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Lessons from the Old West: Don’t ban it, brand it

PERC Institute | Apr 26, 2012 01:00 AM

By P.J. Hill

Last Saturday was roundup and branding day at my ranch in the Madison River Valley, about 20 miles west of Bozeman, Montana. Neighbors came to help and I put the P J (my registered brand) on the left side of my calves. As I carefully placed the irons on each calf (yes, they are hot, and yes, there is short term pain but it seems to subside quickly) I was reminded of why branding came to work so well in the West.


In the Old West a statewide registration of brands developed rapidly. Often a brand registration system was one of the first pieces of legislation a territory would pass (for more details, see Anderson and Hill’s The Not So Wild, Wild West). Those registrations continue today. You can go to the Montana Brand Registry and find that if a cow has a P on the left rib and a J on the left hip, that cow belongs to the P J Ranch. Or, a PJ on the left shoulder of a horse establishes my clear claim to that horse. I can issue you a bill of sale if you buy one of my horses or cows, and that serves a proof of a legitimate transfer of rights.

This system works well for the people in white hats, my neighbors who want to know who a stray belongs to, and against those in black hats, the rustlers who might want to steal my livestock. The state maintains the registration and enforces ownership claims. And I can use the existing court system to enforce my property rights.

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Earth Day -- Gone Fishin'

Ben Long | Apr 23, 2012 04:20 AM

Earth Day was once again full of stark warnings about global doom and scolds over my level of recycling and my carbon footprint. So I went fishing.

In particular, I took my 8-year-old to an old gravel pit that has been landscaped into a pond and stocked with rainbow trout straight from the hatchery. One side the pond is flanked by a dense thicket of birch and poplar, the other by abandoned trailers and Quonset huts. It’s not exactly Thoreau’s view of Walden Pond, but on a nice spring day it did the trick.Aidan Long fishing

We arrived to see a pair of drake wood ducks (once an endangered species themselves) spar in the air over the pond territory. There are still cottonwood trunks big enough to host their nests in this urban river bottom. Overhead, an osprey turned on a wingtip, just returned north from warmer climes. Osprey once were nearly wiped out by DDT that weakened their eggshells, but have staged a comeback.

I pinched the barbs off the hooks and we impaled salmon eggs for bait. Before long, Aidan’s bobber bobbed and he felt the bite. He reeled in eagerly to find the bait taken. I hooked a few and let him reel them in, only to release them again. There’s something oddly satisfying about watching a trout dart away from your relaxing fingers.

Once I glanced at his line to notice the bobber going berserk. “Reel!” I shouted. “You’ve got a fish on!” He didn’t so much crank the reel handle as walk backwards, but he landed his first fish, solo. It was a moment to remember. I let him decide, and we released that one, too.

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Sagebrush rebellion rides again

Jackie Wheeler | Apr 22, 2012 06:00 PM

I don’t relish this role, you know. If you happened to have read some of my other posts you may have noticed a certain pattern. Sure, there’s the occasional outlier column that addresses toilets, or aspen trees, or what have you, but on a pretty regular basis I’m the lady who sheepishly discusses all the nut-ball and downright disturbing stuff that goes on in my home state, Arizona.

I was really hoping that this could be another outlier week, where I could write about something pleasant and hopeful (or at least amusing) on the Western environmental front. Believe me, I looked, but around here most of those kind of stories have been obscured by news about the latest round of scandals, subpoenas, and indictments of local officials. Squeezed in between are the antics of the loony state legislature, who must pass a budget very soon but cannot tear themselves away from such issues as birth control, bibles in schools, and seizure of federal lands. Regarding the latter, I can modestly boast that for once, the craziness isn’t all homegrown.

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Lighten up, take a load off

Jackie Wheeler | Apr 09, 2012 11:00 PM

All this serious, recent talk (also see this) about Western water shortages and new pipelines gets me thinking again about a not-so-serious but related subject: poop. Granted, there are many very serious aspects of poop such as its disease-carrying properties.composting toilet The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is so concerned about poop that it is partnering with the German government to invest in innovative sanitation systems to help underdeveloped regions of the world. Laudable outcomes could involve not only disease prevention and water savings but possible recycling of the waste into energy sources and eco-safe fertilizer.

You may be aware that some of these benefits are old news to Joseph Jenkins, author of the cult classic The Humanure Handbook, now in its third edition. Jenkins advocates the use of composting toilets (and their by-product, human-waste compost), which are rapidly gaining popularity not just in national and state parks but with individuals. A Google search for composting toilets reveals dozens of manufacturers and retailers eager to sell you one. Publications like Tree Hugger and Mother Earth News cover the subject frequently, as do local blogs, like the one from my local Phoenix-area Valley Permaculture Alliance.

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A toxic cocktail runs through it

Terri Hansen | Apr 09, 2012 03:00 AM

The Portland Harbor Superfund Site feasibility study released last week by the Lower Willamette Group (LWG) proposes a range of clean-up options by the parties responsible for the contamination in the Willamette River and marks a major milestone in the Superfund process, the Yakama Nation says.

But it doesn’t go far enough.

The federally recognized sovereign Yakama Nation is calling for the LWG, as the Potentially Responsible Parties to do all necessary remediation to the Willamette River, and to pay for the clean up of the lower Columbia River as well.

“The Yakama Nation cannot turn its back on the harm Portland Harbor pollution has done -- and continues to do -- in the Columbia River,” says Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee and a tribal council member.

Lewis, whose family has fished both rivers for generations calls this a once in a lifetime opportunity to do the right thing. Failure to do violates the Yakama Nation’s treaty, and the civil rights of all people who rely upon the rivers for subsistence fishing and other uses, he said.

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Calling all citizen scientists

Red Lodge | Apr 04, 2012 06:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

When I was a kid, my three sisters and I were compelled to go on what we called “forced marches” all over the country, from Death Valley (which we dubbed near-to-Death Valley) to Cape Cod National Seashore, where the August sand was so hot that our Jellies—you remember, those plastic shoes that were the preamble to Crocs—seemed to melt and to fuse with our tender feet. We gave copious blood samples in the mosquito-infested Everglades and tramped around maze-like groves among the mercifully-shady Sequoias.

Cape Cod marchWe stopped to read every placard the park service had installed on interpretive trails (attention rangers: your hard work is not in vain), we examined leaves and rocks, we identified “v”- and “u”-shaped valleys, and watched wildlife. And we sisters complained consistently about our dry mouths, our rumbling bellies and our overall need to lay down somewhere, anywhere.

While it sounds like we were juvenile delinquents on a work crew, we were simply on school vacations with our mom, a first-grade teacher.

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Let's Put a Bounty on Stupid

Ben Long | Apr 04, 2012 06:00 AM

What is more stupid than bailing the ocean? Paying someone to bail the ocean.

Yet it seems the Utah Legislature thinks that’s a good idea. Worse yet, Utah lawmakers are co-opting the state’s sportsmen to pay for this folly. If you are a sportsman anywhere between Alaska and Arizona, watch your wallet. This trend ain’t contained to the Beehive State.

burning money imageA pseudo-conservation group, Sportsmen For Fish and Wildlife, is spearheading biologically bankrupt anti-predator schemes that are guaranteed to waste millions of dollars and undermine legitimate wildlife management.

SFW includes some great folks who are honestly concerned about wildlife, but SFW leadership is snookering them.

This spring, the Governor of Utah signed a pair of bills that would (1) raise the cost of a hunting license to hire five coyote hunters scattered across the state and (2) put a $50 bounty on coyotes killed by the public. SFW brags about promoting coyote control, but the sad fact is, these efforts are doomed to fail and waste millions in doing so.

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Lessons From the Musselshell: small steps toward recovery

Wendy Beye | Apr 02, 2012 11:00 PM

Editor's note: This is the fifth blog in a series by contributor Wendy Beye, chronicling a restoration effort on Montana's Musselshell River.

While the Musselshell River's rampaging waters were still receding and ranchers were just beginning to assess the extent of the damage thus revealed, Musselshell Watershed Coalition (MWC) members met to address immediate needs along the river.

MWC was organized in 2009 to encourage cooperation between state and federal water resource agencies, conservation districts, water user associations, wildlife agencies, and agricultural producers in managing a frequently scarce commodity – water – while protecting the health of the river system that delivers it. The Coalition was in the process of gathering data on irrigation infrastructure along the Musselshell when the 2011 flood hit. Relationships nurtured since the Coalition's inception proved valuable in development of a team approach to post-flood rehabilitation.Deadman's Diversion Dam aerial 1

Aerial photo of Deadman’s Basin Water User Association diversion dam after the flood.  Note the huge “scour hole” downstream of the dam. Image courtesy Teri Hice.

 The first move was to request a Reclamation and Development Planning Grant (RDPG) from Montana's Department of Natural Resources (DNRC) to fund a proposed Musselshell Watershed Rehabilitation Project. In light of the emergency situation, the DNRC's positive response was immediate. Some of the money paid for extensive aerial photography documenting the flood and its aftermath along more than 200 miles of river.

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Rants from the Hill: The leprechaun trap

Michael Branch | Apr 01, 2012 06:00 PM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

Rants from the Hill is now a podcast too! Check out our first episode, an audio performance of this essay, here. Subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or through Feedburner for use in another podcast reader.

It all started when I made a small mistake on Mother’s Day. It was an honest mistake—one anybody might have made. As a gift for my wife, Eryn, on her very first Mother’s Day, I bought a garden gnome, which I gave to her along with a very romantic expression of my love and appreciation. So complete was my naiveté at that time that I honestly believed I had done something wonderfully thoughtful. quality garden gnomeFirst, the gnome was not plastic but rather cast iron, a 70-pounder the size of a small child that had to be moved with a wheelbarrow and had cost me good money. This wasn’t a gnome that said “Hey, enjoy this until it breaks or we divorce, whichever comes first,” but rather: “Honey, this gnome, like our love, is built to last.” Also important in my defense, the weighty gnome was not standing, in that awkward lawn jockey pose into which so many gnomes are unhappily forced, but instead was fully supine, cradling a cork-topped bottle of hooch in the crook of his arm. He was sprawled out with feet crossed, reclining coolly on one elbow, with his head cocked, and bearded face wearing a mischievous, come-hither grin. In short, the gnome was kind of sexy, which seemed perfect. Having now been married more than a decade, I see the error of my ways. However, I still maintain that the gnome, which to this day reclines, rusty and drunken, in the dappled shade of a bitterbrush bush, is a quality gnome.


For our young daughters, the year is a necklace strung with the sparkling beads of holidays—holidays that I find both annoyingly frequent and often unforgivably obscure. For example, I was ignorant of the (actually copyrighted) holiday Hoodie Hoo Day, which is celebrated each February 20 by people who go outside precisely at noon, wave their hands over their heads like fools, and shout “Hoodie-Hoo!” And how can I support Middle Name Pride Day on March 10? Can’t we just agree to be ashamed of our middle names, which should remain unspoken except when parents chastise children for their abominable behavior? I see now that holidays were invented primarily for kindergarten teachers, for whom the year would be tediously long without them. In retaliation, though, I’ve begun insisting that my daughters help me celebrate some obscure holidays that are more compatible with my own sensibility: Do a Grouch a Favor Day on February 16 (needless to say, I receive rather than give), Defy Superstition Day on September 13 (my answer to evangelicalism), and Hermit Day on October 29 (which I desperately need to celebrate after being subjected to so many other ludicrous holidays throughout the year).

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Should a Washington utility prop up a polluting Montana power plant?

Sightline | Mar 27, 2012 11:00 PM

By Jennifer Langston,

Attention Puget Sound Energy customers: Don’t feel bad if you missed the connection between your electricity bills and today’s headlines about reducing air pollution in scenic Montana. It’s not obvious. But news that the federal government wants owners of the Colstrip coal plant to invest in expensive new equipment to reduce a fraction of its dirty emissions does affect more than 1 million electricity users in Washington State.

Colstrip, Montana power plantThat’s because Puget Sound Energy owns the biggest chunk of the power (and the pollution) coming from the Colstrip coal plant in eastern Montana, which is the second-largest coal-fired power plant west of the Mississippi. Last year it released nearly 19,000 tons of nitrogen oxide and 16,000 tons of sulfur dioxide, which form smog or haze that’s unhealthy to breathe and obscures landscapes.

The Environmental Protection Agency has released a new plan that would require Colstrip’s owners to spend $82 million up front, and pay more than $14 million in annual costs, to meet haze standards that protect visibility in the state’s national parks and scenic areas. Puget Sound Energy owns half of the two coal-fired burners that need upgrades under the haze rules (and, unless it works out some kind of deal with other owners, seems like it would be liable for half the costs).

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