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Public lands "blackmailer" returns

Jodi Peterson | Apr 05, 2010 08:30 AM

Loathed by government officials, recreationists and environmentalists alike, Colorado developer Tom Chapman is at it again. His latest deal exemplifies his typical modus operandi: buy inholdings in remote backcountry, threaten to develop them, and get big payouts from federal agencies desperate to protect pristine public lands. Now he's purchased 103 acres of mining claims in the Uncompaghre national forest -- the "treasured" Bear Creek drainage (near Telluride) -- and has closed the land to hiking and skiing, reports the Denver Post.

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Voyage of the Plastiki

Lisa Song | Apr 05, 2010 02:50 AM

Two weeks have passed since 12,000 plastic bottles began riding the waves from San Francisco to Sydney. This is no mini Pacific Garbage Patch--the bottles form the bulk of the Plastiki, a 60-foot sailing boat built from recycled materials.

Its big, flashy journey is intended to raise awareness about manmade pollution in the ocean. Perhaps the most famous example is the Northern Pacific Gyre, where thousands of pounds of plastic accumulate as bobbing trash islands (collectively referred to as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch). According to the New York Times, a 2006 United Nations report estimated that

every pound of plankton in the central Pacific Ocean is offset by about 6 pounds of litter...every square mile of ocean is home to nearly 50,000 pieces of litter, much of which tends to harm or kill wildlife that either ingests the plastic or gets trapped in discarded netting, which is just as common in the Northern Gyre as discarded soda bottles.

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Big cats come and go

Nicholas Neely | Apr 02, 2010 10:30 AM

In early March, a mountain lion chased a Jack Russell terrier into a house near Salida, Colo., surprising a woman and her five-year-old son, who sat coloring with crayons at the kitchen table. Luckily, they were able to dash into a bedroom. When Division of Wildlife officials arrived and subdued the lion, they found the 18-month-old male cat was significantly malnourished, weighing one-third less that it should have – 40, instead of 60 pounds. They decided to put the lion down.

While a story worthy of headlines, certainly, such harrowing run-ins with mountain lions are anything but abundant. A current study on Front Range lion movements by the Colorado Division of Wildlife shows that these predators aren't likely to linger long in neighborhoods filled with people, contrary to recent speculation.  Although they may slink into a suburb occasionally, and steal a dog out of a backyard rarely (and in desperate instances, bound after a Jack Russell  through a swinging pet door) they're shy and not likely to stay — they prefer to keep trekking.

One look at a DOW map of a collared mountain lion's movements in the Boulder area shows the extent to which these animals are itinerant: it looks a little like a crayon sketch by a five-year-old, but it’s actually a 230-mile wandering, over the course of just a month. A satellite records the location of those lions involved in the study every three hours, so researchers can look in on them constantly, from high up.

Another significant finding of DOW's tracking initiative is that mountain lions on the Front Range don't last long. Only 18 of 40 lions captured and collared in the study so far — a study only 3-years-old — remain alive. Those unaccounted for may have lost their GPS collars, but more likely they died from starvation, or from a run-in with a car or gun.

Researchers are unsure just how many of these big cats there are in Colorado, but despite high mortality rates, the lion population in the state seems to be relatively vigorous. Those that make a stir in suburbs, or enter pet doors, fortunately don't represent the population as a whole.   

Hungry for more? Check out this related book, The Beast in the Garden.

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Not so CX-y now

Jodi Peterson | Apr 01, 2010 10:27 AM

A 2008 lawsuit filed to protect Utah petroglyphs from oil and gas drilling has just been resolved -- and the settlement has big implications for the West's public lands. Announced Wednesday, the decision means that the Bureau of Land Management can no longer fast-track energy development in cases where there are "extraordinary circumstances" -- environmental, cultural or historic resources, say, or the potential for significant cumulative harm to air quality -- unless it fully evaluates possible impacts on those resources.

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How much carbon is "In My Tree"?

Nicholas Neely | Mar 31, 2010 09:20 AM

The grunge band Pearl Jam is known for being loud — and for being socially and environmentally conscious. The rockers deserve more applause this week, after announcing they will mitigate their emissions for their 2009 tour, one tree at a time. The band's giving $210,000 to the Cascade Land Conservancy to help restore urban forests and sequester carbon in the Seattle area, their home.

With the aid of volunteers, the CLC will plant native trees, while tearing out invasive vines and shrubs. Then, they will mulch, monitor and maintain sites for years. The plantings will start immediately and finish by 2013. The band's tried to mitigate its carbon output each year since 2003 by giving to various environmental projects. As the band's guitarist Stone Gossard said in a press release, "We view this as a cost of doing business."

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If all else fails ...

Jodi Peterson | Mar 30, 2010 07:48 AM

The Forest Service announced this week that it's taking a bold new tack in forest planning -- talking to the public.

The agency has been trying for more than a decade to modernize its forest planning process, which is supposed to guide the creation of plans for each national forest that specify areas for logging, thinning, grazing and controlled burns; indicate which areas can be used by motor vehicles and which are eligible for wilderness designation; and so on. But its 2000 planning rule was too complex and was never implemented. The Bush administration attempted rewrites, but environmentalists charged that the changes would weaken wildlife protections and allow forest plans to escape scrutiny under the National Environmental Policy Act. The changes were struck down in court three times (see our post "Three Strikes for the Forest Service" and our story "The End of Analysis Paralysis?").

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Grasshopper plague expected this summer

Ed Quillen | Mar 29, 2010 06:40 AM

Fires, floods, drought, blizzards, avalanches -- life in the West can be rather challenging. And now a plague of locusts.

Well, not exactly. Just plain old grasshoppers, whose population has been growing in parts of the West, and might peak this year, causing hundreds millions of dollars in crop and other damage. The population boom is happening in parts of Idaho, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that normally, there are about eight insects per square yard. Last year's surveys found 15, and that could hit 60 this summer in peak areas.

If the weather turns cold and damp in May and June, population could drop, but warm, dry weather could produce an infestation as great as in 1985, when the voracious insects destroyed entire fields and even ate fenceposts and the paint off barns.

You can read more about it in this Wall Street Journal article.

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Frack-O-Rama

Rachel Waldholz | Mar 26, 2010 06:15 PM

It's been a hot week in the tug-of-war over how – or whether – the government will regulate hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), the drilling method used to extract oil and natural gas, with almost daily headlines coming out of the EPA, Wyoming and Congress.

First, the big news: last Thursday, the EPA finally announced it was launching a nation-wide study of fracking's health and environmental impacts, a move hailed by environmentalists as a necessary first step toward federal oversight. Then, two days ago, reports leaked out that the oil and gas industry had inserted language banning federal regulation of fracking into the climate and energy bill being negotiated by Senators Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. Call it the frack fight two-step: one step toward federal regulation, one step back.

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Popcorn Activism

Lisa Song | Mar 26, 2010 09:10 AM

The trailer for the new documentary Gasland lasts all of 15 seconds: a man turns on the kitchen tap. He holds a match up to the flowing water and FWOOSH--foot-high flames leap toward the ceiling. Dramatic, yes, but perhaps old news to Westerners who know the possible dangers of natural gas drilling. Thanks to a slew of recent independent films, issues once considered predominantly Western--like water contaminated by hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and the return of wolves--are making their way to the national stage.

Released in January 2010, Gasland follows filmmaker Josh Fox as he documents the arrival of natural gas drilling in the Catskills/Poconos region of upstate New York and Pennsylvania. The film covers the basic topics: fracking, politics, chemical waste, health hazards--but that doesn't mean it's not good. Gasland has been called "the paragon of first person activist filmmaking done right," a possible "best film of the year." And in late January it won the 2010 Sundance Special Jury Prize for Documentary. 

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The death of a giant

Jodi Peterson | Mar 22, 2010 09:35 AM

Stewart Udall passed away on March 20. His conservation accomplishments in the West are legendary (although he wasn't always an environmental hero; as an Arizona representative, he voted to dam Glen Canyon). Our 2004 feature on Udall summed up his legacy (and that of his brother Mo):

Stewart served three terms as an Arizona congressman, followed by eight years as Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Mo was elected again and again to represent Arizona for 30 years in the House, the last half of which he chaired the powerful Interior and Insular Affairs Committee. Together, Stewart and Mo helped push through Congress the Wilderness Act, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act and the National Seashore Act. They created at least four national parks, six national monuments, 56 wildlife refuges and 20 historic sites. Their crowning achievement was the 1980 Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which protected 100 million acres of mountains, coasts and forests. At one fell swoop, it doubled the size of the national park system and tripled the size of the wilderness system. As testament to the brothers’ all-encompassing vision, the easternmost and westernmost points in the United States bear the name Udall Point.

Here are some links to our prior coverage of Stewart Udall:

The Coyote Caucus Takes the West to Washington

The Udall Bloodline is Consistent

Udall Patriarch Laments Startling Changes

An Environmentalist in the Heart of Cowboy Culture

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