Friday news roundup: solar flares and hoot owls

 

Temperatures rose here in our home base of Paonia. Perhaps it was the solar flare. The dawning spring added a tinge of anxiousness to our office seats as thoughts of Frisbee and barbeque and mountain tipi trips distracted our work.

Like many small rural towns, Paonia fosters diverse friendships. New social ecology research from Wellesley College and the University of Kansas says that people living in high-density areas tend to gravitate toward like-minded others. Small-town folks take what they got.

Good for us. But the weekend of luminous and colorful events is not quite here. First, this week’s roundup of Western news.

IN THE COURTS

Several environmental groups, including the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, argued their case to the Utah Supreme Court this week against the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. The groups argue that the state improperly granted Alton Coal Development a permit to mine 634 acres on private land, an operation that would yield 2 million tons of coal per year. Alton Coal’s mine would sit outside Bryce Canyon National Park.

Enviros argue that Alton Coal’s permit application was incomplete, with no analysis of the impacts to surface water or cultural resources, and no explanation of how water monitoring will be regulated. Alton says they’ll contain waste water with zero discharge evaporation ponds, and 54 monitoring points will survey surface water contaminants at all times.

AGENCY WATCH

An internal email from the Bureau of Land Management's Deputy Director, Michael Pool, instructs agency line officers to act against employees who are “scamming the system”.  The BLM recently discover accounting irregularities within fire divisions in the state of Utah, and other Utah BLM employees are currently fighting charges of embezzlement and credit card fraud for improper purchases, such as designer luggage, precision riflescopes and children’s sleeping bags. Pool’s email calls it, “an ugly and serious matter.”

WILDLIFE

Geoducks are giant clams that live in the mud of the Northwest’s coastal waters. They’re valued in Asia as aphrodisiacs, and geoduck farmers along Washington’s Puget Sound have implanted 350 acres of mudflats to feed the booming market. But in 2007, a moratorium was placed on the farms until more research was done on their environmental impacts.

Researcher Glenn VanBlaricom from the University of Washington is now starting to get results from such study. VanBlaricom found that mussels, crabs and barnacles tend to enjoy the cover and forage space of tubes and nets within the farms. But a protected species of seagrass, prized by juvenile salmon, tends to decline during farming season. After harvest season, the seagrass returns, but scientists will be studying the long-term effects of geoduck farms to help officials decided how much acreage they should permit to the operations.

A new critical habitat proposal for the endangered northern spotted owl signals bad news for the invasive barred owl, also referred to as the “hoot owl.”  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to publish its new proposal in the next two weeks. The new proposal identifies 10 million acres of spotted owl critical habitat with a stronger emphasis on active habitat management, meaning logging and shooting the “hoot owl” out of the spotted owl’s home ground. Spotted owl critical habitat has been contested in courts since the early 90s, when it effectively ended timber operations across 7 million acres of Northwest land.

New Mexico signed 387 square miles of lesser prairie chicken and dunes sagebrush lizard habitat into a conservation easement with the federal government, ending a bitter battle with environmentalists and energy interests. Oil and gas developers agreed to take voluntary steps to protect critical habitat for these two species so long as the feds agree to withhold further conservation requirements if the species are listed as endangered.

New Mexico’s effort adds 248,000 acres to the Permian Basin conservation effort, which covers 2.5 million acres between Texas and New Mexico with 29 oil and gas companies, 39 ranchers and over 6,000 oil and gas leases in cooperation.

ENERGY

The Whistling Ridge wind farm has been approved by Washington Gov. Chris Gregoire. The Columbia River Gorge project was scaled down to 35 turbines from a previous proposal of 50.

Enviros argued that the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Act protected views from these areas from being obstructed. SDS Lumber said that boundaries for scenic areas are drawn for a reason -- that reason being that beyond those boundaries, resources are ready for the taking.

At the same time, Gov. Gregoire broadened the definition of renewable energies to include biomass. The inclusion adds biomass facilities to the list of energy producers – wind, solar and geothermal – that Washington has mandated nearly a third of its utilities to purchase 15 percent of their electricity from by 2020.

The measure is said to be a boon for pulp mills, older biomass facilities and the timber industry in rural towns that need more jobs.

That’s your roundup. Enjoy the weekend. Set your clocks back and tune in next week when Danielle Venton (my co-intern who doubles as a DJ on Tuesdays @ 9:30 p.m. MST through March) rounds up some more issues for your consideration.

Images provided by NASA and Jeff.