Once a thriving predator on prairie landscapes, the black-footed ferret was squeezed out of its range by agriculture and development, and their populations ravaged by diseases like sylvatic plague, which was introduced from Asia at the turn of the 20th century. Ferrets’ main source of food, prairie dogs, have long been considered pests to agriculture on the plains, and thus dramatically reduced in numbers through sanctioned poisoning and killing. As HCN’s Cally Carswell wrote in 2011, “as the prairie dog goes, so goes the black-footed ferret.” By 1979, the ferrets were considered extinct.
But in 1981, a dog in Wyoming brought home a surprising gift, revealing a small population, which scientists began collecting for captive breeding. By 1987, the last wild ferret was captured, bringing the remaining population to 18 individuals. Since then, more than 7,000 kits have been born in six captive breeding centers across North America. Yet efforts to rebuild the wild populations have been stymied by several factors, including diseases like plague and canine distemper, as well as lack of suitable habitat. Earlier this fall, two legislative changes broke down barriers to new habitat possibilities, boosting the ferrets' chance for success.
The first change occurred at the federal level, with the passage of a “safe harbor” agreement that would help drum up support from private landowners who might otherwise fear the liabilities that come with having an endangered species on their property. Many landowners are wary of endangered species protections because if they damage habitat for a protected species, they could face prosecution. Safe harbor agreements allow landowners to participate in reintroduction efforts without worrying about that caveat.
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Right now, following the farm bill’s progress seems a lot like watching corn grow. The bill is due for reauthorization and the senators and representatives charged with finding a compromise are under pressure to make progress before Thanksgiving.
The major hurdle to clear right now, and that’s received a fair bit of media attention already, is how much to cut food stamps. But it’s important not to lose sight of what else is at stake. In addition to being the major domestic and foreign food assistance program, and agriculture safety net, the farm bill is also the nation’s largest private lands conservation fund. The House and Senate versions both aim to shrink the bill’s environmental stewardship budget, by $5 billion, or $3.5 billion, respectively.
The rationale for including environmental stewardship in the farm bill goes back to hard lessons learned from the Dust Bowl, when sodbusting and drought collided to create one of America’s worst environmental disasters. Since then, the federal government has offered a slew of programs to incentivize conservation principles like rotating crops, creating wildlife habitat, practicing no-till farming, and controlling fertilizer runoff, to name a few. Farming practices that keep topsoil healthy and intact have helped the land weather droughts more severe than those of the Dirty Thirties without the same catastrophe.
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If anything illustrates just how contentious fracking has become on Colorado’s urban Front Range, it’s the closeness of the vote on a Broomfield ballot measure to ban the practice for five years. When results came in after the Nov. 5 election, it had lost by a mere 13 votes, triggering a mandatory recount. Last Thursday, though, after counters had tallied overseas, military and other outstanding votes, the measure had squeaked ahead by a nose – a mere 17 votes out of 20,683, triggering yet another mandatory recount.
Depending on whether that count verifies the latest results, then, all four of the fracking bans on ballots in Colorado communities succeeded. The liberal college towns of Fort Collins and Boulder also both passed 5-year moratoria on fracking within city limits, while Lafayette banned it in perpetuity, all by much greater margins than Broomfield. But because Broomfield’s more centrist political leanings – let’s call them DemoPublican – better reflect those of the rest of the state, observers on both sides of the debate have pointed to the election outcome there as a clearer indicator of where public opinion falls on whether fracking should be allowed to take place near where people live, play and work.
Fracking, shorthand for hydraulic fracturing, involves blasting a mix of water, sand and chemicals down a well to stimulate the production of oil or natural gas from layers of rock deep underground. It’s become increasingly controversial in Colorado as drilling has ramped up near suburban and urban areas, stoking worries about air and water pollution and fueling calls for local and statewide moratoria.
Advocates for the oil and gas industry have dismissed the fracking bans as symbolic, pointing out that, with the exception of Broomfield and Fort Collins, none of the communities to pass them face imminent drilling. But the state’s major industry trade group, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), took them seriously enough to dump a whopping $878,120 by Halloween into campaigns opposing the fracking bans, and still lost every fight. In comparison, the Denver Post reports, the nonprofit groups pushing the initiatives had raised just $26,000 over the same timeframe, as well as volunteer labor and in-kind donations. To be fair, that’s not all grass-roots muster: They also got both grants and indirect PR support from outdoor clothing giant Patagonia, which ran a two-page spread in a summer catalog on groups fighting oil and gas development in Colorado, spurring this defensive-sounding rant from oil and gas advocacy group Energy In Depth, as well as angry letters from pro-industry state legislators last week.
Two weeks ago, a Lakota sacred object advertised as a "Sioux Beaded and Quilled hide Shirt" was set to be auctioned off in Boston, Mass. and was expected to fetch $150,000-250,000. Minutes before the bidding began on Nov. 9, Skinner auction house pulled the item in response to pressure from attorneys and tribal officials representing a family on the Rosebud reservation in South Dakota who said the shirt belonged to their ancestor, Little Thunder.
“I cried when I found out they had stopped the auction,” said Karen Little Thunder, the soft-spoken great-great-granddaughter of the Lakota leader. Though greatly relieved, she is left with unsettling questions. “What if it was taken from my grandfather’s grave?”
But the collector who consigned the item, identified as “Derby” in the catalog listing, said that he had “good title” to the shirt, proving he had acquired it legally. Reached by phone, Skinner director Douglas Diehl would not discuss the matter but released a statement through the auction house’s PR company saying Skinner “is committed to the highest standards of research and due diligence for all items offered at auction and is particularly sensitive to Native American artifacts.” It decided to pull the item, according to the statement, because a recently discovered photograph that shows a man identified as Little Thunder wearing the shirt surfaced, and Skinner was not able to disprove its legitimacy.
Trade in Indian artifacts is as old as European settlement in North America. It’s often called “pot hunting” in the Southwest, where vividly decorated ancient Anasazi pottery can fetch into the hundreds of thousands. These activities still go on today, though they’re mostly illegal now. Rampant grave looting led to a series of laws passed in 1906, 1966, 1979 and 1992 that forbid the taking of Native American artifacts from federal land.
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When farmer Kerry Mattics sunk several thousand dollars into building a bunkhouse for 12 workers to stay on his property during planting and harvest seasons, he figured the house would be useful for at least a decade. But by 2012, he had no workers to fill it up and his Olathe, Colo. fruit and vegetable farm’s productivity had dropped. (They now plant 5,000 tomato plants instead of 9,000 and 7,000 bell peppers instead of 22,000.) The reason: Mattics could no longer afford to use the H-2A visa program that brings hundreds of thousands of migrants to the U.S. each year for seasonal work.
Mattics had originally turned to the H-2A program back in 2008 because he couldn’t find enough workers – legal migrants or locals. But, he says, “It just got so expensive … (over four years) there were a lot more rules and regulations.” For example, when he started taking H-2A workers, he was required to first advertise in Colorado for his job openings, to give U.S. citizens a chance to apply. But now he has to advertise in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas as well, which triples the cost. A few years ago, he and other employers paid transportation for H-2A workers from the Mexico border, but now, he's been told he has to foot the bill starting at the migrant’s home south of the border.
Needless to say, the fate of worker visa programs, currently being discussed as part of immigration reform proposals in Congress, is a huge deal for ag. Many farmers are still seeing worker shortages because fewer legal migrant workers are available and the H-2A process is too much of a nightmare or too expensive to participate in. (It’s worth noting that Mexico’s improving economy is likely another reason for the labor shortage. Increasing wages and better jobs in Mexico mean less incentive for workers to come to the U.S. for agricultural employment.)
Dr. Chris Mah may be the only man in the world who can correctly identify any species of starfish on sight. Growing up in San Francisco on a steady diet of sushi and Japanese monster movies, it was no wonder he was attracted to the weird, slimy invertebrates he plucked from the shores of the Bay. Now based at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC, he’s an internationally recognized marine invertebrate expert who’s identified more than 20 new species. He also maintains the Echinoblog, a strangely entertaining site where starfish are posed next to action figures to show their size, feeding mechanisms are likened to wrestling moves and posts have titles like “Giant Green Brittle Stars of Death! When they Attack!”
So when a diver in Vancouver, British Columbia first noticed scores of dead and dying sunflower stars (Pycnopodia helianthoides) in late August, he snapped photos and sent them to Mah. Mah knew right off the bat what the trouble was: A classic case of Starfish Wasting Syndrome.
Or was it? Starfish Wasting Syndrome had struck the Pacific Coast before, causing mass die-offs of Southern California sea stars in 1983 and again in 1997. Both were during El Niño years, when oceans were slightly warmer, and scientists thought they had the disease pegged. This time, though, there was no sudden warming of the ocean to blame.
The disease was also far more widespread and severe than previous occurrences, causing localized die-offs of 95 percent in Santa Cruz and spreading as far north as Alaska. Mah posted a blog about the new phenomenon, and within weeks, divers and tidepoolers up and down the coast were sharing pictures of sunflower stars, common ochre sea stars (Pisaster ochraceus) and others that seemed to have the same affliction: a white lesion that, within hours or days, spreads and decays the starfish’s tissue, reducing it to a pile of slime.
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Last week, while speaking at lunch during the in Grand Junction, the director of the Colorado Water Conservation Board could have put his audience to sleep in their cannoli. He was talking about the narcolepsy-inducing topic of water planning, after all. Instead, James Eklund captured the room’s attention by quoting “the great water philosopher, Mike Tyson” who said, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been punched in the face.” And there’s no doubt that Colorado’s been punched in the face.
Those blows have come from the combination of a 14-year drought, population growth, wild fires and floods. Now the state is figuring out how it will “pick itself off the canvas,” as Eklund described it, and move forward. But Colorado is one of the few Western states without a water plan.
In Colorado’s case, Eklund said, there are already enough glossy reports that sit on shelves. The state wants a document that analyzes the state’s water challenges and leads to meaningful action. So Colorado’s been working on one since this past summer, based on input from grassroots water planning groups called basin roundtables, which have been meeting for the last eight years. The first draft is due to Gov. Hickenlooper in December. Hopefully, having a road map will help soften the blows of further hydrologic bludgeoning.
When Gina McCarthy, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stood before the National Press Club on September 20 and announced draft rules for regulating carbon dioxide from new power plants, she said the proposal, “rather than killing future coal, actually sets out a certain pathway forward for coal.” That way forward is through carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS, a technology McCarthy called “feasible” and “available today.”
McCarthy’s optimistic statement has garnered a lot of attention in the last six weeks, rising to the level of a congressional hearing in the House of Representatives in October, where the lone witness who stood behind McCarthy was Kurt Waltzer of the Clean Air Task Force, an environmental group focused on air pollution. Waltzer said that carbon dioxide captured from coal plants is poised to be a valuable commodity on its own by helping drilling companies get more oil out of the ground more efficiently, a process called “enhanced oil recovery.”
Initially, I was fairly skeptical of EOR. I mean, are we really going to mitigate climate change through a technology that will also enable more oil drilling? But the more I looked into it, the more I agreed with Waltzer’s support of EOR, and his assertion that “If there was ever a chance for a big idea to succeed in our current political climate – EOR is it.”
What started out as a simple request to alter the way Arizona residents are compensated for power generated by rooftop solar has exploded into a full-blown, national headline-making, wacky political war complete with shady dealings and nasty ads. But it should be all over soon. Perhaps.
Arizona Public Service is trying to get that state’s utility regulator, the Arizona Corporation Commission, to alter its net metering program, one of the most robust in the nation, because they say that folks with rooftop solar are not paying their fair share to use the grid. That, they say, could cost non-solar ratepayers thousands of dollars (or $1 per month, according to an HCN analysis). APS submitted two proposals. They hope the ACC will choose one.
Currently, rooftop solar homeowners get paid retail rates for power generated by their panels. That is, each kWh generated offsets nearly an entire kWh used. Either of APS' proposals would result in a new net metering customer getting far less than retail, in effect significantly bolstering her monthly electric bill. The proposals would make it virtually impossible for someone to offset her entire bill with solar, and could quadruple the amount of time it takes to pay off the solar panels with savings on her bills. That, in turn, would clearly make rooftop solar less appealing, at least from a financial perspective. The ACC is expected to make a decision on this issue on Nov. 13.
Meanwhile, the political battle surrounding the proposal keeps heating up. The solar industry and environmentalists are livid, as one might expect. But strong opposition to slashing solar compensation has also come from some conservatives and free-marketeers; national conservative groups, with ties to the Koch brothers, have run over-the-top ads in Arizona attacking solar.
Here are some of the figurative fires that have flared up – mostly burning APS – in that war over the last couple of months:
• On Sept. 30, the ACC staff issued its report on the proposals, leaning toward keeping the current net metering program, at least for now. It recommended that the ACC reject both of APS’ proposals, and keep the current system in place until APS’ next rate case. In the meantime, the ACC should hold public workshops to try to assign a value to the non-monetary benefits of rooftop solar.
But if the ACC is hankering to do something now, the staff recommends, either: 1. Adjusting the way current fixed cost charges are levied, so that rooftop solar folks pay a reasonable amount for utilizing the grid; or, 2. instead of paying retail rate for rooftop solar, as is the case under the current system, have APS pay a rate based on current wholesale rates for utility-scale solar. Either would result in higher bills for rooftop solar folks, but it’s still a much better deal than what APS proposes.
A native Nevadan is expected to become the next overseer of much of the West’s public lands. Neil Kornze is President Obama’s nominee to head the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 245 million acres, mostly in Western states. Kornze joined the agency in 2011, and has been its principal deputy director since March. He replaced acting director Mike Pool, who stepped in after Bob Abbey retired in May 2012 (see our interview with Abbey).
At 34, Kornze would be one of the youngest agency heads ever, but he has a pretty impressive resumé. Raised in Elko, he's the son of a geologist who discovered major gold deposits near the town (now an open pit mine operated by mining giant Barrick). He graduated from Washington’s Whitman College with a degree in politics (seems he’s got some chops as a journalist too – he and another student shared a prize for Best Feature Story in the college newspaper). He earned a master’s in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, then went to work for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
As a policy adviser with Reid, from 2003 to 2011, Kornze worked on public lands, water, renewable energy, wildlife and mining. Reid is notoriously friendly to the mining industry (see our story “Nevada’s Golden Child”), but Kornze doesn’t appear to have been a mining booster (industry interests complained that he “fought the mining industry’s opposition of the Pine Grove-Esmeralda Wilderness efforts”). He helped put together the 2009 public lands omnibus bill. The bill designated 2 million acres of wilderness, codified the National Landscape Conservation System, and added 1,000 river-miles to the Wild and Scenic river system, among other things. He also helped reauthorize the program, which provides funding to rural counties that formerly relied on income from timber sales, and the sPayment-in-Lieu-of-Taxes program, which compensates states with a lot of federal land for loss of property tax revenue from that land.