The Bush administration is attempting yet another under-the-radar rules change on its way out the door (watchdog Propublica keeps a complete list of other such changes). This time it's wresting away Western states' abilities to manage their bighorn sheep populations. Wildlife management has historically been the responsibility of state wildlife agencies and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Now, the Department of Agriculture wants jurisdiction over bighorn sheep transplants on public land.
Because wild bighorns tend to catch deadly diseases from domestic sheep, there have been major legal battles over allowing sheep producers to graze their flocks in bighorn territory (see our story Sheep v. Sheep).
The secret agreement, which was penned in September and revealed this week, would require, among other things, that wild bighorns be tested for diseases by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service before they're released on national forests, and that the Forest Service approve such releases.
Bighorn advocates are outraged, saying that the move benefits sheep ranchers at the expense of wild sheep, and undermines state authority over wildlife.
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Here's one more addition to the list of Western industries being affected by the economic downturn: coal. Peabody Energy -- the world's biggest coal company, made famous as the villain in the John Prine song "Paradise" -- has announced that it is freezing all hiring at its three Wyoming coal mines. The company said in an letter to its employees that it plans to reevaluate all its capital projects and defer or cancel many of them.
And that's a real shame, because a job in coal mining offers the opportunity to swing a pick alongside some smokingly hot -- and scantily dressed -- co-workers.That, at least, seems to be the take-away message of this GE ad promoting clean coal.
The classic coal-mining song "Sixteen Tons" is playing in the background, but viewers of the ad never get to hear the chorus, which goes like this: "You haul sixteen tons, and what do you get? / You get another day older and deeper in debt." That's probably because the ad's producers realized that the chorus is no longer accurate. Nowadays you haul sixteen tons and what do you get? You get really, really, ridiculously good-looking.
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When I was in high school, my history teacher assigned each member of my class to interview someone who had lived through the Great Depression to better understand how life had changed during that time. I chose to interview my grandmother, who was 20 in 1929 when the stock market crashed.
I anticipated tales of woe and of desperation and Grapes of Wrath-like suffering. Instead, I got this: Things really didn’t change much around here. We hardly noticed, I guess.
It didn’t provide the dramatic story I had hoped to take back to my classmates. But it did provide a valuable lesson.
Even though the West was a key battleground in the 2008 presidential election, our issues -- public lands, water, endangered species, etc. -- didn't get a lot of attention from either candidate.
And for the past three months, the economy has dominated the news. But our issues do appear in this interesting piece by Les Blumenthal of McClatchy Newspapers.
It starts like this:
Here's the question: What does a community organizer from Chicago who spent four years in the Senate before being elected president know about spotted owls, endangered salmon, mountain bark beetles, Western water rights, old-growth forests and the maintenance backlog in the national parks?
The answer: Probably not much.
President-elect Barack Obama has offered only scattered clues as to where he stands on the most pressing public lands and endangered species issues.
And you can read the rest of it here.
We have the technology to generate electricity from renewable resources, but most of our machines, from blow driers to conveyor belts, continue to run on coal. That’s because it is easier to create renewable energy than to transport it. Rigging a new power line from, say, a remote Nevada wind farm to a population center like Las Vegas would be a logistical nightmare. Hundreds of landowners would need convincing and perhaps a few environmental groups as well. On top of all this, the existing century-old power grid is already strained to capacity.
Or at least it was until recently. According to The Wall Street Journal, American energy consumption has unexpectedly dropped. Xcel Energy Inc., which provides power to Colorado among other states, reported that home-energy use fell this fall, for the first time in 40 years. Other large utilities report similar drops. One might blame the grim economy or the vagaries of the weather, but some analysts say the plunge is a permanent trend. Traditional power companies are none too pleased about this turn of events. But there might finally be a little breathing room in those transmission lines for the renewable powers that be.
As president-elect Barack Obama goes about picking a cabinet, we hear a lot about a book of popular history that was published three years ago: Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.
Some parallels seem almost eerie. Abraham Lincoln's main rival for the Republican nomination in 1860 was William M. Seward, a senator from New York, and Lincoln chose him for secretary of state. Barack Obama's main rival for the Democratic nomination in 2008 was Hillary R. Clinton, a senator from New York, and Obama has chosen her for secretary of state.
The presidential cabinet consists of the appointed heads of various executive departments, like State, Treasury, and Defense.
Because Lincoln's official staff consisted of just two clerks, the president had to rely on his cabinet for many functions that are now performed by the 1,800 employees of the Executive Office of the President -- policy development, budget preparation, appointment vetting, legal counsel, etc.
What hasn't changed since Lincoln's day is the political demand that the cabinet be somewhat representative of the country. Nowadays, presidential appointments are expected to reflect gender and ethnic diversity; while selecting a cabinet 16 years ago, Bill Clinton complained about who seemed to be pushing him toward quotas in his cabinet appointments.
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The feature story in the November 10th edition of HCN – Still Howling Wolf – asked: Will Westerners finally learn to live with Canis lupus? The article looks for the answer in the attitudes of a variety of Northern Rockies residents in light of a lawsuit that returned the gray wolf to federal Endangered Species Act protection and nixed state management plans in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. And while in the short term this has resulted in expressions of chagrin and hostility by trophy hunting guides and some ranchers, a careful reading of the story indicates that the wolves – if not the people whose lawsuit returned them to ESA protection - have achieved grudging acceptance by at least some of the very people who feel that wolves have negatively impacted their livelihoods.
Their reception in Oregon and Washington may not be as controversial as it has been in the Northern Rockies. The fact that wolves are recolonizing these states through natural migration and not human intervention may be one factor mitigating negative reactions. In addition, Oregon and Washington have been proactive; Oregon completed its wolf management plan in 2005 and Washington’s plan should be in place before 2010.
Another difference is that the Canis lupus is listed in these states under state endangered species laws which require protection, recovery goals and management plans.
The gray wolf has been gone so long from California that the species is not even included on The Fish & Game Department’s species lists. But that does not mean that wolves are not controversial there. Backed by scientific studies which found ample habitat and prey base, Defenders of Wildlife petitioned the federal government in 2002 to designate 16 million acres of national forests and parks in Northern California and southern Oregon as suitable wolf habitat for study and management purposes. The studies suggest the area could support as many as 500 gray wolves.
But Southern Oregon and Northern California - the Klamath Mountains (which I’ve called home since 1975), the Modoc Plateau, Southern Cascades and Warner Mountains – is a stronghold for the anti-environmental, county supremacy and property rights movements. Defenders 2002 call was not received well here and led to renewed calls for formation of the State of Jefferson as, among other things, a refuge for Old West style wolf management also known as “shoot and shovel”.
The trajectory of wolf management in the Northern Rockies, however, gives hope that even in remote Northern California and Southern Oregon Canis lupus may eventually gain acceptance - if only grudgingly - by ranchers and hunting guides. But the path to that eventuality may be as acrimonious and tortuous as it has been in the Northern Rockies.
Accelerating oil shale development across 2 million acres, okaying an auction for gas drilling by three national parks, weakening endangered species protection, allowing more mining waste in rivers and streams, and exempting factory farms from air pollution reporting...just a few of the 53 "midnight regulations" President George W. Bush has launched in the past three weeks -- many of them aimed at the West.
While with one hand he welcomes the Obamas to the White House in an oh-so-friendly and collegial manner, with the other Bush is rushing his anti-environmental rules so that the President-elect can't easily overturn them when he takes over in January.
For example, in July the administration proposed rules for leasing millions of acres of public land in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming for oil shale development, even though the process would take unknown amounts of power and water, and create significant global warming emissions and toxic waste. The rules were finalized this week.
The Natural Resources Defense Council said oil shale production is expected to emit four times more global warming pollution than production of conventional gasoline -- making it the dirtiest fuel on the planet.
Quoted in the LA Times, Colorado senator Ken Salazar said Bush had "fallen into the trap of allowing political timelines to trump sound policy."
Officials went through 250,000 public comments on Bush's proposal to exempt federal projects from provisions of the Endangered Species Act in less than a week. "They've clearly made a predetermined decision to issue it no matter what the public comments say," said NRDC director Andrew Wetzler.
And this is just the beginning. He still has 60 days left.
"The Bush administration is trying to prevent Obama from doing to it what it did to Clinton," said Matt Madia, an analyst for OMB Watch, a Washington-based watchdog group.
The Southern Utes mean business. Their investment company, the Southern Ute Growth Fund, manages more than $1 billion in assets, including a set of real estate development companies and an oil and gas drilling business. Just this week, they opened a new high-end casino on their reservation south of Durango, Colorado.
But the Utes are now trying to put their Midas touch to work in a less conventional line of business: producing biofuels from algae. The idea is to grow algae that synthesize a lot of fat -- as opposed to more normal strains of algae that synthesize a lot of protein and starch -- in giant tanks, then refine that fat into usable fuel, much as soybean and other vegetable oils are refined into biodiesel.
The process is in some ways just a speeding-up of the natural process through which the earth's oil and gas reserves were formed in the first place. It's a process that could theoretically produce a carbon-neutral fuel, since all carbon released when the fuel is burned would have been taken from the atmosphere by the growing algae. In its current incarnation, though, the process requires the injection of carbon dioxide from an outside source -- in this case natural gas wells -- in order to make the algae grow more quickly. This requirement probably negates most of the fuel's climate benefits.
The Utes are going to start with a five-acre algae plot. That may not sound like much, but an algae farm can produce something on the order of 3,000 gallons of fuel per acre, which is pretty impressive when compared to the alternative, a soy farm, which can produce 50-70 gallons per acre. And algae farms may be particularly suited to the Southwest, given that they require a lot of sunlight and can use brackish or otherwise contaminated water that couldn't be used for drinking or irrigating conventional crops. At any rate, they would certainly make for interesting tourist attractions. "Welcome to the Four Corners," the signs could say. "Have you seen our slime?"
Last weekend, the family and I drove over to Grand Junction, Colo., about an hour away from here, to run some errands. GJ, as we call it, is the metropolitan and service center of Colorado's Western Slope. In other words, it's awash with malls, big boxes, strip malls and fast food chains, not to mention the biggest airport and hospital around.
GJ is also a gasfield town. And for the last year or so, that's helped the city prosper while the rest of the nation's economy slides downward: Unemployment is way below the national average, home prices continue to stay high, and the wages are good. This spring, Burger King became famous for advertising a $300 signing bonus to lure burger-flippers. HCN covered the thriving gasfield economy in its "Boom Boom" cover story.
But now, natural gas prices are collapsing, dropping more than 20 percent in recent months. Drilling is declining nationwide, and there are signs the slump will hit Colorado's gasfields. Chevron just announced that it will slow its pace of development in Western Colorado, as have Williams Production and Bill Barrett Corp. Even a few less drill rigs could have a big impact, since each employs about 35 highly paid workers.
This boom has been so big, though, that a little dip will, by no means, equal a bust. Last month, the Colorado Oil and Gas Commission set a record for the number of drilling permits issued, and it's already issued 6,739 permits statewide -- already breaking last year's record.
That's enough, I guess, to give shoppers in Grand Junction confidence. As we drove into town on the grand new bypass "parkway," I fully expected to see ghostly malls and empty shops. Instead, we had a tough time finding a parking spot. The teeny-bop accessory store, Claires, had a line out the door. And people were opening up their wallets left and right. But perhaps the busiest place we saw was Victoria's Secret, where women lined up several deep at the two cash registers.
Bustiers, apparently, don't lose their appeal, even with when a bust looms on the horizon.