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Thumbs up for Wyo's wind tax

Jonathan Thompson | Feb 25, 2010 03:45 AM

Wyoming has some of the world's best winds for generating power. And wind energy developers salivate over all those big, wide-open, unpeopled spaces. It's no surprise then that turbines have been sprouting in those spaces at a rapid rate over the past year or so, upping the state's total wind generating capacity by more than 30 percent in just one year. Given Wyoming's status as an energy colony – it produced nearly half of all the coal used in the U.S. last year – it is a bit surprising the reception the state has given to wind, which has been with less than open arms.

The state banned wind farms from prime sage grouse areas, putting about half of the state's highest grade winds off-limits. It repealed its sales tax exemption for turbines. And some of its most prominent public officials have blasted the industry for running roughshod over Wyoming's wild lands and wildlife. Now, as part of a flurry of wind-hampering bills, the legislature is on the brink of passing a wind tax, and the turbine pushers are in a frenzy of worry. They’re even mimicking their colleagues in the oil and gas industry, threatening to leave the state if a tax passes.

But such a tax could be the best thing that ever happened to wind in Wyoming. 

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Sam Hamilton's Vision

Rachel Waldholz | Feb 25, 2010 03:40 AM

Sam Hamilton, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, died last Saturday after suffering chest pains while skiing with friends outside Frisco, Colo. He was just 54.

Hamilton had been on the job only five and a half months, but he'd laid out an ambitious new agenda for the agency, pushing it to focus on the coming impacts of climate change and plan ahead for major shifts in wildlife range and habitat. He was a champion of "landscape-scale conservation," which aims to bring state and federal agencies together with private landowners to manage large swaths of land transcending property boundaries. (A similar idea, the Wildlands Network's Spine of the Continent Project, is described in our last issue).

In an interview with ClimateWire in December, Hamilton stressed that the agency needs to anticipate the effects of climate change and plan accordingly:

The biggest immediate need is to beef up the agency’s scientific capacity, a long-neglected area, Hamilton said…

To do this, scientists face a daunting task of wedding global climate data to regional models specific to a habitat or wildlife population.

Such information, for example, would help FWS predict where a species might migrate as climate warms – and plan how to help it get there. An effort to set up a migration corridor in the Northern Rockies is already under way to deal with threats like climate and habitat fragmentation. There, ranchers are getting payments to keep their lands instead of selling to developers.

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Balancing Nevada

Judith Lewis Mernit | Feb 24, 2010 10:15 AM

Nevada’s special legislative session, currently in its second day, has been described by many as a dog-and-pony show effort to balance the state budget – most of the real negotiations to extract money from the private sector and cut state spending has been going on behind the scenes in closed-door sessions. But listening to the testimony of the aggrieved, however tedious, sure makes you understand what’s at stake when a state endeavors to pull itself into the black “with responsible government spending and without raising taxes,” as Governor Jim Gibbons has pledged to do.

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Mules making a comeback

Ed Quillen | Feb 20, 2010 02:55 AM

    The mule, a sterile cross between a jackass and a mare, is a creature "without pride of ancestry nor hope of posterity." And it's also the subject of an article in the current edition (Feb. 15-22) of The New Yorker.
 
    The full text is available only to subscribers, although an abstract  is available on-line. In general, the article explains the mule's comeback from a low point in the 1950s, when tractors finished taking over on the farm and the U.S. military became totally mechanized.
 
    But the mule market has come back with a growing Amish population and the military's need to operate in rugged, isolated areas where pack animals work better than trucks. The mules used for the military's animal-packing school in California come from Montana.
 

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The scope of a pipeline

Nicholas Neely | Feb 18, 2010 07:25 AM

Water entrepreneur Aaron Million's world may course with "Wild Turkey, fast horses and gunfire." But his proposed Regional Watershed Supply Project — a massive pipeline that would dogleg 250,00 acre feet of water from Wyoming's Green River across the Rockies, and south to Pueblo, Colorado — may not be flowing toward completion at quite the same rate.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the agency responsible for reviewing the proposal under the Clean Water Act, estimates it'll take five years to complete an Environmental Impact Statement for the project, which will require an estimated $3 billion in private funding to execute. (Can't be cheap to create new reservoirs near Fort Collins and Pueblo, let alone build a 568-mile pipeline.) However, the 6-month scoping  period, in which the public was invited to comment on the idea, is now in the Corps' books.  Their summary report, released this month, demonstrates the mounting controversy and confusion over Million's ambitious dream to help slake — or encourage? — the ever-growing thirst of the Front Range.

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"Green fees"

Jodi Peterson | Feb 18, 2010 04:00 AM

Conservative groups have often accused environmentalists of being lawsuit-happy, and of making big bucks off their court cases. Wyoming attorney Karen Budd-Falen took that claim even further this fall, asserting that green groups who win or settle federal suits get billions of taxpayer dollars to cover their legal fees -- and that many of them then use that money to file even more lawsuits (see our profile of Budd-Falen in our 2007 story "Rebels with a lost cause"). The story got a lot of play and even made the New York Times.

Now, reporter Philip White of Wyofile.com has dug into Budd-Falen's charges. "Green Fees: Cheyenne Lawyer's Crusade on U.S. Legal Payments" contains a thorough investigation of the legal fees the feds have paid to environmental groups who win their cases:

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Charismatic pest control

Nicholas Neely | Feb 16, 2010 06:00 AM

First, check out Michelle Nijhuis’ new HCN story “Prodigal Dogs”, about the likelihood that gray wolves have returned to Colorado of their own volition, finding space to exist, or even breed, on a private ranch in the northwest part of the state. Then, get a load of this lupine scenario:

In the February issue of BioScience (see also the Associated Press' coverage), scientists suggest “using” wolves to restore ecological integrity to limited swaths of wild lands — an idea entertained, and then shelved, recently, at Rocky Mountain National Park. Since the wolf was listed as an endangered species in 1973, conservation has focused on the reintroduction of viable, free populations on grand plots of land, most famously Yellowstone. But what if we were to create, and then heavily manage, modestly-sized wolf packs in places where un-harried ungulate populations have overwhelmed the land, mouthful by mouthful? 

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When Colorado just said No

Ed Quillen | Feb 15, 2010 06:40 AM

    The eyes of the world -- or at least the NBC prime-time audience -- are on Vancouver as that Canadian city hosts the Winter Olympics.
 
    For Coloradans, it's a reminder of our state's peculiar status as the only world's only place that was awarded the Winter Olympics, but turned them down .
 
    Denver was awarded the games by the International Olympic Committee in 1970.
 
    The event venues would stretch clear to Steamboat Springs, 160 miles away. The proposed biathlon course (which involves cross-country skiing and target shooting) passed right by an elementary school in Evergreen. Arenas for ice-skating events would have to be built; the cost over-runs for Squaw Valley, Calif., which hosted the 1960 winter games, had run into the millions.
 
    And who knew what the crowds and construction would do to the state's environment, Plus, the Olympic exposure might encourage more growth in a state whose population was already rising rapidly.
 
    At first, the anti-Olympic campaign looked hopeless, since just about everyone who mattered, from Gov. John Love and Denver Mayor Bill McNichols to nearly all the state's newspapers and chambers of commerce, were in favor of hosting the games.
 
    Leading the opposition was Richard Lamm, a young state legislator. Petitions were circulated to put an amendment to the state constitution on the ballot.
 
    It did not forbid Colorado from hosting the Olympics. Instead, it forbade the expenditure of tax money to host the games. And the ballot proposal was worded so that a "Yes" vote (for the amendment) meant a "No" on funding the games.
 
    It passed by a 3-2 margin in 1972 general election -- the first time I could vote, and I was part of the majority on that issue. Coloradans didn't exactly refuse to host the Olympics; we just voted not to spend any tax money on the games. The International Olympic Committee responded by yanking the 1976 games from Denver and giving them to Innsbruck, Austria.
 
    Lamm went on to run for governor in 1974 and serve three terms, although he's the first to concede that killing the Olympics didn't stop Colorado's rampant growth, or even channel the growth in more sensible patterns.
 
    The idea of using public money to subsidize the Olympics remains in play. Colorado Springs, the state's second-largest city, has some major budget problems on account of decreased sales-tax revenue. In response, the city has turned off a third of its street lights and will cut back on watering its parks this summer. The list goes on -- police positions not filled, recreation facilities closed, etc. -- but somehow the strapped city found a way to provide a $56 million subsidy to keep the United States Olympic Committee's headquarters in town.
 

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Rubber Slugs and iPhones

Rachel Waldholz | Feb 05, 2010 09:55 AM

Big news for anyone who’s ever gone sprinting and hollering through the woods after the disappearing rear of an enterprising black bear:

We’ve now got a scientific assessment of bear hazing.

Rachel Mazur, of Sequoia National Park, has a paper in last month’s Journal of Wildlife Management on what the National Park Service likes to call "aversive conditioning" –namely, serious hazing to keep bears away from human food.

Aversive conditioning treatments [include] chasing (without dogs); 3 projectiles of varying impact intensity: rock throwing, slingshots, and rubber slugs; and pepper spray.

During my couple seasons on backcountry trail crews in Kings Canyon National Park, we would leave one cold soul sleeping in our (bear-proofed) outdoor kitchen each night, a pot and ladle handy in case they needed to make some noise. Everyone else was under strict orders to appear at the first shout and go chase off any ursine visitor in our knickers. The goal: total trauma – teaching bears to stay away, and teaching crew members not to leave their vittles out. Effective hazing all around, really.

Mazur and her crew were slightly more scientific. Between 2002 and 2005, they encountered 150 black bears while patrolling near campsites, picnic areas and visitors’ centers, and harassed them, methodically. They tested which tactics got the bears to scoot, which kept them from coming back, and which convinced bears that were already "food-conditioned" to break the habit.

Their conclusion: chasing and shouting works pretty well; shooting rubber slugs from a 12-gauge shotgun is better (well, yeah); some bears just never will learn, and neither will some people.

That last point is the big one.

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Beanstalk 2013

Lisa Song | Feb 04, 2010 04:09 AM

WANTED: thrill-seeking gardeners with a love of heights. Experience washing skyscraper windows a plus.

Such an ad might appear in Portland, Oreg., by 2013. Thanks to government stimulus funds, the city's main federal building will be renovated with giant plant-bearing trellises down its western side. These "vegetated fins" will shade the building in summer and let sunlight through in winter. Plus, it means hyper-local produce in the middle of a city.

Vertical farming projects not unlike this one were voted among TIME Magazine's 50 Best Inventions of 2009:

Real estate — the one thing we're not making any more of. That might be good news for landlords but not for the world's farmers, who have finite cropland to feed a growing global population. The answer: build up by farming vertically.

 

The ultimate vertical farm is the kind proposed by Dr. Dickson Despommier of Columbia University -- 30 floors of grains, vegetables, and fruit inside a skyscraper, complete with water recycling, hydroponic systems and wind turbines on the roof. For now, cost is the major barrier, with some estimates in the billions.

Valcent Products Inc. is piloting a tiny version of Despommier's dream. But the vegetated fins in Portland (even if they're outside and not inside the building), which will cost $133 million, might give a better idea of the potential for serious vertical gardening.

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