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Alternative alternative energy in the West

Sarah Gilman | Jun 30, 2009 07:20 AM

The West's  renewable energy resources -- especially the wind, solar and geothermal energy concentrated on our vast public lands -- are in the limelight a lot these days. With that in mind, HCN put together this summer's special issue around the concept of alternative alternative energy -- as in, not just those big solar and wind plants that everyone's jawing about these days, but also the role small, local energy projects could play in helping solve climate change, and the big challenges in the way of any attempts to change our energy mix to make it less greenhouse-gassy.

Conrad Wilson of KDNK, a community radio station in Carbondale, Colo., recently  interviewed HCN Assistant Editor Sarah Gilman about some of the stories in that issue. You can find their conversation here.



Catch a falling drop

Ed Quillen | Jun 30, 2009 04:36 AM

    Who owns the rain?
    In Colorado, you generally didn't have any right to use the rain that fell on your property.
    But that's changing, as the New York Times explained in a recent article. Now some property owners will be able to use rain barrels legally.
    Colorado's water laws are arcane and complex, but there are two main principles: "beneficial use" and "prior appropriation."
    It's the "prior appropriation" that became an issue with rainwater. There's a detailed explanation here, and the quick way to explain is by a hypothetical example.
    Suppose you live on the family ranch along Remote Creek. Your great-great-grandfather settled there in 1868 and began irrigating the hay field with a ditch he dug that taps Remote Creek.
    And suppose I bought some land upstream in 1993, built a cabin, and started holding rain water in barrels.
    A dry year comes along. Remote Creek isn't carrying enough water to meet your needs, even though you have an 1868 water right. And here I am, capturing water upstream, a process I started in 1993. You could argue that I'm depriving you of water that is rightfully yours, since you've got a much older claim to the water.
    That's the legal theory. In practice, the connection is rather tenuous, since so much rainwater either evaporates or is consumed by vegetation in the distance between my water barrel and your field.

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Wilderness Dedux

Felice Pace | Jun 26, 2009 05:13 AM

During the eight years of the Bush Administration a number of bills which included designating wilderness in the West were passed by Congress, signed by President Bush and became law. Most mainstream national and regional environmental organizations praised them as great victories.  A few long-time activists, including this blogger, raised an alarm.

Grassroots activists’ concerns with Bush-era public lands bills are of two types: 

  • Provisions within the legislation which activists say undermine the integrity of wilderness and the intent of the Wilderness Act. For example, some of these bills allow helicopter and airplane uses within wilderness for various purposes or select users. 
  • Provisions included which have nothing to do with wilderness but which critics claim are anti-environmental. One example of this sort of legislation is a bill pushed through by Nevada Senator Harry Reid which designated a small amount of wilderness in his state but also authorized the pipeline by which Las Vegas intends to exploit Eastern Nevada groundwater.

Now the Seattle-based Western Lands Project has come out with a new book – Carving Up the Commons: Congress and our Public Lands – which not only “examines the emergence of ‘quid pro quo’ land bills of 2000-2008” but also includes sections on the origins of our public lands, the process and pitfalls (unintended consequences) of congressional land deals and deals in which powerful western members of congress have served the interests of well-connected private parties. The book examines five land deals in depth in order to “illustrate the elaborate machinations and distortions….that can characterize these projects.”   

Best of all, the book is cheap ($10 for printing and shipping a hard copy) and it is available as a free download.  To order, download or for more information visit the Western Lands Project web site.  

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Fracking, fracing or fraccing?

Ed Quillen | Jun 25, 2009 05:57 AM

    Most of us have heard of "hydraulic fracturing." It's a way to get fluids out of the ground by drilling a well, then pumping liquid under pressure down the hole. The liquid fractures nearby rocks, thereby releasing a substance (generally natural gas these days) that has been trapped in the rocks.
    "Hydraulic fracturing" is a mouthful, though, so naturally there's a shorter locution. The problem for us print journalists is how to spell the condensed version.
    Some go with fracing. That's short, but it makes it appear as though the term rhymes with tracing, when it actually rhymes with tracking.
    So I go with fracking, since it's pronounced that way. It also fits with the logic of our language, by analogy with trafficking or picnicking. That is, when you're constructing a gerund from a sequence of letters that ends in a hard c, you append a k before adding the ing.
    Granted, the terms frack and fracking have appeared on the television show Battlestar Gallactica as a polite substitute for another word that starts with f and ends with k, but the context should make it clear as to which meaning is intended.
    I have also heard from geologists who say they spell it fraccing, and one who says it's fracting with a silent t.
    As nearly as I can tell, there's no general agreement on how to spell fracking. Sometimes you even see it spelled different ways in the same publication.
    It should be noted that hydraulic fracturing is not the only way to frack. About 30 years go, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission attempted some big-time explosive fracturing on Colorado's Western Slope. It had the same goal as modern fracking -- releasing trapped natural gas -- but the Rulison Project involved an atomic bomb.
    The natural gas was too radioactive to be used, and there remains a controversy about how close modern operators should be allowed to drill.


Kitten caboodle

Sarah Gilman | Jun 24, 2009 10:25 AM

After two kittenless years, Colorado's Canada lynx are breeding successfully again. The Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has reintroduced 218 of the large-pawed cats to the state over the past decade, located 10 new lynx kittens during their annual spring survey this year. That total includes two dens of kittens whose parents are native to Colorado -- a major milestone for the reintroduction effort.

"We are very close to achieving all of our goals,"  DOW lead biologist Rick Kahn said in a statement. "We have had successful breeding and (now) we have had Colorado-born lynx reproduce. Our next goal is to determine if our level of recruitment is exceeding our mortality rates over a couple of years. We are very encouraged by the results this year and are hopeful that these animals will contribute towards a sustaining population for Colorado." 

As I reported this winter, lynx in Colorado face a variety of threats, not least of which is a possible decrease in the population of snowshoe hare, the cat's primary prey. Researchers have speculated that such a decline, though it has not been rigorously documented, may have been to blame for the last two years' dearth of kittens. Hopefully the current kitten crop is a sign that the cats can overcome such obstacles as they spread through the state's high country.

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Mountain people

Michael Wolcott | Jun 23, 2009 04:08 AM

Let’s start with this: mountain people do not curse the weather. They have slept out in the rain and know that the weather will change. They know that just to be around—under any sort of sky—is good luck enough.

Mountain people have crooked grins and broken hearts and dirt under their fingernails. They are unimpressed with shiny cars, botoxed smiles, or the latest lies delivered from Washington. They know that the best things in life are not things.

Mountain people know what they like and do not accept substitutes. They prefer books to TV, banjos to golf clubs, and right now to “sometime in the future.” They have affinities for cast-iron skillets, steel-grey skies, and bulletproof prose.

They may write poems – mostly bad ones, but occasionally a poem so brilliant you will need to look away. When you do, there will probably be a mountain in your mind’s eye, a mountain that has taught you something you could not have learned any other way.

Mountain people are not sure what they’ll be when they grow up, though it will certainly not be president. They are less likely than flatlanders to have health insurance, retirement plans and annuities (what IS an annuity, anyway?). If they have children, mountain people are pretty sure their children will “be OK.” Whatever that means.

Mountain people are frugal. Some will even leave the baggage tags on their backpacks from one Greyhound trip to the next, even if it’s two years later, because they don’t want to waste the paper.  Mountain people are also spendthrifts. They will dock their scruffy trucks in the casino parking lot, walk in, and cheerfully  lose all they have. Along the way, they’ll out-tip the high rollers. The panhandler who asks a mountain person for a buck could get a twenty. Hey, everybody needs a good day once in awhile.

Mountain people are sentimental – their cabins are full of special rocks, dusty feathers, and old love letters. Mountain people are practical – the cabin will also have a set of socket wrenches, at least one roll of duct tape, and a window that opens onto something beautiful.

Mountain people tend to laugh a little too loud. Sometimes they will laugh with tears in their eyes, saying things like “Sure I’m depressed, but I don’t let it get me down” or “I’m only happy when I’m miserable.” When mountain people are in trouble, they call other mountain people. It may be two in morning. They may say “Nothing needs to be fixed. I just need to hear somebody on the other end of the line.”

A mountain person will stay on the other end of the line. If asked, a mountain person will quite literally give you the shirt off his back. If you really need a shirt, you probably won’t have to ask.

When a mountain person is bent over by what hurts, he will lean on beauty like an old man leans on his cane.

My friends are mostly mountain people, though some may have never scaled an actual mountain. (As the great Yosemite climber Doug Robinson once put it, in true mountaineering, no climbing is required.)

People who move to the West from somewhere flat might be mountain people, or they might not. Some at least want to be mountain people, which is a start. Wannabe isn’t a dirty word, not if you wannabe righteous.

But to succeed, a wannabe will have to give up some things. Mountain people by necessity go light. Mountains are problematic for those who want security and certainty, because the only certainties a mountain will offer are gravity and erosion, heart-piercing storms and rose-colored visions.

Mountain people may also happen to be desert people, or even river people. That’s because mountain people know that deserts and rivers and mountains are three faces of the same god. They know this to be true, even if there is no god.


Off-road clampdown in the West

Jodi Peterson | Jun 18, 2009 09:39 AM

We all know that irresponsible off-road vehicle use causes major damage to public lands. The June 8 HCN contained a story about Western states passing laws to more strongly regulate offroaders ("States rev up ORV rules").

KUNC's Kirk Siegler recently interviewed associate editor Jodi Peterson about that story, focusing on the new laws and the problems they're attempting to address. You can listen to the interview here.

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Beaver and restoration - the rest of the story

Felice Pace | Jun 18, 2009 03:20 AM

The June 8th HCN edition included an excellent article on the potential for beaver to restore western watersheds and, in the process, improve water supplies. The piece, however, omitted a few important caveats:

  • Before the occupation of the West by white folks, Beaver did not exist in all Western watersheds. This is reflected in the diaries and history of the mountain men. For example, Jedediah Smith scouted from Colorado to Southern California and then North to Oregon. He found some valleys loaded with beaver; but many of the watersheds he scouted – not only in the Southwest but even in Northern California and Oregon -contained no or only a scattering of beaver.
  • Many of the places beaver thrived are now fields of alfalfa or pastures for cattle. The Scott Valley where I lived for 40 years was once known as Beaver Valley. The first year Hudson Bay trappers worked it, they took out 50 mules loaded with beaver pelts. But there is no way the beaver are going to be restored in this valley; that would require moving out the people and the cattle. Beaver are still being killed in the Scott Valley as varmints today.
  • Read More ...

Airports killing wildlife to prevent accidents

Marty Durlin | Jun 17, 2009 08:17 AM

Today reports from two far-flung airports illustrate the ongoing conflict between modern human culture and animals simply doing what they do.

In New York City -- five months after Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese -- some 2,000 Canadian geese living around JFK and LaGuardia airports will be euthanized starting this week. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given the USDA a permit for the euthanization, releasing the agency from the the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

The local geese (as opposed to the migratory birds that flew into the US Airways plane) will be herded into fenced areas at parks and wastewater treatment plants within five miles of the airports, put into crates and "humanely" euthanized . 

Read More ...
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What dreams shale come

Terray Sylvester | Jun 17, 2009 03:05 AM

Yesterday I read, “What every westerner should know about oil shale,” a report published last week by the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West. It left my ears ringing with a sort of dull reverberation that, while it lasted, actually seemed to be getting louder. I think that ringing sound had something to do with the time line below, which I've culled from the report. 

The report offers all sorts of handy information on, for example, the social impacts of boom and bust cycles, shale extraction laws and the latest extraction technologies (Exxon's sounds like the Frankenstein monster of fracking) but in large part, it's a history of shales's many false promises and failures. So it's surprising that it left me with the feeling that commercial shale production isn't so much futile, as fated. Despite all of the hurdles, shale companies have been testing the U.S. oil market for the last century and a half. They've been rebuffed every time. But over the decades we've only become more dependent on fossil fuels, and sooner or later we'll run out of conventional resources. A habit is a hard thing to break. It seems unlikely that we'll skate right over into an alternative energy economy without first tapping a petroleum reserve as huge as the Green River Formation. As the report puts it, “…oil shale may well be the end game of the Fossil Fuel Age. But it is a very big play.”  

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