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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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Being "green" doesn't make you a radical

Jackie Wheeler | Mar 25, 2012 10:55 PM

I’m far from the first to notice the increasing popularity of the phrase “radical environmentalist” and its close cousin “environmental extremist” in political discourse lately, but I’m getting darn sick of it. Rick Santorum’s “phony theology” dust-up in February was a prominent national example; as I’m sure you remember, he accused President Obama of adhering to “dark green” religious principles, which he oversimplified thus: “that man is here to serve the earth as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the earth.” For many of Santorum’s followers, the tautological absurdity of this explanation is immaterial; simply invoking “radical environmentalists” is enough to express condemnation. Linking it to exotic-sounding theology is simply icing on the cake.

High end Gucci shopEvidence of the spread of this terminology can be found frequently in local venues too, such as newspaper letters to the editor and public forums. One recent letter writer to the San Juan Record in San Juan CountyUtah, warned that if “radical environmentalists” are drawn to the area they will destroy its “rural, family oriented, agricultural” character with such evils as “political power” and “high-end shops.”

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A monumental proposal

Ed Quillen | Mar 20, 2012 11:00 PM

Things have sure changed around here. When I moved to Salida in 1978 to work for the local newspaper, I covered many hearings about roadless areas and their suitability as wilderness. And invariably, the local business community was opposed to "another federal land grab" that would "lock up valuable resources" and "deprive us of a livelihood."

Nowadays -- now that mining and logging have nearly vanished from the local economy, which has become based on tourism -- the attitude is different. At a meeting of the Salida Business Alliance last week, the president asked for comments about a proposed national monument designation north of town, and got unanimous encouragement to write a letter supporting it.

The area in question has been an issue at least since 1978, when it was known as Aspen Ridge and proposed for wilderness designation. It sits between Buena Vista and Salida in central Colorado, and runs from the east side of the Arkansas River to the crest of Aspen Ridge, the boundary between Park and Chaffee counties.

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Rethinking recreation in grizzly country

Red Lodge | Mar 20, 2012 12:25 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

In far north-central Glacier National Park (GNP), on the U.S.-Canadian border, is a spot called Goat Haunt. It’s a remote area on the U.S. side, accessed by most people via a ferry across Upper Waterton Lake from Canada. Several years ago I was walking from there toward the Kootenai Lakes mid-morning, along a narrow trail through boggy, willow-crammed country. Having forgotten our bear spray, my hiking partner and I sang especially loudly and often yelled, “Bears beware!” Our off-key renditions of Broadway show tunes didn’t bother other hikers because there were none, although they did destroy the serenity of the place and the normally hypnotic rhythm of our walking.

YNP Grizzly familyWhether due to our state of hyperawareness, or because the signs were so obvious, I started noticing things that made me uneasy -- scratch marks roughly six to eight feet off the ground on several trees we passed, some aging reddish-black scat and a few faint, five-toed tracks. Not far off the trail, some matted vegetation also suggested a large animal had bedded down there recently.

After about an hour of walking, we decided it was unwise to follow in the footsteps of what was likely a grizzly bear. We turned around and started double-timing it back toward Goat Haunt. That’s when I caught a flash of brown fur in the distance, attached to something huge plowing through the brush about 50 feet off of the trail. As the sun glanced off of its back, and the sound of breaking branches crackled in the distance, my heart lodged itself somewhere up around my tonsils.

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New Keystone XL route could still threaten Ogallala aquifer

InsideClimateNews | Mar 18, 2012 11:00 PM

By Lisa Song, InsideClimate News

"A relatively modest jog around the Sandhills"—that's how one TransCanada executive describes the Keystone XL oil pipeline's new route through Nebraska, which is expected to be released in the next few weeks.

But while the path will avoid the Nebraska Sandhills—a region of grass-covered sand dunes that overlies the critically important Ogallala aquifer—it could still pass through areas above the Ogallala, where the water supply is vulnerable to the impacts of an oil spill.

The original Keystone XL would have crossed through 100 miles of the Sandhills on its way from the tar sands mines of Alberta, Canada to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast. But TransCanada agreed to reroute it in November, after thousands of Nebraskans joined environmentalists to protest the pipeline's path over the aquifer.

The aquifer spans eight states and supplies 83 percent of Nebraska's irrigation water. It's also connected to the High Plains aquifer, which in many places lies above the Ogallala aquifer. Although residents of the Sandhills technically rely on the High Plains aquifer for drinking and irrigation, most refer to the Ogallala aquifer when talking about their water supply.

"It was always about the water," said Amy Schaffer, a fifth-generation Nebraskan whose father runs a Sandhills ranch. "This isn't over until they get [the pipeline] out of the Ogallala aquifer."

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"Sportsmen" stab Theodore Roosevelt in the back

Ben Long | Mar 14, 2012 06:00 AM

One of the goofier gaffes Mitt Romney has made on the 2012 Campaign Trail was when he recalled a recent Montana hunting trip – but forgot if he had pursued elk or moose.

Dig deeper, though, and that hunting trip reflects something more sinister than a slip of the tongue.

President Theodore Roosevelt left America a rich legacy of abundant wildlife and millions of acres of public lands.  Now, some influential, well-heeled hunters are stabbing Theodore Roosevelt in the back, and trying to recruit Mitt Romney to undermine TR’s legacy. 

TR smilingRoosevelt championed a simple idea that is the foundation of all conservation and wildlife management in North America. This idea is that wildlife belongs to all of us, not to the rich or the land-owning elite. That is the idea underlying America’s national parks; the effort to restore now-abundant game animals like whitetail deer, turkey to elk, from near extinction and rescue endangered species like peregrine falcons and bald eagles.

This is a uniquely American idea. In Europe, wildlife is considered the property of the landowner or nobility. Hunting and fishing -- what little remains -- is entirely in the hands of the elite.

The idea that wildlife belongs to all and should be managed by professionals using sound science is called the North American Model of Wildlife Management. Most all hunting and conservation groups, including conservative, venerable hunting/gun organizations such as the National Rifle Association, Boone & Crockett Club and the Pope and Young Club, embrace the model.

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Wildlife on working lands get a leg up

Red Lodge | Mar 13, 2012 01:15 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Rural landowners in the West, and in several states back East, just got a big incentive to protect seven vulnerable species on their property.

Working Lands for Wildlife, a new partnership between the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, was announced last week.

Willow flycatcher nestThe program aims to dole out $33 million to ranchers, farmers and forest landowners who sign on to restore high-priority habitats for the greater sage-grouse, lesser prairie-chicken, bog turtle, golden-winged warbler, gopher tortoise, New England cottontail and Southwestern Willow flycatcher.

The money is being channeled from the Wildlife Habitats Incentives Program, which is offered under the 2008 Farm Bill. There is a total of $2 billion worth of conservation programs in the bill, which is set to expire this fall. The Senate Agriculture Committee is in the midst of hearings on the next farm bill but progress has been slow in confirming which programs will be funded going forward and which ones will get the ax.

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Expedition Denali, exploring why diversity matters

James Mills | Mar 04, 2012 09:55 PM

For the first time a team of African-American climbers is assembling to make a bid for the summit of the tallest peak in North America, Denali. Led by the National Outdoor Leadership School in 2013, this expedition aims to encourage minority youth to enjoy outdoor recreation as part of an active lifestyle as well as create a cadre of role models for careers in environmental protection.

Also known as Mount McKinley, at 20,320 feet Denali is the highest physical point anyone can reach in the United States. And as a metaphor, this mountain can also represent exactly what a person in this country can achieve, as a literal height of ambition. Unfortunately far too few people of color in our nation are likely to attain it. But this group of adventurers aims to inspire a new generation to ascend beyond their life circumstances, by ascending Denali themselves.

NOLS Denali Expedition participants Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, Chelsea Griffie, Philip Henderson, James Mills and Stephen Shobe.

“For many of our NOLS grads the experience has been so meaningful to them that they went on to do great things,” said Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, expedition member and diversity and inclusion manager at NOLS. “There are studies that show that being outside really changes your view on education and achievement.”

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