As pressure mounts to reduce agricultural crop subsidies, Farm Bill conservation programs are increasingly important to the bottom line of many American farms. This trend is expected to continue as Brazil, India and other developing nations insist that free trade deals include an end to American and European crop payments which they rightly claim distort market prices in world agricultural markets.
Most farmers now understand that there is a market for “environmental services” and “conservation” which can provide a significant component of farm income. So it is no surprise that the Conservation Title in each successive Farm Bill has grown relative to commodity payments and other titles. But even as on-farm conservation spending has increased, the promised environmental improvements have for the most part failed to materialize. For example, the 25-year effort to end the decline in Chesapeake Bay water quality and fisheries has failed. While tens of millions of dollars have been pumped into farm conservation in order to end agricultural nutrient pollution, nutrient problems in the Bay have not abated. Scientists and environmentalists are now calling for abandoning the collaborative approach - which relies heavily on Farm Bill and other voluntary conservation programs - in favor of regulation.
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Photo by Jeff Chen
Inhabitants of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico left the region between 1130 and 1180 as the climate changed and drought set in. Today, a migration is occurring as a result of another climate change – the globalizing economy.
Chaco Inc., a footwear company based in Paonia, Colo., has been sold to Wolverine World Wide, Inc., the corporation that owns other outdoor equipment brands including Merrell and Patagonia Footwear.
“The difficult business environment had a play in it,” owner and CEO Mark Paigen says of the move. “I thought the best path forward for the Chaco brand was to hitch our wagon onto that of a larger company.”
Back in 2003, an HCN feature by Hal Clifford pointed out the hardships of manufacturing outdoors equipment in the U.S. At the time, Chaco employed about 100 workers. Their factory and the three underground coal mines in town are, and have been, the economic engine of Paonia, a town of about 2,000 on Colorado's Western Slope.
As predicted in the feature, Chaco, like other equipment manufacturers, wouldn’t stick around for long. Over the years, free trade would move Chaco’s manufacturing operations to China. And just last week, the company was sold.
The official word is that the 43 individuals still employed in Colorado will stay employed through the end of May. Decisions for after May have yet to be determined, says Paigen.
It’s tough to say exactly what’ll happen, but a group of Chaco staff will soon visit the Wolverine plant in Michigan to draw out plans for the transition. If it's anything like the company’s major manufacturing move to China in 2008, it looks like Chaco will provide a number of unemployment services including health insurance and job fairs for current employees.
Around town, most people empathize with the decision but can't help feeling a little resentment. The general consensus: it's a big loss for a small town.
Move over, gas wells. Here comes the latest NIMBY issue: the construction of new transmission lines, an Obama administration priority as the new president seeks to stimulate the economy and rebuild U.S. infrastructure. A proposal from Idaho Power Co., touted as a regional and national priority, is causing quite a stir in rural Oregon's Baker County, where 110 residents came out to a meeting this month, mostly to oppose the high-voltage (500KV) power route.
Idaho Power wants to string the lines from giant, pricey towers (180 feet tall and 80 feet wide, at a cost of $1.3 million each) along Interstate 84 through 70 miles of Baker County ranch and farmland. An alternate route would take the lines along ridges and out of sight of most landowners, but that's sage grouse territory -- another political and environmental problem.
Besides objections based on visual and possible health impacts, landowners are afraid other utilities, including natural gas companies, will use the corridor to piggyback their projects, opening a Pandora's box of issues. They're also worried about what else the lines will inspire: "Rest assured," wrote a blogger on an activist website, "if we as citizens allow this transmission line, we will have horizon-to-horizon windmills."
In the mountains of central Colorado, an overgrown elk herd has been chewing Rocky Mountain National Park to the nub for decades now. The ungulates munch new aspens and willows before they can grow, and graze alpine meadows to golf-course length. So park officials plan to return to the method they used to thin out elk between 1944 and 1968 – shooting them.
Park officials have spent the past three years deciding how to trim the herd. They've been helped by harsh winters and a strong 2006 hunting season just outside the park, which dropped elk numbers to between 1,700 and 2,100 (from a high of as many as 3,500 in the late ‘90s). But biologists say a healthy population would be smaller still -- 1,600 to 2,000.
Okay, so you got up this morning, scraped the scum off your teeth and that last bit of change from your kid's piggybank, and headed down to the corner coffeeshop to buy one cup of endless refills and spend the rest of the day surfing the Interweb looking for some good news to brighten up your unemployed haze.
Well, just call me Mr. Buzzkill, because I'm the bearer of bad news. By now, everyone's heard about the 45,000 jobs that were lost just yesterday. But there's plenty of West-specific downers, such as:
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How do you manage for "natural" conditions when humans have twisted nature all out of pitch? If you're trying to make decisions in an unprecedented situation, what experience do you lean on?
These are a couple of the underlying concerns in a recent report from the federal Climate Change Science Program. The report focuses on climate-sensitive "thresholds" within ecosystems -- the points at which changes in precipitation, temperature, or other climatic variables induce dramatic and persistent shifts in biological systems.
It's a pressing topic. The document discusses a potential crash in North American waterfowl populations, massive timber die-offs, and the woes of thawing permafrost, but it's not all horror stories. Its authors also offer some interesting discussion of the question: how do we manage for climate change? They don't come up with any panaceas, but they do dig a little deeper into one thorny part of the general dilemma.Read More ...
We just swore in a new president, and already there's speculation about who might run in 2012 -- including a Westerner, Dirk Kempthorne of Idaho.
Kempthorne was George W. Bush's last Secretary of the Interior, replacing Gale Norton of Colorado in 2006. He had a long political resume -- mayor of Boise, U.S. Senator, and state governor -- before going to Interior.
He also has an extremely low rating from the League of Conservation Voters, and was the 2007 winner of the "Rubber Dodo Award" from the Center for Biological Diversity because he went longer -- beating James Watt's record of 376 days -- than any previous Interior Secretary (since the Endangered Species Act became law in 1973) without listing a new species as endangered or threatened.
It should be noted that a more prominent potential 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, won the Rubber Dodo Award for 2008 on account of her opposition to protection for polar bears.
At this rate, we can just compile a list of Rubber Dodo winners in coming years, and by 2011, we'll be able to handicap the GOP presidential field.
Updated January 27th
"State and federal funding is available"-- now that's a phrase we haven't heard much lately in California. The bond freeze has crippled programs across the state, and anyone who relies on government grants--from social services to conservation groups -- is feeling the pain.
But the Chinook salmon and steelhead population of Battle Creek, CA, seems to have gotten a lucky break. As other conservation projects stall, the Five Dam Removal Project will go forward, restoring 42 miles of navigable habitat along Battle Creek as well as 6 miles of creek along its tributaries.
"We're lucky that everything is in place," says Sharon Paquin-Gilmore, Coordinator of the Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, a consortium of local stakeholders. Although the group's other projects may be put on hold, the Battle Creek project had all its bureaucratic t's crossed before the economic calamity.
Rarely can anything regarding water in California be described as a "win-win" situation, but in this case it is tempting to suspend disbelief. After ten years of hard work and cooperation by the Greater Battle Creek Watershed Working Group, which includes the Battle Creek Watershed Conservancy, the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California Department of Fish and Game, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the National Marine Fisheries service, and PG&E, regional Reclamation director Don Glaser signed the Record of Decision, setting things in motion.
The first phase of the project, which will include installing fish screens and ladders, removing Wildcat Diversion Dam, and installing other infrastructure, could begin as early as this summer.
Perhaps the most surprising marriage of interests that brought this project about was with the Municipal Water District of Southern California. MWD supplied the grant which paid for the conservation group's science consultant,the Washington-based consultant TerrAqua. The science report helped secure the demolition of five dams, which will increase flows to Southern California (admittedly a questionable virtue) while simultaneously restoring almost half of what was once an 87 mile-long salmon and steelhead run.
What made this project successful? Lots and lots of meetings, says Paquin-Gilmore. The Working Group was determined that the project be a success not only for salmon restoration but for the community at large. No one wanted to have to live with more regulations, and it was also important to acknowledge the value of hydropower. The alternative deemed most environmentally beneficial would have decommissioned six dams, but they settled for five instead.
Over the ten-year process, she says, the main strategy was education, bringing everybody together, and making sure that "views and beliefs on all sides of the spectrum" were included. "We weren't fisheries biologists or agency people," but the government "saw how serious we were."
Paquin-Gilmore is especially grateful to Mary Marshall of the Bureau of Reclamation for her hard work in getting the project approved.
Interesting story in the Tri-City Herald today about a test of underground storage of carbon dioxide in Washington state. (The article doesn't say so, but this is the first North American test of CO2 storage in basalt.) Researchers are now drilling toward a rock layer about 3/4 mile below the surface, and, if the state approves, CO2 injection will follow, perhaps this spring or summer. The hope is that the greenhouse gas can be stored in the porous basalt layers abundant in the Pacific Northwest -- if all goes well, the CO2 will move into the nooks and crannies in the rock, where it will dissolve in water to form calcium carbonate, aka nice innocuous limestone. Sounds better than storing it in the atmosphere, of course. But questions about the long-term safety and general practicality of sequestration abound -- see HCN's in-depth story here.
If you’re a skier, you’ve probably schussed on snow made with bacteria. Ski resorts use Pseudomonas syringae as an ice nucleator, which means water freezes around the bacteria quickly to form snowflakes. But don’t worry – the bacteria used are dead and harmless.
Now, researchers are finding that P. syringae in its live form could help farmers too. According to a recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, these biological ice nucleators are “widespread in the atmosphere and may affect meteorological processes that lead to precipitation.”
Professor Dave Sands at Montana State University was a researcher in the study, and he proposes that if these microbes are, in fact, affecting our rain, modern agriculture could use them to promote crop growth in several ways – one involving weed suppression and another involving rain production.
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