Here at High Country News, some of us recently had a lively discussion about our slogan: “for people who care about the American West.” After 43 years, is it still the best phrase to convey who we are and what we do? We added the “American” to that slogan some years ago, realizing that in an increasingly globalized world, “West” could be interpreted in a much broader sense than we intended.
Our definition of the West has morphed over the years. We mostly cover the 11 Western states, and for us, one of the key characteristics of those states is their high proportion of public land. Texas is only peripherally a part of our West, mostly because it has little public land. And because, well, it’s Texas.
During our first few decades, we mostly focused on the Interior West, the eight states with the highest mean elevations (hence “High Country”). We didn’t often write about California, Oregon or Washington. But now we cover those states regularly. And our scope continues to expand – we venture into Alaska now and then, and out into the Great Plains. We’ve even run stories set in Oklahoma. These days, our West seems to be defined more by the 100th Meridian, the line between East and West, between moist and arid, described in detail by John Wesley Powell.
The discussion got me thinking about the many ways to consider the boundaries of both states and regions. The lines defining each state, of course, are based on physical geography and political history. National Journal political correspondent Alex Seitz-Wald describes how a few of them came to be:
Sometimes it seems as if the energy industry wants to turn the New World back into a resource colony for the rest of the globe. First, coal companies, seeing a reduction in demand domestically, tried to sell more coal overseas. Then, thanks to the shale gas glut, the fossil fuel industry has been trying to get liquid natural gas terminals approved and built, so it can sell its goods to Japan, China and Europe.
Now, they want to hock all that newfound bubblin’ crude — oil, that is, black gold, North Dakota Tea — on the shelves of the global supermarket. That would enable the companies drilling the West’s oilfields to sell more of their product at a higher price. But the only way to do that is by lifting the ban on crude exports that was put in place during the 1970s energy crisis in an effort to insulate Americans from the volatile price swings of the global market. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips broached the subject of lifting the ban, and most recently Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican from Alaska, joined them and other Western oil state congressmen from both sides of the aisle.
On the one hand, the idea of exporting oil makes perfect sense. All the other big world oil producers do it, and thanks to advances in hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, we are now a big oil producer. We sell Coca-Cola and Chevrolets and corn to the rest of the world, so why not crude?
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One snowy evening over the holidays, I sat down for a beer with screenwriter Susan Shilliday ("Legends of the Fall"), who moved from Los Angeles to rural western Massachusetts eight years ago to run a used bookstore. We were discussing how difficult it is for independent booksellers to stay in business when Susan brought up a similar challenge faced by her first love: cinema. The theater in a nearby college town had recently closed, she told me, and many others are on the brink.
I’m a diehard bookworm and not much of a movie buff, so while I’ve pined for small, independent bookstores since watching Meg Ryan’s character lose hers in 1998’s "You’ve Got Mail," I hadn’t realized that small theaters are equally endangered. According to Rolling Stone, more than 1,000 rural theaters are at risk of closing in the next few years, and hundreds more have already shut their doors. The threat isn’t so much competition from giant multiplexes (though that’s an issue, too): It’s the cost of retrofitting old facilities to meet new digital standards.
As I write this, a Hollywood revolution is quietly unfolding: 35-mm film, the iconic medium that captured Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, is becoming obsolete. The change began in 2002, when a coalition of big studios got together to create new digital parameters for the industry. Digital films are less expensive to produce ($150 per copy compared to $1,500), and studios can save billions each year by going digital. By the mid-2000s, only a few hundred theaters worldwide were capable of playing digital films, but with the digital-only release of "Avatar" in 2009, scores converted to be able to screen the 3D hit.For corporate multiplexes, the $40,000 to $75,000 per screen required for digitization wasn’t a problem. Yet for small theaters, the change can be catastrophic.
As of this year, Hollywood will begin releasing movies almost solely in digital format, meaning theaters that haven’t converted will be left in the dust. It’s rare that Hollywood’s actions reverberate through the rural West, but the switch to digital has given remote Western towns more reasons to worry for their future. “They’re … forcing people to convert or close,” says Amy DeLuca, program director for the 89-year-old Paradise Theater in Paonia, Colo., High Country News’ hometown. “It would be a tragic loss (for the town) if we can’t keep the theater open.”
People want to support local theaters as anchors of the community, Shilliday says, but even the most loyal patronage can’t offset the cost of installing new projectors, screens and sound systems into the funky old buildings that have long been mainstays in places like Paonia or Eatonville, Wash., another town that’s had to scramble to save its theater by converting to digital.
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Three years ago, Slovakian paleontologist Peter Vrsansky found a surprise in a shipment of fossils from Rifle, Colo. Hidden in the collection was an unexpected new peek into the insect world during the Eocene epoch, 50 million years ago. Vrsansky discovered four new species of Ectobius cockroach that are five million years older – and originated from a different continent – than scientists have long thought. It turns out that Ectobius cockroaches did not originate in the Old World – Europe and Africa – 44 million years ago, but in the New World – North America – 49 million years ago.
These insects were most likely scuttling around this continent, and apparently the mountains that predated the Rockies, before even acquainting themselves with Eurasia. Scientists say that the critters must have eventually migrated through either the then-balmy Arctic and into Scandadavia, or across the Bering Land Bridge and into Eurasia.
Uncovering specimens like these, “is like putting together a puzzle, but the pieces can be moved in space and time,” said Conrad Labandeira, a co-author of the scientific paper on the discovery and a senior scientist at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC. “Every time you put a piece in its place, you flesh out these patterns of evolution.”
The man who actually unearthed the cockroach specimens is David Kohls, an avid fossil hunter from Battlement Mesa, Colo. The amateur collector uncovered the fossils from bluffs overlooking the Colorado River in Garfield County, Colo. It was one of countless trips he made to the Green River Formation, and he was probably armed with a rock hammer, a wood chisel, and plenty of newspaper to wrap any delicate findings. At the time, over a decade ago, he didn’t realize the implications of his find. “But evidently it was a pretty big deal,” he said this week.
The Green River Formation, part of which is close to Kohl’s home, is a particularly good place to hunt for fossils; large, shallow lakes that once covered the area preserved a rich library of plants and animals. Plus, the formation is young enough that it escaped some long-term geological processes like erosion and metamorphism that can ruin the quality of fossils.
When I started working for High Country News eight years ago this month, there was no shortage of issues to write about. Natural gas drilling was going nuts, nearly every sector of the economy was on fire and immigrants were streaming through the desert to live the dream. Perhaps most bewildering to me, however, were the immigrants coming to the West from the rest of the United States, buying homes, and causing small and big towns alike to sprawl out into desert, forest and farmland.
As a native of rural southwestern Colorado, I had a mixed reaction to the influx. It was painful, to say the least, to watch the land my ancestors had once homesteaded get gobbled up by mega-tract homes that I could never afford to own or rent. And any dummy could see that growth as an economic engine in itself was unsustainable. On the other hand, a rural community that never grows, that never has folks moving in and out, can be a pretty stagnant place. I knew that affluent newcomers could be the best bet for badly needed cultural and intellectual growth in my little town. My small-town upbringing yearned for more cosmopolitan flair. Later, when I owned businesses in Silverton, Colo., a tiny former mining town that missed the boom altogether – the population plummeted for years after the mine closed in 1992 – I understood the need for a certain amount of critical mass to keep a community, not to mention business, vital. Silverton, for one, desperately needed newcomers just to survive.
But the growth of the early 2000s went far beyond critical mass in some areas. Nevada grew at a rate of more than 4 percent per year, quadruple the national rate. Between 2005 and 2006, Arizona grew by almost 200,000 people, and demographers at the time expected the population to reach 8 million by 2015. Even after the Great Recession ripped through the Western housing market, growth-boosters and demographers alike didn’t believe it would create a big dip in population growth: As late as 2009, analysts at Arizona State University expected the Sun Corridor region of Arizona, a megapolitan area that includes Phoenix and Tucson, to grow by 140,000 people per year between 2010 and 2020.Read More ...
The Bobcat Protection Act of 2013 (AB 1213), introduced in March by Santa Monica assemblyman Richard Bloom (D), went into effect January 1. It prohibits trapping the wild cats along the boundaries of Joshua Tree National Park and requires the state Department of Fish and Wildlife to establish similar no-trapping areas along the boundaries of California’s national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other designated areas across the state. The new law also bans bobcat trapping on private land without the written consent of the landowner.
As HCN editor Jodi Peterson reported in June, demand for U.S. fur has skyrocketed, mostly from increasingly affluent Chinese and Russian consumers. In 2012, according to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, 1,607 bobcats were killed in California during the winter hunting and trapping season. (Though the trapping season is more than two months shorter than hunting season, trappers accounted for more than three-quarters of that total.)
While bobcats are not a federally-protected species, some conservationists worry that their populations are poorly understood and that continued trapping, along with destruction and fragmentation of prime habitat, poses serious threats to the long-term viability of the species.
If the new law protecting them can be said to have a birthplace, it is on a boulder-strewn hillside on the outskirts of Joshua Tree National Park belonging to local conservationist Tom O’Key. An amateur astronomer and co-founder of the Southern California Desert Video Astronomers, O’Key has been active in a host of local issues, including fighting light pollution and solar farm proposals in the Morongo Basin.
O’Key has also buying up parcels on the boundary of Joshua Tree National Park with the specific purpose of not developing them. “I buy boulders,” he says, making a space between his palms of no more than a few inches. “A crack that big is enough space for a Chuckwalla.”
El Nido is a small settlement of some 300 souls located almost right in the middle of California, in the grand agricultural enterprise known as the San Joaquin Valley. Translated into English, El Nido means "the nest." It's a fitting name for the place, though its founders couldn't have foreseen how. Today, El Nido is also located near the center of a 1,200-square-mile bowl-shaped depression in the land. Year-by-year, it's becoming evermore nest-like. Between 2008 and 2010, the center of the bowl sunk more than 21 additional inches, according to a recent U.S. Geological Survey report.
What's happening around El Nido – the sinking – is, in technical terms, known as "subsidence," and it's common in the San Joaquin Valley. Subsidence is caused by farms that pump large amounts of water from aquifers to wet their crops. Their thirst for groundwater tends to grow in drought years, when water supplies in aboveground canals are constrained. ("That’s possible," explains Legal Planet blogger Richard Frank, "because California, unlike other Western states, has no statewide system of groundwater regulation.") Ironically, reports the USGS, groundwater mining and the rapid subsidence it causes now threatens to crumble aboveground water infrastructure, quite literally.
Absent rapid delivery of major groundwater regulation reforms -- and don't hold your breath for those -- this year is shaping up to be another in which drought begets subsidence in California, among other undesirable things. Last year was the driest in the state's recorded history. Now, California's statewide snowpack holds only 17 percent of the water, or "snow water equivalent," that it typically does on this date. For California, this will mark the third consecutive drought year. And each year hurts a little more than the last. As the Modesto Bee recently reported: "In 2013, State Water Project allocations were at 35 percent of requested deliveries. The initial allocation for 2014 is 5 percent, the lowest on record."
The numbers are especially skimpy in Oregon and Washington, too, as the map below showing the amount of water in Western snowpacks as a percentage of normal indicates.
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The Navajo Nation got coal for Christmas this year – literally. On December 30, a Navajo tribal corporation finally completed its drawn-out purchase of the Navajo Mine, the sole supplier of coal to New Mexico’s Four Corners Power Plant. Depending on whom you ask, this is either a historic milestone for tribal energy independence, or a soon-to-be millstone hanging around the tribe’s neck.
Let’s consider the naysayers first.
Diné CARE, a Navajo environmentalist group, has opposed the purchase from the get-go, arguing that previous mine owner BHP Billiton was trying to dump an unprofitable asset on the Navajo people. Indeed, the reason the mine is for sale at all is because BHP couldn’t agree on a coal price with Four Corners Power Plant’s operator, Arizona Public Service. And now that Four Corners has shuttered its three oldest coal-burning units to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency’s haze regulations, the plant will buy 30 percent less coal from the mine than it used to. That means less profit for whomever operates the mine.
The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement is also reviewing the potential environmental impacts of extending the life of the power plant to 2041 and expanding the mine, which the tribal corporation plans to do. Initial findings aren’t expected until later this year, which worries Lori Goodman of Diné CARE. BHP Billiton is “trying to jump ship” before the environmental impact statement is finished, she says. “Why don’t we wait until after the EIS is done (to buy the mine)?”
Other Navajos have protested a liability waiver that the tribal energy company signed, absolving BHP Billiton of all future responsibility for any “known or unknown” damages, liabilities, or costs associated with operating the Navajo Mine. And still others say the timeline of the deal itself was rushed by one of the West’s largest utilities, Southern California Edison. Edison needed to sell its shares in Four Corners to meet California’s renewable portfolio standard, which requires utilities to get 33 percent of their energy from renewables by 2020, and to comply with a California law that prevents utilities from continuing to invest in coal plants. “The timing of this (deal) comes from others, not from us,” Craig Moyer, an attorney consulting on the purchase, told Navajo council delegates last April.
Finally, many opponents say it’s simply a bad time to be buying into the coal industry. Coal-fired power has historically been the largest source of electricity in the country, but that’s changing as natural gas increases in popularity and EPA regulations clamp down on air pollution from coal plants. According to the Energy Information Administration, coal, which made up 37 percent of electricity generation nationwide in 2012, is expected to drop to 32 percent by 2040. “The coal industry is on the decline and that’s what the Navajo Nation needs to realize,” says Jihan Gearon, the president of the Navajo environmentalist group Black Mesa Water Coalition.
Las Vegas is filled with symbols of how drastically the economic landscape of the West has changed over the past decade. Drive out into the city’s fringes, and you’ll see vast swaths of land for which developers — visions of master-planned tract home communities dancing in their heads — paid the Bureau of Land Management millions during the boom. Today, many of the developers have gone bankrupt, and most of the land mercifully remains open desert. Or head down to The Strip and check out the Fountainebleau, a 68-story, 3,900-room, $2.9 billion mirrored-glass-sheathed monolith. Construction on the beast was halted in 2007, and it now stands as if frozen in time, cranes still perched on its peak. It’s as likely to be leveled and scrapped as it is to be completed and opened for business.
More disturbing, though, is something you see on many a street corner, whether it’s in the old Downtown or out in the suburbs next to the Starbucks: abject poverty in the form of the homeless, quasi-homeless, panhandlers, drifters and dilapidated homes.
While this deprivation is more apparent in Vegas, juxtaposed as it is against a backdrop of decadence, it’s visible all over the West, whether in the dire housing situation on the Navajo Nation, or in the shadows of the glitzy mountain resort towns, where droves of working poor scrape by on measly wages and commute for hours to semi-affordable housing. It’s visible in Wal-Mart, where, while waiting to get a tire fixed, a man told me how he had plummeted from working on a gas rig and making a big salary — enough to put him in the top 10 percent — with a home chock full of equity in southwestern Colorado, to the bottom 10 with a slip in the mud while carrying a heavy pipe on the job. He was seriously injured, lost his job, and is now fighting to try to get his former employer to help out with his gargantuan medical bills, even as he fights to hang on to his house, which, like so many others around here, is underwater.
For the national economy, 2013 was a year of semi-recovery from the battering recession. But it was also a time when many folks and sectors of the economy continued to get left behind. Over the last five years, income inequality has risen to unprecedented levels, poverty refused to diminish, and some parts of the West remained stuck in the economic trough.
Last fall, a team of researchers from Idaho's Boise State University hiked into the mountains outside of town with backpacks full of batteries and speakers. The unusual cargo was not for a backcountry dance party, but rather for a unique experiment to determine the impact of road noise on migratory birds.
The scientists hung speakers from trees and blasted sounds of cars passing, creating a “phantom road.” They blared the road noise for four days, turned it off for four days, then repeated the cycle. The experiment took place as yellow warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, American robins and other birds passed through on their journey south, its conclusions were striking: On the days when the road was “on,” bird abundance declined by more 25 percent, and two species, cedar waxwings and yellow warblers, avoided the area almost entirely.
In other words, the researchers found that anthropogenic noise alone can reduce the amount of stopover habitat available to migratory birds. And because 83 percent of the land area in the U.S. is within one kilometer of a road, they wrote, “it is likely that noise-sensitive species such as the yellow warbler avoid substantial areas of otherwise suitable habitat simply because they are too loud.”
How bad can noise really be? It's a question that researchers in the burgeoning field of soundscape ecology are constantly asking. And their growing body of research is starting to show that the noises humans and our machines make can have significant and widespread effects on animals. For example:
- Bernie Krause, who began recording wild soundscapes 45 years ago, documented the effect of low-flying Navy jets on the chorusing of spadefoot toads in California’s Mono Lake. The toads, which normally sing in a synchronized rhythm that makes it hard for predators to pick off individuals, took 45 minutes to reestablish their singing pattern after a jet passed overhead.
- In 2012, researchers at University of Copenhagen and Aberystwyth University found that some songbirds in urban areas not only sing at a higher pitch to overcome the low-frequency din of city noise, but adjust their songs to account for urban architecture as well. Larger birds like mourning doves, which sing at low pitches, are more affected by manmade noise than smaller, higher-pitched birds like house finches, found researcher Clint Francis.
- Underwater sonar from British naval ships has been linked to the widespread stranding of dolphins.
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