While last week the federal government predicted a major budget shortfall for fighting wildfire, some groups are looking for innovative ways to fund wildfire prevention at the local level instead of waiting for the feds to pick up the bill.
The latest Department of Interior and Forest Service forecasts for wildfire suppression expenditures are higher than ever, and the agencies will likely need to spend $1.8 billion fighting fires this year – about $470 million more than the available federal budget. The primary culprit making fires more severe and intense – and hence more expensive to fight – is climate change: This week’s National Climate Assessment from the White House hammers home the point that wildfires are only getting worse as the climate warms. “Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall,” John Holdren, Obama’s science adviser, said in a video that summarizes the assessment. “Rain comes down in heavier downpours. …Drought and increased warming in the southwest foster wildfires, and increased competition for scarce water resources for people and for ecosystems.”
But innovative local investment in preventing wildfires could help offset the projected shortage of federal funds to fight them. Last week, more than 100 people – mostly Arizona land managers, scientists, policy-makers and people from the private sector – attended a workshop, “Investing in Restoration: Arizona’s Forests and Watersheds,” in Tempe, Arizona to brainstorm on how local communities can mitigate for wildfire by keeping their ecosystems healthy. The key goal, said co-organizer Diane Vosick, was to identify local-scale funding mechanisms that could fast-track fire risk reduction measures, which have become particularly urgent in the face of the looming shortage of federal funds.
Vosick represents the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University, a co-organizer of the Tempe workshop alongside the Salt River Project utility company, which provides electricity to nearly a million people in the state. Both groups approach wildfire from an ecosystems standpoint: The forest, the watershed, wildlife habitat and quality of life are intertwined, and reducing risk of catastrophic fire means protecting that entire ecosystem. “We’re trying to be agile,” Vosick said, by tackling forest restoration and wildfire mitigation in tandem, and helping more communities to adopt (and finance) the approach.
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The sight was so unusual we stopped our meeting to stare: men in helmets and riot gear, carrying semi-automatic weapons, were surrounding a bank in Lander, Wyoming, on a Wednesday in late April. As we sipped our chai lattes from the coffee shop across the street, we watched as the armed men escorted a guy pushing a laundry cart towards the back entrance of the bank. It didn’t seem to be a robbery; the men were in fact police officers called to escort an armored truck delivering millions of dollars in cash to banks around this small central Wyoming town.
The cash came from the U.S. Treasury and was part of a big settlement between the federal government and the two tribes that share the nearby Wind River Reservation: the Northern Arapaho and the Eastern Shoshone. In 1977, the two tribes sued the feds over mismanagement of their mineral rights. They argued the government didn’t negotiate a fair price for oil and gas leases and didn’t follow-up to make sure companies were actually paying the proper amount in royalties.
The feds paid out a series of smaller settlements to the tribes over the years, but decided to wrap up the rest of the money in a single $157 million payout. “This is the first time people have gotten a big chunk,” said Harry Sachse, one of the lawyers who filed the case on behalf of the Eastern Shoshone.
About 20 years ago, my father gave me the book, Woven Stone, by Simon J. Ortiz. I was reading a lot of Native American literature at the time, such as Leslie Marmon Silko, N. Scott Momaday and Sherman Alexie. I was also reading a lot of poetry, from Richard Shelton to Rilke. Ortiz, a poet from Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, fit right in.
Woven Stone, more than 300 pages long, includes poetry written over many years. As I tend to do with poetry, I also have read it over many years, picking it up from time to time, flipping to a random page, and reading a few poems. I’ve mostly been drawn to those with vivid imagery and clear, simple emotion. “My Father’s Song” is perhaps my favorite. “Wanting to say things,” writes Ortiz, “I miss my father tonight.” He goes on to recite his father’s song, which is about planting corn at Aacqua (Acoma) and coming across the burrow nest of a mouse:
Very gently, he scooped tiny pink animals
into the palm of his hand
and told me to touch them.
We took them to the edge of the field and put them in the shade
of a sand moist clod.
I remember the very softness
of cool and warm sand and tiny alive
mice and my father saying things.
A few weeks ago, however, I picked up Woven Stone and discovered something I had completely overlooked during all those years. Amidst the evocative imagery and the powerful emotion was a chronicle of the Southwest, a clear-eyed historical account of environmental plunder, exploitation, oppression and the plight of the Native American. Read all the way through, Woven Stone is like a poetic history of a region.
This belated realization came to me as I researched a story about Gallup, N.M. John Redhouse, a Navajo who has long fought against reservation border town racism and uranium mining, sent me a packet of stories about Larry Casuse, a Navajo activist who was killed in a firefight with Gallup police back in 1973. The packet included stories from a variety of media, even a New Yorker piece by Calvin Trillin. Because of the way the packet was put together, I began reading “We Shall Endure” — an account of a march memorializing Casuse — without knowing who wrote it. It turns out the author was Ortiz.
Nestled in the Cascade Mountains of central Washington, winding along a 15-mile stretch of interstate is the largest wildlife connectivity project you've never heard of. Deer, elk, mountain goats, bobcats, black bears, foxes, mink, otters, cougars and wild turkeys roam the region’s old growth forests, mountain meadows, streams and glacier-covered peaks. But all too often, they end up dead on the road, trying to cross I-90, the longest east-west road in Washington state.
The I-90 Snoqualmie Pass East Project, now under construction, aims to make that stretch of highway less hazardous for humans and for wildlife. The enormous and expensive facelift includes a makeover of some scary-sharp curves, expansion from four lanes to six, new road surfaces and rock slope stabilization.
The project also includes massive engineering feats meant to help wild animals of all types safely cross the enlarged highway, which carries 27,000 vehicles per day. When completed, there will be around 32 medium- to large-sized undercrossings in up to 18 locations, plus over 100 small culverts to carry surface water along with amphibians and reptiles, and two massive bridges, or “overcrossings”. “We needed ecological connectivity to prevent the genetic isolation of species,” says Forest Service biologist Patty Garvey-Darda, the driving force behind the project. “The goal was to connect all habitats, all species and all hydrologic features.”
Phase 1, the first five miles of the project, is nearly finished, complete with the first major wildlife underpass at Gold Creek. Phase 2 should begin in 2015, and will include the project’s crown jewel at Price/Noble Creek, one of the most important “Connectivity Emphasis Areas” in the pass: The larger of the two wildlife bridges, an 800-foot long animals-only overpass, strong enough to support a growing ecosystem – trees and all.
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As oil and gas development in Western states continues to increase, from Green River, Utah to North Dakota’s Bakken, so do public fears of water contamination from spills and hydraulic fracturing. Although fracking (pumping water and chemicals underground to release oil or gas trapped within rock) has been used for decades, there’s still no conclusive evidence about how harmful it may be to groundwater.
Communities that draw most of their drinking water from wells are particularly concerned about what new oil and gas development might mean for groundwater supplies (see our story “Locals resist a Bakkenization of the Beartooths”). A few states, like Colorado and Wyoming, require energy companies in some areas to do a certain amount of baseline water testing before drilling, but those laws are still anomalies – mostly, such testing is up to landowners.
Now, the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Water and Research Center has come up with a guide to help landowners collect baseline data on well water before drilling begins. Such information can help owners negotiate with energy companies and make it easier to document any later problems with water quality or quantity. The guide focuses on Colorado, but the information is helpful to landowners in any state.
First off, the guide says: Know your water. Be aware of what’s normal for your particular water source because most groundwater quality changes naturally with wet and dry seasons. Not every little change is bad, so test regularly over time to get an accurate baseline. Also, common contaminants like fertilizers, manure, septic systems and even storm-water runoff are generally more likely to contaminate your well than is nearby extraction, the guide says. So know your well’s surroundings.
It’s also important to keep in mind that it may take a while for any contamination to make its way into a well. Pollutants from oil and gas drilling might not be detectable in your well until years later. So think long-term: If you’re within half a mile of a planned drilling site, start testing at least six months before drilling begins, and continue sampling twice each year.
In some states, you can learn more about your water wells in online databases, such as the Colorado Division of Water Resources Well Permit Search database that helps Coloradans find out what their well casing is made of, how deep it goes and in some cases, which aquifer it draws from.
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Court rulings are not typically repositories of poetic prose. But they occasionally contain beautiful little gems, like this quote from the King James Bible, embedded in Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's majority opinion in a clean air case the Supreme Court ruled on this week: "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth."
The thing about the wind is that it goeth where it pleaseth, ignoring the political boundaries we humans have drawn around our cities, states and nations. Frequently, it blows pollution created in one state into another state. Heck it even delivers soot from China to the West Coast. And that makes air pollution tricky to regulate. What is an unlucky downwind state to do if it falls out of compliance with air quality standards because of pollution drifting over from its neighbors, pollution over which it has no control?
Anticipating such a conundrum, Congress wrote a "good neighbor provision" into the Clean Air Act, barring states from "significantly contributing" to downwind states' failure to meet air quality standards. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency first used its power to ensure interstate neighborliness in the late 1990s, with a plan for managing drifting nitrogen oxides. Then, in 2005, the Bush Administration created a new but similar rule to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. That rule was overturned by a lower court in the administration's twilight. So, in 2011, the Obama Administration crafted its own "cross-state air pollution rule," often called the "transport rule," and it was stricter than the Bush version. It was the validity of this rule that the Supreme Court just considered, and upheld, reversing a lower court decision that had tossed out the regulation in its entirety.
On its face, the decision doesn't matter much to Westerners because the transport rule applies only to Washington D.C. and 27 Eastern states, where there is a higher concentration of big, old coal plants, especially in the Midwest, and where prevailing west-to-east winds blow their soot and smog-forming emissions to their neighbors and beyond. In the East, the regulation is expected to force significant new cuts in sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides pollution from some coal plants.
But the ruling may have implications for other major clean air cases making their way through the courts. Since the Clean Air Act itself is not crystal clear on how the EPA must go about tackling the complex problem of pollution that travels between states, the Supreme Court gave the agency leeway to interpret the law and come up with a reasonable regulation, what lawyers call "deference."
The data are trickling in, and with each passing day it seems more certain: 2014 is going to be an El Niño year, and probably a big one. What does that mean for your Western state?
First, a quick primer on the science behind The Niño. In normal years, prevailing winds in the Pacific Ocean push warm water to the west, toward Indonesia, leaving space for deeper cold water to rise off the coast of South America. When those trade winds slacken or about-face – a phenomenon that appears to be occurring right now – fasten your seat belts and prepare for a bumpy El Niño ride. The reversed winds drive warm waters eastward and up toward the ocean’s surface, where they come into contact with the atmosphere, increase air temperatures, and send global weather patterns haywire, generating storms, droughts, and heat waves. Voila – you’re a meteorologist!
“I think there’s no doubt that there’s an El Niño underway,” climate scientist Kevin Trenberth of the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research recently told Wired. “The question is whether it’ll be a small or big one.” What makes scientists like Trenberth so confident? The Pacific is already heating up. In the below map, yellow and orange areas represent temperature anomalies – places where the surface of the ocean is unusually warm for this time of year. You're about to see a whole lot of yellow:
While it’s still a little early to be making definitive predictions about the magnitude of the coming El Niño, it may turn out to be a beast to rival the 1997-98 event, which cost the U.S. an estimated $10 billion in storm damages and crop losses. (Although El Niño typically transpires every two to seven years, climate change could be increasing the frequency of super-strong events.) As Eric Holthaus explained in Slate, the subsurface blob of warm water now drifting toward the Americas is enormous – large enough to cover the entire United States to a depth of 300 feet. That immense anomaly could make 2014 the hottest year in recorded global history, and 2015 might be even steamier.
Every El Niño is different, of course, and extrapolating from previous events involves a whole lot of semi-educated guesswork. As some sage once said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” With that caveat out of the way, let’s comb through the historic record to understand what havoc the coming disturbance might wreak upon the American West.
I like to play the “used to be” game. While walking around my hometown with friends, I point to a storefront — one of the snazzier restaurants in town, say — and say, “That used to be this weird little store that carried everything from comic books to frogs in formaldehyde, all left over from the fifties — the hipsters would love it!” Without fail, my friends then yawn in amazement and stupefied awe. I’m kind of like a walking time machine, spouting out the urban landscape equivalent of those before-and-after diet pill photos.
So you can imagine my excitement when I saw the headlines saying that Google’s Street View maps now had a “time travel” function. I could play the “used to be” game all over the world, from the comfort of my own desk. With the click of my mouse, I’d be able to watch that weird old store transform into snazzy restaurant — instant gentrification! So I went to Google maps, found the restaurant, went to Street View and clicked on the little clock in the upper right hand corner.
Disappointment fell on me like a shower of formaldehyded frogs. It turns out that Google didn’t send its panopticam cars all over the place back in the 70s or 80s or even the early Aughts. And so, the trip through Street View time is a short one, at least for now. The earliest views I can find are from 2007, with the most recent in 2013. That’s just not enough time for drastic changes to happen in the street- and road-scape, especially during a major recession. The exceptions, of course, are places that happened to get hit by a massive natural disaster between the earliest Google car visit and more recent ones, e.g. Fukushima in Japan: Where once stood a town, now there is none.
Last spring, Joshua trees put on a magnificent show in the Mojave Desert. Nearly all at once nearly all of them bloomed, sprouting dense bouquets of waxy, creamy-green flowers from their Seussian tufts of spiky leaves. The bloom was so sweeping and abundant -- and such a contrast to the typical pattern, where only a small number of trees bloom in any given year -- that it was called "a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon."
This spring was far less flowery, and yet standing among the giant yuccas in late March, in the Tikaboo Valley north of Las Vegas, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Todd Esque still had the sense he was witnessing something historic. This, he suspects, is the leading edge of the entire species -- "leading" because the trees appear to be marching in the same direction the climate that suits them is expected to shift, with an old, established population of Joshua trees flinging out new recruits in a distinctly northern pattern. That's exactly what scientists believe the shaggy beasts need to do -- and quickly -- to survive in a warming world.
The pattern is obvious to the naked eye here because it's occurring where the Mojave Desert gives way to the Great Basin, where stands of Joshua trees fade to sagebrush. "I get chills when I look at that population," says Esque. "We know from the paleo record that plants and animals have moved north and south by hundreds of miles -- if not more -- in response to climate change. To see it in our lifetime, at a time when it really matters if they can move or not, it's neat."
The news about Joshua trees of late has mostly been gloomy, so much so that some people have begun to imagine a future in which Joshua Tree National Park is without Joshua trees. Fires carried by non-native grasses have been picking off the plants. There is evidence that in the hottest, driest spots it occupies, the trees are already plodding down the road to extinction by failing to reproduce. One study projected that 90 percent of their current habitat could be inhospitable by century's end.
On the evening of January 16, 2011, a soaking-wet Sunday in northwest Oregon, the Sandy River, engorged by snowmelt and hurricane-level rainfall, leapt its banks. The river tore through neighborhoods on the slopes of Mount Hood, devoured cars and trucks, and left hundreds without power or phone service. Lolo Pass Road was transformed into the Sandy’s new channel.
If any good came of the catastrophe, it was this: As the flood hurtled along, it uprooted dozens of trees and swept them downriver, where they eventually lodged against the pilings of a construction site at which the state was replacing two aging bridges. The massive raft of splintered, waterlogged debris couldn’t be used for much, but it was perfectly suited for one purpose – the creation of salmon habitat.
The Freshwater Trust, a non-profit river restoration group, was ready to put the logs to productive use. Since 2010, the Trust – on behalf of a coalition of agencies, private interests and non-profits together called the Sandy River Basin Partners – had been working to restore the Salmon River and Still Creek, two streams that eventually flow into the Sandy (itself a 56-mile-long tributary of the Columbia). For nearly a century, salmon and steelhead in the Sandy watershed had been partly impeded by Marmot Dam and Little Sandy Dam. To the delight of river advocates, the dams were removed in 2007 and 2008. Yet the fish still faced a major barrier to recovery: Decades of Army Corps meddling in the name of flood control had left rivers straightened, lined with dikes and berms, and purged of woody debris. “They lost the habitat diversity and complexity that salmon thrive on,” says Mark McCollister, habitat restoration director at the Freshwater Trust.
The theft of riverine wood especially harmed the fish. It’s hard for modern-day boaters, accustomed to smooth water, to imagine just how much woody debris once cluttered Northwestern rivers. Settlers and surveyors in the late 1800’s described miles-long logjams comprised of hundreds of thousands of pieces – not branches, but trees up to fifteen feet in diameter. The enormous snags made travel hazardous or impossible. Even the mighty Columbia was chockfull of immense trees.
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