Until recently, the phrase “flash flood” conjured in my mind a racing blue wall of water, or a canyon running red as blood with sediment – a deadly natural force that smells simply and cleanly of earth and rain. But a trip with friends down the San Juan River in southeastern Utah set me straight a couple summers ago. Every time a thunderstorm parked on the horizon, tributary washes vomited filth into the main stem, creating suspensions of foul mud so thick the water left a crackly skin of dust on our bodies.
At our last campsite before the takeout, I sank to my thighs in greenish muck at the mouth of flash flood-prone Oljeto Wash. The smell was ungodly, halfway between rot and feedlot -- a landscape’s worth of refuse, from motor-oil cans and cellophane wrappers to sheep and cattle manure, scoured free by rain, super concentrated by narrow-veined drainages and deposited between us and the beach where we had hoped to enjoy a celebratory tequila shot or two.
The experience, for me, was sort of a scummy baptism into a landscape-level vision of how people affect the environment. Seemly inconsequential messes – a drizzle of coolant in your driveway, that dog poop you didn’t scoop because you forgot a bag – clearly could add up to quite a lot across a watershed packed with people and their livestock, industries and farm fields. And I had the shit-stockings to prove it.
Dense networks of logging roads in the Pacific Northwest present this sort of problem on a grand scale. Heavy, frequent rains flush sediment and gravel from the earthen roads into streams where they can harm already-struggling salmon runs by smothering eggs, scraping gills or hampering feeding.
Environmental groups’ attempts to get a firmer handle on that pollution suffered a setback March 20 when the Supreme Court supported the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to not regulate logging-road runoff as “point-source” industrial pollution under the Clean Water Act. Bringing that law to bear could have led to much stricter monitoring and water-quality standards and no-cut buffer zones around streams, among other measures.
At the Grand Canyon Skywalk, tourists can pay about $90 to shuffle along a horseshoe of glass that extends over the rim’s edge, wearing special booties to avoid scratching the surface as they peer 4,000 vertical feet down at the Colorado River. For such a snazzy feat of engineering, you would expect an equally fancy visitor’s center: maybe a gift shop with overpriced calendars or a kitschy photo booth, but at least restrooms with running water and electricity.
But no! Four years after the Hualapai Tribe opened the Skywalk, the visitor’s center remains a construction zone as legal wrangling with the attraction’s developer, David Jin, continues. In early March, the tribal corporation that runs the Skywalk declared bankruptcy to avoid paying Jin millions of dollars. And days earlier, the tribe seized another major tourism project from its non-native owners. The backhanded business maneuvers have tribal and outside observers worrying that future investors will be discouraged from doing business with not just the Hualapai, but tribes around the country.
Ready for a quick history of the Skywalk? Here we go:
In 1988, the Hualapai opened Grand Canyon West, a new vantage point on the big ditch. The attraction was rustic, to say the least. "They bladed a dirt runway and took (tourists out in) a van, and they sat freezing at Guano Point and ate a meal out there," Sheri YellowHawk, former CEO of the tribe’s business arm, told HCN in 2006.
In 2009, a reporter for CBS’s 60 Minutes asked the then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger a hard question about California’s water. The state had been battling over the fate of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta for decades, and, with the Governator’s encouragement, work was progressing on the new Bay Delta Conservation Plan. The plan was supposed to supply water to Central Valley farms and Southern California cities while also protecting Delta fish and farmers. It was a tall order, and 60 Minutes wanted to know if Schwarzenegger thought he could have it all.
“Schwarzenegger barely missed a beat: "Absolutely, you can have it all." Then, as if realizing how absurd that sounded, Schwarzenegger waffled: "It's just ... you've got to recognize that it is a very, very complicated issue."”
Four years later, things in the Delta are still complicated—so complicated, in fact, that current governor Jerry Brown is among those sick of the “analysis paralysis” that accompanies trying to make everyone happy and is moving forward with the centerpiece of the 50-year Bay Delta Conservation Plan: a pair of multi-billion dollar tunnels beneath the Delta that will (hopefully) help recover imperiled fish like the delta smelt and Chinook salmon, while reliably moving water south.
With so many interests at stake, it’s not surprising that lawmakers are already criticizing a draft version of the first four chapters of the Plan, released last week, for putting “the interests of south-of-delta water contractors before our farmers, fishers and small business owners who depend on the delta for their livelihoods,” as Rep. Mike Thompson told E&E News (subscription required). But there is also wide recognition that something must be done in the Delta, as Emily Green reported for HCN, after Brown first unveiled the most recent tunnel proposal last summer. The entire ecosystem is in peril, and the year-to-year pendulum between holding back water for fish and sending water away from the Delta makes both people and fish insecure.
In 2001, a week before George W. Bush took the oath of office, the Forest Service dropped a bombshell. It released the 1,800 page Sierra Nevada Framework, a plan for how to manage 11.5 million acres of Sierra Nevada forests to protect the California spotted owl, reduce wildfires and protect habitat. Unlike previous plans, which prioritized timber harvests, restoring the health of the Sierra Nevada was the primary goal of the plan (check out HCN’s 2001 special issue on the Framework for more details).The Forest Service had spent eight years and millions of dollars on the document, which industry groups quickly attacked for its limits on logging, ranchers criticized for protecting bird habitat at the possible expense of cattle, and cabin-owners protested for limiting when they could camp. The Bush administration made quick work of sweeping aside what was supposed to be a science-based document and writing its own version, which was released in 2004. Then, incoming Forest Service chief Dale Boswoth quickly dispatched the signer of the Framework, California’s Regional Forester Brad Powell, to the hinterlands of Montana.
After such a tortured process, it’s ironic that the U.S. government is now arguing that the Framework is simply a planning document with no real impacts on the ground, meaning environmental groups do not have legal grounds to challenge it.
This is the line of reasoning the feds’ lawyers will push when U.S. Forest Service vs. Pacific Rivers Council hits the Supreme Court this fall. The debate--who has the right to sue over a forest plan and when--dates back to 2005, when Pacific Rivers Council sued the Forest Service over the Bush-era Framework, arguing that it did not do enough to protect watersheds and fish. Many others piped up with complaints about the new plan, too: it allowed too many new roads, would more than double the amount of logging in the Sierra and sacrifice big trees, and it favored logging over prescribed burns to reduce the risk of wildfire. PRC’s lawsuit was one of many filed at the time, but because of numerous appeals by federal lawyers, it was the only one to make it to the Supreme Court. The PRC lost its first case, but won the appeal on substance: The 9th Circuit Court held that the forest plan violated the National Environmental Policy Act by not considering impacts on fish. Now that the government has appealed and the case is headed to the Supreme Court, the questions the justices will consider are not only substantive, but theoretical: is the PRC even allowed to challenge a forest plan?
On Monday, Congressman Steve Lynch, a Democrat seeking his party's support to run for the Massachusetts Senate seat vacated by our new Secretary of State, John Kerry, received a menacing letter. "Because climate change is such a serious issue," it read, "we are asking you, Congressman Lynch, today to do one of two things by high noon on Friday, March 22. Either act like a real Democrat and oppose (the Keystone XL pipeline's) dirty energy. Or, get a sworn, binding statement – with securities law enforcement – from TransCanada and the refiners that all of the Keystone-shipped oil will stay here." (Keystone XL opponents believe that most of the Canadian tar sands crude that the pipeline will transport to Gulf Coast refineries will be destined for overseas markets, doing little to wean the U.S. off Middle East oil, one of the main arguments in favor of the pipeline.)
If Lynch declined? "We will then immediately launch an aggressive public education campaign, including: investigative reports about your record, public events targeting interested Democratic voters, a college-based get-out-the-vote effort, community-to-community activity in cities and towns with the worst childhood asthma rates, and a robust social media effort to help voters understand that their climate interest is on the ballot."
The letter was signed by three Massachusetts college students, a Harvard law grad and director of a local climate activist group, and someone you wouldn't expect to be wading into the Massachusetts Senate race in such bold fashion: Tom Steyer, a San Francisco hedge fund tycoon.
Should Lynch stand his ground, which it appears he will, Steyer is promising to bankroll a Super PAC to ensure his defeat in the Democratic primary by Ed Markey, a Massachusetts congressman who is a Keystone XL opponent and generally the apple of environmentalists' eyes.
The last five years have been quite nice for the firearm industry. Gun and ammunition makers had a bonanza in 2009, thanks to fears that a newly-elected President Obama would sent out jackbooted, United Nations thugs in black helicopters to steal their guns (and maybe build bike paths, too!). It didn’t happen, of course. Yet that didn’t stop people from rushing out and fortifying their arsenals again after mass shootings in 2011 (Tucson) and 2012 (Aurora and Newtown). Gun sale background checks peaked in the weeks following the Newtown shooting, consistently reaching the highest levels since 1999.
The losers -- aside from a society now more awash in killing tools -- are the pocketbooks of those who were duped into going on a gun-buying frenzy. The winners, of course, are the firearm corporations, who pulled in money hand over fist, even during the recession. Freedom Group, the gun conglomerate that makes Bushmaster AR-15s, the gun used in the Newtown shooting, had a banner year in 2009 [PDF]. They were on pace for an even better one in 2012, but haven’t released fourth quarter or annual earnings reports.
There’s another, somewhat unexpected winner in this paroxysm of gunpowder capitalism, however: Wildlife and the landscapes on which they depend. Every time a pistol, rifle, shell or cartridge is sold at the wholesale level, it is taxed (archery equipment is also included). And the proceeds from the tax go to the Wildlife Restoration Fund, administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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In the usual Monday-morning email deluge, one message caught my eye: "Live Webcam Captures Peregrine Falcons Laying Eggs."
The advertised falcon was in Maine, not around here, but who can resist peeking at a rare bird on her nest? It's sort of like looking in somebody's windows, except in a non-creepy way that won't get you arrested.
Anyway, it got me wondering about what other kinds of wild animals Westerners might be able to spy on without binoculars. Turns out there are all sorts of critter-cams out there for wildlife voyeurs; here's a sampling.
WHAT: Great horned owls
WHERE: Boulder, Colo.
NOTES: Hosted by Xcel Energy, the camera was intended for peregrine falcons but owls ended up nesting there instead. Mounted on Valmont Station, a power plant, the owl cam "is installed 260 feet above ground because the owls prefer nesting in a more secluded area, and mother owls can become quite aggressive when raising their young," according to Xcel.
Recently, it seems people on both sides of the pond have horse slaughter on the brain. In Europe, the discovery of horsemeat in Ikea’s purportedly all-beef meatballs has countries pointing fingers at each other, trying pin the blame for mislabeled meat on someone else. Ultimately, the issue seems to boil down to different degrees of acceptance of eating horses.
Here in the United States, the question is not “to eat or not to eat,” but rather, “to kill or not to kill.” Horse slaughter has been essentially illegal since 2006, when Congress shut down all slaughterhouses that produced horsemeat for human consumption by blocking spending for federal inspection. The last plant closed a year later. But that federal ban lapsed in 2011. Now, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture processes an application for the country’s first horse slaughterhouse in New Mexico, four federal lawmakers have introduced a bill that would once again ban killing horses for human consumption. It would also prevent would-be sellers from carting horses to slaughterhouses across the border.
Valley Meat Company of Roswell, N.M., put in the application for a horsemeat inspector soon after the ban was lifted. But the USDA stalled, and eventually the company sued, forcing the agency to pick up the pace. The project appears likely to be approved, although recent revelations that the plant disposed of cattle carcasses incorrectly could throw a wrench in the process.
Even though most of Valley Meat’s horsemeat would be exported to places like Mexico, Russia, China and, yes, Europe, the idea of someone, somewhere, eating horses that have been killed in the U.S. for that explicit purpose is unsettling to many Americans. The anti-horse-slaughter law, called the Safeguard American Food Exports (SAFE) Act, appears to be a response to both the European scandal and the proposed New Mexico slaughterhouse; horse and animal rights activists around the country have embraced it.
When I read that mining companies are pressuring the Navajo Nation to let them mine uranium on Diné land I thought: What gall. After all, the Navajos banned uranium mining on the reservation back in 2005, and for good reason. From World War II until the mid-1980s, the federally-subsidized uranium industry pulled some 4 million tons of uranium from within the nation’s boundaries. In doing so, they laid waste to a good portion of the Navajo Nation, along with many of the people who worked in or lived near the mines, mills and tailings piles.
The industry’s legacy is etched on the landscape: hundreds of abandoned mines, contaminated water sources, homes that have been built with contaminated soil. The health impacts are harder to see, but they include lung, bone and breast cancer and kidney failure. How many generations will be impacted is still unknown. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on cleaning up mine sites, moving and capping tailings, replacing contaminated homes and piping clean water to remote places. And the cleanup, and spending, continues. Just this week, the Navajo Nation accepted a $3 million grant from the EPA to replace more contaminated homes.
So it seems insane -- maybe even a little sick -- for companies to come begging to do it all over again. There’s no way the Navajos would lift their ban. Is there?
It was a big deal when the Forest Service introduced its new planning rule in 2012. The rule dictates how the nation's 155 national forests and 20 national grasslands write their individual plans, which in turn regulate nearly every aspect of how these public lands are managed: where logging and grazing occur, what's set aside as wilderness, when motorized travel and other uses are allowed, how species are protected. The last time the rule was successfully changed was in 1982.
As you'd expect, both industry and environmentalists had high hopes for the new rule, which is holding its ground despite a lawsuit from timber, grazing, and recreation groups claiming the unlawfulness of making "ecological sustainability" the primary purpose of forest management. Groups like The Wilderness Society are encouraged by the emphasis on ecological integrity and restoration, but they're also worried that the new rule loosens the Forest Service's obligations to protect species and habitat (see HCN 3/7/11 "New national forest rule lacks rigor"). What seemed less controversial all around was the rule's talk about "collaboration."