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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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They're baa-aaack. . .

Sarah Gilman | Jan 07, 2010 04:10 AM

A sunken-eyed old man dressed in stiff, black Puritan clothes stalks a suburban neighborhood. The TV turns on by itself. A toy phone rings and rings -- tinny and off-key -- in the dead of night. A little blond girl crawls out of bed. Lifts the receiver to her ear, pauses, turns. Then, in a skin-crawling monotone that heralds the monstrous things yet to come, speaks: "They're baa-aaack."

That's right. It's an election year. Well, actually, it's the horror film sequel Poltergeist II: The Other Side, but the parallels are uncanny. 2010 may be only a few days old, but at least one major enviro-political boogieman has already popped out from under the bed. On January 5, former California Congressman Richard Pombo, R, confirmed that he plans to seek reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives in November, this time from the 19th District, just next door to the 11th, which he represented from 1991 through 2006. 

Pombo, who at the end of his tenure served as Chairman of the influential House Resources Committee, is (in)famous in environmental circles for repeatedly attempting to gut the Endangered Species Act, as well as for promoting bills to sell off federal land, pushing to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, killing wilderness proposals, and going after the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act and other environmental laws.

In 2006, the "unbeatable" congressman was unseated by Democrat Jerry McNerney thanks in large part to a $1.5 million grassroots campaign mounted against him by a coalition of environmental groups. Now, Pombo's raring for his sequel, reports the San Francisco Chronicle:

"I'm ready to get back in the wars," Pombo told Fresno radio station KMJ host Ray Appleton ... His first move, he promised, would be to take on the Endangered Species Act again. If elected, he would likely regain his seniority in Congress, analysts said, giving him more immediate clout in Washington than his opponents.

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Petroglyph protection, at last

Jodi Peterson | Jan 06, 2010 08:35 AM

The world's longest outdoor art gallery will finally get some protection from the gas drilling that threatens it. Eastern Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, some 78 miles long, contains hundreds of homesteaders’ cabins, stage stops, cliff dwellings and granaries, and more than 10,000 Anasazi and Fremont petroglyphs.

For two decades, conservationists and historians have sought protection for the canyon, but the fight heated up in 2004, when energy company Bill Barrett Inc. proposed drilling roughly 40 wells and performing seismic exploration on 58,000 acres in and near the canyon. The work, it was feared, would harm rock art and historic sites, but the BLM archaeologist who raised concerns about the drilling plans was quickly transferred off the project (see our story "BLM gags an archaeologist to get out the gas").

Then, in 2008, after Barrett proposed another 800 wells, a rock art expert wrote a damning report about how corrosive dust kicked up by the company's trucks was damaging petroglyph panels. But the BLM watered down the report's conclusions and ignored the expert's recommendations (see our followup story "Dust on the rocks").

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Walking with Sawdust

Ed Quillen | Dec 31, 2009 05:15 AM

    For a few months a couple of years ago, my daily dog walk usually involved joining two old-timers -- Lloyd "Sawdust" Wilkins. then 82, and his blue-heeler Cindy, who was about 70 in dog years.
    Sawdust walked his daily mile -- it was on doctor's orders -- slowly with a cane, but he was tough. On subfreezing mornings, I'd be wrapped like a birthday present, while he wore a light jacket, a ball cap with no ear flaps, and no gloves. He seemed immune to cold. And while his Cindy and my Bodie chased each other around, I learned a lot from Sawdust.
    He got his nickname because he was a lumber man from a timber-felling family. He grew up in logging camps, back when every little town hereabouts had a sawmill or two.
    One day, there was a story in the local paper about the Forest Service trying to close some old logging roads -- some of which he'd built with a bulldozer 40 or 50 years ago. How'd he feel about that? "Those roads were quick and dirty. They did the job, but the job's done. They ought to have been closed the day after we got our cut out."
    Another day I was curious about biofuels because I'd just read that Gilpin County was going to heat its new road-shop building with local wood.
    Sawdust had started logging with draft horses and wood-fueled donkey boilers that fed steam engines that turned winches for skidder cables to move the felled trees to their portable sawmill. "The fuel was free, more or less, I'll give you that, since we had slabs and scraps. But we switched to gasoline as fast as we could. With steam, you needed one guy full-time to feed and watch the boiler, and another to tend the engine and the belts and cables. Gasoline let you get a lot more work done with the same crew, plus you didn't have to set up near a water supply for the boiler."
    Then as now, the pine-beetle epidemic was in the news. Sawdust took those dying red-needled lodgepole stands in stride, recalling outbreaks in the 1940s and 70s. "The beetles come and go. Forests change all the time. Ten or twenty years from now, they'll be worried about something else."
    I don't know if he was right about that or not, but he did provide some perspective, and I hope our dog-walking paths cross again one of these days.

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Just in Time for Christmas: Itsy-Bitsy Solar PV

Judith Lewis Mernit | Dec 23, 2009 05:50 AM

One of the big obstacles to industrial-strength solar power is space: photovoltaic technology used in solar panels, which transforms sunlight into an electrical current, takes up valuable real estate. And one of the biggest obstacles to portable solar power is also size: Who wants to haul around a 2-pound PV panel just to charge a flashlight?

Then again, what if you could sprinkle tiny PV cells on your hat? And dust them generously on the outside of your drapes?

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There's gold in that there test-tube

Jodi Peterson | Dec 17, 2009 05:40 AM

Ten years ago, we ran a story about green groups suing the National Park Service over its plans to allow "bioprospecting" in Yellowstone. Private companies have made millions from heat-resistant microbes they've collected from the park's thermal features (for example, Thermus aquaticus produced an enzyme used in DNA fingerprinting).

Now, the Park Service is proposing a plan that will allow it to cash in on such discoveries -- and green groups are suing again, this time because the agency's proposal is overly expensive and doesn't provide transparency, reports the Jackson Hole Daily. The plan would allow the parks to sign benefits-sharing agreements with companies for any profits they derive from research on park micro-organisms and other resources.

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The picture of forest health

Jodi Peterson | Dec 17, 2009 05:00 AM

Rich Wininger, a Weyerhaeuser manager in the Northwest, recently wrote us in response to our Nov. 9 feature story "Roadless-less", which included a photo of clearcutting on Weyerhaeuser forest lands (unfortunately we don't have permission to reproduce that photo on our Web site).


I noticed the page 18 photograph of Weyerhaeuser lands adjacent to National Forest lands.  I did not recognize the area, so I requested background information on it from our planners.  My impression of High Country News is that you use current information, so I was surprised to learn that this photograph is 20 years old (copyrighted in 1990). (NOTE: After receiving Rich's letter, HCN researched this photo. Getty, the photo service from which we licensed the image, had filed it with a 2006 date, but  National Geographic, which originated the photo, says it was actually taken on August 26, 1989.)

A lot has changed in our forest management practices since 1990.  Prior to 1992, there were only minimal buffers on fish-bearing streams.   Watershed analysis was adopted into regulation in Washington in 1992 to protect public resources (such as fish, water, and capital improvements of the state) from the cumulative effects of forest practices. Most of the watershed analysis prescriptions were superseded by the Forest and Fish Law in 2001.  That law required minimum 80 to 100 foot buffers on all fish streams and 50 foot buffers along ~50% of the length of perennial non-fish streams.

In addition, Washington wildlife tree, green-up, maximum clearcut size and improved road construction rules were enacted or expanded in the early 1990s.  Pulling all of that together, this photograph is not an accurate portrayal of our practices, or of those lands today.  The below aerial photo gives a more current view of the property you showed on page 18.

Clearview wilderness 2009

Concerning your article on roadless areas, my view is that public and private lands have different roles to play in our society.  I'll give you an example, I am attaching a photo taken on March 24, 2005, just a few months shy of 15 years after the 1980 Mt. St. Helens eruption.  The Douglas-fir on the left side were planted in 1983 by Weyerhaeuser; the lands on the right side were set aside in the National Volcanic Monument to watch and learn about natural restoration processes.  As you can see in the photograph, in the blast zone Weyerhaeuser lands have been reforested much faster than what you would find with natural processes.  Which land management practice is right and which is wrong?  That's easy, both are right; they are different because we are serving different needs and have different objectives.  We clearly manage our lands for timber production while at the same time protecting public resources.  National Monument and National Forest lands have different goals.

St Helens Tree Farm


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