Okay, so you got up this morning, scraped the scum off your teeth and that last bit of change from your kid's piggybank, and headed down to the corner coffeeshop to buy one cup of endless refills and spend the rest of the day surfing the Interweb looking for some good news to brighten up your unemployed haze.
Well, just call me Mr. Buzzkill, because I'm the bearer of bad news. By now, everyone's heard about the 45,000 jobs that were lost just yesterday. But there's plenty of West-specific downers, such as:
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How do you manage for "natural" conditions when humans have twisted nature all out of pitch? If you're trying to make decisions in an unprecedented situation, what experience do you lean on?
These are a couple of the underlying concerns in a recent report from the federal Climate Change Science Program. The report focuses on climate-sensitive "thresholds" within ecosystems -- the points at which changes in precipitation, temperature, or other climatic variables induce dramatic and persistent shifts in biological systems.
It's a pressing topic. The document discusses a potential crash in North American waterfowl populations, massive timber die-offs, and the woes of thawing permafrost, but it's not all horror stories. Its authors also offer some interesting discussion of the question: how do we manage for climate change? They don't come up with any panaceas, but they do dig a little deeper into one thorny part of the general dilemma.Read More ...
We just swore in a new president, and already there's speculation about who might run in 2012 -- including a Westerner, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho.
Kempthorne was George W. Bush's last Secretary of the Interior, replacing Gale Norton of Colorado in 2006. He had a long political resume -- mayor of Boise, U.S. Senator, and state governor -- before going to Interior.
He also has an extremely low rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and was the 2007 winner of the "Rubber Dodo Award" from the Center for Biological Diversity because he went longer -- beating James Watt's record of 376 days -- than any previous Interior Secretary (since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973) without listing a new species as endangered or threatened.
It should be noted that a more prominent potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, won the Rubber Dodo Award for 2008 on account of her opposition to protection for polar bears.
At this rate, we can just compile a list of Rubber Dodo winners in coming years, and by 2011, we'll be able to handicap the GOP presidential field.
Updated January 27th
"State and federal funding is available"-- now that's a phrase we haven't heard much lately in California. The bond freeze has crippled programs across the state, and anyone who relies on government grants--from social services to conservation groups -- is feeling the pain.
But the Chinook salmon and steelhead population of Battle Creek, CA, seems to have gotten a lucky break. As other conservation projects stall, the Five Dam Removal Project will go forward, restoring 42 miles of navigable habitat along Battle Creek as well as 6 miles of creek along its tributaries.
"We're lucky that everything is in place," says Sharon Paquin-Gilmore, Coordinator of the Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, a consortium of local stakeholders. Although the group's other projects may be put on hold, the Battle Creek project had all its bureaucratic t's crossed before the economic calamity.
Rarely can anything regarding water in California be described as a "win-win" situation, but in this case it is tempting to suspend disbelief. After ten years of hard work and cooperation by the Greater Battle Creek Watershed Working Group, which includes the Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the National Marine Fisheries service, and PG&E, regional Reclamation director Don Glaser signed the Record of Decision, setting things in motion.
The first phase of the project, which will include installing fish screens and ladders, removing Wildcat Diversion Dam, and installing other infrastructure, could begin as early as this summer.
Perhaps the most surprising marriage of interests that brought this project about was with the Municipal Water District of Southern California. MWD supplied the grant which paid for the conservation group's science consultant,the Washington-based consultant TerrAqua. The science report helped secure the demolition of five dams, which will increase flows to Southern California (admittedly a questionable virtue) while simultaneously restoring almost half of what was once an 87 mile-long salmon and steelhead run.
What made this project successful? Lots and lots of meetings, says Paquin-Gilmore. The Working Group was determined that the project be a success not only for salmon restoration but for the community at large. No one wanted to have to live with more regulations, and it was also important to acknowledge the value of hydropower. The alternative deemed most environmentally beneficial would have decommissioned six dams, but they settled for five instead.
Over the ten-year process, she says, the main strategy was education, bringing everybody together, and making sure that "views and beliefs on all sides of the spectrum" were included. "We weren't fisheries biologists or agency people," but the government "saw how serious we were."
Paquin-Gilmore is especially grateful to Mary Marshall of the Bureau of Reclamation for her hard work in getting the project approved.
Interesting story in the Tri-City Herald today about a test of underground storage of carbon dioxide in Washington state. (The article doesn't say so, but this is the first North American test of CO2 storage in basalt.) Researchers are now drilling toward a rock layer about 3/4 mile below the surface, and, if the state approves, CO2 injection will follow, perhaps this spring or summer. The hope is that the greenhouse gas can be stored in the porous basalt layers abundant in the Pacific Northwest -- if all goes well, the CO2 will move into the nooks and crannies in the rock, where it will dissolve in water to form calcium carbonate, aka nice innocuous limestone. Sounds better than storing it in the atmosphere, of course. But questions about the long-term safety and general practicality of sequestration abound -- see HCN's in-depth story here.
If you’re a skier, you’ve probably schussed on snow made with bacteria. Ski resorts use Pseudomonas syringae as an ice nucleator, which means water freezes around the bacteria quickly to form snowflakes. But don’t worry – the bacteria used are dead and harmless.
Now, researchers are finding that P. syringae in its live form could help farmers too. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these biological ice nucleators are “widespread in the atmosphere and may affect meteorological processes that lead to precipitation.”
Professor Dave Sands at Montana State University was a researcher in the study, and he proposes that if these microbes are, in fact, affecting our rain, modern agriculture could use them to promote crop growth in several ways – one involving weed suppression and another involving rain production.
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It's amazing how quickly things can change. In the last week, we've watched Barack Obama take his (slightly bungled) presidential oath of office and George W. Bush helicopter back to Crawford, Tex. In the last month, we High Country News-ers were busy reporting on all the speedy and sweeping changes that Bush made on his way out the door. Many people have pinned their hopes on Obama to reverse those last-minute actions (indeed, he's already gotten started). But now it appears some of Bush's changes will turn around relatively quickly without any help from the new administration.
On Jan. 17, federal District Judge Ricardo Urbina granted a temporary restraining order blocking 77 controversial oil and gas leases covering more than 103,000 acres in eastern and southeastern Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune reports:
Should Urbina continue to rule in favor of the seven conservation and historic-preservation organizations that sued to stop the (Dec. 19) BLM auction (where the leases were sold), the land-use plans that were the bedrock of the lease sale ultimately could crumble.Read More ...
High Country News has reported on the Bush administration’s "midnight deregulations," the host of hurried laws issued in the waning days of the administration, which – whether aimed at fisheries, air pollution, or oil shale – generally promise to benefit big business while undercutting environmental protections. But now that Obama’s in the oval office, some of those last minute rules might be overturned, and one such reversal could begin today.
This morning, a coalition of Navajo and Hopi groups and environmental activists appealed a permit revision issued to Peabody Energy on December 22 by the Office of Surface Mining. The coalition argues that the permitting process violated federal mining and environmental statutes. Among the concerns: complaints that the environmental review was inadequate and included little mention of coal mining's impact on climate change; and contentions that public participation was squelched by the fast pace of the final approval process.
"This is a huge mine," said the Sierra Club's Andy Bessler. "The communities that deal with these mines need time to deal with the complexity."
The controversial permit rearranges Peabody’s coal rights in the Black Mesa Complex – a massive coal operation that encompasses two separate strip mines and straddles Navajo and Hopi land. Under the recently issued life-of-mine permit, 5,950 acres of coal reserves formerly included in the permit area of one mine (which is currently closed and showing no sign of reopening) have been transferred into the permit area of the other mine on the Mesa (which is currently active and promises to remain so for another 18 years).
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Westerners can see that there's trouble in the woods -- these days, it seems like there's a beetle-killed lodgepole stand around every corner -- but here's some especially sobering evidence of forest die-offs, just published in the journal Science. A long-term study of almost 59,000 trees in plots throughout the region shows that tree deaths in old-growth forests have more than doubled in the past three decades -- and that young trees aren't filling in all the gaps. The likely causes, say top forest researchers, are familiar culprits: warming temperatures and drought.
There are lots of implications here for forest ecology -- study authors speculate that the deaths could kick off a cascade of effects on plant and animal species. And the study offers yet another warning to people living in or near the increasingly fire-prone woods (a demographic that includes, er, me -- see here). It's worth noting that the data analyzed in this paper date back to 1955 -- ecologists looking for big-picture trends have to cultivate plenty of patience.
HCN's story Unnatural Preservation talks about some of the management dilemmas raised by such trends, and includes some interesting perspective on Sequoia National Park from one of this study's authors, USGS researcher Nate Stephenson.
On Jan. 16, outgoing Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne authorized the Bureau of Land Management to create renewable energy offices in Wyoming, Arizona, California and Nevada. The offices are meant to speed permitting for wind, solar, biomass and geothermal projects, as well as transmission lines. The feds are acting on a 2005 directive to develop 10,000 megawatts of renewable energy on public lands by 2015.
That sounds noble, but with a huge number of projects in queue – there were 125 solar applications on almost 1 million acres of public land as of June 2008, for example – the effort could ultimately leave an environmental footprint as deep in some ways as that of the West’s last energy rush. After 9/11, the Bush administration made expediting fossil fuel production from public lands one of its highest priorities. In Western areas rich in natural gas, that meant churning out drilling permits, often at the expense of other resources. Roads, wellpads and drill rigs fragmented habitat and marred views; diesel fumes and volatile organic compounds fogged the air, punching ozone to dangerous levels in some places.
Any industrial-scale energy development on public land should proceed with caution. The last thing we need is for our efforts to solve the biggest environmental problem -- global warming -- to set off cascades of other environmental problems.