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Dredging Western rivers for gold

Felice Pace | Oct 20, 2010 02:00 AM

An item in the October 11th edition’s “Heard around the West” reported on an influx of “gold miners” on Southern Oregon’s Rogue River. But the article did not explain why so many miners are on the Rogue now.

The vast majority of these “miners” do not make a living mining. Rather they dredge in the summer and do other things in the winter. They are referred to as recreational miners. As HCN reported back in 2006  these “miners” flock to Oregon streams when the price of gold skyrockets as it has recently.

Gold dredges - Scott River tributary to Klamath River

Suction dredges on the Scott River, a major Klamath River tributary

The increase in “recreational” dredge mining in Southern Oregon this time, however, is also related to a successful drive by a coalition of tribes and environmentalists to end the practice of suction dredge mining in California. Those who oppose the practice say that it harms salmon runs. Led by the Klamath River’s Karuk Tribe, the drive to end the practice has resulted in litigation and a new California law which bans suction dredge mining in California until the Department of Fish and Game completes and environmental review of the practice and issues new regulations. Many of California’s suction dredgers do their thing along the Klamath River just south of the Oregon border. When dredging was banned in California these folks simply moved a bit north to the Rogue River.

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(Re)naming mountains

John Freemuth | Oct 19, 2010 07:46 AM

I having been using Tim Egan’ s book The Big Burn about the fires of 1910 that changed fire policy in the United States in my public land policy class this semester. A key part of his book is about the early days of the U.S. Forest Service, its Chief Gifford Pinchot, and the forest rangers who, new to the job, tried heroically to fight those fires in Idaho and Montana. He writes about those people in such a way that they come alive.

The legacy those and other fires left that new agency is large and still can lie heavy on it and all of us. The early Forest Service also had its enemies. One of them, Senator Heyburn of Idaho, tried to defund the new agency and have it abolished; it was that “ damn federal government” standing in the way of Heyburn and his cronies. Heyburn was also one of those Senators chosen before the passage of the 17th amendment, the one that now lets citizens elect their US senators.

Mt Heyburn

Mt. Heyburn image courtesy Flickr user aj_jones_iv

This is not a historical footnote; there are those who would repeal that amendment giving us what….more Senator Heyburns? Heyburn did not succeed, but Egan reminds us it was a battle. It is simply amazing then, that a walk around or boat ride on Redfish Lake in Idaho, reveals Mount Heyburn in the Sawtooth Mountain range, one of the Forest Service’ s most proud and important places. Shouldn’ t this mountain have a name more suited to someone who did something to protect the Sawtooths and at least dealt honorably with the agency that manages them? It is time to start the process to change the name of this peak.

John Freemuth  is a professor of political science and public policy at Boise State University.


La Niña winter expected

Ed Quillen | Oct 18, 2010 08:40 AM

The weather experts who look at the big picture say we're facing a "La Niña winter" this time around. For the West, this means it will be wet in the north and dry in the south.

But the moisture won't arrive for a while. The La Niña pattern includes relatively warm, dry days well into November, with snow and cold coming hard in December and January.

The last La Niña was in 2007-08, and it certainly followed that pattern. That November, local merchants were wondering if anyone would get into the "holiday spirit," given that we had a long string of T-shirt days and the local ski area -- which has no snow-making machinery -- had postponed its opening.

Then December arrived, and there was more winter than anybody, except perhaps the ski area, really wanted to see. 

Colorado is in the middle between north and south in the West, so fluctuations on the jet stream will determine how much of the state gets buried in December and January.

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Rants from the Hill: Them! and Us

Michael Branch | Oct 15, 2010 05:05 AM

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

Some of you may be fortunate—or perhaps unfortunate—enough to recall the 1954 science fiction film Them!, which, much like Earth First!, had the audacity to include the exclamation point in its title. A classic “Big Bug” B movie, Them! concerns a colony of ants that is accidentally irradiated (as were plenty of Utahans and Nevadans during the same period), producing mutated, monster-sized insects that rampage through New Mexico, crushing skulls and filling friendly westerners with deadly formic acid. The adventure ends in a subterranean labyrinth of L. A. storm sewers where, after pinching off a few human heads, the last of the creatures is destroyed, ensuring that we’ll have nothing left to fear but Iran, North Korea, and Yucca Mountain. As a cinematic romp through Cold War anxieties, Them! gives us a monster to focus on other than ourselves, whose monstrous intelligence inadvertently produced the horrors which now terrorize us. Them! somehow affirms that it is easier to have your noggin compacted in the mandibles of a giant ant than to come to terms directly with having let the nuclear genie out of the bottle.


(not a real movie poster. Although the real ones are awesome, we couldn't get Warner Bros. permission to duplicate one here. We exhort you, however, to by all means check them Them! posters out!)

Here in the high desert of western Nevada we have our own Them!, known to entomologists as Pogonomyrmex occidentalis. The western harvester ant is, at least for now, about a quarter of an inch long instead of 50 feet long, which is convenient because its venom has a lethal dose measurement of .12 mg/kg—a bug nerd’s way of saying that it is comparable in toxicity to that of a cobra. Much is made of the harvester’s painful sting, but in my experience these guys don’t attack unless you stand on them, which seems pretty reasonable. The sting itself is certainly unpleasant, though I’ve never found it so severe as to be unresponsive to the “Three Cold Beer” remedy: apply one to wound, drink two, repeat as necessary.

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350 Miles Through Utah: A Pilgrimage for Hope

Jamie Pleune | Oct 14, 2010 06:15 AM

Editor's Note: Utahns Jamie and Ryan Pleume are walking 350 miles across Utah to raise awareness about climate change. They started their journey today. We will be posting periodic updates from their journey on this blog.

“Hope is an action not an emotion.”  A rabbi spoke these words in the sweltering heat, standing on a patch of lawn near the United States Capitol.  His voice, hoarse with age, shook with emotion as he spoke to the small crowd—proxies for the desired audience—Congress.  Hope is hard to come by these days.  We are living in a time of existential crisis.  Even though the consequences of climate change threaten the lives and safety of millions of people around the world, our leaders refuse to act to curb our national patterns of indulgence.  In this political environment of denial, I struggle to find hope, so I was glad to hear of it described as an action.  But, if hope is an action, what kind of action does it entail? 

The science is clear.  We must reduce the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere to 350 parts per million.  To accomplish this reduction, we must voluntarily walk away from the economic, social, and political patterns that dominate our lives in the United States.  The only way to tackle such a monumental journey is one step at a time.

Three months ago, I convinced my husband that we should take a 350 mile walk through our home state of Utah.  I reasoned that we were both at a crossroads in our lives; we could take some time off; and a symbolic walk would be a great way to celebrate’s 10/10/10 day of action.  He was not a hard sell.  We had been living in Washington D.C. for two years, pining for the type of adventure that comes with open space and gravity (it’s hard to experience gravity ten feet above sea level).  At the same time, we had reservations about moving back home to one of the most conservative states in the nation: a state whose politicians still refute humans’ contribution to climate change.  We began to conceive of a walk that was both political and personal. 

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Western states seem typical in new study

Ed Quillen | Oct 12, 2010 06:20 AM

When it comes to economic performance and financial management, states in the West are fairly typical. Or so says a study whose results were recently published on the Atlantic magazine's website.

Factors considered ranged from violent crime rates and median income to employment trends. To quote from the article, "well-run states have a great deal in common with well-run companies: Books are kept balanced. Investment is prudent. Debt is sustainable. Innovation is prized. Workers are properly recruited and well-trained. Executives are chosen on the basis of merit."

Wyoming ranked first, "with the highest high school completion rate, sixth lowest debt per capita and second lowest poverty rate. But there are blemishes. Wyoming ranks 19th in median income and 32nd in health coverage."

Also in the top 10 was Utah at 6th, mostly on account of its steady economy and low unemployment rate.

At the other end of the scale was Kentucky, dead last at 50th, preceded by two Western states: Arizona at 48th and California at 49th. Nevada, at 41st, was also in the bottom 10. 

Colorado finished right in the middle at 25th. As for other Western states, Washington was 15th, Oregon 27th, Idaho 28th, Montana 30th, and New Mexico 37th,

So the West has two top performers, a few near the bottom, and many in the middle -- that makes us fairly typical. As for other regions, New England and the upper Midwest (with the notable exception of Michigan at 47th) generally did well, while many Southern states (Virginia at 7th was an exception) fared poorly. 

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

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Coming home?

Joseph Taylor | Oct 07, 2010 03:00 AM

A favorite quotation of my early twenties was by none other than the archdruid himself, David Brower, from an essay he wrote for the Sierra Club Bulletin in 1935. Having spent the previous summer wandering around and over the high peaks, Brower wondered whether his adventure was “the limit? Could the Sierra offer only transitory enjoyment, merely a temporary escape.” Fired by my own desire to escape suburban life, to test my mettle on hard terrain through performances that I later realized were central to modern masculinity, Brower’s answer to his question resonated strongly. Leaving the mountains “was not coming home--he had just left it!”

Of course, a twenty-something’s world eventually grows much messier, and Brower’s remark began to seem quaint. Outdoor play left permanent marks, but the wild itself was a transitory home. The same held true for most of my friends, as it did for Brower himself, and part of growing up was realizing that it had to be so. Manly adventure was a passage, a rite performed on the way to maturation, and once established, other challenges displaced the games and ideals of youth. Our time on the rocks, slopes, waves, and rapids were important, but we also moved on. Thus what are we to make of those adventurers who stuck it out, who did make the landscapes of play their literal homes?

This is not a prelude to a hoary tale about some legendary adventurer, usually seen at a distance in the early light on the way to the big one or virgin powder or a thin line, always alone with elemental nature in its purest form.  Rather, my question is about the social and environmental implications of adventure. Outdoor sports can produce such intense emotions that the self merges with wild nature, and once that happens it seems natural for athletes to identify with nature. Although society deemed them marginal figures, outdoor athletes strongly influenced the history of environmentalism. For John Muir, Bob Marshall, Richard Leonard, David Brower, Ed Abbey, Andrea Mead Lawrence, Mark Massara, Galen Rowell, and Yvon Chouinard, their passion for play fueled their passion for the landscapes of play.

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Feline justice

Jackie Wheeler | Oct 06, 2010 02:00 AM

Life is full of many painful decisions, but ending a beloved pet’s life has got to be right up there among the worst. Last Saturday morning saw us staring at x-rays on a monitor in our vet’s office, dutifully listening to her description of the effects of fluid on the lungs and dreading where all this was headed. Moments before, we’d confidently assumed Finley’s rapid breathing and negligible appetite would be fixed right up with a course of antibiotics; certainly it could be nothing much worse than a respiratory infection. Wrong. It was likely the final stage of some hidden cancer or other malady whose signs had been invisible until now. The tech carried her in wrapped in the blue blanket that would be her shroud, a catheter already inserted in her little gray front leg. Always a shy cat, the look of abject terror in her eyes was a terrible indictment of us that no reassurances of ending her suffering could mollify. This was not the first time we’d been in this situation, but each occasion has its own special sting. As we watched the labored breathing slow, then stop, it was terrible to anticipate the emptiness of her territory under the fruit trees, an area not to be entered without a tribute to its feline mayor in the form of a gentle pat or belly rub.

Yes, Finley was an outdoor cat. I know – in addition to annoying the neighbors, outdoor cats can wreak havoc on urban and rural wildlife, particularly birds. Two recent studies I’ve read, one from the U.K. and one from the U.S., identify specific at-risk bird species which are heavily affected by cat predation, including certain sparrows, bluebirds, and hummingbirds. Accurate estimates of total birds killed by domestic and feral cats are hard to come by, but the American Bird Conservancy suggests that “hundreds of millions” are killed annually, a shocking number. And I’m sorry to say that in her younger years Miss Finley contributed to this number. While pigeons, thrashers, and other large birds never captured her interest, we did sadly witness the odd dove and – sorry – hummingbird succumb to her lightning-fast leaps.

Surely by now you condemn me for my complicity in this environmental crisis, and I accept the blame. Until 10 years ago when Finley and her siblings came into my life, I smugly asserted to one and all that I would only keep indoor cats, and indeed I did, five of them. I repeatedly scolded my neighbor for neglecting her perfectly nice female tuxedo cat, who was forced to roam the streets day and night seeking food from me and others and enduring litter after litter of kittens. When the neighbor decided to get (and consequently neglect) two large dogs, the tuxedo cat disappeared. Weeks later she reappeared under my shed, five scared feral kittens in tow.

So what would you do? Some people, like my despicable neighbor, would do nothing. Others would trap the whole family and have them euthanized, or have taxpayers fund the euthanasia at the pound. Something must be done to stop rampant cat overpopulation. No-kill shelters are perpetually full. But hard-nosed realism has a way of eroding when one must look at unbelievably adorable wee kittens everyday. Many have faced this dilemma; some on a large scale. My plan was to tame them, get them neutered and find homes for the lot, and nearly all of those goals were accomplished. Two found homes, the Mom and a female. In the process of trying to do the right thing I’d fallen hopelessly in love with the others, sweet Finley and her siblings Berto, Vela, and Clarence. They couldn’t come in; my house was already full with five cats, two elderly. So that is how I became a big fat hypocrite. I got them I.D. collars and yearly vaccinations, and bribed them with good food and treats to stay (mostly) in the backyard. But still, there were the occasional feathers in the yard. As a society, this is one of the decisions we’re faced with, to balance justice with compassion. I haven’t figured that one out yet.

Jackie Wheeler teaches writing and environmental rhetoric at Arizona State University, where she is also the Associate Director of Writing Programs. Outside academia, she’s an avid rafter, kayaker, and horsewoman who also attempts to garden. When possible, she escapes the Phoenix metro area for an undisclosed location in Southeastern Utah.



Another angle on wolves

Ed Quillen | Sep 30, 2010 04:30 AM

Chip Ward, who used to write for High Country News, has just published an informative piece  on wolf recovery in Yellowstone -- essentially calling it a success story that nobody appears to want to take credit for. 

One interesting angle: Wolves improve the water supply. How? When there are no wolves to worry about, elk hang out on river bottoms and stream banks "where the grass is green and the livin' easy."


Western gray wolf photo courtesy Flickr user SigmaEye.

They chew away at willow and aspen, depriving beaver of food and shelter materials. Thus fewer beaver dams to slow and distribute the water, as well loss of habitat for bugs and amphibians.

There's a lot more to it, of course, and it's well worth a slow read.

Ed Quillen is a freelance writer in Salida, Colorado.

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Can politicians overcome bias?

David Zetland | Sep 29, 2010 03:49 AM

Editor's note: David Zetland, a water economist who recently finished a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Berkeley offers an insider's perspective into water politics and economics. We will be cross-posting occasional posts and content from his blog, Aguanomics, here on the Range.

Can politicians overcome bias?

I don't know, but the ones in California who have been spouting off outdated numbers on lost agricultural jobs from reduced water deliveries to bolster their political agendas (pro- and anti-exports) are going to have a hard time now.

Richard Howitt and Jeff Michael (and others) have co-authored a report [pdf] on the link between jobs and water. The money shot is below...

Now there's only one authoritative estimate on this hot topic, which means that politicians cannot selectively cite the numbers they prefer.

I am glad to see this, and happy to know I played a part in its creation :)

Originally posted at Aguanomics.

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