Last Friday morning, as a cold sun struggled to rise above the eastern wall of the San Luis Valley – the 125-mile-long, 7,000-foot-high, Oklahoma-flat basin that lies between the San Juans and the Sange de Cristos in southern Colorado – a throng of birdwatchers climbed aboard a yellow school bus to observe one of the greatest migrations in the West.
The occasion was the arrival of sandhill cranes, majestic gray birds graced with red-feathered facemasks and six-foot wingspans. Around 20,000 sandhills pass through the San Luis Valley every year on their way from wintering grounds in New Mexico to summer homes in Idaho and Yellowstone. While that population pales in comparison to the half-million cranes that annually flock to Nebraska’s Platte River, 20,000 giant birds are nothing to sneeze at – especially in a world losing its migrations to habitat destruction and fragmentation.
Every year, the sandhills’ return catalyze another movement of biomass: Thousands of humans, from as far as Japan and Australia, congregate in the town of Monte Vista (population: 4,400) for the Monte Vista Crane Festival. Perhaps because it was the festival’s first day, no one on the bus last Friday was from Japan – the most exotic place of origin was Boulder. Still, these were craning veterans; war stories of migrations come and gone trickled up the aisle. Refuge manager Suzanne Beauchaine, blond curls popping from beneath a brown baseball hat, spoke into a microphone at the front of the bus. “They showed up three weeks ago en masse,” she said as we hung a wide left at Dairy Queen and headed for the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. “Maybe it was the mild winter, but it’s been great so far this spring.” An excited shiver went through the bus.
With years of experience bracing for wildfire along Colorado’s Front Range, it’s no surprise that Boulder County is launching a new program – Wildfire Partners – that may mean the start of a paradigm shift in wildfire mitigation.
“The old approach was firefighters were responsible for saving homes from wildfire,” said Jim Webster, Wildfire Partners’ program manager. “The new approach, the new emphasis, is shifting responsibility to homeowners. This program empowers homeowners to be able to take that personal responsibility.”
Wildfire Partners is a new voluntary program to help homeowners in Boulder County prepare for wildfire. It starts with an on-site expert assessment of residents' properties, leading to specific mitigation recommendations – which could include anything from removing whole trees to cleaning dried leaves from gutters. The program offers financial incentives to defray initial mitigation costs – including at least $300 in rebates – and other benefits, such as free telephone access to trained advisors. It also includes a free follow-up inspection, and a Wildfire Partners certificate for homeowners who successfully complete the mitigation specifically recommended for their home.
The program boasts a wide range of public and private sector collaboration, including representatives of the insurance industry. Insurers will be watching how the new program proceeds, in order to determine whether a Wildfire Partners certificate could make a property more insurable. Of the 445 residents who applied, 400 will be officially accepted into the program next week. Participants must be homeowners in unincorporated Boulder County, or nearby mountain towns of Nederland, Jamestown or Lyons; they must also agree to home inspections and prove a long-term commitment to the program.
Giving individual attention to the priorities of each homeowner and each neighborhood is key to forging community buy-in for new mitigation plans, says Molly Mowery, founder of Colorado-based consulting firm Wildfire Planning International and the former manager of a National Fire Protection Association program that helps communities across the U.S. take responsibility for their fire risk. Mowery is one of the eight new wildfire mitigation specialists contracted by Wildfire Partners.
“The biggest catch is how to motivate people to work together,” Mowery said. “We need to get everyone on the same page enough so that you can make community-wide decisions.”
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During the suddenly rainy last week in February, the Los Angeles City Council voted to ban fracking within city limits. It might have seemed like an academic exercise, just as it did a few years ago, when the five-person city council of Beverly Hills, Calif., voted four to one to quash the city’s oil industry altogether. Beverly Hills, after all, is the place Jed Clampett went to squander the profits from his Tennessee petroleum, not to look for more. Who drills for oil in Los Angeles?
As it turns out, among the photographs that line the walls at City Hall, says David Graham-Caso, environmental advisor to Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, “it’s hard to find one that doesn’t have oil derricks in it.” Both Beverly Hills and the City of Los Angeles were, quite literally, built on oil, in some places virtually on top of the pits of viscous bitumen that during the Pleistocene ensnared mastadons, llamas and mammoths along with the dire wolves who came to feed on their misery. When you cross the grounds at Los Angeles’s Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits, which houses those doomed animals' fossils, you have to watch your step: Many a shoe has been ruined by an incautious plunge into an asphalt seep.
Actual oil operations are harder to find these days, which doesn’t mean they’re not there: Nearly 2,000 wells operated by more than a dozen companies have been hidden behind verdant hedges and ivy-covered walls. The La Brea Tar Pits lie at the southern edge of the Salt Lake Oil Field, where there’s still an active drilling operation sandwiched between a hospital and a shopping mall. Salt Lake abuts the Beverly Hills Oil Field, where Venoco, Inc. will operate a drilling operation on the campus of Beverly Hills High School until that city's ban takes hold in 2017. The Beverly field connects with the Cheviot Hills Oil Field, where the Hillcrest Beverly Oil Company operates a drilling site hidden inside an expansive public park that includes dog-training grounds and an archery range, plus 18 holes of golf.
Farther south, the country’s largest urban oil field, Inglewood, runs the length of an open-space preserve, bounded on the other side by middle-class homes. Producing more than three million barrels of oil every year, the Inglewood field in 2009 ranked 44th among the top 100 most productive wells in the country.
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The German philosopher with the impressively bushy mustache, Friedrich Nietzsche (below), said that all things are subject to interpretation. Had he lived in the Western U.S., he might have tacked on a clause: “Especially when it comes to water policy.”
A House bill to be voted on this week hammers his point home, with policy experts, conservation groups, the U.S. Forest Service and the ski industry each reaching different conclusions about the potential consequences of HR 3189, the “Water Rights Protection Act.” The bill seeks to prevent the federal government from imposing conditions on water rights owned by public land leaseholders. Opponents contend it would also weaken federal agencies’ ability to conserve stream flows for wildlife and recreation.
American Rivers, the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and some 60 other conservation groups say the bill's broad language opens the door for ranchers, ski resorts, municipalities and others who own water rights on public land to bypass federal environmental laws and deplete rivers. By shifting management from federal to state or local control, the bill could undermine stream flow requirements mandated by the Endangered Species Act, or Fish and Wildlife measures that help fish pass over dams, the groups say.
“This bill is written way too broadly,” says Matt Niemerski, Western water policy director for Washington, D.C.-based American Rivers. “It would undermine efforts to improve the health of rivers and public lands, and force federal agencies to put private water use ahead of public uses, like wildlife, fishing or boating.”
Introduced last year by Representatives Scott Tipton, R-Colo., and Jared Polis, D-Colo., the legislation sprung from a seemingly simple disagreement between the U.S. Forest Service and a handful of Colorado ski resorts. It’s since bloomed into a complex web of accusations and interpretations that’s entangled river advocates, the ski industry, the Interior Department and Big Ag.
In the handful of times I’ve visited Missoula, Montana, the grassy slopes of neighboring L- and M-emblazoned Mounts Jumbo and Sentinel have never looked any more threatening to me than the hogbacked foothills that yaw out of the ground west of Boulder, Colorado, my hometown. Velvety, yes. Curved like a set of relaxed shoulders, yes. Welcomingly draped in the low-angled sun of late afternoon, yes. Avalanche death zone? Not so much.
But on Feb. 28, an unusually intense blizzard snapped a wet quilt of deep snow over the valley, rumpling it into drifts and slabs with gusts up to 50 mph. Atop Jumbo and Sentinel, as well as the surrounding mountains, a weak crust of ice that unseasonably warm weather had glazed over the existing snowpack earlier in the week strained beneath the weight. When a group of snowboarders started down Jumbo closed since November to protect a wintering elk herd – around 4 p.m., that strain released spectacularly. A large slab avalanche ran from near the mountain’s peak almost 1,300 vertical feet into a neighborhood on the valley floor, obliterating a two-story house, damaging several other homes and vehicles, and worst of all, burying three people. Over 100 first responders, search and rescue personnel, neighbors and volunteers converged on the area with shovels and probes to find and dig them out. All were recovered alive; one ultimately died from her injuries.
It was, according to most accounts, a freak accident. No one can remember a big slide coming down that path in the 60 to 80 years homes have been at its base, says Assistant Director of Missoula Development Services Don Verrue. In fact, any in-town avalanche fatality is kind of a freak thing these days; most folks unlucky enough to get caught (and it’s been a bad winter, with 22 killed to date) are far in the backcountry, chasing turns on fresh powder. But it wasn’t always that way: Avalanches used to exact their biggest toll on unlucky travelers, miners and mountain communities, not on farflung skiers.
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When Russian troops invaded Crimea at the end of February, I couldn’t help but think back to a similar invasion 30 years ago, when Soviet paratroopers descended on the high school grounds in Calumet, Colo., their Kalashnikov’s blazing. They were joined by Nicaraguan and Cuban troops and aided by surgical nuke strikes on important cities. The only thing standing between the Commies and total domination of America’s Heartland was a group of high schoolers wielding vintage pistols, hunting rifles and bows and arrows.
The 1984 invasion was fictional, of course, imagined in the movie Red Dawn, a nationalistic orgy of explosions and bullet-riddled bodies. Still, it offers insights into Cold War culture, which endures in some quarters today. It’s not hard to imagine Sarah Palin pointing to Calumet (it was actually filmed in Las Vegas, N.M., with helicopter attacks in Abiquiu) as an example of the “real America,” with its letter-jacket-wearing, grenade-lobbing heroes. The invasion was made possible, we’re told, after “infiltrators came up illegal, from Mexico, Cubans mostly,” which is as good a reason as any to militarize the border. And an evil general finds patriots who might resist him via the sporting good store’s Form 4473, i.e. gun registration log. The lesson is clear: If you register your gun, Russians will hunt you down and detain you in a drive-in theater re-education camp, where you’ll be forced to watch Flashdance on infinite loop until you hate America.
But I digress. The Russians — much to the delight of Hollywood, which has had a hard time finding evil nations hellbent on world domination as of late — are back, they’re bad and they’re on the move. And once again, politicians and pundits are looking to rural Westerners to stop them. Instead of Calumet’s fictional football stars, though, this time it’s the residents and roughnecks of the gas patch who must come to the rescue.
Today’s Russia gets its strength not from its military might, but from its status as one of the world’s leading petro-states. It is Europe’s number one supplier of natural gas, and has already threatened to cut off Ukraine’s supply if the government doesn’t bend to Russia’s will. And it’s the world’s second largest oil exporter behind Saudi Arabia. That’s why global oil prices spiked in the days after the invasion of Crimea in much the same way as they do when conflict bubbles up in the Middle East.
Palin, it turns out, has eyes for Putin’s potency. Putin, said Palin recently on Fox News, “wrestles bears and drills for oil,” which stands in stark contrast to our president: a mom-jean-wearing, equivocating weakling, who is neither manly nor frack-happy enough to keep the nation secure, according to Palin.
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Coal boosters are fond of decrying the Obama Administration’s supposed “War on Coal” – and to be sure, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations limiting carbon emissions from power plants aren’t doing industry any favors. But if there truly exists a federal campaign to depose King Coal, somebody in the administration forgot to tell the Bureau of Land Management.
The BLM, of course, is the branch of the Department of the Interior that administers America’s public lands – and leases out the resources, including coal, that lie beneath the surface. Around a billion tons of coal are extracted from federal lands annually (98 percent of which comes from Western states), and leases on those tracts generate around $1 billion in public revenues. That might sound like a good deal for citizens, but according to two recent government investigations, BLM’s coal leasing program is actually riddled with flaws – nearly all of which benefit mining companies at taxpayers’ expense.
The first investigation, a February 4 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), depicts a BLM that has failed to fully consider the global market. The agency is supposed to account for export potential in setting the value of leases, which stands to reason: If companies are bringing in extra revenue by shipping resources overseas (and despite an incipient downturn in international markets, coal still fetches higher prices abroad than domestically), they should pay more for the opportunity. As the GAO report reveals, however, most BLM offices don’t consider exports when establishing the value of tracts.
Agency officials in many states, including Colorado, Utah and New Mexico, say that’s because exports are insignificant. But that’s a dubious claim: In 2013, for example, a full 50 percent of the coal removed from the West Elk Mine in Colorado’s North Fork Valley wound up being shipped abroad. Driven by Asian demand, coal exports have spiked in recent years; in 2012, 126 million tons, or around 12 percent of all coal produced in the U.S., left the country. (There are signs that the export explosion was predicated on a Chinese bubble that has since burst, forcing companies to scale back plans. But while exports have come down from their peak, they’re still very high by historic standards.)
"Taxpayers are losing out so that coal companies can reap a windfall and export that coal overseas where it is burned, worsening climate change,” said Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, who estimates the leasing program’s flaws have cost the public up to $200 million since 1990. “This is a bad deal all around.”
The failure to account for exports is symptomatic of a broader problem: the BLM’s propensity to sell leases for below fair market value, which is a violation of the federal Mineral Leasing Act. That issue is identified in another noteworthy report that appeared last month, a letter by the Interior Department’s Deputy Inspector General Mary Kendall to Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, a critic of the leasing program. Kendall’s letter, published February 6, describes how, in a sample of 15 sales, 2 in Colorado and 2 in New Mexico were sold at prices below market value. Between them, those four illegal leases cost the public around $2 million.
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Scattered throughout California’s public forests, authorities found 315,000 feet of plastic hose, 19,000 pounds of fertilizer and 180,000 pounds of trash on more than 300 illegal marijuana plantations in 2012 alone.
The tally comes from a new video by the U.S. Forest Service, describing the extensive and alarming damage caused by “trespass grows” hidden within the state’s public forested land. According to the video, the nation’s high demand for weed and paradoxical policies are exacting an “overwhelming” price on the environment, to the point where trespass grow investigations now comprise the bulk of Forest Service law enforcement work in the region, which includes California, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands.
But for a moment, put aside the fact that the crop in question is marijuana. For Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew and a devoted trespass grow cleanup partner in the Sierra region featured in the film, it might as well be illegal corn or strawberries.
“They’re killing our animals, trashing our forest and destroying our water supply,” Fleming said of the illegal growers. “It’s not so much a political issue as it is just trying to preserve public lands.”
Since 2008, Fleming has been organizing volunteer crews to work with the Forest Service and local law enforcement to clean up illegal grow sites. In 2013, the Forest Service and law enforcement officials removed nearly one million marijuana plants across hundreds of sites in California. “Sometimes it’s 10,000 plants (at a site). Sometimes it’s 50 plants,” he said. “That doesn’t matter so much for us. What matters is the infrastructure that’s left,” like makeshift reservoirs filled with diverted water from streams.
But for Fleming’s volunteer cleanup crews, the most remarkable thing is always “just how much trash – tons and tons of trash.” Among the waste typically hauled out: tents, sleeping bags, stoves, propane tanks, clothing, food packaging, even discarded weapons.
The thousands of pounds of herbicides and pesticides used by trespass growers pose another threat; most of them are applied in dangerously high doses, and some of them have even been banned in this country. California’s Eastern District U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner notes that his office is “increasingly charging marijuana growers not only with drug crimes, but with environmental crimes,” including dozens of indictments of trespass growers on public lands in 2012 and 2013.
Mourad Gabriel, wildlife pathologist and another trespass grow cleanup expert in the film, has been tracking the harmful effects of some of the toxins on Pacific fishers, small carnivorous mammals already being considered for the endangered species list now being pushed to the edge by pesticide poisoning.
And what about those hundreds of thousands of feet of hose? In a state plagued by drought, trespass growers illegally obstruct and divert water, sometimes from miles away. At about 6 gallons of water per plant per day over 150 watering days, a trespass grow site with 10,000 plants diverts 60,000 gallons of water per day, or 9 million gallons in a season. Herbicides and pesticides added to irrigation water seep into the ground and back into the local water supply, causing everything from algal blooms to total ecosystem destruction. In the coho salmon habitat of Humboldt County’s Mattole watershed, hundreds of trespass grow sites threaten to undo millions of dollars of habitat preservation efforts.
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Last summer, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time and, to be frank, was a little disgusted. Not by the park itself – the mountains were beautiful, even if the beetle-kill and $20 backcountry permits were disheartening – but by the salt-water-taffy-munching, airbrushed-tee-shirt-wearing crowd glutting the park’s gateway community of Estes Park, Colo., turning it into a kind of Jersey Shore of the Rockies.
Yet by the estimation of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our country’s “real treasures.” Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and 133 other little-visited parks? Not so much.
Coburn’s determination of what constitutes a “real treasure” stems from his calculation of how much federal money is spent on each park visitor, leading to the conclusion that less popular parks, like Yukon-Charley, drain taxpayer resources and siphon money away from pressing maintenance at world-famous destinations like the Grand Canyon. Coburn’s report of wasted money and “misplaced priorities” in the Park Service, released last fall, laid out a kind of national-park popularity contest in which the only good ones are those making the most money. It also outlined ways to increase profitability, such as by raising senior citizens’ fees.
Yet two reports released this week by the Interior Department suggest that all parks are economic drivers, even the less popular ones. The first report, a breakdown of the economic impact of national parks in 2012, found that visitor numbers were up by 3.9 million from the previous year, to a total of 282.8 million. Visitors spent $14.7 billion in gateway communities like Estes Park, and supported 243,000 jobs – mostly in hotels, restaurants and bars.
Perhaps more striking, though, is what happens without national parks, as illustrated by the second report’s evaluation of last fall’s government shutdown. Roughly 7.88 million people were turned away during the 16-day period when the country’s 401 parks and historical sites barricaded their entrances, resulting in a $414 million loss in tourist spending.
During a symposium on natural resources and sustainability last Friday at University of Colorado, Boulder, law professor Charles Wilkinson took a look at a group of panelists that included two former secretaries of Interior, and in a moment of appreciation for their service, declared them “Western royalty.”
No one said anything particularly groundbreaking at the event. There was talk about how there should be policies to incentivize mining, oil and gas companies to innovate toward environmentally sustainable strategies, for instance, but not a lot of new ideas about exactly how to do that. Still, it was far from boring. Here are three things I learned in 10 hours last Friday (plus some extra research):
The seed of what we now call sustainability started the Civil War, took root in 1905, and blossomed in 1982.
To help put the “sustainability challenge” in perspective, two professors recapped the idea’s history – a rivetingly nerdy tale for anyone invested in ongoing issues surrounding things like forest management and sustainable agriculture.
It was Edmund Ruffin, farmer and political rabble-rouser who fired the first shot in Charleston, S.C. in 1861 that helped set the stage for the Civil War. After finding that the previous century of tobacco had depleted the ground of nutrients on his property and that of many others, Ruffin began regularly publishing studies on soil in his home region. And fed up with what associate history professor Paul Sutter described as a “pattern of impermanence” in land use, he became one of the United States’ first agricultural reformists.
The man credited as the forefather of today’s sustainability movements, the inaugural U.S. Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot, may never have used the word sustainability, but it’s what he meant. Following the creation of the service in 1905, the Connecticut native vastly increased acreage of national forests and instituted practical steps toward the philosophy of “greatest good for the greatest number” in the long-term. By the time he was fired in 1910, Pinchot had begun to put our forests to use in a way that would help sustain for future generations many values and resources of the land, rather than just timber. This idea marked a break from the notion that national forests should consistently provide commercial product no matter the environmental cost.
Last week, Wilkinson pointed to efforts in the Yellowstone ecosystem to sustain the futures of bison, wolves, and the tourist economy as a contemporary example of Pinchot’s philosophy.
According to the professors – and a Google algorithm that analyzes every word published in millions of books that are now digitized online – it was the 1982 United Nations World Charter for Nature that marked the beginning of the use of the term “sustainability” as we know it today. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister central to a global environmental movement in the early ’80s, launched the concept with her groundbreaking 1987 report, “Our Common Future.” In it she laid a framework for long-term strategies for sustainable development, including everything from establishing national family planning policies to keep population growth under control to including, rather than ignoring, the economic consequence of forest degradation when measuring timber profits.
Sutter called this movement “sustainability synthesis, which combined environment and development strands that had been somewhat at odds before that.”
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