Driving through southwestern New Mexico this summer, I passed one of the area’s wolf-proof school bus stops. I’d heard about the enclosures for years and couldn’t resist pulling off Highway 180 onto State Road 32 to check one out in person. More recently, the cages have been featured in a new documentary film, “Wolves in Government Clothing.”
Walking up the gravel road, I tried to envision leaving my own seven year-old at the remote intersection. Even if I did drop her and drive off – with no homes close by, I doubt many kids hoof it there – I wouldn’t leave her in the cage.
Peering into the eight- or ten-foot high wood and wire enclosure, we found its bench smashed and the dirt floor covered with trash. To be fair, school had been out for over a month. But the flimsy, trash-filled box didn’t convince me it sheltered many schoolchildren. The first of the cages were built in 2007 by a local school district; a picture of children looking out from a cage near Reserve, N.M. appeared in newspapers at the time. Both then and now, the cages smell of a publicity stunt.
A vocal group of citizens in southwestern New Mexico have long fought the Mexican gray wolf recovery program run by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its state and tribal partners – a program that hasn’t actually been a resounding success. Despite more than a decade of planning and 15 years of on-the-ground work, only 75 wolves roam the recovery area in Arizona and New Mexico. Thanks to political wrangling, local opposition, a pledge to remove or kill wolves that prey on livestock, and a highly restricted recovery area, the program remains far below its goal of 100 wolves in the wild by 2006.
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It was almost a normal drive home. In the nearly 10 years I’ve lived in the Colorado Rockies, I’ve completed variations on the same 4.5-or-so-hour route dozens of times on my way down to the plains and my hometown, Boulder, Colo., without major incident: Highway 24 from Leadville to I-70; Highway 82 from Aspen to I-70; Highway 133 from Paonia, High Country News’ headquarters, to I-70.
This one, on my way back from my nephew’s first birthday party in the last days of October, had pretty much everything going for it. The weather was good, crisp and edged gold with the last aspen and cottonwood leaves. Westbound traffic on I-70 streamed along at a fast clip; winding, two-lane 133 from Carbondale into the West Elk Mountains was pleasantly snow-, rockfall- and elk-free in the deepening twilight. Crossing 8,755-foot-high McClure Pass, I yelled along to a dance tune by The Shoes to stay alert on the last dark stretch of the drive.
To the west, I could see a line of headlights approaching. It wasn’t until they were nearly upon me, coming around a long bend, that I realized one set was in my lane and approaching fast. I slammed on the brakes and swerved off the road into the grass just in time to clear the windshield-level bumper of a lifted pickup, which swerved into its own lane at the head of the pack of cars.
When I was done panic-shouting at my steering wheel, I realized that, all things considered, I’d been forced off the road in the best place possible. If it had been on the east side of the pass, I would’ve gone off a cliff. If it had been a few miles farther to the west, I would’ve hit a vertical rockface. If the shoulder had been steeper, I could have easily rolled. “I swear it’s like you live in The Road Warrior,” a friend remarked after I arrived safely home and texted him what had happened.
Indeed, there’s very little margin for error on your typical two-lane highway. You probably know this from experience if you live in the back-corners of the rural West, where even going to the grocery store can involve a windy, multi-mile, suicidal-deer-ridden drive at high speed (though admittedly probably not mohawked pursuers in dune buggies). According to a comprehensive report released by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in August, rural areas claimed a whopping 55 percent of all traffic fatalities and 54 percent of fatal crashes in 2011, despite hosting only 19 percent of the U.S. population. From 2002 to 2011, the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled was 2.5 times higher in rural areas than urban.
At 5 a.m. on Oct. 30, coal miners and residents of Moffat County, Colorado, gathered at a McDonald’s in Craig for a pancake breakfast before boarding buses to Denver chartered by Peabody Coal. They were headed to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s listening tour, in which the agency travels around the country seeking input on its new regulations for existing coal-fired power plants, which it plans to release next June. The EPA already debuted its proposal for new power plants in September, and has since turned its attention to drafting rules for existing plants, which could have a much more profound effect on the coal industry, and on emissions, given that few new coal plants are being built anymore.
Craig’s economy is highly dependent on coal – there are three near-by mines and a large coal plant – so naturally, people wanted to tell EPA Region Eight Administrator Shaun McGrath, EPA Region Eight Air Program Director Carl Daly and other officials how carbon dioxide regulations would affect them. They were joined in Denver by boilermakers, coal company executives, trade groups and politicians from other coal-dependent areas around the West, many of whom took the EPA to task for scheduling its listening sessions far from areas like Wyoming and West Virginia where coal is mined and burned.
Jessica Unruh, a North Dakota state senator who works in the lignite coal industry, told the EPA that its choice of meeting locations “disenfranchises from the process people whose livelihoods will be directly affected.” And House Republicans went so far as to accuse the EPA of selective listening. “EPA conspicuously failed to schedule any listening sessions in states where electricity price increases may be the highest as a result of the agency’s (new regulations),” reads a blog post from the House Energy and Commerce Committee website. But, as political news website The Hill notes, the tour does include “states that produce large amounts of coal. The tour includes dates in Illinois, Texas and Pennsylvania – which all ranked in the top ten as recently as 2011, according to National Mining Association figures.”
The distance didn’t seem to stop many coal industry employees from making the long trip to Denver last week, with speakers hailing from Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and Minnesota.
Fellow Westerners: We are pathetic! Sure, we’ve got our redeeming qualities, I guess, but one of them is not our ability to mitigate the environmental impact of our commute. We Westerners are a tribe of steering-wheel-gripped, fossil-fuel-burning, trapped-in-a-tin-can-in-traffic creatures, guided along highways not by eyes and mind, but by the tinny, seductive voice of our iPhone GPS.
At least that’s what the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau suggests, which I will present to you shortly, in groovy graphic form, if you can keep your eyes off the road for that long. In the meantime, you may have already heard the good news: We’re getting better. Americans collectively are driving a little bit less, even those of us in most of the rural West, where the combustion engine is king. And, says the advocacy group that published the findings, the wane in our driving addiction has little to do with the fact that we can’t afford it, thanks to the crappy economy.
The much-touted report, put out in August by the USPIRG Education Fund, found that residents of all but seven states drove less in 2011 than they did in 2005. Coloradans on average drove a whopping 11.4 percent – or 1,172 miles – less, while Arizonans cut their time in traffic by nearly 9 percent. Even drivers in wide-open Wyoming, the most automobile-happy state of all, decreased their annual mileage by 8.5 percent.
When the Driving Boom first stalled out in the middle of the last decade, it appeared to be the direct result of increasing gas prices followed by economic collapse. People simply could no longer afford to drive as much as they had before. As the economy revved back up, so too, it seemed, would our collective vehicles. And in some isolated cases, that’s exactly what happened: North Dakotans drive more miles now than they ever have before, and 12 percent more than in 2005. Yet that’s a special case, surely driven by the oil and gas boom and all the extra driving the boom requires.
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Forty-five of the world’s top oil and gas producers received a letter, released at the end of October, that must have come as something of a wake-up call. Seventy investors that control a total of $3 trillion of those companies’ assets sent off the missive with one question in mind: What’s going to happen to our investments, once restrictions on green house gas emissions tighten?
“As long-term investors, we see the world moving toward a low-carbon future, in which fossil fuel reserves that companies continue to develop may actually become a liability, which could take a toll on shareholder value,” said Jack Ehnes, CEO of California State Teachers’ Retirement System. CalSTERS is one of the country’s two largest pension funds – both of which signed the letter.
A report put out by the Carbon Tracker Initiative, the group leading the 70 investors’ inquiry, partnered with the Grantham Institute for Climate Change, paints a grim picture of the future of fossil fuels. Granted, it’s any environmental advocacy group’s aim to make polluting the planet look like a raw deal, but one of the report’s more telling figures is that as much as 80 percent of coal, oil and gas reserves of publicly listed companies are already a liability. In 2012, 200 of the world’s biggest publicly traded fossil fuel companies forked out about $674 billion to find new reserves. Yet most of those could become “unburnable,” the report says.
Four years ago, when I was 25, I went to Alaska to work as a wilderness guide. I bought my first pair of XtraTuf boots and my first set of head-to-toe rubber rain gear, and between seven-week trips in the backcountry, lived above a Laundromat that smelled perpetually of halibut.
The first spring, my boyfriend and I celebrated the returning light by taking a trip to Juneau to go skiing. Only it rained the whole time, and instead of skiing we sloshed through the alleys and backstreets, lingering in bookshops and stopping at every coffee shop we could find. The last night before catching the ferry home, we stayed at the state’s oldest hotel, The Alaskan. Even on a weeknight, the bar – a former speakeasy – was utterly raucous, and the adjoining hotel was much the same. When it first opened in 1913, the building operated as a thinly-veiled Victorian brothel, and in 2010, if you squinted your eyes just right, you could imagine that it still was, that the man with the stained white beard spinning across the dance floor had just paid his tab with a sack of gold flakes and would soon slip upstairs behind a woman's lace stockings.
The wallpaper was yellowed and peeling, the wood floors scuffed and creaky; the entire place smelled faintly of spilled beer and musty sheets. The walls were thin – in most rooms, you fell asleep (or passed out) to the sound of boot-stomping fiddle music drifting from the bar. If you were in Juneau and wanted a good night's sleep, you went to the Westmark or the Best Western. If you wanted an experience to remember, you went to The Alaskan.
That was before the reality TV craze struck Alaska, turning the Last Frontier into something akin to the “Real Housewives of Orange County.” This year, in addition to “Deadliest Catch” and “Alaska State Troopers” – the old standbys – the 49th state is getting “Alaska Gold Diggers” (five Newport Beach women reviving their grandfather's old mining claim), “Ultimate Survival Alaska,” and an episode of “Hotel Impossible,” a show in which an interior designer and a consultant give hotels the touristic version of an extreme makeover. The show has been to Alaska before, to Yakutat's Glacier Bear Lodge, where celebrity consultant Anthony Melchiorri, an admitted germaphobe, was appalled by the old carpets and fish guts outside the doors. The owners reportedly spent $100,000 on renovations following his suggestions, and occupancy rates increased only 1.5 percent.
National Parks Service Director Jon Jarvis had not come to Rubén Salazar Park in East Los Angeles on October 24 to talk about government shutdowns, Tea Partiers in Congress or the privatization of public lands. He had come instead to promote the park service’s American Latino Heritage initiative, a prototype of a new kind of NPS-led historical investigation, involving interpretative sites and commissioned scholarly studies. His agenda was historic, not political.
But Jarvis had also just emerged a week earlier from a scorching five-hour hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, whose members accused him of everything from intentionally torturing National Park visitors to overvaluing the bathroom needs of Occupy protestors while dishonoring America's veterans. The Committee's leader, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., even suggested it was time to push the 60-year-old park service veteran out on the ice, so damaging was he to the good of the nation.
And so when I, along with two other local reporters, sat down with him during the NPS-led Latino Legacy Forum, we all had to ask: What was it like?
"The hearing was . . . interesting," said Jarvis, who these days sports a silvery mustache, giving him the folksy look of a middle-aged Sundance Kid. "It was indicative of the polarization that's going on, unfortunately, in this country." Beyond Congress, though, the controversy was bracing, maybe even encouraging. "I'm very philosophical about these things," he said. "During the government shutdown there was a lot of civil disobedience. There was a lot of protest. And all of it was all peaceful and relatively respectful. I think we need to be proud of that.
“People were expressing their frustration with the shutdown in the places that represent the core values of the country, the history of the country,” Jarvis continued. “Where better to express that and exercise their first amendment rights than in a venue that was set aside to represent the sacrifices of our veterans, and Lincoln and Jefferson and Washington and others? That’s who we are. We provide those places so people can express that.”
Nor was Jarvis surprised by the “angst” that came from Westerners whose state legislators lobby against public lands. “We normally host 700,000 people per day in October,” he pointed out. “It’s an incredibly strong period for our guides and outfitters, our hotels and restaurants in the gateway communities.” The agreements drawn up with states like Colorado, Arizona and Utah to keep parks open at state expense drew "a very strong line," he said, about who actually runs the nation's parks. And despite mutterings about state takeovers of public lands, "the people in those states actually like national park management," Jarvis insisted. "It's part of the tourism infrastructure of the country. Part of the draw, especially in the international draw, is that these are national parks. And nobody can run the national parks except the National Park Service."
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This week, Congress is getting back to the big issues haunting the public, including the farm bill, which expired amid the government shutdown. Since the House and Senate have already passed two separate versions, select lawmakers are meeting today to try to reconcile their differences.
The division between the two chambers centers on, you guessed it, the price tag for this massive policy hairball that supports farms, food, and rural development, while serving as the nation’s largest conservation fund for private land. As HCN has noted before, whether to cut food stamp funding from the bill is a major crux of the debate. But agricultural subsidies, which began in 1938, are also up for fiscal pruning. There’s bipartisan agreement on phasing out controversial direct payment subsidies (farmers get them regardless of crop prices or yields). If that happens, the government’s increasingly popular – and for taxpayers, increasingly expensive – crop insurance program will be positioned to become agriculture’s primary safety net.
But one important aspect of the farm bill’s expense has been absent from the current debate. If predictions of more frequent extreme weather events, like drought, are fulfilled, the federal government’s crop insurance bill will also grow, as it did during the 2012 drought. By ignoring the reality of climate change and its likely affects on agriculture, Congress is missing an opportunity to reform an important, though some say bloated, ag safety net, and to help mitigate risks to taxpayers and the food system.
Jared Farmer, Utah native and associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, released his third book this week: Trees in Paradise: A California History. The book traces the history of redwoods, eucalyptus, citrus and palms in the Golden State from 1848 to today. Farmer takes a unique approach by melding cultural and natural histories, taking a deep-dive into early horticulturalism, and exploring John Muir’s arbo-patriotism and the 20th century timber wars. We recently caught up with Farmer – who’s also a former High Country News intern – about his book.
High Country News What led you to this topic?
Jared Farmer I trace the origins of my book to three haunts. First was the backyard of my father’s childhood home outside Los Angeles. Dad waxed nostalgic for the fruit trees there, and grandma mailed a red-stained box of pomegranates every winter to Utah, where I grew up. Second was the greenhouse my father built in snowy Utah to grow his own citruses and figs. Third was my initial California residence: Stanford University – a school with an ostentatious Palm Drive, a citrus courtyard, aromatic groves of eucalyptus, and splendid relict oaks, not to mention a redwood on its seal and a dancing tree as its unofficial mascot.
HCN Your book is filled with so many obscure facts – everything from the role of eugenicists in the early days of the Save-the-Redwoods League, to the post-Depression palm-planting frenzy in L.A. Which is your favorite random factoid in the book, and what’s one that didn’t make the cut?
JF Single out my favorite factoid? That would be like asking Brigham Young to name his favorite child. One of my favorite details is the former tradition of Sierra Club members to visit the grave of John Muir and sing “Auld Lang Syne” with arms linked around the giant trunk of the nearby manna gum eucalyptus tree. Such a ceremony of non-native belongingness wouldn’t happen today. I also like the story of the redwood log in Humboldt County chainsaw-carved into a giant peanut as an anti-environmentalist protest symbol. Not to mention all the fun stuff I left out, including Faisal II, the last king of Iraq, and his tour of Muir Woods, or the annual Yuletide radio program at the General Grant (officially the “Nation’s Christmas Tree”).
Next week's elections will come and go relatively peacefully. And for that we can be thankful. To simultaneously endure the hyperbolic screeching of political mailers and television ads, along with the federal government's self-implosion, would have broken even the most committed of citizens. Then again, a high-stakes election season probably would've saved the federal government from itself, as the shutdown would've met the immediate wrath of voters. But, I digress.
It's an electoral off year. The partisan balance of the U.S. Senate or House isn't up for grabs. Neither is the White House, nor any executive office in the Western states. Nevertheless, there are a few votes to be taken next Tuesday at the state and local levels worth paying attention to. After all, if we've learnedanything in the past month, it's that civic engagement at these levels of government – where the real business of governing is perhaps more likely to actually take place – is more important than ever.
Below are a few votes to watch.
Colorado: Forbidding fracking
The Centennial State is actually host to quite a lively political season. Its most pitched fights revolve around oil and gas development, and whether cities and counties have the power to make their own rules for how – or whether – it goes down within their borders. Four communities along the urbanized Front Range will vote on drilling bans or moratoriums. The groups pushing these measures, however, face considerable opposition from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which is spending heavily to defeat the timeouts. For a thorough analysis of the push for local control of drilling in Colorado, check out Josh Zaffos' story from our Sept. 2 issue.