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Crowd control and wilderness redux at Yosemite's Half Dome

Red Lodge | Feb 29, 2012 10:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Every year, from sunup ‘til sundown, from Memorial Day into October, there’s a traffic jam of sorts high above the Yosemite Valley floor. The trek to the top of Half Dome, Yosemite National Park’s iconic peak, is a destination hike for people from all over the world. The trail, which ascends nearly 5,000 feet over seven to eight miles, is crowded with upwards of 1,200 people per day vying for panoramic views of the High Sierra from the granite cap.

cables at Yosemite's Half DomeConcerned about safety, visitor experience and wilderness impacts, the National Park Service (NPS) is now considering permanently limiting the number of people per day that can ascend the final portion of the Half Dome Trail to the summit. This 400-foot section is made of steep, smooth rock that, without the aid of the existing cable system, or technical climbing gear, is treacherous. Lose your footing here, which is easy enough when it’s wet, and your next stop would be the valley floor. 

In 1865, J.D. Whitney, California’s state geologist, called Half Dome, “perfectly inaccessible, being probably the only one of all the prominent points about the Yosemite which never has been, and never will be, trodden by human foot.” Little did he know that, a decade later, Yosemite guide George Anderson would become the first person to summit Half Dome, laying the ground work for the cables, poles and planks that were anchored to the rock in 1919 and remain in use today.

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Lessons from the Musselshell: the aftermath

Wendy Beye | Feb 28, 2012 10:00 PM

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

Floodwaters dallied in Musselshell River's floodplain for months, precluding any attempts at damage assessment or repair. The first priority was to restore community water systems and roads. Dump trucks, excavators, and graders were tied up for most of the summer repairing damage to basic county and city infrastructure. The ranchers would have to wait, watch, and wonder about the future of their livelihood.

The Musselshell Watershed Coalition arranged for an aerial tour of the river using LightHawk volunteer pilots and their planes. A delegation of ranchers, water user association managers, and river water commissioners took advantage of the opportunity to survey the devastation from the air, and their reactions ran from bemused to bleak.

Twisted railroad bridge

The 2011 Musselshell flood washed out the approach to this circa 1907 abandoned Milwaukee Road railroad bridge and twisted the metal as if it were a wet lasagna noodle.

Peter Marchi, Chief Water Commissioner of the river for the reach running from Martinsdale at the upper Musselshell down all the way to the Fort Peck Reservoir, was surprised to see evidence of how the river had undergone channel shifting over its history, but noted that with this flood, the river tended to straighten its channels rather than create new oxbows. The river's new shorter path and steeper gradient does not augur well for the ranchers along the river during future flood events. His final comment was that he felt like “a man without a country,” with no downriver water flows to manage for the 2011 irrigation season.

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Land of Disenchantment

Ed Quillen | Feb 28, 2012 10:00 PM

The Territory of New Mexico became the 47th state of the union in 1912, so the state is celebrating its centennial this year. It's also looking for a new marketing slogan to revive its tourism industry. 

For nearly 80 years, it's been "the Land of Enchantment," but the spell seems to be wearing off. As the Wall Street Journal explained in a story published in January, "Overnight tourist trips in New Mexico have dropped by nearly 10% in the past three years, and spending on everything from souvenir magnets to turquoise jewelry fell by hundreds of millions of dollars." 

NM BalloonLast fall, the state's tourism department convened some focus groups in Chicago, Houston and Los Angeles. "Enchantment" was not among the statements, which included responses like "close to Arizona," "arid and barren," "artsy," "dull" and "dreamcatchers." 

Some focus group participants associated New Mexico, which is landlocked, with beaches, and for years, some Americans haven't quite connected New Mexico with America. I have a friend who lived in Boston for a couple of years and during that time, went to mail a present to her parents in Belen, N.M.; the postal clerk wanted her to fill out a customs deceleration because New Mexico just had be a foreign country.

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Climate debate hearkens back to days of the bison

Ben Long | Feb 27, 2012 10:00 PM

An old bison bone on my desk has me thinking about air pollution, climate change and the American mind.

You remember the basics from history class: Tens of millions of bison roamed the Great Plains. Along came Manifest Destiny and market hunters shot them for hides, tongues and just to get the great beasts out of the way.

bison skull (C) Karen NicholsIn the decades after the Civil War, scientists like William Hornaday warned America: we were shooting bison into extinction.

A few folks paid attention – bold leaders with a head for science. Theodore Roosevelt, probably the most scientifically minded person ever to occupy the White House, tops the list.

But nationwide, the response was a collective “Huh?” The idea that the once endless herds of bison could be shot out in a few years was simply inconceivable to most. “Bison have been here forever,” was the prevailing view. “How could something as puny as people wipe out buffalo? Bah!”

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The battle for new wilderness: A closer look at Montana's Sleeping Giant

University of Montana | Feb 26, 2012 10:00 PM

Editor's note: This is the last story in a group of pieces produced for High Country News by students in the University of Montana's online news class. They ran over a period of two weeks in the Range blog. You can see a list of all the stories here.

By Daniel Viehland

On Nov. 10, Secretary Interior Ken Salazar highlighted 18 backcountry areas in nine states that he said deserved protection as national conservation or wilderness areas. Yet even though some of those areas are already managed as de facto wilderness, the proposal has been controversial. A closer look at one of them, the Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study Area in Montana, shows the back-and-forth involved in creating wilderness.

"We have heard from local communities, elected officials, and others that Montana’s Sleeping Giant, Nevada’s Pine Forest Range and New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte are among the many places that deserve protection by Congress for future generations," Salazar said in his announcement.

The Sleeping Giant Wilderness Study area, north of Helena, Mont., consists of about 11,000 acres that range from about 3,600 to 6,800 feet in elevation. About half of the area is forested and home to a variety of species, from elk to golden eagles. Its centerpiece is the Sleeping Giant formation itself, a local landmark visible from Helena. If the Sleeping Giant receives full wilderness status, it would add to the 3,443,000 acres of already existing wilderness in Montana.

Sleeping Giant’s inclusion on the federal protection list wasn’t exactly unexpected. According to Sherri Lionberger, a supervisory land use specialist at the Butte office of the Bureau of Land Management,  Interior wanted only those proposals with broad public and community support. "Everyone we had gotten comments from had been supportive of this. It's kind of a local icon there," she said.

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Left out of the Arizona debate: energy

Jackie Wheeler | Feb 26, 2012 10:00 PM

On Wednesday, February 23rd, the four Republican presidential candidates were in my town, Mesa, Arizona, for yet another round of “debate.” As everyone knows (and as Tom Zoellner’s recent book excerpt reminded HCN readers), Arizona is friendly turf for these guys, and conservative Mesa may be friendliest of all. The audience at the Mesa Arts Center consisted mostly of local GOP bigwigs – there are lots of those, including virtually the whole state legislature -- so it was not surprising that Romney, Gingrich, Santorum, and Paul spent little time defending the substance of their remarkably similar views and instead squabbled about who disagrees most fiercely with President Obama.

Of course, that’s an oversimplification. No doubt some serious policy concerns were addressed, but isn’t it all starting to blur together after the nineteen previous debates? The local media complained afterward that few hot topics for Arizonans (except immigration, of course) came up, but by now the four men know the script so well they may not be able to stray from it.

So, what are some Arizona hot topics? One that we share with other Western states is energy development, both the renewable and non-renewable kinds. For a red state, Arizona’s been making some positive strides in solar and bio-fuel production. Where do the GOP candidates stand on those? Though the subject of energy was mentioned in Wednesday’s debate, I visited each Republican candidate’s website to check out his views

There are no big surprises, of course. They are unified in their desire to step up exploration for traditional non-renewable sources such as oil, natural gas, coal, and uranium. While Santorum’s site mentions bio-mass, wind, and solar (one of the few to do so) with the vague promise to “expand domestic innovations” into these sources, he is much more explicit about his plans to support private sector oil and natural gas drilling by gutting all regulations associated with them. And, of course, this is the guy who equates President Obama’s environmental views with “phony theology.” Romney and Paul simply dismiss efforts to expand alternative energy sources. Romney, echoing the “phony theology” reasoning, accuses the Obama administration of “operating more on faith than on fact-based economic calculation” in supporting green technologies. Paul blames “environmental alarmists” for designing “federal policies to punish traditional energy production.” Gingrich, on the other hand, proposes a fiendish compromise wherein the U.S. will “finance cleaner energy research and projects with new oil and gas royalties.”

I wish there were a better way – perhaps a real debate? – to engage the presidential contender in a serious, detailed discussion of energy policy. Unfortunately, voters must rely on the carefully spun, substance-free P.R. in websites, ads, and events like the one here in Mesa. Then again, Al Gore tried to talk energy and got dismissed as too boring and wonky. I guess we get what we ask for.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.


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Risks remain from uranium mining near the Grand Canyon

Red Lodge | Feb 21, 2012 10:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

When the 20-year withdrawal of nearly one million acres of public land from uranium development near the Grand Canyon was finalized last month, reaction was mixed. Conservationists, who’d been warning of contamination of surface and groundwater flowing into the Colorado River from mining activity, mostly exhaled in relief. (Never mind the current GOP effort to reverse the decision) Mining enthusiasts complained of lost opportunities for revenue and employment.

Uranium development peaked here in the 1980s but fell off after demand for the ore dropped. When the price of uranium soared in 2006, and continued its climb the next year, a Bush administration policy fostered thousands of new claims on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service in the Grand Canyon watershed. Fearing the environmental impact of the bonanza, the Department of the Interior suspended new claims in 2009, pending environmental review.

There are over 5,000 active uranium claims within those one million acres. The withdrawal goes a long way toward protecting the watersheds, seeps and springs, sacred sites and critical wildlife habitat in the area because the only claims that can now be mined would have had to establish “valid existing rights,” before the 2009 moratorium. Yet even with these protections, the mines with existing rights -- the ones allowed to operate despite the moratorium --  may still have a significant negative impact on the Grand Canyon environment

Claims with valid existing rights within the withdrawal can be mined, or re-mined, which is the case here. There are four uranium mines in the withdrawal area, all built in the 1980s and all owned by Denison Mines, a Canadian/Korean mining firm. The Canyon Mine is south of the Grand Canyon in the Kaibab National Forest and the Pinenut, Kanab North and Arizona 1 mines are north of the canyon on the Arizona Strip.

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Who's the worst of all?

Ed Quillen | Feb 21, 2012 10:00 PM

In his essay "The Second Rape of the West" published in 1975, Edward Abbey observed that when Westerners with certain attitude problems start talking, the conversation often features their representatives in the U.S. Congress. 

"Look at Senators Garn and Moss of Utah, Senators Goldwater and Fannin of Arizona, Governor Rampton of Utah, Congressmen Steiger and Rhodes of Arizona, and about half a dozen others in our Western Dirty Dozen. Don't they qualify, from the conservationist point of view, as sons of bitches, too? [Montana rancher Boyd] Charter and I had a bit of discussion about this, each of us maintaining, out of regional loyalty, that his own politicians were the worst." 

Doug LambornAnd in any such conversation, I can more than hold my own. That's because I live in Colorado's 5th Congressional District, which is dominated by right-thinking Colorado Springs, 100 miles away from my little mountain town. 

The 5th was formed because Colorado got an additional representative after the 1970 census. It has always elected a Republican. Our current representative is Doug Lamborn, first elected in 2006 after a stint in the state legislature, where he proposed that 14,140-foot Mt. Democrat be renamed.
Lamborn consistently ranks  as one of the most conservative members of Congress. But that's about the only way he's consistent. 

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Richard Hugo, revisited

University of Montana | Feb 20, 2012 10:00 PM

Editor's note: These stories were produced for High Country News by students in the University of Montana's online news class. They will be running over a period of two weeks in the Range blog. See a list of all the stories here.

By Annela Rova

The celebrated American poet Richard Hugo chose to focus on three basic elements: the Northwest landscape, the humans who inhabit it, and the point at which the two converge. His work is known for its connection to the land and the sorrows and triumphs of the human experience.

In that way, he was no stranger to Montana.

It became a place of particular inspiration for him in the 1960s, after he accepted a position teaching creative writing at the University of Montana. During his 18 years of teaching, Hugo took time to travel and write about the landscape and towns around him, publishing two somewhat notorious poems, “The Only Bar in Dixon” and “St. Ignatius Where the Salish Wail.”

Dixon, a small reservation town in western Montana, has a population of about 50 people and, yes, still just the one bar. It’s long been an enticing place to write about. Poets James Welch and J.D. Reed visited the bar in 1970, after reading Hugo’s piece, and sent their own poems about the bar to The New Yorker. The magazine dedicated a spread to their work and re-published the pieces two subsequent times. Missoula musician Shane Clouse released a song in 2008 about this same bar.

But don’t ask bar owner Bud Schmauch to be impressed. He feels that Hugo’s “The Only Bar in Dixon” was an insult to his mother, the bar’s owner at the time, as it dwelled on the place’s desolation. Hugo responded that he wasn’t just writing about Dixon itself, but rather reflecting on his own personal loneliness.

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Fighting a pervasive invader: Crested wheatgrass

University of Montana | Feb 19, 2012 10:00 PM

Editor's note: These stories were produced for High Country News by students in the University of Montana's online news class. They will be running over a period of two weeks in the Range blog. See a list of all the stories here.

By Rachel Seidensticker

Plastic netting lines the winding gravel road at the MPG Ranch in Florence, Mont., sheltering newly planted pines, junipers and chokecherry bushes. It’s just one of the many restoration projects taking place at this old homestead at the northern end of the Sapphire Mountains. The ranch, settled in 1881 by the Schroeder Brothers Cattle Co., is now a research station where scientists work to repair the effects of many years of grazing. One of their primary targets: crested wheatgrass.

MPG Ranch

Ecologist Dan Mummey serves as the field colonel in the fight against this relentless invader. The MPG ranch has become an 8,600-acre ecological restoration effort, largely focused on crested wheatgrass. Its 200-acre sister research ranch, MPG North, lies north of Missoula in the Swan Valley. Neither property now operates as a working ranch; instead, both serve as on-site laboratories for restoring former cattle ranges and logging areas.

Crested wheatgrass (Agropyron cristatum) is a Russian native that was originally introduced as a good, cheap livestock feed. It thrives in harsh conditions, including drought, and initially, some saw it as an ideal remedy for overgrazed rangeland. But in many places, it has taken over entirely. According to the U.S. Forest Service, over 26 million acres in North America have been planted in crested wheatgrass, almost half of it in the U.S. West. Wide bands of the grass cover rangeland across half the states in the country, where the plant forms a wall-to-wall monoculture, a Western version of an Iowa cornfield. Although livestock producers still find it useful for cattle, it crowds out native plants, growing in tight bunches that don’t leave room for anything else. It also makes for poor winter forage for wildlife.

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