As an environmental journalist, I know full well how difficult it can be to get people interested in a creeping problem. Climate change is a perfect example—its effects are hard to pin down and slow to develop. Wildfire, on the other hand, is dramatic, deadly and easily identifiable as a problem, especially if your house burns down. Climate change news doesn’t break, journalists joke: it oozes.
Wildlife diseases are the same way. Those that dramatically wipe out entire populations—think white nose syndrome in bats or chytrid fungus in amphibians—garner much more media coverage than ailments like chronic wasting disease, which affects elk, deer and moose. CWD takes years to kill a single infected individual and has yet to completely decimate an entire herd. “I’ve heard it called an epidemic in slow motion,” says Christopher Johnson, a research biologist at the National Wildlife Health Center in Wisconsin.
Despite CWD’s slow pace, the disease isn’t going away: since being identified in captive mule deer in northern Colorado in 1967, it has spread to 19 states and in Wyoming, close to 40 percent of deer in the eastern half of the state are infected, up from 15 percent in 1997. One mule deer herd in particular has a 50 percent infection rate for males, the highest known prevalence in all of North America. Now, researchers studying that herd say they’re finally getting to a point where they can document how CWD slowly destroys an entire population, not just individuals. The preliminary findings aren’t good: the herd’s size has been cut in half in the past 12 years, and the drop seems to be related to CWD-induced deaths, says Melia DeVivo, a PhD student at University of Wyoming.
Yet there seems to be little general interest in CWD, and researchers say federal funding has decreased in recent years even as infection rates rise. “The negative effects aren’t in your face immediately,” DeVivo says, but “it is going to really hurt some of these populations if not completely wipe them out.”
Some brutal details have emerged about the Granite Mountain Hotshots' last day of life. The 19 firefighters were just 600 yards from the safety of the ranch they were headed toward when they were forced to deploy their fire shelters and were quickly overtaken by flames and 2,000-plus-degree heat. Just 40 minutes or so before that, they were "in the black" -- the firefighting term for an already-burned safe zone. Had they stayed there, they'd probably still be alive.
One of the most haunting questions of the investigation of the incident commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, and released this weekend, is why they moved. But it will remain forever unanswered.
That's not to say many questions were answered by the investigators' report -- at least not directly. Unlike the joint Bureau of Land Management-U.S. Forest Service report on the 1994 South Canyon Fire in Colorado, in which 14 firefighters lost their lives, it identified no "direct causes" of the accident. It didn't explicitly lay blame at anyone's feet, or pin it to any specific operational missteps.
There's probably a reason for this, and it might be rooted in the Thirtymile Fire.
If the House has its way with the nearly expired farm bill, $40 billion would be cut from the federal food stamps program over the next ten years. These cuts could mean that the 9 million Westerners who rely on the program will find it harder than ever to put meals on the table.
Every five years or so, Congress has the chance to update the 1,000 page farm bill, which also gives farm subsidies and funds conservation projects and school lunches. The last version, passed in 2008, will expire on Oct. 1 if Congress doesn’t act. A major sticking point is how much money to put toward the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, which helps feed nearly 15 percent of Americans. Almost half of SNAP recipients are children; the rest are seniors, the unemployed, and disabled adults.
Since the 2008 farm bill was passed, the number of food stamp recipients has increased by roughly 45 percent, from 28 million to 47 million people.
Benefit payments have increased even more quickly, from $34 billion to nearly $80 billion nationally. These increases were caused largely by the recession as unemployment and poverty rates increased and more people qualified for help, reports the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a respected D.C. thinktank. In addition, the Center reports that SNAP is at an all-time high for efficiency and accuracy, with waste and fraud dropping consistently over the past 15 years.
The House’s proposed cuts would tighten restrictions on food stamps, particularly on who is eligible for aid and for how long. It would allow states to add work requirements, drug testing, and limit indefinite aid for working-age, able-bodied adults with no children. The Senate has also proposed cuts to SNAP, but at one-tenth the amount that the House proposed.
The contention about how much funding to allot to SNAP– which falls mainly along party lines – is a major obstacle in passing the new farm bill. In addition to federal food assistance, which was rolled into the bill in 1973, the farm bill also includes subsidies and crop insurance for farmers. These programs are far from perfect as well. Critics note that large payments often go to corporate farms that could easily weather downturns without federal handouts, and that the programs are fraught with abuses. One of the greatest ironies of the House’s proposed version of the bill is that it cuts food access for the poor while increasing farm subsidies – which already reward the wealthiest farmers.
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I run. And I weep. My tears may come from the fact that it’s 6 a.m., or perhaps from the burning in legs and lungs as I try to hold the pace of the leaders. But I’m pretty sure my sobs come from a deep joy inspired by the way the rising sun lights up the ancient buildings of Old Oraibi on a mesa distant, and the way it does so at the very moment that gravel road gives way to a narrow rain-dampened trail. This trail, I imagine, has been trod for centuries by runners vying against one another, or heading off to distant farms to tend to the corn. My 97 fellow runners and I, it seems, have transcended time.
It’s early September, and this is the 40th annual Louis Tewanima 10 kilometer footrace, which takes place in and around the Hopi village of Shungopavi in northern Arizona. The race is named after a Hopi who was yanked as a young man from his home in Shungopavi in 1907 and shipped off to boarding school in Carlisle, Penn. There, the cross-country coach noticed the youngster’s talent, and Tewanima began running competitively. He finished 9th in the 1908 Olympic Marathon, and won the silver medal in the 1912 Olympic 10,000 meter run, setting an American record that held until Billy Mills, a Sioux, broke it in 1964.
Today’s race, organized by Tewanima’s kin, celebrates the Olympian’s legacy with a 10k, 5k, two-mile and one-mile run, and is a continuation of a tradition of running that dates back hundreds of years. It draws a total of some 300 runners from Indian Country and beyond, giving participants a glimpse of a Hopi that they might not otherwise see.
The Hopi culture is as deeply embedded as any in the canyons and mesas of the Southwest. Their ancestors are the Ancestral Puebloans, neé Anasazi, who once inhabited much of the Four Corners Region, and built the pueblos of Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde and Hovenweep. Over time the Puebloans packed up and moved, as people sometimes do, migrating to other parts of the region, and various branches of their descendants now live in the pueblos along the Rio Grande, Zuni and in the 12 Hopi villages on and around three mesas that extend into the high desert like fingers from Black Mesa in northern Arizona. Here the Hopi endured and then, in a well-coordinated Pueblo uprising in 1680, cast off Spanish colonists. And they’ve continued to successfully keep much of their culture and traditions intact, despite intrusions from the outside.Read More ...
Halloween night in the windy railroad town of Livingston, Mont.: a Burlington Northern train, consisting of just three locomotives, hisses from the yard and begins the long, slow climb toward Bozeman. Nobody is onboard but a hobo. The engines crest the pass, pick up speed on the downgrade, hit 80 mph and jump the tracks. Railroad officials arrive on the scene and offer the bruised hobo $100,000 for leads on what happened. They suspect sabotage by disgruntled workers; Burlington Northern had just handed over 900 miles of track to Montana Rail Link, owned by anti-union magnate Dennis Washington.
That was the cover story of the Dec. 7, 1987 issue of High Country News. It's just one of many news articles, essays and maps that you can find in the HCN archives, lined up in bound volumes on the shelves at HCN's Paonia, Colo. headquarters.
It was around this time last year, as cold morning breeze came off mountains yellow with aspen, that I first cracked open the bound volumes. With each turn of the pages – more yellowed and more tattered as I flipped back through the years – I felt my past becoming more whole. It was a wide view of the last 40 years in the West, like the view I get by climbing a certain mountain and looking across the valley where I live.
Part of the reason I couldn't stop flipping through the archives is that they're rare. I didn't know then that the university library here in Bozeman (and a few others in the region) also have bound volumes of HCN issues. But I knew I couldn't find them where I get most of my other information – on the internet.
But that's changing. I recently came across the railroad story, and countless other HCN gems, while digitally scanning every page of every issue that the magazine (then in a newspaper format) published between 1984 and 1994 – the year when issues started being posted routinely to this website. Now, I'm uploading the files to the "Past issues" section of the HCN website. Soon, we hope to have all of HCN history digitized and available there.
This is where you come in. To complete this project, we need many pre-1984 loose issues (which can lie flat on the scanner, unlike bound volumes), listed below. So please, dear old-time reader, do you have dusty piles of HCN issues lurking around the house? If you do, and can bear to part with them at least temporarily, please let me know: firstname.lastname@example.org.
As I continue the mostly robotic work of uploading the scanned files, I'll post more archive samplers here on this blog, as well as an updated list of the missing issues. So check back in – and check those attics!
(Dates unknown for those issues listed here without an exact date.)Read More ...
As U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Chief Gina McCarthy finishes a three-state tour to plug her new power plant emissions standards, coal industry representatives met in Delta County in western Colorado for an annual trade conference. Thursday morning started with the usual reports on which Komatsu haul trucks, draglines and Hitachi excavators are en vogue. An announcement was made about a coal mining-focused episode of a new Weather Channel reality show, “Heavy Metal Monsters,” about guys doing dangerous jobs in severe weather. Golf hats, Leatherman knives and Anti Monkey Butt powder (to stop friction of clothing against skin) were raffled off to the crowd. In other words, it was your typical fossil fuel conference. Except a foreboding cloud hung over it: Just days before the event, news of the EPA regulations broke, dealing yet another blow to an already beleaguered industry.
“The one thing we have going for us is that you can’t replace (40 percent) of the country’s energy source over night,” said Trapper Mining environmental engineer Graham Roberts. "It took decades to build and it will take decades to replace the current generation with any sort of alternative."
The new regulations, announced Sept. 20, would require future power plants to reduce emissions to the extent that they'll have to capture 20 to 40 percent of carbon they emit. In effect, new coal plants would need to use technology like carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, to meet the standards. Yet, since CCS technology has yet to be perfected and is not economically viable, the EPA’s announcement would all but put a moratorium on coal. Except that environmentalists, and market forces, basically already did that.Read More ...
Spend even a short while in Alaska, and you’ll begin to see them. They adorn water bottles and truck caps, laptops and storefronts, boats and banjos. Eventually, you notice them cropping up outside the state too, and soon, even in the shimmering heat of the Utah desert, you can’t escape the white circular stickers slashed with red and printed with two words: Pebble Mine.
The proposed Pebble Mine in the headwaters of Southwest Alaska’s Kvichak and Nushagak rivers has become a rallying cry around which an unlikely coalition has formed: Native tribes, commercial fishermen, conservative politicians and treehugging backpackers from “outside” (many of whom probably couldn’t point to the Kvichak river on a map if you paid them), all united against what could become the largest open-pit mine in North America. Such unified opposition against resource extraction is rare in Alaska, but salmon are a big deal here. Many people fear that pollution from Pebble Mine could affect one of the world’s last great salmon runs, as well as the cultures and jobs that depend on it.
Despite one of the most prolific sticker-distributing campaigns in recent memory, the fight against Pebble Mine has more recently been been shaped by simple market forces. The prices of gold and copper – both of which would be mined there – dropped sharply this summer. Mining experts predict a rise in copper demand, but a continued drop in gold’s value.
Then, on Sept. 16, one of two mining companies invested in the project, Anglo American, announced it would withdraw to pursue lower risk ventures, leaving Canadian company Northern Dynasty as sole owner. Northern Dynasty’s stock immediately fell 38 percent. In a conference call with the press, Northern Dynasty officials said that while they’re not giving up, they’ve been searching for new financial partners for years without luck. Whether they’ll find any depends mostly on cold, hard numbers. Here’s a breakdown:
It’s a tough time for megaloads in Idaho. A federal judge recently ruled that the Forest Service has the authority to stop the humungous hauls of Canadian tar sands-bound mining equipment from traveling through the Lochsa and Clearwater River corridor – and that they should use it.
In response, the Forest Service just closed the Highway 12 through the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest to road hogs exceeding 150 feet long and 16 feet wide until further notice. The closure is specific to heavy haul company Omega Morgan. In August they defied the Service by moving a piece of refinery equipment before the agency finished its impact study.
Since megaloads can’t squeeze under overpasses, the Highway 12 route lets companies avoid the cost and delay of breaking down big pieces of equipment and sending them a less direct way. But the Nez Perce Tribe, and local environmental groups, have been fighting the monster trucks since 2011. They are worried about turning the narrow, remote highway through wilderness, and along Wild and Scenic Rivers, into an industrial corridor (companies have proposed tree trimming and highway widening in the past). The tribe doesn’t want the loads passing through 70 miles of their reservation and into the forest where they have treaty rights to hunt, fish and maintain other traditional practices.
For the Nez Perce, flexing their sovereignty muscle in court and actively protesting the megaloads is about more than regional environmental concerns. It’s also a show of solidarity with other tribes affected by Canadian tar sands development and by the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast.
I must have looked like an idiot to the folks watching me from the big diesel pickup.
It was a scorching day in July of 2012, and I had been ushered out in front of the rig to toddle down a dusty, high-desert two track behind a line of greater sage grouse hens like a motherless chick, trying to take a photo. Instead, all six of the mottled brown, chicken-sized birds exploded skyward, scaring me witless as they fled like paparazzi-weary movie stars. I paged through the images I had managed to snap as I trotted back: Nothing but rolling scrubby hills and a clear sky marked with the barest hints of distant, retreating sage grouse butts.
“Well, at least now you know we’re not lying about this story,” laughed Patti Bennett as I climbed into the air-conditioned cab. She and her husband Mark Bennett, along with Travis Bloomer and Josh Uriarte of the Natural Resource Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative (SGI), were taking me on a tour of a federally-funded conifer removal project meant to benefit sage grouse on the Bennetts’ 6,000-acre ranch in Unity, Oregon. The bird’s numbers have plummeted 90 percent across its range over the past century due to habitat loss and fragmentation, among other factors, and it is a candidate for federal endangered species protection, with a decision due from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2015. Hoping to help head off the need for such a listing, and the onerous land-use regulations it would come with, the Bennetts and hundreds of other ranchers have signed on with the SGI, which, as I reported for HCN in 2011, relies on
existing conservation incentive programs to fund and facilitate sage grouse conservation on private lands, (home to) some 40 percent of remaining occupied grouse habitat. The program takes a "core areas" approach that sounds a lot like a region-wide version of Wyoming's grouse plan in that it focuses on preventing fragmentation and improving habitat in the approximately 25 percent of occupied grouse range that hosts 75 percent of the remaining population – an area encompassing more than 50 million total acres in 11 Western states.
As we drove, my hosts pointed out the skeletons of juniper trees they had cut and left scattered over the sagebrush-covered hilltops. In some areas where juniper had grown into full forests – places perhaps beyond restoration -- they showed me how the trees had outcompeted other vegetation, leaving the ground beneath them bare of the sagebrush, forbs and grasses that grouse rely on for food and cover.
First, to get the blood pumping, a few shots of hysteria:
A recent Los Angeles Times headline sums it up: "Killer bee season underway with a vengeance." Whoa, and not just because of the cliché. So far this year, the list of killer-bee victims in the U.S. begins with a confirmed fatality, 62-year-old Larry Goodwin, who got stung more than 1,000 times by a Texas swarm that was estimated to total more than 40,000 bees. A headline specifically about that attack: "Horror as huge swarm of Africanized bees chase down farmer stinging him to death."
In Arizona, "a massive black mass of bees" – whoa, and not just because of the massive repetition – attacked several people and horses in a Phoenix suburb. Other Arizona swarms killed four dogs in Tucson, and maybe (not confirmed) killed a mountain climber and his dog in the Santa Rita range. A woman who witnessed an attack on an Arizona landscaper who was using a Weedeater in her yard reported: "I saw (him) throw his equipment into the air, his sunglasses fell off and all I saw was black. He was screaming and there were just tons of bees attacking him ... I felt so helpless."
Also this year, another Texas swarm killed two miniature horses and five hens, and stung a woman "about 200 times, her boyfriend about 50 times ... The pain from the stings was like being stabbed with hundreds of knives and torched with a flamethrower at the same time, (the woman) said. ... (One of the horses) quickly became covered with bees and began thrashing wildly around the yard in pain ... She and the horse both jumped into the backyard swimming pool in an effort to escape (but) the bees hovered above the water and stung (her) face when she would come up for air ..." The headline about that attack warned: "Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid."
On the other hand, more than 60 million people in the U.S. territory invaded by killer bees – largely the Southwestern states – did not get stung this year. Or anyway they didn't get newsworthy stung.
The background, as I reported in a 2002 HCN magazine story: "It wasn't supposed to turn out like this. ... When 26 bee colonies from Africa were brought to Brazil by a scientist in 1956, it was an attempt to boost that country's honey production ... But a year later, African queens escaped captivity and began spreading like crazy on their own, taking over regular honeybee colonies either by force or interbreeding and asserting dominant genes, and occupying many niches held by native bees. Soon, Hollywood was churning out cheap horror movies like The Swarm and Deadly Invasion: The Killer Bee Nightmare. ... The front shifted from country to country as the Africanized bees picked up speed and killed an estimated 1,000 people in Latin America. They invaded Texas in 1990, Arizona and New Mexico in 1993, California in 1994, Nevada in 1998."
Despite the hysteria, killer bees have only killed somewhere between a dozen and two dozen people in the U.S. (also from my previous story, "There is disagreement about how many deaths the killer bees can be blamed for: Do we count the bulldozer driver in Texas who jumped off to run from bees and got run over by his own machine?"). Each death is a terrible tragedy for the victims, their families and friends. Meanwhile the bees continue to spread, taking over southern Utah and southern Florida, creeping northward in California, and showing up in pockets of Georgia and Tennessee. Cold weather is thought to be a limiting factor, but states close to the front lines, like Oregon, are wondering if/when the invasion will cross their borders.