Updates on stories past: Salt Lake smog, wild horses, floods and more
It may still be winter in the mountains, but down here in Colorado’s North Fork Valley, late-season flurries are coming up against signs of spring. Farmers are burning ditches, the west-facing steps of Revolution Brewing are packed with after-work sun-seekers, and High Country News is in the middle of our quarterly print edition break, which may or may not include desert river trips for certain writers and editors.
But just because we’re enjoying a hard-earned break doesn’t mean we’ve stopped paying attention to important developments in the West. In the absence of our biweekly ‘Latests’ section in the magazine – those quick little updates to larger stories we've covered in the past – here’s an online-only roundup to keep you abreast of what’s happening this month.
Backstory: As Sarah Keller reported last fall, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes are on track to become the nation’s first tribal hydroelectric dam owners, through the purchase of northwest Montana’s Kerr Dam. The tribes’ first bid to take over wasn’t successful, but they gained exclusive rights to purchase the facility in 2015 – which could mean tens of millions of dollars annually for tribal health care, education and other steps toward self-determination.
Followup: According to the Missoulian, an $18.3 million price has now been set. The only step left is to write the check, says Brian Lipscomb, CEO of the tribal-owned Energy Keepers. The final figure represents yet another win for the Salish and Kootenai Tribes: The number is much closer to what they said the dam was worth than the current owners’ $49 million valuation. Once acquired, the dam will also be given a new name, Lipscomb says.
Backstory: Just how many wild horses roam the West – and whether they’re a symbol of freedom or a scourge on the land – is a matter much debated in the pages of High Country News. In the fall of 2012, there were an estimated 37,000 wild horses in Western states – 10,000 more than the feds said the land could support. With wild horse roundups costly (and perhaps inhumane), and slaughterhouses deeply divisive, a new kind of population control gained traction among private ‘insurgents’: Darts loaded with equine birth control.
Followup: The Bureau of Land Management may be getting closer to widespread adoption of such alternative techniques itself. Last week, the agency put out a call for researchers, veterinarians and drug companies to submit proposals for “surgical, chemical, pharmaceutical or mechanical” ideas to curtail population growth of wild horses and burros, reports E&E News. Meanwhile, a recent National Academy of Sciences study finds that the BLM may be undercounting Western equine populations by as much as 30 percent.
Backstory: California has proven that it’s feasible for states to adopt vehicle-emission standards tougher than those required by the federal Clean Air Act, but conservative politics have largely kept other Western states from following suit. Yet as HCN contributor Judy Fahys notes, change may be in the air in Utah, which suffers some of the region’s worst smog. Late last year the state’s Republican governor, Gary Herbert, made waves by publicly endorsing tough federal regulations for vehicle emissions.
Followup: Several bills lately making their way through Utah’s conservative legislature suggest that while Republican lawmakers there are willing to consider air-quality rules, the state hasn’t quite gone green yet. The Salt Lake Tribune reported on March 4 that the Utah House voted to remove restrictions preventing state air quality standards from surpassing federal standards, but the measure died in the Senate.
Backstory: HCN has covered tensions between Native tribes and ranchers in southern Oregon and Northern California for decades. In Aug. 2013, Tony Barboza reported that shortly after Oregon recognized the Klamath Tribes as the most senior water-rights holders in the basin, the tribes exercised their rights to keep more water in upper tributaries, cutting off downstream users – including Crater Lake National Park – and fanning the flames of a longstanding feud.
Followup: Amid lasting drought, ranchers and tribes have reached agreement. As Oregon Public Broadcasting reports, the “historic” deal calls for an additional 30,000 acre-feet of water to be held in the Upper Klamath Lake. That’ll be achieved by reducing water demand through a ranchland-retirement program, plus compensating the Klamath Tribes with $40 million in appropriations. Yet while the agreement represents a step toward mitigation, it still faces an uphill battle: Approval by ranching and tribal communities plus passage in the U.S. Congress.
Backstory: Yellowstone National Park has banned boating on its whitewater rivers since the 1950s, to the chagrin of certain expert kayakers who consider the park to hold some of the best paddling in North America. While some rogue kayakers flout the law, the advocacy group American Whitewater has worked for years on a legal solution, occasionally butting heads with park managers and local conservation groups. Earlier this year, American Whitewater seemed to score a victory: Sen. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., introduced a bill that would require Yellowstone officials to reconsider their ban.
Followup: American Whitewater has pulled its support from the River Paddling Protection Act, saying the bill is too controversial and is drafted in a way that “would have set a bad precedent with National Wildlife Refuge System’s management, and possibly limit the National Park Service’s discretion to manage paddling just like all other uses.” The group will revert to non-legislative efforts to convince the service to allow limited paddling in the park.
Backstory: Floodplain management is tricky. Often, floodplains hold the richest soil for farming and the most desirable waterfront locations for realtors. But development there puts farmers and homeowners at risk for catastrophic loss, and it also threatens both biodiversity and national coffers. (The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s flood insurance program is $24 billion in debt.) In 2012, FEMA officials said they’d begin updating flood maps more regularly and upping insurance premiums to better reflect risk – and discourage floodplain development.
Followup: Despite his recent statements that federal flood insurance subsidies increase the government's financial exposure to rising flood risks, President Obama is nonetheless poised to sign a bill reversing flood insurance rate hikes. While the legislation – which received broad Congressional support – eases financial strain for homeowners living in the flood zone, it also negates the reforms ultimately meant to improve resilience to natural disaster.
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2.