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"We all blew it"

Cally Carswell | Sep 14, 2009 10:45 AM

“I think Van Jones is a big part of the future of environmentalism,” Gus Speth, dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert earlier this year. “He, more than anyone else, is bringing together a concern about the environment and a concern about social justice. And, if I had just one thing to say, it is that we in the environmental movement cannot fail Van Jones.”

Less than a year later, have environmentalists already failed Van Jones?

The Monday after Jones resigned from his post as a White House adviser to the Council on Environmental Quality, Arla Shephard and I drove south from Colorado to interview environmental justice activists and community organizers in New Mexico. Jones’ resignation, and the racially loaded witch-hunt that prompted it, made our trip seem all the more timely.

When we asked the organizers we met with about the environmental justice movement's achievements over the past two decades, many of them cited the appointments of Van Jones, Hilda Solis (Secretary of Labor), and Lisa Jackson (EPA Administrator) as proof of the movement’s progress.

But Jones’ departure was a frightening reminder of how much work remains, said Robby Rodriguez, executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project, and stark evidence that Obama’s election did not dawn a post-racial society.

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The long dark tea time of the split estate

Sarah Gilman | Sep 14, 2009 08:30 AM

An older couple -- freshly retired from jobs on Colorado's Californicized Front Range -- decides it's time to build a dream home somewhere on the state's less populous Western Slope. They pick a dry mesa, scrubby with sage and rabbit brush, where the views go on for miles. The neighbors graze cows. The meadowlarks sing. Saw-whet owls coo their creepy, truck-backup-beeper mating call all night in the fall. And then an oil company arrives and announces it plans to drill for natural gas from a spot on the couple's land, under which it has recently leased the federal mineral estate from the Bureau of Land Management. The couple is baffled -- they had never considered who might own the mineral rights below their land (a classic split estate), let alone that those rights might be auctioned off by the federal government without any notice.

Over the past several years this  has been a pretty common scenario for landowners in parts of the West. As most regular HCN readers know, mineral rights trump the rights of folks who own the land's surface -- they have little recourse against drilling. That part hasn't changed, but a recent article in the Oil & Gas Journal (you'll have to register to view it) suggests the playing field is leveling out just a bit a little earlier in the game. The BLM, which is in charge of federally held mineral rights, is apparently looking to make it standard agency practice to notify landowners when energy companies express interest in the federal mineral estate below their land:

"Once BLM gets the names and addresses from the party submitting the EOI (Expression of Interest), we intend to notify the surface owner of this, and send them a notice if the tract goes up for lease," said Robyn Shoop, the agency's acting senior mineral leasing specialist. . . .

"It's a courtesy on our part because the mineral estate is dominant, but it brings surface owners into the picture sooner," she said.

Shoop told the Oil & Gas Journal that the initiative has roots in the 2005 Energy Act.

Geez guys, it's about time.

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'Tis the season

Ed Quillen | Sep 14, 2009 06:30 AM

    In the Rocky Mountains, wedged between Summer Tourist Season and Fall Big-Game Hunting Season, is a relatively brief interval of crowded highways known as Aspen Season. It has nothing to do with the Colorado resort town, and everything to do with the tree, whose leaves change color.
    Technically, the leaves don't exactly change color. The yellow (or red, in some stands) was there all along, but was masked by the green chlorophyll during the summer. As summer fades, so does the chlorophyll, and the submerged colors emerge for a few days before the leaves fall.
    But even without leaves, aspen continue to practice photosynthesis. You might have noticed a greenish tinge in aspen bark -- that's cholorphyll, and it allows the aspen to continue to respire, and absorb atmospheric carbon, through the winter.
    Aspen are odd trees in other respects, too. They generally grow from root suckers, rather than seeds, so all the trees in a grove are genetically identical, and could be considered one giant organism.
    Their leaves move in the slightest breeze because their stems are almost flat, and the stem surface is perpendicular to the leaf surface, so there's something to catch the breeze, no matter which way the wind blows.
    That's why they're often called "quaking aspen," frequently shortened to "quakers" or "quakies."
    Botanists tell us that the color change is not a response to colder weather, but instead to reduced sunlight from shorter days.
    Now, this is just a personal impression, but it seems to me that the peak color comes later now than it did a few decades ago. Back in the 1970s, the peak seemed to come about Sept. 10, and now it's more like Sept. 20. (Bear in mind that some years, there's no peak at all because an early storm brought most of the leaves down.)
    If it's "hours of sunlight" rather than "atmospheric temperature" that produces golden leaves, then global warming doesn't explain this later peak aspen display. Is there some other factor? Or is my impression of a later peak just plain wrong?


Viva la Fiesta

Arla Shephard | Sep 14, 2009 04:19 AM

"Burn him, burn him, BURN HIM!"

Little kids, drunken adolescents and other spellbound adults screeched these words in unison while watching fire dancers encircle the Zozobra, Santa Fe's 49-foot effigy that undergoes a ritual burning every year at the start of the fiesta season.

My colleague Cally and I were on a reporting trip in New Mexico when we decided to watch the burning of the Zozobra, also known as "Old Man Gloom." Cally had vague memories of attending Zozobra as a child when she spent her summers in New Mexico, and I figured we couldn't miss the event while we were there.

I had no idea how popular (or creepy) it would be. The Zozobra, as it turns out, is a figure in Santa Fe more revered than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (he even has a Twitter account). His supposed ability to erase all of your gloomy thoughts and help you start anew draws a crowd of more than 40,000 each year. 

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The Cheney International Center

Marty Durlin | Sep 11, 2009 07:01 AM

Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne donated about $3.5 million to the University of Wyoming, and in return UW named a 20,000-square-foot center in Cheney's honor. The Cheney International Center will house the university's international programs, which include the study of global economic systems, international culture and social issues, international development and global environment.

The Cheney money is also being used an as endowment for scholarships to allow UW students to study abroad.

Cheney is a graduate of the University of Wyoming. The Casper Star Tribune quotes him at the dedication of building, which took place September 10 in Laramie.

Cheney said "Our time in Laramie and at University of Wyoming, most of it right there in A&S, the examples I learned, the practices I learned here at UW, laid the foundation" for his 40-plus years of public service. He said the center "will add a significant dimension to education at UW, and we have great pride today in being here and being able to take part in this process and to be able to advance the common cause that we all share in terms of what we want to achieve with the center we are dedicating here today."

Now there's a vague statement. What is that common cause?

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Victorious in Victor

Ariana Brocious | Sep 10, 2009 08:15 AM

Students and teachers at the Teton Valley Community School in Victor, Idaho, are heading back to school with a new spring in their step.

That's because their design won the 2009 Open Architecture Challenge: Classroom--a competition hosted by Architecture for Humanity, selected from more than 400 qualified entries from over 65 countries, which I blogged about recently.

Congratulations are in order, since the school will receive $50,000 to carry out its design by month's end. Another $5,000 will go to the design team, Section Eight Design, whose community-collaborative efforts, cost-effective and sustainable building plan created a "classroom of the future."

The school plans to break ground this spring, allowing time for more fund-raising from the community and private donors, since the $50,000 will only cover the cost of one classroom out of five planned.

"What’s great about this design is that you can add on to it, so they can build one classroom at a time as they raise more funds," said AFH press contact Diana Bianchini.

You can see all the classroom design entries and awards here.



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Sarah Gilman | Sep 09, 2009 04:50 AM

Picture yourself on the front lines of a massive wildfire -- soot smeared into the creases of your face, your clothes stiff and itchy with days-old sweat, your palms blistered from grubbing a fire line through duff and brush with a Pulaski. What dangers might you face? Falling snags? A fire sweeping uphill faster than you can run? Asphyxiation in smoke-thick air? Maybe.

But as the recent deaths of two firefighters in Los Angeles' Station wildfire show, the most likely dangers are often the same ones that haunt our everyday lives -- a car accident in that case, or heart attacks, or illnesses, or just plain lack of access to good medical care.

In Alaska, the trail to a fire line in the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge may pass memorials to folks who died at the claws of grizzly bears. Fire camps in Interior Alaska have shotguns on hand to keep angry moose and hungry bruins away (Bear canisters nothing. We've got guns!). There are also the elements to think of, and rough terrain, and heavy equipment, and aircraft, and sharp tools, and, of course, the fire itself. Dramatic stuff, all of it.

So what was Michael "Kale" Casey  (pictured above) -- a Paonia, Colo.-based wildfire paramedic -- most worried about as he kept tabs on crews battling the 660,000-acre Railbelt fire complex west of Fairbanks this July and August?

Bee stings.

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It Happened in the Shrubbery

Judith Lewis Mernit | Sep 04, 2009 11:05 AM

Last weekend, as the Station wildfire on the northern edge of urban Los Angeles doubled, and doubled, and then doubled again – it has now grown to 250 square miles in the Angeles National Forest – I sat down to re-read “Fire Management of California Shrubland Landscapes” by Jon E. Keeley of the U.S. Geological Survey. The academic paper was given to me by Richard Halsey, the founder of the California Chaparral Institute, whom I profiled for this magazine two winters ago. And it lays out, in plain, clear language, why just about everything you hear about wildfire in Southern California – from politicians, newscasters and most of all homeowners on the edge of that urban-wildland interface – is wrong. 

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Obama's speech to students

Marty Durlin | Sep 04, 2009 06:57 AM

Whipped up by right-wing talk shows, conservatives are criticizing President Obama's back-to-school speech -- which will "challenge students to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning," according to the U.S. Department of Education -- as "indoctrination." The Associated Press reports that:

Idaho Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna requested additional information from the U.S. Department of Education earlier this week before offering guidance to schools and notifying parents.

And here's an excerpt from a report from the Denver Post:

"I don't want that man talking to my children," said Crista Huff in Douglas County, who has three daughters in school. "Look at other leaders who had socialistic policies and chose to talk to children; this would include Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Castro. I will keep my kids home from school that day and we will re-read the Declaration of Independence."

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"Nuclear whack-a-mole"

Arla Shephard | Sep 03, 2009 11:46 AM

Last week, attorneys for the state of Utah joined the fray against nuclear-waste disposal company EnergySolutions by filing an appeal against a ruling that would allow the company to import foreign nuclear waste to the state. 

EnergySolutions, a Salt Lake City-based company that disposes of low-level radioactive waste from other states, has been in talks to import up to 20,000 tons of nuclear waste from Italy, a proposal that alarmed both citizens and the state government

“No country in the world imports another country’s nuclear waste," says Vanessa Pierce, executive director of HEAL Utah, a nonprofit grassroots organization that has gotten into the habit of watchdogging EnergySolutions. "If you have the technical capability to generate the waste, you have the technical capability and the moral obligation to dispose it.”

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