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Cows vs. RATs

Jodi Peterson | Feb 01, 2010 09:40 AM

The Forest Service and the BLM have just announced the 2010 fee for grazing one cow and calf on public land.

Back in 1966, the fee was $1.23 per month. For comparison, here are the prices of some common items in 1966 and today:

Item  In 1966   Today
New car $2,650   $23,000
Gallon of gas .32   $3.72
Gallon of milk .99   $2.68
Postage stamp .05   .44
Minimum wage $1.25   $7.25


So given those sorts of price increases, what do you think the 2010 grazing fee is? $5? $10? $15? Nope.

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Green energy isn't always popular

Ed Quillen | Jan 31, 2010 03:11 AM

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Still snowed in

Cally Carswell | Jan 29, 2010 07:48 AM

An editorial in last weekend’s Arizona Daily Sun described the paper’s "awe" at emergency response to the epic storm that dumped more than four feet of snow on Flagstaff. But while life in the city goes back to normal, stranded residents in Indian country are still digging out.

The West’s recent rash of apocalyptic weather has spread sparse emergency resources on reservations in the Southwest and South Dakota even more thin. According to a report in today’s Arizona Daily Sun, the Arizona National Guard has air dropped almost 22,000 meals to Navajo and Hopi families this week. About 22,000 gallons of drinking water have gone out as well, and "pilots [are] still finding communities they had not known about."

Ice storms have hit the Cheyenne River Sioux in South Dakota equally hard. There, storms brought down thousands of power lines -- bad news for  what was already "one of the U.S.’s poorest communities," according to the Wall Street Journal:

With just 10,000 residents spread across 2.8 million acres, many Cheyenne River families depend on electricity transmitted across hundreds of empty miles to run pumps for drinking water, or to power the ignition modules on natural-gas and propane heaters.

Last year the tribe earned $175,000 leasing land to nontribal ranchers and deposited the money in an emergency fund. That fund is now exhausted, the tribal chairman said. A special Wells Fargo account established to help raise funds to evacuate tribal members with medical needs brought in just $450 in donations on its first day, said Eileen Briggs, a Cheyenne River Tribal executive.

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Borderline environmental justice

Nicholas Neely | Jan 29, 2010 05:00 AM

Recently, the New York Times reported on immigration and drug traffic across the U.S.-Mexico border where it crosscuts the Tohono O'odham Nation in Arizona, a story HCN covered in-depth in 2007. The situation is horrific: strangers knock on doors to entice and scare tribal members into smuggling, while pervasive Border Patrol inconvenience and intimidate the O’odham people on a daily basis. The Times reports:

(S)ome residents are angry at the intrusion of hundreds of federal agents, including some who stay for a week at a time on bases in remote parts of the reservation. The surge in agents who cruise the roads has meant more checkpoints and tighter controls on a border that tribal members, 1,500 of whom live in Mexico, once freely crossed.

The once-placid reservation feels like a “militarized zone,” said Ned Norris Jr., the tribal chairman, who also says the tribe must cooperate to stem the cartels. “Drug smuggling is a problem we didn’t create, but now we’re having to deal with the consequences.”

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Big cat boondoggle?

Cally Carswell | Jan 26, 2010 08:11 AM

Alan Rabinowitz might be the last person you’d expect to denounce the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s recent decision to designate critical habitat for jaguars. Rabinowitz was instrumental in creating the world’s first jaguar preserve in Belize in the eighties. He’s the head honcho of Panthera, an organization with the "sole mission" of protecting wild cats around the world. He's the kind of guy National Geographic makes documentaries about.

But in yesterday’s New York Times, Rabinowitz boldly called the critical habitat decision "a slap in the face to good science." Rabinowitz’s basic argument is that jaguar habitat in the Southwest is marginal "at best." He says conservation efforts would be more effectively directed south of the border, where "thousands of jaguars live and breed in their true critical habitat." This is the same line of reasoning Fish and Wildlife officials followed in years past when they refused to designate habitat or draft a recovery plan for the big cats (See our 2008 story, "Jaguar's road to recovery unmapped," and 2007 story, "Cat Fight on the Border"). But now, Rabinowitz makes this provocative point: Jaguar critical habitat could be bad for the Endangered Species Act. Here’s his explanation:

The recent move by the Fish and Wildlife Service means that the sparse federal funds devoted to protecting wild animals will be wasted on efforts that cannot help save jaguars. It also stands to weaken the Endangered Species Act, because if critical habitat is redefined as any place where a species might ever have existed, and where you or I might want it to exist again, then the door is open for many other senseless efforts to bring back long-lost creatures.

The Fish and Wildlife officials whose job it is to protect the country’s wild animals need to grow a stronger backbone — stick with their original, correct decision and save their money for more useful preservation work. Otherwise, when funds are needed to preserve all those small, ugly, non-charismatic endangered species at the back of the line, there may be no money left.

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The costs of coal

Jodi Peterson | Jan 25, 2010 09:05 AM

A controversial new report on the economics of Powder River Basin coal was written by a University of Wyoming economist -- and paid for by the Wyoming Mining Association. As you might expect, the report provides some boosterish facts about coal:

  • The Powder River Basin, which stretches across 20,000 square miles of Wyoming and Montana, boasts nearly nine times the energy resources of Saudi Arabia
  • Annually, it would take one of the following to replace the energy produced by burning PRB coal:
    • 95 1,000-megawatt capacity nuclear power plants operating at 85 percent capacity.
    • 177 hydroelectric plants the size of Hoover dam producing 4 billion kilowatts an hour per year.
    • 201,922 wind turbines each operating at 2 megawatts.

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Of routes and rotors

Nicholas Neely | Jan 25, 2010 08:05 AM

Before migrating to Paonia, I spent time in the backwoods of southwestern Oregon, occasionally on the porch of a cabin with a colony of bats living under its shingles. Each afternoon, the walls began to creak and moan like old floorboards. Then the bats — hundreds of furry clamshell bodies — would slip out, unfurl, and fly off for their nightly dose of mosquitoes. They arrived in July, and left in November for warmer climes. This morning, as I walked to the HCN office in sub-20-degree weather, they probably were falling asleep in the dark thatching of a Mexican cabana.

They’ll be back in Oregon next summer, hopefully. But bats, like birds, face risks as they travel — one of which is the increasing number of wind turbines in the West (see our short article "Blades, birds, and bats").

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It may be the apocalypse. . .

Sarah Gilman | Jan 25, 2010 07:50 AM

2012? Whatever.

Clearly the apocalypse is nigh-er than that. First, there's the weather to consider. Wave after wave of Pacific storms have left Southern California's beaches a creepy Mad-Maxian mess of shopping carts, plastic toys and other manmade flotsam that's washed down from various megalopoli. It's been the worst series of storms in five years, reports Reuters, unleashing torrents of rain that have spurred evacuations in mudslide-prone communities outside of Los Angeles, as well as

heavy hail, snow, gale-force winds and even tornadoes, flooding streets, closing highways, canceling airline flights at several airports and pounding beaches with waves as high as two-story buildings. The storms were blamed for at least two deaths, including a 21-year-old man who was crushed by a falling tree.

Tornadoes?! In California?! Indeed. At least one touched down in Ventura County, according to the LA Times, leaving a mile-long path of destruction:

“It picked a Chrysler Sebring off the ground, it hovered for second and spun it around," (said Ventura County Sheriff’s Sgt. Jack Richards). “It hit a tree and blew out the rear and side windows.” He said it also uprooted some trees. “It plucked them right out of the ground like a eyebrow,” Richards said. “It also tore the roofs off some sheds.”

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Frackin' Fears

Rachel Waldholz | Jan 20, 2010 09:49 AM

Yet another group is demanding that the federal government regulate hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), the process used to extract oil and natural gas, because it threatens human health.

In a report released yesterday, Drilling Around the Law, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) argues that fracking could contaminate drinking water supplies "from Pennsylvania to Wyoming," but is largely ignored by state and federal regulators.

When fracking, drillers shoot a mix of water, sand, and (here’s the rub) possibly toxic chemicals into a well to create thousands of tiny fissures in the rock and release the gas bubbles caught within. The process has opened up new sources of natural gas across the U.S.; EWG reports that it is now used in 90% of the nation’s oil and natural gas wells.

But fracking fluid has been linked to multiple cases of water contamination and health issues and the chemicals in it remain largely undisclosed – guarded by companies (and the law) as proprietary information.

In 2005, Congress exempted hydraulic fracturing from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act -- except, EWG points out, fracking with diesel. Companies must get state or EPA approval to include diesel in fracking fluid.

But it turns out that most state and federal regulators aren’t even tracking the use of diesel.

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Attack of the dromedaries

Lisa Song | Jan 20, 2010 08:20 AM

It's sunrise on the Colorado River, and a dozen sand-colored lumps stir by the banks. Bodies rise on spindly legs. Mouths open with a sound like pulling dentures. In a flash of gums, twelve sets of teeth clamp down on the nearest tamarisk plants. Chomp. Chomp. Leaves, bark and thorns disappear in a rhythm of steady chewing. The year is 2011, and the camel invasion has begun.

Such a future would make rancher Maggie Repp proud. While camels are known for three things -- they spit, they have humps, and they can survive for long periods without water -- Repp, the owner of 15 camels in Loma, Colo., believes they could be great at controlling tamarisk. The tough, salty tamarisk bushes are perfect camel food. "They will eat all day if given the opportunity," says Repp, who  plans to set up a demonstration project this spring. "My camels have killed every tamarisk on our place, so why not give it a whirl?" 


Photo credit: Ltshears

The invasive tamarisk is notoriously hard to kill. First introduced from Eurasia to the U.S. in the 1800s, it spread relentlessly across the West, choking up rivers and out-competing native plants (for a history of the tamarisk, see Paul Larmer's 1998 article "Tackling Tamarisk"). Tamarisk has survived chainsaws, fire and chemical herbicides. In 2001, scientists released the foreign Diorabda beetle to control the plant's spread. Since then, the leaf-eating beetles have attacked thousands of acres of tamarisk (see Michelle Nijhuis' 2007 story Beetle Warfare).

But even a brown, leafless tamarisk can spring back to life. It sometimes takes several years of de-leafing by beetles to kill a tamarisk, and camels would work in much the same way. Repp hopes the camels will eat away at any new growth until the tamarisk finally dies. In an effort to publicize her plan, she left some pamphlets at the 2010 Tamarisk Symposium, where hundreds of people had gathered to discuss tamarisk beetles and their effects on the endangered Southwestern willow flycatcher.

"I've heard of people using goats," said one scientist. "But it would take a LOT of goats [to really get anywhere]." Camels, he said, would likely pose the same problem.

Repp estimates that 10 camels could destroy half an acre of tamarisk in 2 days. That's small-scale compared to tamarisk beetles, which can spread over a hundred miles in two years. So for full riparian restoration, stick with the beetle. But if you want to clear the odd tamarisk patch off your pasture, it might be easier to rent a camel.


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