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Western resource extraction, now and then

Lissa James | Jan 28, 2010 03:45 AM

For four years Boston-based photographer Eirik Johnson, a Seattle native, travelled around Washington, Oregon, and northern California taking pictures of loggers and fishermen. His photographs, collected into the series "Sawdust Mountain," are on display at the Henry Art Gallery at the University of Washington until this Sunday. The series depicts the visual impact of natural resource extraction--clearcuts and slash piles, dams and gill nets--alongside the social impact of collapsed natural resource-based industries. Former timber boom towns like Aberdeen, Wash., decorated with murals of men using cross-cut saws in old growth forests, now have abandoned log dumps and factory buildings and a population struggling to find an economic alternative to timber.

Log photograph by Eerik JohnsonThe photographs document both man's awesome ability to alter the natural environment and his adaptability: mills now cut less desirable species like alder instead of fir or cedar, forest workers salvage cedar shakes from old growth stumps, and nurseries and hatcheries produce millions of seedlings and eggs to supplement natural supply. These images are disturbing but not judgmental, inviting sympathy for the people still dependent on the natural resource-based economy rather than animosity. The photos and the people in them are sad and gray and hushed, hunched beneath a perpetually cloudy and beautiful sky, and the series comprises what Johnson describes as a "melancholy love letter of sorts" to life in the rural Northwest.

At the University of Washington exhibit Johnson's work is accompanied by a collection of old-growth logging photographs taken in the late 1800s and early 1900s by the likes of Darius Kinsey and Carleton Watkins.

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Sundance, Redford and Obama

Felice Pace | Jan 25, 2010 09:20 AM

The Sundance Film Festival is underway at Park City, Utah. This year the annual event is being covered by the alternative media news program Democracy Now!. Today,  Democracy Now aired an interview with Sundance founder and LA native Robert Redford.

Redford was asked to describe Utah where he owns land and a home. He did not hesitate - describing what he called Utah's "theocratic stance" and alleging that it is  "overdeveloped". You can listen to or read the interview by following this link.

Late in the interview, Goodman asked Redford for his opinion of the Obama Presidency and by implication the Democratic Party’s control of the federal government for the past 12 months. It is a question that is on the minds of many left-leaning and progressive Americans: why does government under the Democrats seem less confident and effective compared to government under the Republicans? Redford suggested the problem was essentially that Obama is too nice a guy; that he went for bipartisanship rather than aggressively using the mandate he had been given. He contrasted this with Bush II who had no legitimate mandate but acted as if he did. 

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Tribal push to regulate Native ceremonies

Rob Capriccioso | Jan 21, 2010 02:51 AM

When I first saw the headlines coming out of Arizona regarding a push to regulate tribal ceremonies, I couldn't help but think tribal sovereignty might be in danger.

But then I learned that the effort is coming from tribal leaders themselves in response to the three Sedona, AZ deaths and 19 illnesses that took place as a result of a non-Indian sweat lodge in October.

The horror-inducing mock Native American ceremony was led by spiritual guru James Ray, who's being investigated for his role in the situation. His lawyers have said his actions weren't criminal.

Tribal citizens have long said that Native-based sacred rituals shouldn't be propagated by new-age spiritualists who really don't have a solid foundation in what they are trying to do.

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Venison a la plomb

Michael Glenn Easter | Jan 13, 2010 04:10 AM

Deer hunting season is over in the West. And if you were a good aim, your freezer is chock full of venison — looking a lot like the meat section at Costco. But be warned, new research suggests that eating game shot with lead bullets may expose you and your family to lead, a poisonous heavy metal.

A large federal study recently discovered that deer hunters and their families have, on average, 66 percent more lead in their bloodstream. And although none of the participants in the study had blood lead levels high enough to be considered poisonous, experts are still concerned.

The lead-exposure-via-wild-venison connection was brought to attention by Dr. William Cornatzer, a long time hunter, Peregrine Fund member, and professor at the University of North Dakota, Grand Forks. After attending a Peregrine Fund meeting about the California condor  — a bird whose populations suffered in part from eating lead-riddled animal carcasses — Cornatzer theorized that humans, just like the condor, are exposed to lead by eating wild deer shot with lead bullets.

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Timber Corporations, Real Estate and Community Forests

Felice Pace | Jan 12, 2010 03:55 AM

Weyerhauser – the nation’s largest timber company – has announced that it will convert itself into a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT).  The company’s stock rose about 7% when the conversion was announced in December.

The Weyerhauser announcement came as no surprise to those familiar with western forest management; it has been under discussion for several years.   Many forest products companies with large forest holdings have already converted to REITs or created REITs to complement other operations.

Large corporate owners control a good amount of the West’s prime development property. Once remote, these holdings are now on the fringes of cities like Seattle and Portland. Where I live along the Redwood Coast, timber giant Green Diamond Resources (formerly Simpson) owns forest lands – now mostly clearcuts and tree plantations - on hills and ridges surrounding the Humboldt Bay Metropolitan Area (where the cities of Eureka and Arcata are located).

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Ray Ring, Andy Stahl and the Clinton Roadless Rule

Felice Pace | Jan 06, 2010 03:35 AM

Ray Ring’s response to Andy Stahl’s letter (12-21 & 1-4 edition) taking exception to a point in Ray’s article on the Clinton Administration’s roadless area rulemaking ( 11-9 edition) was not adequate. While there are partisans within the Forest Service on each “side” of the roadless debate, anyone who works closely with the agency knows that its management levels overwhelmingly retain and support the Forest Service’s long-standing bias against any action which closes land to commercial exploitation - including the Clinton Roadless Rule. Therefore it is implausible to imply that pro-roadless protection and anti-roadless protection intimidation of underlings was equally practiced. 

If you want to understand the Forest Service, follow the money. You will find that information on how budgets are developed is the most difficult information to extract from Forest Service managers. The anti-land protection bias within Forest Service organizational culture is tied to that budget process which continues to be dominated by the timber sale program. In order to build their organizations and retain staff positions, district rangers and forest supervisors must compete for funds with other management units; competition to get out the cut  - and thereby to secure a larger budget - is the primary form this competition takes. Until these budget incentives change, anti-land protection bias will continue as a prime feature of Forest Service organizational culture.

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Welcoming Energy Production Home

Eric Jantz | Jan 06, 2010 12:00 AM

 In 2007, the Oxford American Dictionary named "locavore" the word of the year. As most High Country News readers know, locavores are people who choose to consume food that is locally grown, harvested, or produced, usually within 100 miles of the purchase point.  The locavore movement came into being after a small group of people realized that the food they ate wasn't just sustenance, but a political, social and ecological choice and statement. They realized that eating food grown and produced close to home builds local economies, fosters accountability from producers, reduces fossil fuel dependence and carbon output and usually results in healthier and more environmentally sound food. As with many good ideas, the idea of eating locally grew, slowly at first, and then rapidly, until just four years after the movement started, "locavore" received official imprimatur as part of the popular lexicon.

 I think it's time to start a locavore movement for energy generation and distribution. Call it the "logen" (local + generation) or "lenergy" (local + energy) movement. Whatever you call it, it would follow the same principles of the locavore movement.  People would use energy sources available to them locally. Local energy generation and distribution would result in cleaner, greener energy consumption. Since most places in the U.S. aren't located near fossil fuel or uranium deposits, the majority of energy sources would be renewable. Even if there are locally available fossil fuel or uranium sources, the capital costs of extracting, processing and generating electricity from these sources are usually prohibitive except for huge multinational corporations.  As more communities generate and consume their own energy, less carbon will be emitted into the atmosphere and fewer communities will suffer the ecological destruction that is inherent in energy resource extraction.

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Does the Forest Service Truly Believe in Collaboration?

John Freemuth | Jan 04, 2010 04:50 AM

Recently, the U.S. Forest Service announced another attempt to revise its planning regulations. While the agency takes aim at making its decision-making more collaborative, at the same time it's running into conflict from other planning processes at the state level.

Many readers are probably familiar with the Forest Service's saga of revision, as the agency has made several attempts to rework these regulations in the recent past. Somewhat predictably, the focus and approach of the various regulations has varied with the presidential administration in power at the time the rewrite was initiated. Readers interested in a short but eye-crossing synopsis of all that might read "Reinstating the 2000 Rule" on page 67059 of the December 18, 2009 Federal Register [PDF]. That summary offers a window into some of the difficulties facing the Forest Service.

This time around, the agency has said that it wants to focus on a number of principles that it hopes will guide the planning rule development process, including an emphasis on "restoration, conservation, and the improved resilience of ecosystems; watershed health; climate change response; species diversity and wildlife habitat; sustainable National Forest System lands; proactive collaboration; and working across landscapes." The agency has emphasized that this will be an "open, collaborative process."

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We are all preservationists now!

Felice Pace | Dec 31, 2009 05:40 AM

If you have yet to read Jonathan Thompson’s feature Wind Resistance in the December 09-January 10 edition you have a treat in store. By describing in vivid detail the politics surrounding wind power development in Wyoming, Jonathan elucidates what may be the largest cultural change which the West has experienced in this century so far – the mainstreaming of preservation.

As western urbanization, industrialization and flight to rural areas has accelerated, more and more westerners discover that they have become preservationist. No matter that your background is in one of the West’s traditional extractive industries; no matter that you are a Republican; no matter that you are a friend and colleague of Dick Chaney….you find yourself none-the-less highly motivated to protect western landscapes that you have come to love. If you go down this path you are likely to find yourself in coalition with local environmentalists whom you have attacked and disparaged for years.

Is this just standard NIMBY behavior or does it indicate a basic shift which will change western politics fundamentally? It is probably too early to tell. But the Wyoming wind story is not the only indication that change has occurred. Consider, for example, the following resolution passed recently by the National Grange and California State Grange:

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A roller-coaster decade | Dec 29, 2009 07:15 AM

By David Frey, guest blogger, 12-29-09

The last 10 years in the West was a wild roller coaster ride, a decade of explosions and implosions: nine years of mostly up, up, up and one year of solid down.

Here are five top trends that shaped the region in the first decade of a new millennium.

Real estate boom – and bust. At the dawn of the Ohs (or was it the Oh Nos?), real estate was already booming here, but it would soon go off the charts. Minus a post-9/11 sputter, real estate prices soared throughout much of the West as baby boomers and urban refugees sought their own little piece of big sky. The real estate bubble expanding across the country hit a funhouse mirror in the West – bigger, fatter and a little twisted.

Little towns like St. George, Utah saw growth go off the charts. Big cities like Phoenix and Las Vegas metastasized into megalopolises. Resort towns saw their prices hit insane levels ($135 million for Prince Bandar’s Aspen spread, anyone?), and worker bee hamlets followed suit.

Fast forward to 2008. The economy tanked. The real estate market collapsed. The construction industry vaporized. The only things going up were foreclosures and bankruptcies. The Yellowstone Club’s bankruptcy was one of the most vivid examples: a playground for the wealthy, now hard up for cash.

Energy boom – and bust. Booms and busts are par for the course when it comes to the energy industry in the West. The Ohs were no exception. A broad swath of the West, from New Mexico to Montana, saw a boom of oil and gas development, with rigs popping up in backyards where residents never dreamed of seeing them.

It wasn’t just oil and gas. Oil shale and uranium saw renewed interest. Coal was going gangbusters. Solar and wind were getting attention from more than just environmentalists.

The boom brought battles. Residents complained about impacts on their homes and ranches. Environmentalists fought over cherished landscapes. The Valle Vidal. The Roan Plateau. The Wyoming Range. Wells were planned in view of spots like Utah’s Arches National Park.

Part of the rush was pure economics. Soaring fuel prices made drilling in remote Western lands more economical than ever before. Part was pure politics. The Bush administration opened up public lands to drilling and stripped roadless protections that would have kept some lands drill-free.

States scrambled to catch up to the boom. The Obama administration was less industry-friendly. But what really did in the energy industry was falling prices. Rigs are lying down now, just waiting for the prices to rebound.

Purple tide. The West has long been Republican territory, but Democrats made enormous strides here in the Ohs. Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico all found themselves with Democratic governors. Democrats gained ground in Western congressional delegations and statehouses.

Compare that to 2000, when the West had no Democratic governors, three Democratic Senators, just a handful of Democratic congressmen and most state legislatures were in Republican hands.

The party took notice, and in 2008, it gave a nod to the power of the region by holding the Democratic National Convention in Denver. Obama and his supporters made campaign appearances in parts of the West long abandoned by Democrats. Obama carried Colorado, New Mexico, Montana and Nevada.

Time will tell how long the Democrats hold onto these victories, but it seems their win was more than just good luck or dissatisfaction with the GOP. The West’s politics are shifting. The Western Democratic politician doesn’t have to don a cowboy hat and boots to get elected anymore.

Dry spell. Much of the first decade of the century was marked by drought. If global warming projections are right, it looks like much of the rest of the century will be, too.

Devastating wildfires raged across the region. Part of that is thanks to a century of firefighting that left the forests filled with big, old trees ready to burn. Much of it, though, was thanks to year after year of drought. Summers didn’t bring rain. Winters didn’t bring much snow. The forests dried, and fire, a part of life in the West, raged into conflagrations.

What the fires left behind, the beetles took. A scourge of pine beetles raged across the West, leaving in their wake thousands of miles of dead timber from the Canadian border to Mexico.

It used to be environmentalists who threatened to drain Lake Powell in Utah. In the Ohs, Mother Nature did it herself, revealing canyons long hidden by the Glen Canyon Dam. Rivers shrank, often leaving fish to die in waters that were too warm for them.

Western communities worried about dwindling water supplies as reservoirs emptied and snowpacks thinned. Say goodbye to the glaciers of Glacier National Park. Even ski industry executives worried, and responded with a campaign to fight global warming. It wasn’t just a rallying cry of environmentalists, anymore.

Nuevo West. As the West boomed, immigrants came in search of jobs. When resort towns were booming and construction was thriving, there were plenty of jobs to go around. The ranks of construction workers and housekeepers filled with immigrant workers, just as the West’s agricultural industry had relied on them for years. Most were Mexicans, escaping a lack of jobs at home in search of work across the border. Others came from across Latin America and around the world and fueled the New West boom.

These immigrants changed the face of the West. Latino-owned restaurants and businesses thrived. Norteño music pounded from passing pickups and Spanish became a common sound on even small-town Western street corners. A Pew Hispanic Center study found illegal immigrants made up one in 10 workers in Arizona and Nevada, nearly one in 20 workers in Colorado, New Mexico and Utah and over 3 percent of workers in Idaho.

When the economy tumbled, their fortunes did, too. Some headed home. Others held on, hoping, like all Westerners, that the next decade would bring better times.

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