On the night of April 10, 165 million tons of rock -- equivalent in volume to 735,000 school buses -- ripped down the northeast face of Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon mine near Salt Lake City, damaging giant shoveling machines, haul trucks and other mining equipment. The cascade of earth swept away roads and left buildings hanging over a gaping new cliff. But nobody was killed, or even injured, because Kennecott knew the landslide was coming.
Mine landslides have long been a danger, but predicting them, it turns out, is a fairly recent achievement. New monitoring technologies developed in recent years have allowed mine companies like Kennecott to quickly and reliably detect small slope movements -- fractions of an inch -- that signal imminent danger.
In 2005, smog levels in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin surprised even the scientists who study one of smog’s primary components, ground level ozone. Ground level ozone is typically a summertime air pollution problem in traffic-ridden urban areas, like L.A., Salt Lake City and Denver. But in sparsely populated Sublette County, ozone that winter was nearly 25 percent above what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for human health. Since ozone levels there exceed federal standards, the EPA declared Sublette County a “nonattainment zone” for ozone which put the eye of the feds on the area and can bring stricter regulation.
Instead of hoards of traffic, Sublette County has oil and gas drilling. The gas itself releases volatile organic compounds and the diesel engines that run gas compressors emit nitrogen oxides—both of the pollutants form ozone when sunlight hits them. Along with Utah’s Uintah Basin it’s one of only two places known to have wintertime, instead of summer, spikes in ozone. Scientists have been working to untangle why these communities suffer from poor winter air quality, while other oil and gas regions may not. Until recently, there wasn’t even basic data on ozone levels in the two rural areas, and as Cally Carswell reported in her 2012 HCN story on the phenomenon, “Many years into a region-wide drilling boom, this points to an uneasy reality: Energy development has significantly outpaced our grasp of its effects on the environment and public health.”
But now, scientists are starting to answer the question of how it affects public health. The Wyoming Department of Health recently released a study linking elevated ozone levels in Sublette County to an increase in visits to local health clinic for problems like, asthma, bronchitis or respiratory infections. They funded the study after locals approached them with concern about air pollution, and found that for every 10 parts per billion increase in ground level ozone there was a three percent increase in the health clinic visits for respiratory problems (for reference, the EPA’s standard is 75 parts per billion).
Ever since the Bureau of Land Management announced more than a year ago that some 30,000 acres surrounding the towns of Colorado's North Fork Valley like a necklace had been nominated for oil and gas development, wild rumors have flown about who did the nominating. (Nominating leases prompts the BLM to review whether the parcels are suitable for development and, usually, put them up for auction.) No small number of folks here in HCN's home base suspected Bill Koch, who owns a coal mine up-valley as well as a small gas company, and has become an object of scorn for many locals for attempting to swap some land with the feds that would make his ranch more private but eliminate one public access point to the Ragged Mountains. He did it out of spite, some griped, since local opposition has so far thwarted his land swap. At least one person got it in their head that one of the local environmental groups that has led the fight against the leases had, in fact, nominated them in a ploy to boost fundraising.
It started to seem like no conspiracy theory was too hair-brained to be swapped in street-corner conversation. These rumors flourished, in part, because the BLM has since 1995 kept the identity of nominators under wraps until after lease auctions. The logic behind the policy was that by the time a company nominates a lease, they've spent a lot of time and money investigating its geology and commercial potential. Their knowledge of that lease's value is proprietary information, which is exempt from public disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. If their identity is released, that might tip off competitors, putting the nominator at a disadvantage. The agency also theorized that the policy would foster competition by keeping companies in the dark about others' intentions, preventing them from colluding before the sale to suppress auction prices. (It looks like this theory didn't hold up in practice.)
Citizens for a Healthy Community (CHC), a Paonia, Colo.-based environmental group whose raison d'etre is fighting the North Fork leases, believed the public had a right to know who wanted to drill in its backyard, and sued the BLM when it turned down a Freedom of Information Act request to disclose the nominators. They won. In February, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Matsch ruled that BLM's practice of keeping nominators' names confidential to protect their competitive interests "runs directly contrary to the purpose of the public sale process," which is to earn the public a good price for its minerals. This week, the nominators' identities were revealed.
It turned out to be kind of a let down: Most of the parcels were nominated by Baseline Minerals, a "lease broker," or oil and gas middleman, whose clients -- who would do the actual drilling -- are still unknown.
“We’re geniuses!” bellowed my good friend, G, as we embarked on a rafting tour of the San Juan River in southeastern Utah. The temperature was nearing 80 under a cloudless sky, only a slight breeze blew upriver and the water was unusually clear. The ranger had just told us we’d have the place pretty much to ourselves: Several other parties had cancelled due to low water and a storm forecast for the middle of the week. We, however, knew better. Weather forecasts more than 24-hours out are almost always wrong, and the stream gauge was probably broken. There would be plenty of current to carry us along on a seven-day tour of sandy beach camps and Edenesque side canyons. Geniuses, indeed.
That was Saturday. By Monday, our confidence in our cleverness had waned. We awoke to a stiff up-river wind and an apocalyptic sepia-toned sky. After a Saharan-style dust storm added a distinct crunch to our lunch, one of four adults (outnumbered by seven minors -- definitely not genius and a sure set up for a Lord of the Flies situation) was blown off her boat into the river. The same wind pushed my boat and me into a cliff, then upriver 50 yards. Then the icy rain came, along with the concession that, yes, weather forecasters do know what they’re talking about. We had to stop and build a fire under a ledge to keep hypothermia at bay, at which point J, G’s young son, observed: “We are not geniuses.”
The water level was the clincher. On the day we put in, the river was running at about 550 cubic feet per second in Bluff, Utah, and would drop below 500 during the trip, according to USGS data. That’s about one-fourth of the median flow for this time of year, and about equal to the monthly mean in April 2002, a notoriously dry year.
I didn’t need to raft the San Juan to know we’re in the grip of what’s shaping up to be another bad water year, but 83 miles in the slow-moving current, the thick dust blowing into the air and each of those rocks that hung up my boat really drove it home. It was drought incarnate, confirming the grim stats that have been pouring in from around the Southwest.
Here’s part of the reason* the water was so low, in graphic detail: There’s just not enough snowmelt to fill the rivers.
The good news is that this year’s snowpack in the Four Corners area, after running neck-and-neck with last year, has pulled ahead thanks to some cold temperatures and the very storm that battered us on the river. The bad news is that it will take a major shift in weather patterns to bring snowpack and river levels up to anywhere near average.
Then there’s all the dust, the cause of the ominous orange skies. Such dust storms are not uncommon around here. Spring winds scour soils from the Four Corners lowlands, lift them up into the air, and send them into the San Juan Mountains, where they fall out with snow and rain (nice NASA image of the most recent dust storm). We call these events San Juaners. Our San Juan River dust storm became a San Juan Mountain mud storm a few hours later. In Durango, cars and windows were coated with a gritty red slime (another San Juaner followed just a week later, whipping up a wildfire along the San Juan near Farmington, NM, and causing a fatal car crash nearby), and the mountain snow took on a red-brown hue. Such dust storms occur every year, but drought exacerbates them. And they exacerbate the drought, too: The dust causes snow to absorb rather than reflect sunlight, thereby resulting in faster snowmelt and an earlier end to the spring runoff.
The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, based in Silverton, Colo., has been investigating the dust events for several years, and deemed the April 8-9 dust event the worst they’ve seen since at least 2009. It was the sixth dust event of the season. Number seven began on April 14 and was still gusting and dusting 36 hours later.
And what happens up high will be reflected down low in a couple of months. Unless the current storms keep pounding the high country for weeks, we can expect Lake Powell -- the barometer for precipitation health of a good portion of the West -- to continue to drop. The water level there is starting the runoff season a whopping 40 feet below last year, and the April 1 forecast for the streams that fill the lake was quite grim. On the other side of the Divide, things are even worse. John Fleck, at the Albuquerque Journal, reported early this month that the Rio Grande is likely facing its worst runoff year ever.
As the recent storms indicate, however, snowfall season’s not over yet, and dire forecasts could be proven wrong. We may be redeemed, yet. On day six on the river, the winds died and the air warmed enough to pacify the children and avert a mutiny. The snow that had fallen in the hills to the north and east melted. The river returned to its usual brown hue and the water rose up to 1,000 cfs, just enough to get us over most of the silt bars that have developed on the last runnable stretch of the river before Lake Powell. Finally, I could rest my weary shoulders, lay back, look up at rock and sky and listen to the water lapping against the boat and geese honking in the distance. As I watched a raven ride a thermal inches away from a sandstone cliff, hundreds of feet above, I thought: We are geniuses, after all.
*Because a good portion of the San Juan’s flow is regulated by Navajo Dam, far upstream, streamflow figures are not a direct representation of the water situation in the basin.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor for High Country News. His Twitter handle is @jonnypeace.
A charred forest is an eerie place, even years after a wildfire. I discovered this last summer while backpacking through Northern California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park. Dead trunks creaked as they swayed in the wind, their branches clacking against each other like bones. We moved quickly, as if walking past an avalanche-prone slope.
Had we stopped longer to listen, we might have heard evidence that not everyone thinks dead forests are so creepy. The black-backed woodpecker seeks out burned coniferous forests in northern North America, following wood-boring beetles that flock to the buffet of defenseless trees. The birds, who blend in perfectly with blackened bark, dine on the bugs for about a decade, then leave for a newly-burned area as beetle populations decline. But fire suppression, salvage logging and thinning have made the woodpecker’s habitat increasingly rare, and now the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is considering whether to list two distinct populations of the bird as threatened or endangered.
Last May, four conservation groups petitioned USFWS to consider a possible listing. They argued that decades of federal fire policy had left black-backed woodpeckers in bad shape: fewer than 1,000 pairs in Oregon and California, and only 400 pairs in the Black Hills (a third population in the Northern Rockies is doing better).
Monday was Sally Jewell's first day on the job as the nation's new Secretary of Interior. She replaces Ken Salazar, Obama's first-term choice.
The second woman ever to serve as the head of Interior (Gale Norton, considered a nemesis of conservationists, was the first), Jewell is now in charge of 70,000 employees and 500 million acres of public land (and another billion offshore) and all the attendant uses and conflicts, from oil and gas development to solar and wind installations to recreation and grazing.
On her first day in the office, according to the White House, Jewell had meetings on "energy development, conservation, Indian Affairs and youth engagement." And longer-term, she's got a lot on her plate already: the BLM's new proposal for tightening regulations on fracking and horizontal drilling on public lands has been met with accusations of industry pandering (Greenwire subscription required). She's gotten letters from green groups asking her to push through a conservation plan for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and to put a moratorium on coal mining in Wyoming's Powder River Basin. The final decision about building a road through Alaska's Izembek National Wildlife Refuge will be hers to make (Alaskan Sen. Lisa Murkowski wants the road and is the top Republican on the Interior, Environment and Related Agencies Appropriations Subcommittee that funds Jewell's agency). And she'll be overseeing the controversial decision to possibly list the sage grouse as endangered (which, of course, could have major impacts on energy development in the West).
A dusting of new snow here in Paonia, Colo., HCN’s home base, is making it difficult to imagine the fast-approaching fire season. But it won't be long before the walkie-talkies crackle to life and giant tanker aircraft are dusting the mountains with red fire-suppressant.
Which fires will the Forest Service fight? This spring, the agency re-instated its so-called "let burn" policy, meaning it will allow some fires -- or parts of fires -- to run their natural course. Agency jargon can make it difficult to understand which fires these are. But, as I found out from talking to Tim Sexton, a researcher at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, it's not impossible to get a basic understanding of the criteria that the Forest Service will use this summer to decide how to fight fire. Here they are, in order of priority.
Since 2006, a powdery white fungus has killed at least five and half million bats that would otherwise be eating insects, pollinating flowers and hanging out in caves.
But as far as scientists know, the disease called white-nose syndrome, which grows on bat snouts and wings, hasn’t infected a single bat in the Western United States. Still, it’s been steadily spreading from where it was first recorded in New York, with confirmed cases of the devastating fungus running south to North Carolina and Alabama and west into Missouri.
In 2010, when the disease first jumped the Mississippi, the Forest Service kept Western caves open, but asked cavers to disinfect their equipment. But that summer, the agency closed all caves and abandoned mines in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota and Kansas, to keep away fungal spores that hitch rides on spelunker’s boots or caving equipment. The emergency closure was done without public input, and caused outcry from the caving community
But often, it was a closure in name only. The original order didn’t physically close caves; it left construction of actual gates on caves up to local managers, according to Richard Truex, a Forest Service wildlife ecologist. That means that knowledgeable, responsible spelunkers were likely staying away, leaving caves more vulnerable to bad actors, vandalism and possibly errant fungal spores.
Recognizing that the organized caving community “can and should be an ally in managing this disease,” as Truex put it, the Forest Service just ended their blanket cave closure after taking public comment as part of a long-term planning process for white-nose syndrome.
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Here at High Country News, we’ve been reading and writing a lot about how the federal funding cuts from sequestration will hit home in the West. But as usual, it takes a personal experience to make things real. For me, it came while sitting on a pit toilet at a Bureau of Land Management trailhead outside Fruita, Colo., this past weekend. Taped to the inside door was a sign informing us that, due to budget and staffing cutbacks, the BLM would not be servicing restrooms as often. I looked around: the bathroom still seemed pretty clean, but I made a mental note to bring my own toilet paper supply in the future to keep austerity from interfering with my ability to wipe.
All this sequestration talk has me waxing nostalgic for the days when the federal government funded more than just essential programs and services (although ). It even used to fund creativity. One long-lost program that comes to mind from the 1970s is Documerica, the newly-formed Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt to build support for its mission and document environmental issues around the country.
The project was the brainchild of Gifford Hampshire, a former National Geographic photo editor who ended up in public affairs at the EPA. Hampshire had been deeply inspired by the work of photographers working for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, and thought the EPA could do for the environment what the FSA had done for rural poverty and agriculture. He successfully lobbied then-EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus to let him hire a cadre of freelance photojournalists to establish baseline documentation of environmental problems and successes in America in 1972. But Hampshire ultimately asked them to think bigger than that. As the guidelines to photographers read: “Look for pictures wherever you are, for whatever purpose. Where you see people, there's an environmental element to which they are connected. The great Documerica pictures will show the connection and what it means.”Read More ...
Last winter, I reported on the tangle of cultural and conservation challenges surrounding western Washington’s Port Gamble Bay, documenting how the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is in the final stages of a 160-year-long faceoff with Pope Resources. Pope is the corporate stepchild of a logging company that built a mill town called Port Gamble in the mid-19th century on a site that S’Klallam oral histories claim as an ancestral tribal village. Over time, the S’Klallam settled onto lands directly across the bay from the mill town, where they now have their reservation.
Pope still holds 6,700 acres of land on the surrounding Kitsap Peninsula, including bay shorelines and forests. Ready to move its operations elsewhere, it gave community conservation partners -- a coalition called the Kitsap Forest & Bay Project made up of state and local conservation groups, county interests, and the S’Klallam and the Suquamish tribes -- until this March to show they could buy the land, which is used by local hikers and which Pope has suggested it could subdivide for new homes.
Now, it appears the conservation effort is advancing. At the end of March, the partners announced they had met conditions to extend the purchase agreement with Pope and would keep fundraising through March 2014. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe is also in early discussions with Pope about directly buying 1,780 acres adjacent to its reservation. Still, a hiccup in a plan to clean up Pope’s historic mill pollution in the bay may have cost the Forest & Bay Project some major funds.