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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.

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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.

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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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Are invasive species really that terrible?

Ben Goldfarb | Jun 04, 2014 05:00 AM

The West’s approach to managing invasive species has, for the most part, been a straightforward one: eradicate them swiftly and at all costs. Spray ‘em, poison ‘em, net ‘em, douse ‘em with fungus, and, when all else fails, eat ‘em – whatever the method, the important thing is that the invader is sent packing.

But as invasives embed themselves deeper into the fabric of the West, tearing them out becomes more challenging – and even, perhaps, damaging to ecosystems that have adjusted to the arrivistes. Is it time to rethink how we treat the aliens in our midst?

That’s the implication of a new study in the journal Science, which suggests that a scorched-earth policy can do as much harm as good. The study’s focus is Spartina alterniflora, or cordgrass, a salt-tolerant plant native to the East Coast that, in the 1970’s, was introduced into San Francisco Bay by the Army Corps of Engineers to stabilize marshlands. Inevitably, Spartina ran wild, displacing native grasses, choking waterways, and transforming rich mudflats into dense meadows. In 2005, the Invasive Spartina Project began eradicating the cordgrass with herbicide; by 2011, the group had wiped out 92 percent.

A native California clapper rail takes shelter in a stand of invasive Spartina alterniflora. Image courtesy of Robert Clark.

Everything was going according to plan until scientists made a disturbing discovery: populations of the California clapper rail, a federally-listed endangered bird native to the bay, had declined by nearly 50 percent during the Spartina removal program. The bird, it turned out, was using the cordgrass for nesting cover, just as it had once taken shelter in native grasses. Destroying Spartina was robbing the rail of its final stands of habitat. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ordered a halt to the eradication.


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How to cut carbon: Change the way utilities make money

Judith Lewis Mernit | Jun 03, 2014 08:15 AM

State renewable energy standards, imposed on “investor-owned” utilities that supply 75 percent of the power in the United States, have long stood stalwart in the space left empty by the absence of a federal energy or climate policy. They have devalued climate-changing coal and encouraged wind and solar, particularly in the West, where the kind of wind and sun useful to the grid – relentless through the seasons, predictable through the hours – is abundant. They have complemented state policies requiring utilities to buy the solar power their customers generate, a scheme called “net metering” that prompts many a homeowner to max out their rooftops with photovoltaic arrays that turn sunlight to electricity.

Crossing the energy rubicon in Hawai'i
This is what crossing the energy rubicon looks like — in Hawai'i. Photo courtesy Flickr user ShellVacationsHospitality

And for years the for-profit, investor-owned utilities, along with front groups for the fossil-fuel industries – the Koch Brothers, Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council – have fought to undo it all. A roundup of their efforts has just been published by the D.C. nonprofit Energy and Policy Institute, documenting attacks on net metering or renewable standards in 17 states. The report doesn't just lay out the facts. Instead, in tone and spirit, it gives the impression of a pitched battle, between conspiratorial suits in smoke-filled boardrooms who plot to make the U.S. burn more fossil fuels while beleaguered legislators struggle to preserve their hard-won clean energy laws. If only the right-wingers would cease their attacks, we could move forward into a glittering clean, fossil-fuel-free future.

But I can’t help thinking the whole argument is a distraction. Just as net metering and other solar subsidies are only temporary fixes to a much larger problem, it’s not the Kochs and the ALECs who hold the blame for how our electricity providers produce and procure our electricity. Instead, it's the way utilities make money — a business model that's been in place for much of the century, designed and enforced by the state public utility commissions who regulate utilities in exchange for guaranteeing their monopoly markets. Regulators decide how much revenue utilities need, and then tell them how they can get it. And in almost every state, the for-profit utilities earn money for their shareholders by leveraging large capital projects – transmission lines, power plants, distribution networks: all the trappings of fossil-fuel generation, which demands the construction of large, polluting plants far from where people use the power they generate.

In other words, to paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, the seductress of the 1988 flick Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, the investor-owned utilities aren’t evil. They’re just drawn that way.


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EPA's first CO2 emissions regs for existing power plants

Christi Turner | Jun 03, 2014 05:00 AM

While President Barack Obama’s landmark CO2 emissions regulations for existing power plants will certainly have its losers, in the long-run, the winners are in the majority.

Dubbed the Clean Power Plan, drawn up by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Air Act, the regulations mark the first time the government has imposed national-scale limits on the carbon pollution that existing power plants are allowed to release.

Power plants are the single largest source of carbon pollution in the United States, accounting for about one-third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Under the new rule, by 2030 there should be 30 percent less CO2 emitted from the energy sector – and that’s not counting effects of the equivalent rule for new power plants, released last year.

Individual states will be able to design their own unique programs from “a menu of options” that run the gamut from changing the fuels used in electricity generation, to increasing energy efficiency and reducing demand among consumers, to creating or joining regional cap-and-trade markets. State have until until June 2016 to finalize their plans.

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Source: the Environmental Protection Agency

Losers in this new era of EPA emissions regulations include coal-fired power plants and coal producers, already losing favor as the renewable energy industry expands across the country, will be hardest hit. Nearly three-fourths of emissions from electric power come from coal, yet the resource produces less than half of the country’s electricity. With the new regulations, the EPA projects that the amount of coal used for energy in the U.S. will decline by at least a quarter by 2020. Yet for now, four Western states get more than half their energy from coal: Utah, Colorado and New Mexico supply 60 to 80 percent of their total energy needs from coal; Wyoming, at least 80 percent.

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The suburbs didn't die — just short-circuited

Jonathan Thompson | Jun 02, 2014 05:00 AM

Wasn’t it just a few months ago that we were all celebrating the death of the suburbs? Both Millennials and Boomers, and perhaps many of those in between, were headed for the walkable, vibrant urban core. We would bulldoze no more desert for McMansions; sunflowers would invade exurban golf courses; and the expressways built to accommodate mind-numbing commutes would be taken over by bicycles. All those homogenous homes out in the fringes would be abandoned.

But wait. The paradigm has shifted yet again! Or so it seems. In Census bureau data released May 22 on population growth in metropolitan areas, the Wall Street Journal found “Signs of a Suburban Comeback:”

The long tug of war between big cities and suburbs is tilting ever so slightly back to the land of lawns and malls. After two years of solid urban growth, more Americans are moving again to suburbs and beyond.

The fastest growing towns of over 50,000 could be considered suburban or even exurban, and many of them are in the West. A quick glance at the list would lead one to conclude that our growth patterns are heading right back to where they were before the housing crash, and that rumors of the death of suburbia were wildly exaggerated. Western ‘urbs in the top 10 for percentage of growth from 2012 to 2013 include:

  • South Jordan, Utah — a suburb or even exurb of Salt Lake City — placed third nationally after a couple of Texas towns, growing by a whopping six percent and adding 3,400 people;
  • In fifth place is Lehi, Utah, another city along the sprawling Wasatch Front/Salt Lake metro zone. It added 2,842 to its population, for a growth rate of 5.5 percent;
  • Goodyear, Arizona, a sort of poster child for Phoenix-area leapfrog development, was number six, with a 4.8 percent growth rate, adding 3,308 people;
  • And Meridian, Idaho, a suburb of Boise, was in 10th place, adding 3,187 people for a growth rate of four percent.

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New California shrimp: A reminder of the West's undiscovered biodiversity

Ben Goldfarb | May 30, 2014 05:00 AM

In 2010, Ed Hendrycks, a research assistant at the Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa, was poring through his museum’s collection of caprellids with José Guerra-Garcia, a researcher visiting from Sevilla, when the Spanish scientist noticed an unusual specimen.

One of the caprellids – tiny crustaceans whose slender, translucent bodies have earned them the nickname “ghost shrimp” or “skeleton shrimp” – didn’t look like the others in the collection. To a layperson, the odd creature, smaller than a grain of rice, would have been indistinguishable from other members of its genus, Liropus. But to the scientists’ trained eyes, the tiny projections jutting off the animal’s body segments made it distinct.

Female and male specimens of Liropus minusculus, a skeleton shrimp discovered off the coast of California. Image courtesy of SINC.

Furthermore, while past species of Liropus had been found in Mediterranean, Japanese, and African waters, this one came from Santa Catalina Island, 20 miles southwest of Los Angeles. A diver had collected the specimens in the 1970’s, in a submerged cave 30 feet below the surface of the Pacific. The crustaceans had languished in the vast collections of the museum for decades. “That’s very common in museums,” explains Hendrycks. “Specimens will sit for years and years, until you finally get a specialist” – in this case, Guerra-Garcia, a caprellid expert – “to look at what you have.”


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