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Resilience, not sustainability

Ed Quillen | Oct 19, 2009 09:02 AM

    The annual Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison often presents some concepts worth chewing on, and this year's gathering (held Oct. 16-18) was no exception. Headwaters, as I've come to understand it after 20 years of attending, is something of an idea fair for little mountain towns.
    For some time I've been mulling about "sustainability," which sounds like a noble goal, until you try to figure out the difference between "sustainability" and "stagnation."
    Further, I had a problem with local sustainability advocates, who've been devoting lots of time and energy to opposing a relatively minor water project (200 acre-feet a year, and augmented so there is no net export) while ignoring other sustainability issues that seem more important, at least to me.
    For instance, we just lost our salvage yard, and the availability of parts to keep our old pickups on the road certainly has something to do with the sustainability of our community. Salvage yards reduce resource consumption and keep money in town. Why aren't the activists agitating about that?
    So I had receptive ears when the first keynote speaker, Dr. Devon Pena of the University of Washington (and a farm near San Luis, Colo., and the Acequia Institute) ripped into "sustainability" as a buzzword and an unworthy goal.
    He proposed that communities seek "resilience," rather than "sustainability."
    For instance (and this is my theorizing, not his), consider the imaginary mountain town of Mofeta. For generations, they've raised sheep, and they do it in a sustainable way without overgrazing.
    But then the bottom drops out of the wool market. Or demand seriously declines for lamb chops and mutton. Or the Chinese start exporting cheap sheep products. We are, after all, in a global commodity market, and this stuff happens.
    Sustainable practices won't keep Mofeta's shepherds in business.
    If they're resilient, though, they'll look for ways to add value to what they know how to make -- maybe by encouraging local weavers and production of classy wool sweaters.
    Or they'll shift to goats and build a little dairy in Mofeta to supply gourmet goat cheese. Or they'll come up with some other way to employ their knowledge and resources; that's resilience, rather than sustainability.
    This model seems to fit with my own town of Salida, Colo., founded in 1880 as a railroad division point with shops and roundhouses. It's been a decade since a train came through town, and the railroad cutbacks started long ago, just after World War II.
    Mining carried the local economy until the early 1980s. After that crash, ghost-town status loomed. But people here were resilient. They took what they had -- the Arkansas River, abundant scenery, a charming if dilapidated old brick downtown -- and found a way to earn a living from those resources.
    Are art galleries and outdoor recreation sustainable? Maybe not, if gasoline hits $5 a gallon. But that's something we have no control over. We do have some control over how we respond and adapt -- that is, we can be resilient. I like that concept.


Clean(er) coal?

Jodi Peterson | Oct 19, 2009 08:55 AM

In Alaska and Wyoming, two energy companies just announced plans to burn coal underground to create natural gas, then use the waste carbon dioxide to enhance oilfield production. The process, called "underground coal gasification", has never been done in the U.S., but is used in Australia and other countries. The Anchorage Daily News reports:

As described by Cook Inlet Region Inc., the project would be a massive win-win -- its dormant coal fields would be tapped for energy without the environmental consequences of traditional coal mining, the region would get a new source of electricity, the pressure on local natural gas supplies would be eased and more oil might even be squeezed from Cook Inlet's aging oil fields.

CIRI's project would involve drilling wells into buried coal seams, then injecting compressed air into the wells, causing the coal to combust and create gas. CIRI would then convert the gas into electricity at its new 100-megawatt power plant and sell the power to buyers in the region, such as utilities.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories is acting as technical adviser for the Alaska project, which could be producing synthetic gas by 2014.

Meanwhile, in Wyoming, Linc Energy (based in Australia) and GasTech (based in Casper) plan to have a joint demonstration UCG project underway within 2 1/2 years. The companies have leased state land in the Powder River Basin.

Green groups are warily optimistic -- the nonprofit Clean Air Task Force released a recent report recommending "rapid development and deployment of underground coal gasification to reduce carbon emissions and electricity prices."



The high risk of leaving home

Jodi Peterson | Oct 16, 2009 06:10 AM

Last week, federal agents shot a sheep-killing wolf in Wyoming. That male (266M), from a Montana litter born in 2007, was the sibling of a female wolf (341F) that wandered across Wyoming, Idaho and Utah last fall. This past March, she was found dead near the northern Colorado town of Rifle. Sadly, the littermates' fates are typical for dispersing wolves. The young animals  travel hundreds of miles from their home pack to find mates and set up new territories, but meet many hazards along the way, reports the Casper Star-Tribune:

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Can salmon save themselves?

Arla Shephard | Oct 15, 2009 09:36 AM

The Northwest's Columbia River Basin stocks of iconic salmon have been the subject of a heated and expensive court battle for the past decade. Thirteen out of 16 stocks are listed as threatened or endangered thanks to a combination of factors including mining, farming, urban development and most significantly, lots of hydropower dams along the Columbia and Snake rivers.

Some biologists have long argued for the removal of four dams along the Lower Snake River so that the fish can complete their life cycle -- swimming to the ocean and then returning upstream to their place of birth to spawn -- with fewer obstacles and threats. But competing hydropower interests -- namely the federal Bonneville Power Administration which markets the region's hydropower -- have fought tooth and nail for anything but (see HCN’s 2009 feature stories "Columbia Basin (Political) Science" and “Salmon Salvation.”) Federal agencies have poured billions of dollars into alternatives, like trucking salmon around dams, to help the fish survive.

Turns out, some of the fish may actually be helping themselves. Some biologists see signs that the fall chinook salmon may be evolving to weather habitats severely altered by dams, postponing their migration to the sea and growing larger to survive the journey,  The Oregonian reports.

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Tepid statistics as the planet burns

Marty Durlin | Oct 15, 2009 07:40 AM

Mired firmly in denial, we seem to be stuck in the first step of Elizabeth Kubler Ross's five stages of grief about the death of life as we know it on Planet Earth.

Adam D. Sacks has an excellent piece on Grist about our lack of urgency about global climate change -- and from the very people who care most about it: climate activists. He cites

the timid, tentative, emotionally impoverished voice of our communications, the feelings unexpressed in the face of the premature and squalid end of so much of what we love, the unfathomable reluctance to speak to the depth of the grief we are bringing upon ourselves.

Our silence is not the lack of words, it is the absence of an essence in urgent human relationships, an essence with power to break the bonds of unthinkable thoughts: passion.

Sacks quotes Frederick Douglass' thrilling 1852 anti-slavery speech as an example of the necessary "fire, thunder, ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm and stern rebuke" to get us off our dime. Then he goes on:

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Good reading

Ed Quillen | Oct 05, 2009 07:05 AM

    If you need to stay indoors because it's cold, wet and windy outside, or because you worry about being mistaken for an elk if you go outdoors, here's some good reading.
    In the New Republic, Jackson Lears provides a thought-provoking essay that combines review of six environmental books, among them an anthology of American nature writing, a biography of John Muir, and a historic connection between conservation and eugenics.
    I couldn't help but keep reading after this opening: "In contemporary public discourse, concern for 'the environment' is a mile wide and an inch deep. Even free-market fundamentalists strain to display their ecological credentials, while corporations that sell fossil fuels genuflect at the altar of sustainability. Everyone has discovered how nice it is to be green. Will popular sentiment translate into public policy? There is reason to be skeptical."
    Another interesting piece I recently encountered looks at population trends across America, specifically death rates and immigration rates. There I discovered that my Chaffee County, Colorado, would be losing population if it were limited to natural increase and decrease; we and some neighbors are growing. The article notes that "The bulk of these [growing] counties are retirement amenity areas, mostly but not entirely in the Sunbelt, and mostly but not entirely in the south and west."
    It will come as no surprise that most farm counties on the Great Plains are losing population, both by natural decrease as an older population dies off without replacement births, and by out-migration because residents seek better economic opportunities. The author, Richard Morrill, predicts that we'll see more shrinking county populations in coming years.

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Tapping into methane

Jodi Peterson | Oct 05, 2009 05:05 AM

Last fall, we wrote about the enormous amounts of greenhouse gas vented by coal mines (in the West, methane emissions from mines are equivalent to the emissions from 1.9 million cars). And methane, an explosive gas vented for miner safety, is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide in terms of heat-trapping.

At many East Coast coal mines, the methane is captured and burned for energy, but in the West, various regulatory and jurisdictional issues have made it difficult or impossible for mines to do so (for example, a company that has a mining lease on public land must obtain a separate lease to capture methane released from its mines).

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The changing face of the West

Sarah Gilman | Oct 05, 2009 02:45 AM

Last Monday, I drove over McClure Pass to Carbondale, Colo., to join NPR reporter Jeff Brady, Rocky Mountain Community Radio correspondent Bente Birkeland, Aspen Times columnist Paul Anderson, and KDNK community radio News Director Conrad Wilson for a lively (and live) discussion of Western issues and how they play out in Colorado.

You can find the original broadcast here, on KDNK's Web site.

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Harvesting grievances

Ariana Brocious | Oct 01, 2009 09:15 AM

All summer long, farmers in California’s Central Valley have complained about their parched fields—one even likened their communities to tumbleweeds about to blow away—and they blame their thirsty crops on fish.  Endangered Species Act protections for smelt and salmon in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta limit the amount of water pumped out of Northern California, much of which goes to agriculture.

But these struggling farmers, and others in the West, are getting some attention from Obama’s administration this week.

On Wednesday Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced he would ask the National Academy of Sciences to review the scientific reasoning behind the ESA limits on Northern California water pumping. The LA Times reports:

“State water officials say most of the delivery cuts from the delta are the result of drought—not the fish protections—but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Central Valley congressmen have repeatedly denounced the endangered species restrictions as placing fish above people.”

Salazar asked the academy to find out if there are other fish protection measures that would use less water, but remarked that it was “wrong to blame California’s water problems on environmental regulation.” And one columnist argues that both farmers and fishermen are in the same "dry-docked" boat, since water shortages have heavily affected both industries--keeping farm fields fallow and the salmon season closed for a second consecutive year.

Meanwhile, Hispanic farmers in New Mexico aired their discrimination complaints when U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack visited Las Cruces, N.M., on Wednesday. Vilsack listened to the concerns of southern New Mexico farmers, who said that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency had administered loans and service to white farmers first, causing many Hispanic farmers to lose their land or crops because of delayed loans. Vilsack said he was aware of the situation but that  “his hands were tied by the judicial system,” according to the Associated Press.

A lawsuit filed by farmers in 2000 charges the USDA with “rampant discrimination in the administration of USDA loan programs,” and a court meeting on Oct. 13 will assess any progress in the suit. Plaintiff’s attorney Stephen Hill said the case has been “stonewalled” by the USDA and Department of Justice, reported the AP.

“Each farmer out there had the same story about discrimination,” David Cantu (a Texas farmer) said. “I commend the secretary and we know he is not the cause of these problems. But fortunately, it has fallen on his administration to make it right.”

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Snowpacks melting sooner

Ed Quillen | Sep 28, 2009 06:55 AM

    Why are mountain snowpacks melting sooner these days?
    Part of it may be climate change associated with increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, but there's something else in the air -- dust (a/k/a airborne particulate matter).
    Snow reflects sunlight quite well, as evidenced by the blinding glare it produces and the phenomenon of snow-blindness.
    Put a layer of dust atop the snow, though, and more of the sun's energy is absorbed, rather than reflected. The absorbed solar energy makes the snow melt faster (see our story "Dust and Snow").
    And in recent years, as shown by sediment layers in western ponds and lakes, humans have greatly increased the amount of dust in the air, leading to earlier melting.
    This has major implications for water managers who rely on alpine snowbanks for storage, and there's more in this article.

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