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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


Well wars

Cally Carswell | Dec 15, 2009 03:24 AM

With water rights dating to 1865, you wouldn’t expect Joseph Miller to worry about the security of his water supply. But to Miller, the new homes and subdivisions popping up in Montana’s Gallatin Valley, where he owns a 500-acre ranch, are plenty of cause for concern. Miller suspects those developments, which pump groundwater from permit-exempt wells, have dried up at least one stream on his ranch.

To address the problem, Miller and a few other ranchers recently petitioned Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to stop letting residential developments use exempt wells to skirt the state’s water laws. They claim exempt wells will draw down water supplies that they have senior rights to.

In Montana, groundwater wells pumping less than 35 gallons a minute and no more than 10 acre feet a year don’t require a permit and aren't regulated under prior appropriation during drought. A 60-lot subdivision, for instance, can legally drill 60 wells into the same aquifer without permits or environmental review as long as those wells aren't connected. Even though the law says the exemption doesn't cover a "combined appropriation" by multiple wells from the same source if, together, they suck more than 35 gallons a minute, the state only considers wells that are physically connected by pipes to be a "combined appropriation."

"There’s really no protection in place for senior water rights," says Matthew Bishop, an attorney with the Western Environmental Law Center, which filed the petition on the ranchers’ behalf. Bishop says the state has known exempt wells are a problem "for a number of years," but "no one’s been willing to fix it."

"We felt we had to force the issue," he says.

According to the petition, there are some 200,000 exempt wells in Montana, a figure that could grow by as many as 78,000 wells in the next 10 years. The petitioners are asking the state the throw out its current interpretation of combined appropriation and initiate rulemaking to come up with a new one. According to Bishop, the state has 60 days to respond. If the petition is denied, he expects to challenge the state in court.

Meanwhile, a similar battle in Kittitas County, Wash., which I wrote about in October, is still dragging on

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An official state microbe

Ed Quillen | Dec 12, 2009 07:48 AM

      Colorado may not hold the record for "Official State Whatevers," but it's got to come close with both a state rock and a state gemstone, two official state songs, a state insect and a state reptile, as well as the usual flower, bird, fish, tree, mammal and the like.
    But Wisconsin may be on its way to something new: an official state microbe, the Lactococcus lactis. As you might have guessed, it has something to do with cheese -- it's the bacterium that changes milk into cheese.
    L. lactis promoters say it highlights an important industry in the Badger State.
    No argument there, but as a Coloradan, accustomed to a new Official State Something every couple of years after a grade-school class somewhere decides to lobby the legislature, I wonder what our microbe will be.
    Since Colorado (as of 2006, anyway) leads the nation in beer production, the obvious candidates might be Saccharomyces cerevisiae and S. pastorianus, the two most popular varieties of brewing yeast.
    But why imitate Winconsin by focusing on the economic contributions of a microbe? One that deserves more attention to is Giardia lamblia, found in nearly every mountain stream. It causes nausea and diarrhea, also known as "Chief Ouray's Revenge."
    If it were better known, high-country hikers might be less prone to drink from those pristine-looking mountain creeks that tumble through the rocks. Fewer visitors would get ill, thereby improving the state's reputation as a tourist destination.
    But I doubt any legislator is willing to introduce a bill making G. lamblia our official state microbe, which would lead to giardiasis becoming our official state infection, and who knows what would come after that?



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Feels like teen spirit

Arla Shephard | Dec 11, 2009 08:57 AM

Yesterday, the High Country News interns (Ariana Brocious, Cally Carswell and I) trekked to nearby Delta to speak to a journalism class at the local high school. After getting lost in the "big city" (Delta has about 6,500 residents to Paonia's 1,500) we were greeted by five bright and eager young journalists. Well, sort of.

The students (whose final projects entailed writing articles about High Country News and journalism) displayed varying degrees of interest, from mildly curious to distinctly bored. We were interviewed press-conference style about our backgrounds, interests and how we came to be at High Country News:

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