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The West's crucial 2014 U.S. Senate races

Cally Carswell | Jun 13, 2014 05:00 AM

The big question of the 2014 midterm elections -- other than, "Eric Cantor lost?!" --  is which party will emerge with control of the U.S. Senate. A number of Western states will host Senate races this year – Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Alaska – but only three will be hotly contested, and only those will figure into the national partisan power struggle. Those races are for seats currently occupied by Democrats in Colorado, Montana and Alaska. Colorado's Mark Udall is the most likely to hold on, while in Montana and Alaska, incumbents John Walsh and Mark Begich are extremely vulnerable.

Republicans need to pick off six sitting Democrats to take a majority in the Senate. Only seven Democrats seem vulnerable, and to varying degrees, making races like those in Montana and Alaska – where Republicans have a good shot at victory – crucial to both parties.

Here's a closer look at the candidates facing off in these three states and some of the more intriguing aspects of their campaigns:


Udall wind turbine
Sen. Mark Udall, left, tours the Siemens Test Wind Turbine at the National Wind Technology Center. (Photo courtesy NREL.)

First-term Sen. Mark Udall is being challenged by Republican Rep. Cory Gardner, who both establishment and Tea Party conservatives in Colorado seem to be united behind. Climate change and energy look like they'll figure big in this race, and the obligatory attacks are already being lobbed at Udall from outside groups for his support of Obamacare. Gardner is going after Udall for not taking a position on attempts by towns across Colorado to ban fracking within their limits, which Gardner sees as economic drains. The issue is a thorny one for Udall, who risks being labeled a job-killing liberal if he supports the bans, and alienating lefty enclaves like Boulder if he opposes them.

Another sign that the politics of energy are less clearcut in Colorado than in fossil fuel meccas like Wyoming, is Udall's reaction to the carbon rules for existing power plants recently announced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The rules, announced just as campaigns were getting revved up, were widely expected to be a political burden for vulnerable Democrats. Udall, however, reacted to the announcement by touting his support for the EPA's plan. Colorado has already transitioned many of its big coal plants to natural gas, as required by a law that Gardner supported when he was in the state legislature. (Though Gardner has also expressed skepticism about manmade climate change.)

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Dispatch from Yosemite: Honoring national parks’ black heritage

James Mills | Jun 12, 2014 03:05 PM

In the fading light of a late spring evening, gospel singer Sista Monica Parker sat humming on a bench at the Yellow Pines Campground in Yosemite National Park. There she waited patiently for others to gather. Quiet at first, her melodic voice gained strength as she swayed to the rhythm of a hymn perhaps not heard in the Valley for more than a century. The sound slowly swelled into a powerful chorus that echoed off the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome. Even the birds fell silent.

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” Monica sang. “Hallelu…Hallelu…Hallelujah!”

When they heard her voice, people making camp or talking stopped what they were doing and made their way to where she sat singing and clapping her hands. In the great tradition of the Negro spiritual, everyone sang together in community and fellowship, raising their voices to the heights of the tall trees all around them. It was the perfect way to begin a weekend celebration of African-American heritage in our national parks.

Yosemite was just one of the NPS sites throughout the country that witnessed an influx of minority visitors on June 7th and 8th, as part of the second annual African-American National Parks Event. The group at Yosemite had journeyed from San Francisco earlier that day. On  Saturday, June 7th, almost 200 black men, women and children had gathered at the Presidio. It was from this military headquarters that in 1899, 1903 and 1904 more than 400 African-American members of the United States Army made the long journey on horseback to patrol and defend the newly designated national parks at Yosemite and Sequoia. These “Buffalo Soldiers” were among the first park rangers.

Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson (left) greets African-American visitors. Photograph by James Mills.

To commemorate these early efforts to protect public lands for future generations, a large group of outdoor enthusiasts boarded buses, automobiles and motorcycles to follow the same route the Buffalo Soldiers traveled to Yosemite, now visited by millions of people every year from around the world.

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25 years after raid, reflections on Rocky Flats

Christi Turner | Jun 12, 2014 05:00 AM

Outside the Arvada Center not far north of Denver, Colorado, this past weekend stood a larger-than-life-sized sculpture of a horse in a respirator and hazmat suit. Activists, scientists, academics, ranchers and local citizens young and old – but mostly older – walked past the horse, an artist’s interpretation of the toxic legacy of the long-closed Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant, and filed up the stairs into a large auditorium, where the opening session of Rocky Flats Then and Now: 25 Years after the Raid conference was about to begin.

The Rocky Flats plant, located between Golden and Boulder, Colorado, was once at the core of U.S. efforts to develop nuclear bombs, but its secretive operations also served to galvanize anti-nuke and anti-pollution protesters for decades. Plutonium, toxic waste, near meltdowns – these threats and more made Rocky Flats famous. But no one event was more renowned than “the Raid.” On June 6, 1989, agents of the FBI and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency entered the plant and cited its operators for numerous violations of health and safety codes, setting the stage for its eventual closure, in 1992, and a subsequent Superfund cleanup. Today, the plant is no more, and what remains is a national wildlife refuge at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. But the memory of the plant and what it represented remains, all these years later.

The opening panel last weekend at the Rocky Flats conference in Arvada, Colorado. Photo: Christi Turner.

And so, on Friday night, they came to the Arvada Center, filing past the hazmat horse. They sat down for the opening panel, “Personal Memories of the June 6, 1989 Raid” – Rocky Flats plant workers, government employees, activists, academics and local residents – not to argue, but to reflect.

Keeping the dialogue civil is no easy task: Even 25 years after the raid, the first-ever instance when two federal agencies raided a third (the plant belonged to the Department of Energy), Rocky Flats is still a source of intense controversy. Between 1952 and 1989, the top-secret plant mass-produced around 70,000 plutonium cores – tiny nuclear bombs that trigger bigger thermonuclear bombs. The process exposed thousands of workers to untold doses of radiation and contaminated the soil, air and groundwater through contentious nuclear waste management.

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Infographic: Hey, Wildlife Services — what did you kill?

Ben Goldfarb | Jun 11, 2014 02:10 PM

Earlier this month, Wildlife Services, the U.S. Department of Agriculture division responsible for animal control, released data indicating that it killed over four million creatures in 2013 — a million more than it did the previous year. The agency, whose stated mission is to provide "leadership and expertise to resolve wildlife conflicts," undertakes plenty of non-lethal management, too: It dispersed nearly 18 million animals in 2013, shooting fish-stealing sea lions with rubber bullets and firing paintballs at bald eagles nesting near airports. Yet it was the hefty death toll that grabbed headlines — and outraged conservation groups like the Center for Biological Diversity, which called the agency's work "a staggering killing campaign, bankrolled by taxpayers."

Wildlife Services spokespeople say that all lethal control efforts, from putting down raccoons to prevent the spread of rabies to controlling expanding wolf populations, are based in sound science. But the agency's 665-page information dump provides little context for individual killings. That's not out of character for Wildlife Services, which Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) has called "one of the most opaque and obstinate departments I've dealt with." Fear not: High Country News has sifted through the report to help our readers make sense of the slaughter. Scroll through the below interactive infographic to experience a year in Wildlife Services' campaign of lethal control.

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Wildland firefighting takes funding from other vital programs

Jodi Peterson | Jun 11, 2014 05:05 AM

A new federal report this week shows how dollars meant for forest restoration and wildfire preparedness often get diverted to fighting wildfires. It’s been that way for years, and as fires get bigger and more expensive to fight, the problem only gets worse. As we reported last summer:

“Just a few days before (the Rim Fire scorched Yosemite), U.S. Department of Agriculture Chief Tom Tidwell had ordered an immediate Forest Service spending freeze for restoration programs, employee travel, and other personnel costs to help funnel an additional $600 million into the agency’s suppression account, which had been bled down to a mere $50 million, about half of what’s typically needed to cover a single week at Level 5, reports E&E News. Such borrowing has happened six other times in the last decade, totaling $2.7 billion. Of that Congress eventually restored $2.3 billion, “but not without disruptions to important agency programs” – many of them the kind that could help lessen fire risks in the future. The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to help head off that dynamic by creating a reserve fund for firefighting, but it doesn’t appear to be working, perhaps because of fluctuating appropriations.”

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Railroads inch toward transparency on oil shipments

Krista Langlois | Jun 10, 2014 03:10 PM

On April 18, a wildflower photographer looking for blooming balsamroot on the Oregon slopes of the Columbia River Gorge happened to glance down and see dozens of black tankers barreling along the railroad below. The identification numbers on the tankers’ warning signs revealed that they were carrying crude. Yet despite tragic derailments in the past year that have killed scores of people, spilled oil into rivers and sent fireballs exploding 200 feet into the air, emergency responders and firefighters near the Columbia River Gorge were wholly unprepared for an accident: They had no idea that crude was even moving through the area.

The Oregon Department of Transportation knew crude was being shipped through the Gorge, but neither they nor Union Pacific had informed local communities. They’re not alone: Though the amount of oil being shipped by rail jumped 83 percent last year, railroad and state officials have largely refused to divulge when and where the practice is taking place, saying that federal law and concerns over national security prohibit them from doing so. “There's terrorist issues, identifying what's a train carrying that people could do something to,” a Union Pacific spokesman told The Oregonian.

Oregonian reporter Rob Davis didn’t buy it. After a months-long battle to obtain basic information about where oil trains were operating, Davis learned from federal officials in May that oil shipments don’t actually apply to the hazardous-commodities law that railroad and state officials had cited as the foundation for their secrecy. The Society of Environmental Journalists surmises that the real reason behind the lack of disclolsure is that railroads are “counting on people's fear and credulity to protect them from expense and accountability.” As a result, demands for transparency have increased.

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Booms have a lasting impact on towns' architectural fabric

Jonathan Thompson | Jun 09, 2014 05:00 AM

On a trans-Wyoming reporting trip several years ago, I pulled off the interstate to check out the little town of Rawlins in the southern part of the state. I made my way past the industrial sprawl towards whatever kind of “downtown” I could find. When I finally arrived at the historic core, I was struck by what I found: A real, solid downtown area, anchored by stone and brick buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s. An old theatre sported dozens of lightbulbs — old school neon — and a grand brick structure had elegant trim and a nice little balcony attached to a second story window. True, many of the best buildings were abandoned, or housed Fast Cash Payday Loan places, but the town had good bones.

Farmington, New Mexico, grew tremendously during the 50s, 60s and 70s, as is revealed in its architecture, like this detail from a local restaurant. Photo by Jonathan Thompson.

Unfortunately, some of those bones had weird growths on them, as I discovered as I turned a corner and stumbled upon what can only be described as a freak of architecture. Something hideous jutted out from the front of one of the more solid of those early 1900s buildings, the Elk’s Lodge — a facelift gone wrong, it seemed.

As ugly as it was, it had significance. In that one building, I was looking at a partial history of Rawlins’ booms: Constructed during the initial buildup of the early 1900s, the lodge’s aging veranda was replaced during a later boom, most likely spurred by the 1970s energy crisis. When it comes to what Western boom towns look like — architecturally, their layout, etc. — a town’s culture, its government, planners and aesthetic sensibilities often turn out to be less important than when the biggest booms took place (or failed to take place).

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Bark beetle video series says there's hope amid the carnage

Tay Wiles | Jun 07, 2014 05:00 AM

The mountain pine beetle is perhaps the most infamous creepy-crawly in the Western United States. No larger than a grain of rice, the bug drills into trees and infects them with a blue fungus that makes them die of thirst. They’ve bored and left for dead millions of trees and affected 30 million acres in the Western U.S. and Canada since the late 1990s. But there’s no need to panic, says a new series of short films created in a collaboration between University of Wyoming’s Ruckelshaus Institute and the U.S. Forest Service – the epidemic is still larger than at any time in recorded history, but both trees and humans are adapting in various ways.

A formidable close up of the rice grain-sized mountain pine beetle. Photo taken by Ward Strong, B.C. Ministry of Forests, Lands, and Natural Resource Operations.

The films, which focus on the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forests in Wyoming and northern Colorado, aim to educate people about the beetles’ role in forest ecology and also to assuage public concern about the vast amount of mortality that’s resulted from these tree-killers.

“A lot of people have been feeling dismal about the bark beetle outbreak,” says Ruckelshaus communications coordinator Emilene Ostlind, a former High Country News editorial fellow who helped produce the series. “We want to show people there are opportunities to respond and deal with areas that have been affected; it’s not totally out of our hands. At the same time, we’re not going to go back to how forests were in 1980.” In other words, Western forests are changing – not keeling over for good.

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Climate change expedites hybrid trout takeover

Sarah Jane Keller | Jun 06, 2014 05:05 AM

When two species mate, their offspring end up with undignified new names like ‘pizzly’ (a grizzly and polar bear pairing) or ‘sparred owl’ (for barred owl and spotted owl hybrids). But the more rare species in such couplings face a far worse fate – hybridization can be a path to extinction.

That’s why hybridization is a major concern for conservationists of the West’s 12 cutthroat trout species. For over a century, rainbow trout native to the Pacific Coast have been enthusiastically planted throughout the U.S., plus every continent besides Antarctica, for sport fishing. In the West, they interbreed with their ruby-jawed cousins to form “cuttbow” hybrids. Those offspring are often not as fit to survive and reproduce. And it turns out that our warming climate is setting the stage for these less adaptable mutts to prosper.

In a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, a research group led by Clint Muhlfeld, an aquatic ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Glacier National Park, connected warmer temperatures and decreased precipitation to accelerated hybridization of rainbow trout and the Northern Rocky’s Westslope cutthroat trout. Though scientists have long predicted that climate change will increase opportunities for species to hybridize, the new research results are the first to show it.

Westslope cutthroat trout in the Flathead River system, one of their last strongholds. Photo by Jonny Armstrong

The study centers on one of the Westslope cutthroat’s last strongholds, Northwest Montana and British Columbia's relatively pristine Flathead River watershed. Despite the millions of rainbows pumped into the river system before Montana stopped in 1969, and extensive hybridization in a low-elevation site in the 1970s and ‘80s, there was little evidence of rainbow trout taking over in the watershed then. But by the 2000s hybridization had expanded to 52 percent of all the sites sampled in the Flathead.

So what explains the late, yet seemingly sudden cuttbow explosion in the Flathead River region? According to Muhlfeld’s analysis, it’s related to lower May precipitation and higher summer stream temperatures recorded in recent decades. Rainbow trout spawn in the early spring when snowmelt runoff is still low, while cutthroat are adapted to later spawning and high streamflows. So decreased runoff in the droughty early 2000s most likely favored the invasive rainbows and gave them a window for expansion.

“It’s rapid, extreme changes like this that are critical tipping points over which the consequences are irreversible,” says Muhlfeld. That’s because hybridization is an evolutionary one-way street. Once cutthroat populations interbreed with rainbows, there’s no getting the native fish back.

For over 10,000 years Westslope cutthroat trout rode out drought, fire and glaciations in the cold streams, rivers and lakes of the Pacific Northwest. Today, thanks to dams and invasives, unhybridized Westslope cutthroats are confined to mountain headwaters in 10 percent of their former U.S. habitat, and 20 percent of their Canadian range, holding out mostly in Montana and Idaho, plus British Columbia and Alberta. Hybridization spurred on by the warming climate is another blow to the already-dwindling populations.

Yet there’s also a positive fish tale unfolding in the Flathead. State biologists began battling the rainbow invasion in the 2000s, removing rainbow trout and erecting barriers; and it appears to be working. The spread of rainbows and hybridization began slowing in 2004. That’s likely thanks to the state’s efforts, and may be related to cooler temperatures and higher streamflows compared to the early 2000s – a bit of temporary relief that will eventually be swamped by the larger warming trend.

Robert Al-Chokhachy, the Bozeman-based USGS fisheries biologists behind that analysis, says the removal success shows the value of fighting species invasions early on. Perhaps it’s not too late for cutthroats in the Flathead region to escape the dual threats of hybridization and the warming waters. “Our biggest mandate right now,” he says, “is to give fish a chance.”

Sarah Jane Keller is a High Country News correspondent based in Bozeman, Montana. She tweets @sjanekeller. Correction: The original version of this story said that the Flathead River watershed entered Montana and Alberta, but it is actually Montana and British Columbia.

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Congress considers largest dam removal in U.S. history

Krista Langlois | Jun 04, 2014 11:50 PM

This week, Congress is looking at a bill that even a few years ago seemed wildly, laughably improbable: an authorization to spend $250 million to implement a reworked version of the historic 2010 Klamath River agreements.

The Senate bill is a mere 42 words long, but it seeks nothing less than to seal the fate of one of the most embattled waterways in the American West. And oh yeah – it also paves the way for the largest dam removal in U.S. history, knocking out four dams, opening up 420 miles of habitat and restoring salmon runs by an estimated 80 percent. No big deal.

Though the bill itself is brief, its passage would put into motion the actions outlined in the 93-page Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement, a landmark document signed this spring by farmers, tribes and politicians. Under the agreement, the Klamath Tribes, who now hold senior water rights, will save water for downstream irrigators and wildlife refuges in exchange for funds to help with economic development and restoring salmon habitat. Plus, utility company PacifiCorp will demolish its four salmon-blocking dams by 2020, paid for through a small utility surcharge and replaced by a federal utility that may include large-scale solar. With a few exceptions, nearly all stakeholders on the ground support the measures. All that’s left is for Congress to sign off.

So will it? Given that said bill is sponsored by four West Coast Democrats, the chances are slim. Nonetheless, there is a chance, and invested parties – including PacifiCorp – are determined to push legislation through one way or another. So in case you’re still scratching your head over where the heck the Klamath River is and why it’s so embattled, here's a primer:

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