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."
Last month, two Utah Boy Scout leaders inadvertently became internet sensations after posting a video of themselves toppling one of the ancient rock formations that gives Goblin Valley State Park its name, then laughing and high-fiving each other. The men, David Hall and Glenn Taylor, said they acted out of concern for public safety, but many of the 4.5 million people who caught a glimpse of their glee on YouTube didn’t buy it. An outcry ensued, and the men were demoted from their leadership roles in the Boy Scouts.
As of this week, however, charges still hadn’t been pressed, because although defacing federal monuments is a federal offense, applicable state laws in Utah are aimed at the destruction of man-made property that can be assigned a financial value, Utah State Parks Director Fred Hayes told the Salt Lake Tribune. Now, in direct response to the goblin-topplers, state Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, is drafting new legislation that would impose stiff fines on people who damage Utah’s natural wonders. The proposed law could go into effect next year.
It’s the start of snow season, which means that everyone who cares about water is keeping an eye on the mountains, anticipating how long we’ll ride the wave of snowmelt into next summer. The runoff season is never as predictable as anyone would like, but in the last decade or so there’s been a new wild card that makes the snowpack’s bounty seem even more capricious – spring dust storms.
Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is the West’s hardest-hit when spring winds carrying tiny dust particles slam into the mountains. That cinnamon layer coating the snow means that it absorbs more of the sun’s radiation, heats up, and melts faster than clean snow (it’s the black t-shirt versus white t-shirt effect). As water managers in the Colorado Basin plan for the region’s impending water crunch, and more dust is blowing around the West, they are starting to realize that dust is a hydrological game-changer.
The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, in Silverton, Colo., began tracking dust on snow in the San Juan Mountains in 2003, but dust has been worse in recent years, including 2013. In a recent study looking at the combined impact of climate warming and dust on the Upper Colorado River Basin's snowpack, researchers found that “extreme” dust years like 2009 and 2010 advance spring runoff timing by three weeks, compared to moderate dust years. That’s a total of six weeks earlier than runoff from clean snow.
That doesn’t bode well for water users or for ecosystems. Normally, snow doles out water gradually over the spring and early summer, but when dust spurs snow into early melt-out, that gives soils a head start on drying out in the summer and irrigators are more likely to end up water-short later in the season.
That result adds more detail to what earlier research has shown – that at least in the short term, dust has a bigger impact on the speed of mountain snow melt than increasing temperatures do. While the new study was based on a model covering the Upper Colorado River Basin, at a snow monitoring site on Red Mountain Pass near Telluride, dust from the 2009 and 2010 storms advanced melt by 50 and 43 days compared to a clean snowpack. “It’s as if somehow you had magically added two to four degrees Celsius to the temperatures we experienced during those years,” says Chris Landry, the executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.
They’re all public lands – and none of them can be reached by the public.
Western lands have long had a patchwork of owners: federal, state, local, tribal and private. In the late 1800s, the federal government gave railroad companies every other square mile along rail corridors, creating a public-private checkerboard. But because it’s illegal to even step across a corner from one public parcel to another, many of those pieces of land remain inaccessible. Others are marooned in a sea of private property with no right of way. Some landowners even illegally close public roads across their holdings.
In the Rocky Mountain West, more than 4 million acres of federal public land are effectively off-limits, because there’s no permanent, legal way to access them. The nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based group focusing on public-land protection, recently used GIS mapping to quantify such “shuttered” lands, mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Their analysis, which the Center describes as "conservative," came up with the acreage figures shown in the map.
Federal land managers often can’t get access to those parcels either, as the Bozeman Daily Chronicle notes. So those lands effectively become part of the private domain of adjoining landowners.
“We have no authority over private land, so unless we have permission, we cannot access that,” BLM spokesman Brad Purdy said. “These little pieces are not only difficult for the public to access but they’re difficult for us to manage.”
But private-property rights advocates defend the ability of landowners to close roads across their property. Reports the Great Falls Tribune:
PERC President Anderson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says a well-organized effort is underway by access groups that believe public access to public and even private resources is “somehow a God-given, Constitution-given, somehow-given right.” In his view, the public and public agencies are becoming more aggressive in seeking public access through private property.
Read More ...
Like many of the historic mountain towns in Colorado, most of the mining that goes on in Ouray these days is of tourists, not ore. In between high alpine jeep tours and ice climbing, visitors can get a glimpse of Ouray’s romanticized mining heritage by dining at the Goldbelt Bar & Grill and the Silver Nugget Café, taking the Bachelor Syracuse gold mine tour and panning lesson, and retiring to a 1890s-era Victorian hotel. In the mountains outside of town, the last of the mines that built this picturesque pocket-sized town have been dormant since the 1980s, when the price of gold took a huge plunge.
But the high silver and gold prices of recent years have piqued the interests of investors, who believe profitable amounts of minerals still lie deep within the mines, or in the discarded tailings piles that dot the hillsides. As mining returns to Ouray, so do the risks that accompany it.
On November 17, two miners died from carbon monoxide poisoning inside the Revenue-Virginius silver mine, which was purchased by new owners Star Mine Operations in late 2011 and re-opened in February. A team of miners tried to rescue them, but were forced to turn back to avoid succumbing to high levels of the colorless, odorless deadly gas. It’s not clear who’s at fault for the fatalities, but a preliminary Mine Safety and Health Administration report found that the miners died in an area where an explosion had recently been detonated.
The tragedy has hit hard in Ouray County, population 4,500, where many residents and business owners were excited about the return of the mining industry. “Tourism is a seasonal economy at best; the return of mining is a good thing all around for everyone, and it also will be fun,” David Houtz, a jeweler from nearby Ridgway, told The Montrose Monitor in February.
That positive sentiment remains (perhaps minus the fun part), even after Sunday’s accident, when Robert Stoufer, owner of Ouray’s Buckskin Booksellers and a member of an economic development group, told The Denver Post, “mine is not a four-letter word here.”
The Revenue-Virginius’s safety record has come under scrutiny since then. In August, The Watch reported that work at the mine was progressing “feverishly, with three shifts of miners working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and surface workers putting in 10-hour days, five days a week.” The silver mine has an accident rate 115 percent above the national average, according to The Watch, although none of the accidents were very serious and included things like debris falling into a worker’s eye or an employee cutting his hand on a utility knife.
Still, says Ellen Smith, managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, the elevated rate suggests miners were rushing, and perhaps being careless. “Those little things start to add up and you have to say, ‘stop and slow down.’ You’re not being mindful as you work,” she said. “And if you want to work safely, you have to be mindful.”
Read More ...
Last week, California regulators proposed new rules to oversee hydraulic fracturing across the state, and depending on whom you ask, they are either a move toward stronger oversight of the extraction of the state’s oil reserves, or a thinly veiled capitulation to industry.
The regulations come as a result of SB 4, which was introduced by Democratic state senator from southern California Fran Pavley, and that became law in September. SB 4 is the state’s first attempt at statewide regulation of the controversial extraction technique, in which water and other chemicals are injected underground at high pressure to shatter hydrocarbon-bearing formations to release oil or gas. According to the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the technique has been used in the state for decades. Yet, until now, fracking has received hardly a glance from state regulators. A 2012 report from the Environmental Working Group found that by the mid-1990s more than 600 wells had been fracked in a single California oil field – in spite of the insistence of state regulators that the process was “occasionally used for a brief period.”
The draft regulations proposed under SB 4 are the culmination of a long and contentious process and come amid efforts in other Western states to more carefully regulate or ban fracking. As HCN reported earlier this week, several cities along Colorado’s Front Range have banned the practice, and Wyoming recently introduced rules to monitor groundwater impacts of oil and gas development.
The California rules would require neighborhood notification, a groundwater monitoring plan that would “prioritize monitoring of groundwater that is or has the potential to be a source of drinking water,” and public disclosure of the cocktails of chemicals used in fracking operations. The new law also stipulates that oil companies must report any earthquakes caused during drilling and disclose the amount of water to be used in the stimulation of each new well, where that water will come from and how it will be disposed of. (Currently, the state does not require oil companies to disclose this information.)
Read More ...
In today’s edition of the HCN Death and Disease Report: The emerald ash borer, a half-inch long, iridescent green beetle that’s decimated Eastern and Midwestern hardwood forests, has touched down in the West for the first time. Foresters in Boulder County, Colo., noticed a “suspect tree” on Sept. 23, and now it’s official: the emerald ash borer has joined spotted knapweed and zebra mussels among the state’s least-welcome visitors, right up there with people who stop dead in traffic at the sight of an elk.
Experts say it’s only a matter of time before the pest, which is native to Asia, continues to spread westward, threatening native trees and urban forests alike.
The emerald ash borer was first discovered in Michigan in 2002. By 2011, it had spread to 15 states, mostly through the transportation of infected firewood. Today, it’s reached 22 states and two Canadian provinces, and more than 50 million ash trees have been killed by the larvae, which feed on the inner bark, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients. Regular applications of insecticides can help, but only if the infestation is caught early. Most trees simply die.
Colorado marks the farthest West the emerald ash borer has yet been detected, and though the state Department of Agriculture is taking steps to quarantine Boulder County, a friend of mine who works full time battling invasive beetles back East told me, simply, that the emerald ash borer “can’t be stopped.”
Once a thriving predator on prairie landscapes, the black-footed ferret was squeezed out of its range by agriculture and development, and their populations ravaged by diseases like sylvatic plague, which was introduced from Asia at the turn of the 20th century. Ferrets’ main source of food, prairie dogs, have long been considered pests to agriculture on the plains, and thus dramatically reduced in numbers through sanctioned poisoning and killing. As HCN’s Cally Carswell wrote in 2011, “as the prairie dog goes, so goes the black-footed ferret.” By 1979, the ferrets were considered extinct.
But in 1981, a dog in Wyoming brought home a surprising gift, revealing a small population, which scientists began collecting for captive breeding. By 1987, the last wild ferret was captured, bringing the remaining population to 18 individuals. Since then, more than 7,000 kits have been born in six captive breeding centers across North America. Yet efforts to rebuild the wild populations have been stymied by several factors, including diseases like plague and canine distemper, as well as lack of suitable habitat. Earlier this fall, two legislative changes broke down barriers to new habitat possibilities, boosting the ferrets' chance for success.
The first change occurred at the federal level, with the passage of a “safe harbor” agreement that would help drum up support from private landowners who might otherwise fear the liabilities that come with having an endangered species on their property. Many landowners are wary of endangered species protections because if they damage habitat for a protected species, they could face prosecution. Safe harbor agreements allow landowners to participate in reintroduction efforts without worrying about that caveat.
Read More ...
Right now, following the farm bill’s progress seems a lot like watching corn grow. The bill is due for reauthorization and the senators and representatives charged with finding a compromise are under pressure to make progress before Thanksgiving.
The major hurdle to clear right now, and that’s received a fair bit of media attention already, is how much to cut food stamps. But it’s important not to lose sight of what else is at stake. In addition to being the major domestic and foreign food assistance program, and agriculture safety net, the farm bill is also the nation’s largest private lands conservation fund. The House and Senate versions both aim to shrink the bill’s environmental stewardship budget, by $5 billion, or $3.5 billion, respectively.
The rationale for including environmental stewardship in the farm bill goes back to hard lessons learned from the Dust Bowl, when sodbusting and drought collided to create one of America’s worst environmental disasters. Since then, the federal government has offered a slew of programs to incentivize conservation principles like rotating crops, creating wildlife habitat, practicing no-till farming, and controlling fertilizer runoff, to name a few. Farming practices that keep topsoil healthy and intact have helped the land weather droughts more severe than those of the Dirty Thirties without the same catastrophe.
Read More ...
If anything illustrates just how contentious fracking has become on Colorado’s urban Front Range, it’s the closeness of the vote on a Broomfield ballot measure to ban the practice for five years. When results came in after the Nov. 5 election, it had lost by a mere 13 votes, triggering a mandatory recount. Last Thursday, though, after counters had tallied overseas, military and other outstanding votes, the measure had squeaked ahead by a nose – a mere 17 votes out of 20,683, triggering yet another mandatory recount.
Depending on whether that count verifies the latest results, then, all four of the fracking bans on ballots in Colorado communities succeeded. The liberal college towns of Fort Collins and Boulder also both passed 5-year moratoria on fracking within city limits, while Lafayette banned it in perpetuity, all by much greater margins than Broomfield. But because Broomfield’s more centrist political leanings – let’s call them DemoPublican – better reflect those of the rest of the state, observers on both sides of the debate have pointed to the election outcome there as a clearer indicator of where public opinion falls on whether fracking should be allowed to take place near where people live, play and work.
Fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals down a well to stimulate the production of oil or natural gas from layers of rock deep underground. It’s become increasingly controversial in Colorado as drilling has ramped up near suburban and urban areas, stoking worries about air and water pollution and fueling calls for local and statewide moratoria.
Advocates for the oil and gas industry have dismissed the fracking bans as symbolic, pointing out that, with the exception of Broomfield and Fort Collins, none of the communities to pass them face imminent drilling. But the state’s major industry trade group, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), took them seriously enough to dump a whopping $878,120 by Halloween into campaigns opposing the fracking bans, and still lost every fight. In comparison, the Denver Post reports, the nonprofit groups pushing the initiatives had raised just $26,000 over the same timeframe, as well as volunteer labor and in-kind donations. To be fair, that’s not all grass-roots muster: They also got both grants and indirect PR support from outdoor clothing giant Patagonia, which ran a two-page spread in a summer catalog on groups fighting oil and gas development in Colorado, spurring this defensive-sounding rant from oil and gas advocacy group Energy In Depth, as well as angry letters from pro-industry state legislators last week.