s perspective. But there’s little doubt that the big plate-glass windows divide two distinct cultures on this particular Monday morning. Scattered about at tables inside, a few men, each dressed as if he’s out of a GAP commercial, pound away on their Mac laptop keyboards; two twenty-something women yammer on about their Sex-and-the-City-esque weekends; and one fastidiously disheveled guy appears to be interviewing another for a job, replete with references to the latter’s LinkedIn profile. At the coffee counter, 39-year-old Tony Hsieh, the CEO of tremendously successful online retailer Zappos, stands in line in his usual uniform: Zappos t-shirt and jeans. His intensity can be felt halfway across the room.
Just inches away, on the other side of the glass, grizzled, deeply weathered men pass by, each with his own distinctive limp, looking straight off the pages of Richard Avedon’s In the American West; a 20-something man in a shiny suit, salmon-colored shirt, no tie, stumbles blearily out of the El Cortez hotel across the street, looking as if he has gone 12 rounds with a slot machine, an endless stream of well drinks, or both; families pass by as if lost, almost all of them with American-flag themed shirts (it’s Veteran’s Day). Nearly everyone passing by seems to be smoking cigarettes, either old-school or the new e-cigs, which look like miniature hookahs.
The deep contrast between these two scenes is transformation incarnate. The Downtown Las Vegas of the past — a place that increasingly seemed to be where the folks on the losing end of the craps tables ended up — is giving way to something that looks a little bit more like the scene in the coffee shop that Monday morning. While such transitions have occurred somewhat organically in other areas (think Williamsburg in Brooklyn or the Mission District in San Francisco) this one is being pushed along rather aggressively by both public and private entities. That includes Hsieh and his colleagues, who have put up $350 million to launch the Downtown Project, which describes itself as “a group of passionate people committed to helping transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world … by inspiring and empowering people to follow their passions to create a vibrant, connected urban core.”
That’s a tough row to hoe in any city, but in a Southwestern sprawler like Vegas, where passions tend to be of a baser kind, it’s a big task. Like so many other Downtowns, Vegas began its decline after World War II, as the car and suburbs took hold and people oozed outward into desert tract homes. The Strip, most of which lies not in Las Vegas proper but in unincorporated Clark County, sucked up much of Downtown’s former glory with its resort casinos so massive that each is essentially its own city. Downtown withered. Big casinos and even county buildings were left empty. Residents tended to be career panhandlers or the homeless. The streets were reportedly plagued with crime. (For an in-depth history, read this excellent series by the Las Vegas Review-Journal).
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It's always tempting to reflect on how wonderful the West used to be. You know what I mean: Conservationists and Natives lament that the first invasions by white settlers wrecked everything, and ranchers and loggers long for a return to the era before 750-page environmental-impact statements. Who among us hasn't conjured up wistful images of the good ol' days when the prairies played a symphony of native plants and wild bison herds plodding to the horizon, and the mountains sang out hymns of old-growth forest sanctums, hormone-disruptor-free streams, untrapped beaver and unshrunk glaciers?
One of my favorite images, evoked in histories of many Western places, portrays the original grasses in a wonderful way: The good ol' grass grew so tall, it brushed the stirrups of cross-country horse-riders. "Early American surveyors riding through the virgin tallgrass prairie found the grass stirrup high to their horses," says a typical account, from a federal Environmental Protection Agency report. Another, from The Elemental Prairie: Sixty Tallgrass Plants, describes a pioneer-era horse ride by Army officer and Western explorer Stephen Kearny: "It was virgin tallgrass prairie, and Kearny and his men rode stirrup-deep through young bluestem and flowers ..."
There are many accounts of stirrup-high native grass on the good ol' prairies, as well as in the good ol' mountain valleys, and even the good ol' Southwestern deserts. William O. Douglas, the only unabashed conservationist to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, got sentimental about stirrup-high grass in the good ol' Pacific Northwest. The image also appears in the definitive biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in a description of the first white settlers in the good ol' "Hill Country" around Austin, Texas: "... when they saw the grass, they felt the journey had been worth it. 'Grass knee high!' one wrote home. 'Grass as high as my stirrups!' wrote another. The tall grass of the Hill Country stretched as far as the eye could see, covering valleys and hillsides ..." There's even a "cowboy prayer" describing the tallgrass as a heavenly experience we can enjoy once again after we die, "when we make that final ride to the country up there, where the grass grows lush and green and stirrup high ..."
Modern researchers occasionally conclude that a particular account of good ol' stirrup-high grass is a myth, but by and large, the remembrances are considered legitimate. The remembrances are also melancholy, as the native tallgrass that once covered more than 100 million acres in this country has been almost completely wiped out by sodbusting for farming and other developments, as is shown by this Nature Conservancy map of some of the remnants of untilled prairie (the dark green areas hadn't been tilled by 2003, yellow areas had been sodbusted):
I'm writing about this now, not only as a sentimental remembrance, but also to point out a new scientific discovery. A team of researchers led by the University of Colorado-Boulder has found that the good ol' tallgrass apparently owed its existence to something very subtle -- "the diverse assortment of microbes that thrived in the dark, rich soils beneath the grass," especially "a poorly understood phylum of bacteria, Verrucomicrobia."