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The rural West, on clearance

Cally Carswell | Aug 05, 2009 03:57 AM

Statistics released by the USDA yesterday paint a sobering economic portrait of the rural West.  

The agency reported declines in agricultural land values across the country for the first time in more than 20 years. And it’s the Mountain states that have been clobbered worst of all.

Montana farmland values fell a whopping 22.2 percent from 2008 to 2009, compared to an average 3.2 percent decline nationwide, and 10.5 percent drop in the Mountain state region.

But anyone looking for a real steal should head to New Mexico, which claims the cheapest farmland in the country at an average $480 an acre. Just how dirt-cheap is that? It’s pretty bottom of the barrel compared to the nation’s most expensive farmland, found in Rhode Island, which commands $15,300 per acre.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The USDA's report is consistent with what farmers, ranchers and bankers have been seeing over the past few months. Some farmland in the Plains, for example, has fared better because grain prices, while coming off their highs, remain relatively strong.

On the other hand, the Mountain states have seen bigger declines largely because of the prevalence of livestock. Cattle ranchers have been struggling amid low cattle prices and high feed prices.


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California sun and spray

Ariana Brocious | Aug 04, 2009 08:20 AM

California’s farmworkers support an $11 billion industry, making the state the nation’s leading agricultural producer and exporter. But their working conditions are often difficult – they’re exposed to harmful pesticides and dangerous levels of thirst and heat. Now, the LA Times reports that the state is considering approval of another hazardous pesticide, and it’s facing a lawsuit over shade and water requirements for workers.

                                              sun mad raisens

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Crossroad at the foot of a mountain

Michael Wolcott | Aug 03, 2009 06:05 AM

Lilacs bloomed on the corner next to the hostel. A freight train rumbled through the little downtown, the third one in the past hour; the swirling clouds of railroad noise carried echoes of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. A block south of the tracks, a black Irish beauty from New York stood in front of a coffee shop, holding hands with her boyfriend. The lucky guy was me. It was 1987 in Flagstaff, AZ, and we were on a Grand Canyon vacation. Manhattan felt as distant as Pluto.

That morning, for the first time in my 32 years, I had set foot in the desert Southwest. It was the same for her; we had both grown up in upstate New York. I was addled by the utter strangeness of everything in Arizona, high on all of it: the crazy, crumbling mountains; an electric blue sky; prickly, misshapen plants that seemed to have been invented by wizards. The sound of trains—like the smell of lilacs and the piercing silver light—added to the mix. The whole big show seemed to be rearranging my cells.

I read aloud from an index card scotch-taped to the plate-glass window: FOR RENT: Small cabin near town. Wood stove, electricity, and outhouse. No running water. $100/month.

 “What do you think?” I said. “Could we do it?”

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Fire and Smoke

Felice Pace | Jul 31, 2009 05:09 AM

Back in June of this year I did a GOAT Blog post on the wildfires that burned during the summer of 2008 in Northwest California. In October of 2008 I posted a commentary on reasons why western wildfires are getting larger. Included in the June report was the controversy that arose in Northwest California last year over smoke-related health impacts and whether decisions not to directly attack the wildfires and firefighter lit backfires and burnouts added significantly and unnecessarily to those health impacts. In 2008 about one third of the billion dollars spent nationally on firefighting was expended in Northwest California.

The Redding Record Searchlight did a series on the 2008 fires which focused on smoke and firefighting tactics. They have continued to follow-up on the series this year.

Health officials working for the Hoopa Tribe are leading efforts to get Forest Service and firefighters to give greater consideration to the health impacts of smoke as they make decisions on fire suppression strategy and tactics. However, it is unknown how much of the smoke which blanketed Northwest California last summer was the result of natural wildfires and how much was the result of the extensive backfires and burnouts which firefighters lit. The Forest Service and the firefighting bureaucracy continue to refuse to distinguish natural wildfires from discretionary backfires and burnouts when they map and report of wildland fires. Forest Service and university researchers have not helped; I can find no studies that look at this aspect of the smoke issue.

Westerners don’t know how much of the health-destroying smoke we breathe during wildfires is the result of natural wildfires and how much is the result of decisions to light backfires and burnouts. Likewise, it is unknown how much of the documented increase in the size of western wildfires is the legacy of fire suppression and logging and how much of that increase represents increased use of backfires and burnouts.  Many folks like me who live in the forest and study the wildfires on the ground are convinced that the backfires and burnouts are getting larger. In last year’s Northern California Siskiyou Fire Complex, for example, well over 50% of the total area burned was the result of management decisions to light backfires and burnouts far from the actual wildfires. Yet the Forest Service and fire researchers continue to describe the entire area as if it was an all natural fire.

Now we are in a new fire season and I can report that the Forest Service is responding to the sustained criticism of how the summer 2008 fires were managed. This has been reported extensively in area media.

Most Northwest California residents appear to be pleased that the Forest Service directly attacked and – with the help of cool weather and moist fuel - was able to put out this year’s Backbone Fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Controversy remains, however, concerning how much of last year’s smoke is the result of decisions not to directly attack the fires (for firefighter safety) and how much is the result of firefighting strategies that rely on large burnouts and backfires. 

Also under dispute in Northwest California are causes of the watershed impacts that result from wildfire and fire suppression. The Redding Searchlight, for example, claimed in a recent editorial that one of last years wildfires destroyed important salmon habitat.       

While it is clear that wildfires can have significant negative impacts on water quality (particularly when the fires burn at high intensity), it is unknown how much of the sediment Record Searchlight editors believe resulted from “natural” wildfire was actually from firefighter lit burnouts and bulldozed fire lines. Even more difficult to determine is whether fire suppression strategy and tactics used on that fire were needed and appropriate.

Answers to these questions will remain illusive until fire researchers begin to seriously investigate the impacts of fire suppression strategies and tactics as part of natural history-type investigations of wildfires. Such investigations, however, will be difficult to complete until the Forest Service and Fire Fighting Bureaucracy begin to map and disclose burnouts and backfires.   

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Let it burn?

Ariana Brocious | Jul 30, 2009 09:10 AM

Despite wildfires smoldering across the West in recent weeks (outside of Denver, in Southern California, and near Arizona’s Kitt Peak Observatory), one Colorado town is backing off on wildfire protection.

Breckenridge, Colo., a mountain resort town about 80 miles southwest of Denver, this week revoked an ordinance requiring homeowners to thin vegetation and remove trees around their homes to reduce fire danger, reported the LA Times. Similar ordinances are routine for Californians but unusual in other Western states.

Breckenridge residents, concerned that the law would hurt property values, encroach on property rights and require expensive tree removals, submitted a petition with over 330 signatures to the town council. The council chose to repeal the month-old law rather than put it to a vote.

Never mind that thousands of trees in the area are already dead from the mountain pine beetle epidemic (which HCN covered a few weeks ago), which prompted the council to pass the ordinance in the first place.

Or that fire officials who were counting on the law to help in defending homes must now rely on voluntary vegetation clearing from residents.

While summer temperatures -- and fire danger -- peak, Breckenridge's reversal on fire safety isn't setting a good example:

Opponents have criticized the strategy as pointless unless other communities in the area participate. Many state residents had followed closely the developments in Breckenridge, one of the few communities--if not the only--in Colorado to take such an aggressive approach.   LA Times



The latest buzz

Jodi Peterson | Jul 30, 2009 05:03 AM

It’s been more than two years since HCN reported on the West’s disappearing honeybees (see "Silence of the Bees"). Since then, parasitic mites and a mysterious syndrome called colony collapse disorder have killed off thousands more hives. Honeybees pollinate 80 percent of the fruits and vegetables we eat, and many wild species essential to ecosystems. In China, hive collapse has forced farmers to start pollinating fruit trees by hand with brushes.

Now, researchers at Washington State University think they’ve figured out the major causes of colony collapse disorder. One problem is a pathogen called Nosema cerana, which causes an immune-deficiency disorder in bees, making them more vulnerable to infections, parasites and pesticides. Another is that beekeepers use the same honeycombs for many years, allowing high levels of pesticide residue to build up in the wax. 

Beekeepers are  taking action, reports Canada’s

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Population: 6.9 billion and counting

Marty Durlin | Jul 29, 2009 06:30 AM

Last week New York Times reporter Andrew C. Revkin -- one of few U.S. journalists following the population issue -- wrote a short blog about China's recent about-face on population policy. After decades of mandating a one-child limit, China is now urging "eligible" couples (those who are only children themselves)  to have a second baby. The reason? At the current birth rate, China will have more than 438 million people over 60 by 2050 -- and only 1.6 working-age adults to support each one. (That's compared with 7.7 in 1975.) The easing of the one-child policy is beginning in Shanghai, China's financial hub, where the over-60 cohort already comprises more than 20 percent of the population. 

Revkin also noted that the Indian state of Kerala is using a "three Es policy -- education, employment, equality" to quell the rising population -- avoiding the "family planning camps" which in the past used forced sterilization to keep the fertility rate down.

Both China and India have used draconian measures to control population -- while in the U.S. we have employ no measures at all, and in fact, rarely discuss it.  Like China, the U.S. also has a looming problem supporting its older generation: social security benefits will begin to outstrip Social Security tax revenues in about eight years, and the trust fund will be depleted by 2041 unless the formula is changed. And as our most populous state -- California, with 12 percent of the total U.S. population -- founders under the burden of its budgetary responsibilities, maybe it's time for the U.S. to educate its citizens on the perils of overpopulation.

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Princes and paupers

Cally Carswell | Jul 29, 2009 05:05 AM

California state parks learned their fate yesterday when the Governator finally got around to signing the state budget. He didn’t wield quite the large knife he’d (creepily) threatened to, cutting only $14.2 million from the parks’ budget—drastically less than the $143 million he’d earlier proposed.

Here’s what Elizabeth Goldstein of the California State Parks Foundations says Californians can look forward to in their newly shuttered parks, as told to the Thin Green Line:

Access to the parks would be illegal, though not impossible in most cases, so the likely result, she said, would be lots of litter, some marijuana grow operations, increased risk of wildfires and maybe even some meth labs.

While the meth heads are setting up shop in state parks, California’s national forests will be sitting pretty—at least comparatively speaking. They’re raking in $76.7 million in stimulus funding from the Forest Service for much needed trail and building maintenance, the most any state received.  


Social justice hits the road

Ariana Brocious | Jul 28, 2009 09:53 AM

For three months, Chloe Noble and Jill Hardman have been living out of backpacks and sleeping on the streets of Seattle, Portland and San Francisco. They walk miles every day, and depend on the kindness of strangers. These women aren’t actually homeless — but they very well could be.

Noble and Hardman are the creators of Homeless Youth Pride Walk 2009, a 6,000-mile trek across the country to raise awareness and support for the large population of homeless youth that is lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. Between 20 to 40 percent of  homeless youth are LGBT, which the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force terms an “epidemic” in their 2006 report.

The two women are Salt Lake City residents who grew up in Mormon families — experiencing the LGBT discrimination of the LDS church firsthand (something HCN covered last fall), which hasn’t subsided given the outrage over the “kiss-in” protest last week. Hardman has never been homeless, but Noble, 37, lived on the streets for a decade after leaving home when she was 20.

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Honoring the forgotten

Arla Shephard | Jul 28, 2009 07:34 AM

Today the remains of three African-American soldiers will be buried at Santa Fe National Cemetery, more than 130 years after their deaths.

Army Pvts. David Ford, Levi Morris and Thomas Smith were among the famous “Buffalo Soldiers,” African-American men who served in the military during the Civil War and later guarded the farthest reaches of the West. Their remains, along with more than 60 other sets, were exhumed from New Mexico’s Fort Craig cemetery, after the Bureau of Reclamation discovered extensive looting there in 2007.

The servicemen will receive full military honors at their ceremony, along with new headstones and forensic sketches of what they looked like in life displayed next to their caskets. Finding and honoring them is admirable, especially given how little the general public remembers the Buffalo Soldiers (outside of some very catchy Bob Marley lyrics). So here’s a little history lesson for you:  

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