Has camelina's time arrived? A new study -- funded by the camelina industry and conducted with jet fuel from seeds developed by a Bozeman company called Sustainable Oils -- says fuel made with the oilseed camelina could cut greenhouse gas emissions by up to 84 percent compared with fuel made from petroleum.
Just last September, the FDA granted permission to include two percent camelina meal -- a byproduct of producing the fuel -- in the mix given to feedlot beef cattle and swine. The meal has protein levels of 40 percent or more, and is also high in Omega-3 fatty acids.
Camelina is well suited to Montana and other arid states because it can withstand cold temperatures and it needs very little water. In 2007, more than 20,000 acres of the crop was cultivated in the state -- but that number fell by almost half in 2008, probably because farmers could get more money from growing wheat, which hit record highs.
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Back in mid-March, I wrote about a wonderful development on one of my favorite local dog-walking routes. The federal Bureau of Land Management had blocked motor vehicles from this half-mile stretch of old bad road along the Arkansas River just east of Salida.
I predicted that the closure sign would get knocked down, the blocking boulders would be moved, and there would be agitation to re-open the road to pickups, ATVs, motorcycles and the like.
The post with the closure sign hasn't fared well. Soon after it went up, it was pushed hard by a vehicle. It was cracked and leaning, but still standing, more or less. By last weekend, though, it was fully broken off and lying in the dirt.
However, the boulders are still in place, and we've seen only one violator, a motorcyclist who briefly intruded, then turned back.
Last night, I flew home to Colorado to find that my car had changed color. During my weekend away, a wild dust-and-rain storm had rolled over Grand Junction, covering my car -- and the rest of town, it seemed -- with bright orange splotches of desert dirt. “Yep, half of Utah blew through here,” said the attendant at the airport parking lot.
It’s been a dusty winter here in western Colorado -- spooky orange clouds keep busting in from the west, leaving layers of grit on cars, people, and our snowpack. And since darker snow absorbs more heat, dirty snowpack melts faster -- a lot faster, researchers find. The Washington Post recently published a story on our dusty skies, including their causes and implications for Western snow and water -- well worth a look. A couple of winters ago, I trekked into the San Juan Mountains with snow scientist Tom Painter, who studies the effects of dust on snow -- check out the HCN story I wrote about our trip, and his and his colleagues’ disturbing findings.
How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world — the paragon of animals! ~ William Shakespeare
In the Sacramento Bee today, Republican Rep. George Radanovich of California's 19th District accused environmentalists of fish idolatry: calling regulations that protect endangered smelt in the Sacramento Delta "draconian," because they "turn simple fish into the worshipful gods of the environmental community...We need the government to protect the safety and happiness of people, not fish."
"All men are equal before fish," noted Herbert Hoover. "Fish recognize a bad leader," observed Conan O'Brien. What do the Delta smelt think of Mr. Radanovich?
Poor smelt. Caught in the crossfire of California's water wars, they never asked for adulation. Smelt are an indicator species and their disappearance bodes ill for the Delta ecosystem. Enviros say the California drought is being used politically to push new hydro projects — it's not that there isn't enough water, it's that the whole system has been so badly planned. Moving forward, conservation and better irrigation practices are in order, not sacrifice of the ecosystem.
Republicans like 4th District Rep. Tom McClintock are also skeptical of the drought, but for opposite reasons, saying that environmental regulations, not farming or conservation, are the problem. McClintock seems to have inherited his predecessor John Doolittle's talent for subtle analysis: "The question comes down to a very simple choice between people and fish." (Doolittle, who is now under investigation for corruption, is famous in my hometown of Coloma, Calif., for his obsession with building the Auburn Dam on the American River. He called opponents to the dam "conniving environmentalists").
It must be acknowledged that certain fish fans are fanatics. PETA, for example, has gone off the deep end with its "Sea Kitten" campaign. Obviously geared toward children, PETA's propaganda stretches, nay, snaps the cords of reason:
"Contrary to popular belief, the technical term for sea kitten offspring is "baby sea kitties," not "caviar." Many sea kittens build nests where they can raise their baby sea kitties, and others collect small rocks off the sea floor to made widdle hiding pwaces where they can rest."
Perhaps we should turn to Lao Tzu for answers about the Delta smelt: "Govern a great nation as you would cook a small fish. Do not overdo it."
The housing/growth boom of the last decade was a wild ride for the West, feeling a bit like a euphoric all-night meth binge. Only the drug in this case was easy credit and an unshakable belief that the good times could never end. Nearly three years after the housing bubble reached its bursting point -- easy now to pin at mid-2006 -- we're still suffering from serious withdrawal. The rash of foreclosures may have slowed a bit at the end of last year, but now they appear to be jumping back up again (Krissy Clark at American Radio Works did a great series on Las Vegas' foreclosure nightmare). Housing starts are lower than ever. Check out these building permit comparisons:
March 2006 March 2009
Phoenix 4,658 544
Las Vegas 5,353 278
Albuquerque 873 120
Denver 398 278
Home sales are so low, and values along with them, that people aren't even moving anymore -- the great, mobile America is stuck. Given how crucial in-migration was to the West's growth machine, this will just slow the slowdown to the speed of cold molasses. It's gotten so bad that golf courses in Phoenix are going into foreclosure.
What I'm really interested in is: What's next? Some folks believe that as soon as the economy turns around (if it turns around), the Western growth machine will kick itself back into gear. I, for one, am not so sure. I tend to believe that things were shifting even before the crash, and that the downturn will totally readjust how we think about and do growth. But I'm really interested in your thoughts. Read our stories on the topic -- which focus on Phoenix -- and let us know what you think, either in the comment section of the story, or at our Facebook pages.
If you paid any attention at all to national forest issues during Bush's tenure, you heard the name "Mark Rey" a lot. Appointed Undersecretary of Agriculture for Natural Resources and Environment, Rey oversaw the Forest Service for eight years. From the start, environmental groups were wary of Rey's logging-friendly record, while his supporters praised Rey's expertise in forestry and his emphasis on local involvement.
Over the years, HCN covered Rey's often-controversial actions extensively: helping create the "Healthy Forests" plans; "streamlining" the forest planning process; attempting to sell off thousands of acres of public lands; shutting down a Forest Service team that analyzed public comments; planning the closure of thousands of national forest campgrounds and sites.
Now, three months out of office, Rey spoke to Martin Nie (associate professor of natural resource policy at the University of Montana) about his years as undersecretary. Nie asked some incisive and fairly pointed questions; Rey answered in his usual style, neatly evading some, and replying to others with exhaustively detailed, bordering-on-pedantic responses. The 38-page transcript is posted on Headwaters News:
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Back in 1991 when the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment set up the call center to process people who need unemployment benefits, it seemed like a good way to increase efficiency and prevent long lines at the office. Back then, there were about 400 calls a day.
Fast forward to 2009. "What we're seeing now is 4000-5000 calls a day," says Bill Thoennes, who handles press questions in the office of Government, Policy and Public Relations. With more than 200,000 people out of work in Colorado, the phone system -- and the 100 or so people who are fielding calls -- simply can't handle the volume. Thoennes says more people are being hired, but it takes up to six weeks to train employees so that they can answer questions about the state's employment laws.
Meantime, people who have questions or problems regarding their unemployment benefits are forced to wait for up to two hours on the phone -- that is, if they get beyond the busy signal.
Colorado's unemployment figure is 7.5 percent -- still under the historical high of 9.1 percent in 1982, and a modest number compared to California's 11.2 percent and Oregon's 12.1 percent, both at historical highs. "It's frustrating," says Thoennes. "We're trying everything we can think of. Some retirees have volunteered to come back to work, and some of the adjudicators are taking phone calls. We just keep hoping the recession will level out."
With an extra 13 weeks of emergency unemployment now authorized, people out of work can receive up to 59 weeks of benefits. Unless they hit what Thoennes termed "the endless brick wall."
Doubtless you've heard of George Will, a prominent member of the chattering class. He wears a bow tie. And now this fop, with prominent sartorial affectations of his own, presumes to give us fashion advice.
In a recent syndicated column, Will rants against blue jeans, also known as "Western wear."
Will borrows many of his critiques from a Daniel Akst, who earlier wrote in the Wall Street Journal that denim is "hot, uncomfortable and uniquely unsuited to people who spend most of their waking hours pushing keys instead of cows."
Well, pushing keys is how I spend most of my working hours, and I wonder. Has Daniel Akst ever had to crawl down on the floor to find an errant computer cable? Had a sharp-clawed cat jump on his lap while he was trying to work? Had to venture down into a dusty cellar to find the file from something he wrote years ago?
Here's a new angle on fire in the west: one large southern California utility is trying to convince ratepayers that some regions of its service area are too fire-prone for uninterrupted electricity. Or at least, that's the implication behind San Diego Gas and Electric's proposal to unplug portions of its grid when there's a high risk of fire; for example, when winds pick up or humidity levels drop beyond a certain point. According to spokeswoman Jennifer Ramp, the plan is an attempt to "address fire head on," but it also looks a lot like an effort to dodge liability. In 2007, arcing power lines and gusting Santa Ana winds stirred up a handful of big blazes, leaving San Diego Gas and Electric saddled with more than a hundred lawsuits, and potentially responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of damages.
Those who have lived for any amount of time in a western ranching community will not be surprised by news that the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), an agency of the US Department of Agriculture, overpaid landowners for “conservation” benefits. According to a report in the Capital Press, a western Ag weekly reporting on a March 25th House Agricultural Sub-committee hearing, between 1999 and 2003 the agency illegally inflated payments to landowners for “conservation easements" by hundreds of millions of dollars. Another audit by the agencies Inspector General found that NRCS officials in five states didn’t check to see if landowners lived up to the terms of easement contracts. One of the states reviewed – California – is located in the West. The others were Missouri, Arkansas Louisiana, Florida and Maine.
You can read opening statements by witnesses testifying at the March 25th hearing, including the USDA and GAO auditors, at the House Agricultural Committee’s web site. Here are a few highlights of testimony to the Committee.
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