Last weekend, the family and I drove over to Grand Junction, Colo., about an hour away from here, to run some errands. GJ, as we call it, is the metropolitan and service center of Colorado's Western Slope. In other words, it's awash with malls, big boxes, strip malls and fast food chains, not to mention the biggest airport and hospital around.
GJ is also a gasfield town. And for the last year or so, that's helped the city prosper while the rest of the nation's economy slides downward: Unemployment is way below the national average, home prices continue to stay high, and the wages are good. This spring, Burger King became famous for advertising a $300 signing bonus to lure burger-flippers. HCN covered the thriving gasfield economy in its "Boom Boom" cover story.
But now, natural gas prices are collapsing, dropping more than 20 percent in recent months. Drilling is declining nationwide, and there are signs the slump will hit Colorado's gasfields. Chevron just announced that it will slow its pace of development in Western Colorado, as have Williams Production and Bill Barrett Corp. Even a few less drill rigs could have a big impact, since each employs about 35 highly paid workers.
This boom has been so big, though, that a little dip will, by no means, equal a bust. Last month, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission set a record for the number of drilling permits issued, and it's already issued 6,739 permits statewide -- already breaking last year's record.
That's enough, I guess, to give shoppers in Grand Junction confidence. As we drove into town on the grand new bypass "parkway," I fully expected to see ghostly malls and empty shops. Instead, we had a tough time finding a parking spot. The teeny-bop accessory store, Claires, had a line out the door. And people were opening up their wallets left and right. But perhaps the busiest place we saw was Victoria's Secret, where women lined up several deep at the two cash registers.
Bustiers, apparently, don't lose their appeal, even with when a bust looms on the horizon.
Continuing a tradition of relatively strong stands on environmental degradation caused by natural gas drilling and other forms of development, the Rocky Mountain region (Region 8) office of the Environmental Protection Agency is now questioning a proposal to divert flows from Colorado's only wild and scenic river: the Cache la Poudre.
The agency contends that the Northern Integrated Supply Project -- which would divert peak spring melt flows from the river into the proposed off-channel, 177,000 acre-feet Glade Reservoir to help supply thirsty Front Range communities -- could harm local wetlands and water quality. According to the Rocky Mountain News:
Deborah Lebow Aal, an EPA project manager who analyzed the corps' draft environmental impact statement, said more study needs to occur to understand how the projects, which draw from the Poudre and South Platte rivers, will affect streams and what is needed to protect the waterways.
"In the draft they say the temperature is going to increase, but they don't give you any information on how or why or what's going to happen," she said. "They're going to take 71 percent of high flows in the spring. That's a pretty significant impact that was not well addressed."
The EPA has made known that it has the authority to put the kibosh on the project, though right now the agency is just talking with the Northern Colorado Water Conservancy about how to remedy the trouble, the Rocky reports.
The Rocky Mountain EPA's stance is interesting because it emphasizes the difference between the national (which has a disturbing tendency to defer to Bush administration whims) and regional (where many officials have pushed back against those whims) offices of the massive federal agency.Read More ...
We've chronicled the sad story of the horse glut in the United States, brought on partly because of the slaughterhouse ban enacted two years ago, partly because of the rising cost of fuel and hay, and partly because of the failing economy. It all comes down to the unpleasant fact that there more horses than owners, and because the U.S. also protects wild horses -- letting them roam on BLM land around the West -- there is now a surplus of some 30,000 wild horses that the federal government really can't afford to keep. The wild horses were once rounded up and offered for adoption at auctions, but no one's bidding any more, so the horses are placed in federal holding facilities.
"The animal rights people put the BLM in a box," said Jeff Eisenberg of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. "Congress doesn't want to put more funding into these holding facilities, especially when times are tight. It's a problem nobody likes."
But now comes Madeleine Pickens, wife of billionaire T. Boone Pickens, who "made known her intentions," according to an article in the Washington Post, to adopt not just the 2,000 mustangs who had been slated by the BLM for euthanasia but "most or all" of the 30,000 wild horses and burros currently in holding pens. The Pickens were advocates of closing the two remaining slaughterhouses in the U.S., and they obviously have resources, so there's some poetic justice in this solution.
Mrs. Pickens is "looking for land in the West that would be an appropriate home for the horses." Like at least 100,000 acres somewhere? Maybe Ted Turner has some extra land.
Jim Messina -- born in Denver, raised in Boise, with a University of Montana bachelor's degree in political science -- will be a deputy chief of staff in Barack Obama's White House.
Messina worked his tail off to get there. He was chief of staff for Obama's campaign, and his political experience stretches from Alaska to New England.
Messina had some interesting things to say, when he and I did a Q&A in High Country News during the campaign, under the headline: Obama's Western ace in the hole.
Among other other things, I asked Messina:
You didn't go to an Ivy League college as a path into the political elite, you took a different path -- and got to where you are by hard work?
Messina: I believe that politics is truly a merit-based world. If you work hard and you're honest -- and you keep winning -- you'll get to rise. (In my early political jobs) I was the kid who was the first in the office and the last to leave. And it's still kind of true. ... I've been chief of staff to three famous members of Congress and I work for a fourth, and when (each) hired me, I don't think any of them even asked me where I went to school -- they just asked me what I had done, and I love that.
If you'd like more on Messina's path to the White House, the Idaho Statesman reported on his growing-up in Boise, and the Missoula Independent reported his early career toiling in Montana politics.
Messina loves 15-hour political workdays, and, the Statesman adds, his other loves are running, fly-fishing and his dog.
Messina told me that with his all-consuming work, he has trouble maintaining any social life, especially girlfriendships. He said, "I gotta get better at that part." Not sure he'll be able to do that in the White House, where the work will likely go 24/7.
The Bush administration has a little more than two months left in office, but those two months promise to be an exciting -- and probably distressing -- time for those of us interested in federal land policy. The administration hopes to change a number of administrative rules before it rides into the sunset, and none of these changes is going to make environmentalists happy. One of the first is today's issuing of final oil shale leasing regulations, which theoretically make it possible for oil shale leasing to take place on at least 2 million acres of land in the West. Obama will probably re-write these regulations after taking office. But rewriting federal rules takes time -- often several years -- so it's conceivable that the Interior Department could sell oil shale leases before Obama manages to put in place any new rules limiting or banning oil shale development. More likely, Interior will have to expend a lot of time and resources working on a replacement rule. The outgoing administration will, if nothing else, leave the incoming administration with a royal headache.
It's common for an administration to issue controversial (and likely-to-be-overturned) new rules right before leaving office -- the obvious (though not exactly overturned) example being the Clinton Roadless Rule. But the Bush administration is working on an impressively long list of of eleventh-hour rule changes. These changes would, among other things, make it easier to conduct mountaintop-removal mining, weaken emissions standards at power plants, and significantly weaken the Endangered Species Act. The administration also plans to auction a number of oil and gas leases near Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah -- a move that the Obama administration would not be able to undo. A relatively pro-environment president may be getting ready to take office, but it looks like things are going to get worse before they get better.
This week the Bush Administration, Warren Buffett’s PacifiCorp and the state governments of Oregon and California announced an “Agreement in Principle” to remove four of the five dams on the Klamath River. If all goes according to their plan, removal of four dams would begin in 2020. A fifth dam – Keno in Oregon – would be transferred to the US Bureau of Reclamation.
Members of three Klamath River tribes and others cheered the agreement even as they wondered why it is necessary to wait until 2020 to begin what promises to be a decade-long dam removal project. But the Hoopa Tribe -- as well as other environmental groups including Friends of the River, the Northcoast Environmental Center and Oregon Wild -- criticized the agreement. Critics say it unnecessarily delays dam removal for more than a decade and does not actually guarantee that they will ever come out.
Major river and fishing groups including American Rivers, Trout Unlimited and the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association have signaled their support for the deal by joining the Bush Interior Department in a letter to the California Water Resources Control Board requesting delay of the Clean Water Certification process which the dams must pass before they can be relicensed. The Clean Water Certification is widely viewed as a hurdle which PacifiCorp could not overcome because of the pollution the dams and reservoirs generate. This includes toxic algae, water temperature inhospitable to salmon and trout and low dissolved oxygen. The poor water quality has been linked to epidemics which kill young salmon and other fish in and below the reservoirs and dams.Read More ...
Given the size of the federal debt, $10 trillion and growing, it shouldn't be a surprise that there are proposals to reduce it. And why go through the pain of raising taxes or reducing spending when the federal government could just sell some public land -- abundant in the West -- and apply the proceeds to the debt?
There is some historical precedent for this. The only time in American history that the federal government was totally out of debt came on Jan. 1, 1835, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and it was land sales that provided much of the federal income that made this possible.
Selling federal land for deficient reduction was recently proposed at the website marginalrevolution. Not all the money should go to debt payments; some should go toward buying private land in the depressed areas of the Great Plains to create the Buffalo Commons.
The land sales proposal got the attention of Tobin Harshaw at the New York Times.
From my reading of those pieces and their comments, I get the idea that the rest of the country doesn't know much about our federal land, which comes in many varieties: Forest Service, Park Service, BLM, military reservation, Indian reservation, etc. And the likely buyers, such as energy companies, are interested in the minerals under the land, which they can already claim or lease, not the land itself.
At any rate, this something to keep an eye out for because the notion might gain some traction.
While tracking this down, I ran across this interesting article, which posits that the West is leading the nation in many areas. However, its definition of the West is rather expansive, since it includes Texas.
Granted, Texas has some Western attributes (i.e., cowboy hats, cattle, vast stretches of dry prairie). But politically, it's a Southern state -- in presidential races, it's voted the same way as Mississippi in every election since 1968, and that's true of no other state out here.
Further, Texas has very little federal land. That's a result of the Compromise of 1850. Recall that Texas was an independent republic from 1836 to 1844, and ran up some bills. It also claimed half of New Mexico and a strip that extended north through Colorado into Wyoming. In the Compromise, Texas agreed to its current boundaries. In return, the federal government agreed to pay off the old republic's debts, and the public lands inside the Lone Star State were turned over to the state government instead of being retained by the federal government.
Texas managed to get someone else to pay off its "national debt," and got title to its public lands -- that's a better deal than we're likely to see if the federal government starts offering land for sale.
Wyoming’s industrious animal husbanders – who raise everything from cattle to pigs to yaks – will soon have yet another creature to cultivate. The Wyoming Game and Fish Commission is now formulating rules for sage grouse farming.
It all began with State Senator Kit Jennings, R-Casper, who initially proposed a $50,000 pilot program for farming the birds. When that didn’t fly, he attached a tagline to a Game and Fish Department appropriations bill stating that the Game and Fish Commission should come up with rules allowing farmers to raise sage grouse for release.
"We do raise different kinds of sport animals -- we raise a lot of fish, we raise a lot of pheasants -- and I really have a hard time understanding why we can't raise a couple of sage grouse and take them out there and let some guys hunt them," he told the Casper Star-Tribune.
But the commission wasn’t too keen on the idea. The sage grouse – which is constantly under consideration for an endangered species listing – has never been raised in captivity in Wyoming and only with limited success elsewhere, partly because of its space needs and unusual mating habits. Some opponents worry that captive birds could spread disease to wild ones, and that bird farmers could harm the species by gathering eggs from the wild, hastening its already steep decline.
The commission appealed to the state’s Attorney General to see if it could ignore the legislation forcing it to condone sage grouse farming, but no such luck.
Over the past couple years, it’s looked like the region would see a resurgence in hardrock mining, thanks in large part to China’s booming economy. As recently as late summer, copper prices were well above $3 per pound; molybdenum hovered over $30 per pound. Towns like Leadville, Colo., which was devastated when the Climax molybdenum mine (shown below) shut down in 1982, anticipated hundreds of new jobs from new, reopened or expanded mines.
But now, with moly prices plunging below $15 and copper flagging to between $1 and $2 as the global economy sinks into recession, some of those projects are in jeopardy.Read More ...
Bad news for grizzly bears, in Montana and Yellowstone. During the past decade, wildlife managers killed 58 of the federally-protected bruins in northwestern Montana. That makes biologists the biggest source of human-caused grizzly deaths in the region, ahead of train or car strikes (46), illegal shooting (34), and self-defense (20). The “management removals” happen when grizzlies raid garbage or kill livestock on private land. But only one of those removals took place in Glacier National Park, although it holds nearly half of northwest Montana’s 765 grizzlies and gets more than 2 million visitors a year. That’s because the park has few permanent residences and enforces strict rules for storing food.
Another population of grizzlies, in and around Yellowstone National Park, got off the Endangered Species List in 2007 thanks to their rebounding numbers. But since then, 64 bears have died, mostly in management removals and hunting incidents. If the trend continues, Yellowstone bears could regain protected status.
Grizzlies aren't about to pass by open trash dumps, ignore cows and sheep, and keep out of the way of hunters. "It's not rocket science," says Montana bear manager Jamie Jonkel in the Great Falls Tribune. "If you don't want the bears … get rid of the attractants that draw them in."