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Jonathan Thompson | Jan 15, 2010 09:43 AM



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Water Bargain

Rachel Waldholz | Jan 15, 2010 02:44 AM

It’s one more step in what’s been a long, slow trudge. But this step’s a big one.

Last Thursday, negotiators released a final agreement on water rights in the Klamath River, moving closer to a settlement of the long-running water wars in the Klamath Basin.

The Klamath Basin Restoration Agreement sets the terms for divvying up water rights and restoring fisheries in the river. It joins a sister compact, the Klamath Hydroelectric Settlement Agreement, which laid out plans to tear down four dams on the Klamath starting in 2020. That agreement was released last September.

Lest you forget the tortured history of the Klamath, the two agreements are the result of over half a decade of negotiations among almost 30 parties – irrigating farmers upstream, commercial fishermen and Indian tribes downstream, and environmental groups the length of the river, not to mention local governments, state and federal agencies and PacifiCorp, which operates the dams – and they come after decades of fights, and in the midst of ongoing lawsuits. (For a sense of the key players and some history on how these perennial antagonists found themselves at the negotiating table, see Matt Jenkins’ 2008 article, Peace on the Klamath).

This most recent chapter opened with a pair of disasters at the start of the decade.

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The Bighorn-Butterfly Effect

Nicholas Neely | Jan 14, 2010 07:35 AM

Little wings can compel broad change, but it certainly doesn't hurt when they are backed up by the possibility of a head-butt, litigious or otherwise.

The presence of endangered Quino checkerspot butterflies and Peninsular bighorn sheep  on 51,000 acres of the San Jacinto Mountains--and the appeals of several prominent conservation groups--has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to scrutinize the renewal of grazing allotments in the San Bernardino National Forest of Southern California.

Though these grazing permits entail only 100 cattle, that's potentially enough to out-compete and overrun the local grass and wildflower users. Bighorns vie with cattle for forage. The Quino checkerspot--now cornered in small portions of Riverside and San Diego counties, just 25 percent of its former range--also depends on sensitive ground-cover.

Last May, HCN  explored the benefits of regular--not rampant--grazing for a population of the closely-related Bay checkerspot on Coyote Ridge, overlooking San Jose in Northern California ("Bring in the cows"). There, cud-chewers keep  exhaust-fed weeds at bay, encouraging the native flowers the butterflies rely upon above the highways of Silicon Valley.

What these two stories suggest, not surprisingly,  is that a categorical conservation approach doesn't work--grazing might be more harmful in arid SoCal than in the often-lush Bay Area. And in the San Jacintos,  the Forest Service is only reconsidering these grazing allotments, for now. Perhaps there will be room for cattle in those 51,000 acres; perhaps the proximity of bighorns, or other local factors, should keep them away.

It's one of any number of cattle and/or conservation debates around the West. Here are a few more questions  from the HCN archives:  "Can cows  and grouse coexist on the range?"  "Can cattle save the pygmy rabbit?" 

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Nicholas Neely | Jan 13, 2010 08:50 AM

In Avatar, there’s an economic reason, of course, that humans have traveled to Pandora. Early on in the movie, we’re shown the temptation: a sample of the element levitates in midair, silver, alluring—and apparently worth $20 million a kilogram. Considering the production expenses for Avatar were an estimated $230 million, it would take only 12 kilos of unobtainium to recoup the movie's costs. Spaceward Ho!

Recently bloggers at HCN have highlighted the potential uranium boom in Wyoming (will that entice extraterrestrials to the Equality State?) and the possibility of uranium prospecting around the Grand Canyon. Though yellowcake was only $44.50 a pound ($98.11 a kilo) as of January 4, this notorious -ium is pretty much as close as it gets to unobtainium on Earth. In both cases, locals—whether people or wildlife—are at risk of displacement, much like the Na'vi in James Cameron’s fantasy. 

To cite yet another example, in Weld County, Colorado, several foreign mining corporations are “waiting in the wings” of Powertech, a Canadian uranium firm. Mega outsiders chomping at the bit to dig? Small, upstart groups worried about the impact? Sounds like an Oscar in the making. (For additional plot, revisit HCN feature "Underground movement".)

In other news, you might have unobtainium behind your ears. Turns out it’s a registered trademark of the sunglasses company Oakley and, more broadly, a term used by scientists to describe . . . da, da, da, Dah . . . anything extremely scarce, expensive or impossible.


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Protection for jaguar spots

Jodi Peterson | Jan 13, 2010 08:00 AM

The mysterious jaguar, which ranges across Central and South America, has only been recorded in the southwestern U.S. a handful of times. The last known cat on this side of the border died last spring after being trapped. But jaguars once ranged from Louisiana to California, and could again, say conservationists -- if only their most vital habitat were protected.

Now, after 13 years of refusing to consider critical habitat, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has reversed course, saying it will create a recovery plan for the endangered big cat and map out the areas crucial for its survival. The New York Times reports:

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Safe(r) CX

Sarah Gilman | Jan 12, 2010 09:28 AM

They were, to say the least, a bit promiscuous.

Between 2006 and 2008, the Bureau of Land Management -- the primary agency responsible for overseeing drilling on federal lands -- permitted more than 6,100 oil and gas projects without detailed environmental review using special "categorical exclusions," according to a Government Accountability Office analysis. The waivers -- known as CXs for short -- were a goody given to the oil and gas industry in the 2005 Energy Act. As I reported for HCN last fall, the BLM was likely able to use so many CXs thanks in part to its interpretation of the  law:

 Under federal regulations that predate the Energy Act, a categorical exclusion can be used to approve a (relatively benign, individual) activity without environmental review unless “extraordinary circumstances” exist — impacts to a cultural site, for example, or the potential for significant cumulative environmental effects. But because the oil and gas CXs were spelled out in a law, the BLM told its staff they need not screen for “extraordinary circumstances” when permitting projects — though they must still comply with the Endangered Species Act and other laws. Widespread use of the new measures sped up permitting and increased efficiency. And while that may have allowed BLM staff more field time to enforce environmental rules (the 200 extra oil and gas staffers hired under the 2005 Energy Act probably helped, too), it also gave them time to process ever more drilling permits.

Now, all of that is changing. On Jan. 6, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar unveiled a slate of oil and gas policy reforms. Among them is a complete reversal in how the agency approaches CX:

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Floral fizzle?

Lisa Song | Jan 12, 2010 06:45 AM

Climate change is sucking the color from the Sonoran Desert. The winter flowers that generally carpet the ground — white woolly daisies, Mexican golden poppies, purple Arizona lupine — are still in hiding. Their seeds lie dormant in the soil, waiting for the rains that are necessary to spark growth.

It usually takes at least an inch of rain to coax the first sprout out of a seed in the Sonoran Desert. Back in the 1980s these "trigger" rains fell in October. By 2007 they had stalled to December. Now it's January 2010, and the 2009 rains have yet to fall.

           Sonoran desert dry

The Sonoran Desert before winter rains bring out the flowers. Courtesy Jonathan Horst.

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Avatar: an allegory of the West?

Nicholas Neely | Jan 12, 2010 02:40 AM

For better or worse, one of the most significant environmental events of the holiday season may have been James Cameron’s Avatar. The blockbuster, which tells the story of an alien tribe beset by big business and their mercenaries on the intergalactic frontier, has captured this planet’s imagination. 

Avatar has been praised by some as a progressive flick. Visually out-of-this-world, the movie champions the environment (though, one seven years away, on a moon named Pandora) and is indeed "Emersonian." The tale is a crystalline rebuke of slash-and-burn extractive industries (and less obviously, according to some, the Bush era). James Cameron himself calls it "an environmental parable."

Yet others claim Avatar is wildly unsophisticated. Across the blogosphere, Cameron’s long-awaited feature has been described as "Dances with Wolves" meets outer space. That’s not flattery. Critics have noted that Avatar promulgates more than its share of stereotypes, which, not coincidentally, are also myths of the West and key to environmental justice discussions. (You know a movie has a narrative worth discussing when political analyst James Pinkerton admits on Fox News that "(its) meta-politics lean right, not left.") 

Here are just a few examples of what might trouble: 

  • Pandora’s indigenous society, the Na'vi, is clearly modeled in part on North American natives. But the Na'vi are too-simply cast as "noble savages." They may be spiritually connected to their natural world, but, overall, their portrayal lacks nuance. For instance, though the Na'vi's environmental impact may be less than that of Pandora's greed-driven colonialists (stay tuned for tomorrow's post), surely it's significant and deserves a greater share of screen time.
  • Much like the Na'vi are ever-noble, almost all of the ex-military guns-for-hire are depicted as wholly evil. Does the good-bad dichotomy need to be so black-and-white?
  • Our protagonist, Jake Sully, a white, human deus ex machina, arrives to take the reins for the Na’vi and lead the way, a la Kevin Costner. Before his arrival, however, the Na'vi are depicted as relatively weak and without the means to self-determination.

Feel free to add your own items or analysis. Of course, there’s much to laud in Avatar, too.  But I’m curious—who else saw Avatar as an allegory of the West? And perhaps not a parable of the authentic West (insofar as it exists), but of a storybook version that leaves little space for new conclusions?




The count is coming

Ed Quillen | Jan 11, 2010 07:00 AM

    All sorts of numbers emerge from the U.S. Census Bureau, but only one set of numbers is required by the U.S. Constitution. That's the population of each state, which determines how many representatives the state has in the U.S. House of Representatives.
    The total is fixed by law at 435, and each state gets at least one representative -- and that's all for unpopulated states like Alaska, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
    The Census is conducted every ten years, and officially, it's a snapshot of the population on April 1.
    Based in Census Bureau estimates, the West will likely gain a few seats in the 2010 census on account of population growth: Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Washington would each gain one. Other gainers would be in the South: Texas with three, and one apiece for Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.
    The losers would be in the Midwest and Northeast, with Ohio losing two seats.
    In the 2000 census, Colorado, California and Nevada each gained a seat, while Arizona picked up two.
    Utah almost got a fourth representative from the 2000 census. It fell 857 residents short, so the seat went to North Carolina. Utah leaders argued that the system is unfair.
    Overseas military personnel are counted as residents of their home states, but missionaries practicing overseas -- an estimated 11,000 Mormons on overseas missions -- are not counted. Utah sued and went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but lost the case.
    They won't be counted this year, either, but those of us in the country can expect to see census forms and census takers, starting in a few weeks.

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The West leads the country in personal bankruptcy filings

Marty Durlin | Jan 07, 2010 06:08 AM

Every state saw a rise in bankruptcy filings in 2009, but the West -- hit hardest by the collapse of the real estate market -- showed the most increases. The Associated Press reports nationwide figures of more than 1.4 million filings, making 2009 the 7th worst year on record.

Arizona led the way, with a nearly 80 percent increase, followed by Nevada (59.5) California (58.8), Wyoming (58.3) and Utah (57).  The Northwest had increases in the 40 percent range, while Colorado and New Mexico showed increases in the 30 percent range. The national average increase was 32 percent.

The Wall Street Journal quotes Samuel J. Gerdano, executive director of the American Bankruptcy Institute, on the reasons:

"There's a close relationship between high levels of household debt, including mortgage debt, and bankruptcy filings. That...has been exacerbated by the bursting of the housing bubble."

Mortgage troubles, along with job loss, were primary contributors to the increases, with many households feeling the impact of both. Some states with comparatively few foreclosures, such as Utah and Wyoming, had larger increases in personal bankruptcies than Florida, where there were lots of foreclosures. 

An interactive map shows the areas hardest hit.


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