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Obama should look to New Mexico for conservation legacy

Ben Long | Jan 14, 2013 05:00 AM

Conservation is about balance: balancing the wants of today with the needs of tomorrow; balancing freedom with responsibility; balancing human’s power to harness nature, with respecting nature’s force and wisdom.

Last week, the Center for American Progress pointed out in a report one place where the Obama Administration is out of balance: protecting the best, most valuable corners of America’s public domain.

rio grande gorge 1

When it comes to protecting the great outdoors, Obama currently lags far behind President Bush I, Bush II and Ronald Reagan.  Of course, Obama has been paired with a particularly dysfunctional Congress that can’t seem to pass water, let alone legislation.

The 112th Congress, which just ended, was the first since 1966 that designated no new wilderness areas. There are many wonderful and threatened places around the country that deserve the honor and have strong local support.

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Rants from the Hill: A prospect from the singing mountain

Michael Branch | Jan 07, 2013 05:00 AM

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

Damned ancient Mayans. In anticipation of the end of the world on December 21, I put off my Christmas shopping, blew off my deadline for this Rant, told a few folks what I actually think of them, and ran up a huge whiskey bill on my credit card. But as we enter the new year it has become obvious that prophecies about the apocalypse belong with weather reports, fiscal cliff predictions, and football bets. You know you’re part of a cosmic crapshoot when even the end of the world turns out to be a disappointment. Now we’ll just have to hang tough until the Earth’s impending collision with the planet Nibiru. At least I’ll have ample sour mash and rye while I wait around for a real cataclysm.

Once it became clear that the world hadn’t ended, our young daughters asked if we could have a family afternoon out in the desert. That seemed pretty reasonable, given the Mayan apocalypse debacle, so we piled into the truck and headed east from the Ranting Hill through boulder choked mountain passes and across vast sage basins on our way to a remarkable place called Sand Mountain, where we arrived in the chill of a late December afternoon.Sand Mountain is a single, winding sand dune, three miles long and a mile wide. This megadune rises among rocky desert mountains that are so much darker in color and so geologically dissimilar as to make this dramatic, white dune look absolutely surreal. Unlike a beach dune, which obviously belongs organically to its home landscape, Sand Mountain is so unique as to seem alien.

To appreciate Sand Mountain requires leaps of imagination. Fifteen thousand years ago the Sierra Nevada range 100 miles east of here was heavily glaciated, but a subsequent warming trend began to melt the glaciers, dumping enough water down the eastern Sierra to fill immense expanses of the Great Basin with massive inland lakes. Ancient Lake Lahontan, which extended across much of present-day northern Nevada, once covered 8,500 square miles of now desiccated high desert and was up to 800 feet deep. Toward the end of the Pleistocene the giant lake began to dry up, and by 4,000 years ago it had contracted so far as to expose the spot where Sand Mountain now rises. And here is the story of the birth of Sand Mountain, which is still being born. As the massive, retreating glaciers scoured the Sierra Nevada, they ground off flakes and pebbles of granite, which were further degraded as they tumbled down rivers and were borne out into the Great Basin. At the delta of the Walker River near Shurz, Nevada (pop. 658)—where the Ghost Dance prophet Wovoka lies buried in the Paiute graveyard—this granitic sand accumulates in a place that is made special by wind. For here the prevailing Southwesterlies swoop down and gather up this mountain-blasted and river-trundled sand, lifting it high into the air and carrying it across the open desert more than thirty miles, where the flanks of the Stillwater Mountains at last slow the winds, causing them to drop their payload of Sierra sand in this magical spot. Over time this weird, lovely pile of sand has grown to 600 feet, making Sand Mountain one of the tallest dunes in North America.

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Natural resources and the fiscal cliff

Red Lodge | Dec 17, 2012 05:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

As even people living in a cave know by now, if Congress doesn’t strike a deal soon, some combination of automatic tax hikes and draconian budget cuts will kick in. As early as January 2, the first round of sequestration cuts will be triggered.

I’ve heard little discussion of how this swan dive off the so-called fiscal cliff will affect our natural resources. Here’s a rundown of what I’ve found:

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Trouble In Mind

Ben Long | Dec 06, 2012 05:00 AM

Two images stand out from photographs I’ve taken here in northwestern Montana in the last couple months. One is from hunting for deer in November, the other from hunting a Christmas tree last weekend.

The snowshoe hare in mid November is practicing “mind over matter.”

snowshoe hare, no snow

He trusts his natural camouflage to keep him safe, even though there’s barely any snow on the ground. He stood out like a cue ball on a pool table.

The second is a grizzly bear track I photographed while cutting a Christmas tree on national forest near my home with my family. I took the image on a balmy day, December 3. A biologist friend of mine here told me that fully half of his radio collared grizzly bears were still awake and roaming in early December this year, when they should be denning up for a winter’s worth of beauty sleep.

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Rants from the Hill: Trial by jury

Michael Branch | Dec 03, 2012 12:00 PM

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

Whenever I receive a summons to jury duty I respond to it truthfully -- which is to say, I respond to it in ways that would appear to any normal person to be so opinionated, overzealous, and doctrinal as to appear slightly insane. But I rationalize that a functional democracy depends upon the candor of its citizens, and so I tell the questionnaire sent to me by the county exactly what I have on my mind. My wife, Eryn, suspects that my intemperate replies have prevented me from ever actually being called to join a jury, much as I've always wanted to serve. I, on the other hand, blame her family, which consists exclusively of public interest activists and cops, all of whom intersect with the judicial system in ways that make them biased -- though in their defense I'd observe that the biases cancel each other out, with one half of the family helping the same folks whom the other half of the family tackles and cuffs.

Jury SummonsRecently, however, I was actually summoned to appear, a phrase I now love so dearly that I use it to call our young daughters to breakfast. On the morning I was to appear I was so excited at the prospect that I even dressed properly (clean denim constituting formal attire in the western Great Basin), and I gathered a legal pad, a pen, and -- just to be an especially responsible citizen -- an extra pen. Over breakfast I waxed rhapsodic to my rather bored daughters, extolling with unbridled enthusiasm the inspiring Jeffersonian virtues of our democratic judicial system. Now, at last, I would have my own hands on the wheels and pulleys of justice, working together with my fellow citizens to produce a fair outcome for some yet unknown person whose future would hang in the balance! As I descended the Ranting Hill in my old truck, I hollered joyfully out the window to the girls: "The Revolution was not fought for nothing!"

My patriotic fervor was instantly dampened by the scene I encountered upon arriving at the county seat. A line of people wrapped out the courthouse door and around the corner, and to a person they looked like they'd been up all night drinking cheap liquor. One portly man who was wearing rainbow-colored suspenders over a torn T-shirt had a ring with approximately 200 keys dangling from his belt down almost to the sidewalk. A young woman wearing work boots and Carhartt dungarees was also sporting what, even on the eve of 2013, could only be called a tube top. Another guy had a beard so long and grey that he had to have come either from ZZ Top or 1849. An otherwise respectable-looking middle-aged man wore a tweed jacket with elbow patches, which was fine, but on his head was a deerstalker -- that weird, double-brimmed hat that is worn only by people who are costumed as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween. When a middle-aged woman who looked like the only sane person in the lot turned around, her sweatshirt revealed an image of Minnie Mouse, pink bow in hair, arm up, and middle finger extended. These were my fellow citizens, which of course begged the question of what the criminals around here might look like.

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Senate calls a foul on Sportsmen's Act

Red Lodge | Nov 30, 2012 06:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

With a highly anticipated majority, the Sportsmen’s Act of 2012 passed the Senate this week. No, wait, it totally didn’t.

The high profile bill (S. 3525), which was authored and championed by Jon Tester (D-MT) would, among other things, increase access to public lands for hunters and anglers. It was seen as a safe bet with broad, bi-partisan support after having passed two procedural votes in the Senate earlier this month (by margins of 92-5 and 84-12).

The Act, which combines 16 separate Senate and House bills, has a lot going for it in terms of conservation. The package supports a bunch of historically effective programs including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the North American Wetlands Conservation Act and the Partners for Fish and Wildlife Program.

Sand Lake NWR

Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Image courtesy Tom Koerner, USFWS

Those programs don’t just protect wildlife and habitat, and therefore the places recreationists like to go, they bolster the economies of states and the nation in a big way. Outdoor recreation contributed $646 billion in direct spending to the U.S. economy last year, according to the Western Governors’ Association. Failing to support these measures is also a kick in the shins to local economies and employment.

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The war on New Mexico's water

ericj | Nov 21, 2012 10:00 AM

As residents of the West, each of us keeps, either consciously or not, a checklist of those things that make our lives here worthwhile. Some of those things add to our quality of life, like cultural diversity and breathtaking landscapes. Others, like clean water, fall more into the necessities of life category. Without clean water, we don't drink, we don't eat, and everything collapses.

That's why it's so puzzling that New Mexico's Governor, Susana Martinez, has launched a blitzkrieg on all New Mexico's laws that protect our most precious resource. The assault began with the oil and gas industry's effort to roll back New Mexico's Oil & Gas pit rule. The pit rule regulates how oil and gas producers dispose of the wastes generated during drilling operations, like “produced” water that contains high concentrations of heavy metals, hydrocarbons and fracking chemicals.

Holding pondThe pit rule was proposed by the state agency that regulates oil and gas exploration and production, and it was the product of over a year of stakeholder input and hearings. The New Mexico Oil Conservation Commission, the agency responsible for enacting regulations that govern oil and gas development, unanimously passed the rule in order to protect New Mexico's water and public health. In sum, every state agency involved with regulating oil and gas in New Mexico recognized the need to protect our water.

That was in 2008. In the last two years, since Martinez was elected, though, every state agency, board and commission has now reached the conclusion that the regulations they deemed important in 2008 are now overly burdensome (in the case of the Oil Conservation Commission) or not worth defending. In Martinez's New Mexico, the Commission is actively partnering with the oil and gas industry to roll back environmental regulations while the agency that originally proposed the regulation sits on the sidelines and watches its invested time, money and resources get flushed down the drain.

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Instagram gratification

Red Lodge | Nov 20, 2012 02:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

It’s hard enough to stayed focused during a holiday week but, leave it to the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI) to create a truly spectacular distraction. If you’re looking for a time suck, read on. If not, get out before scrolling down.

Arches NP

Introducing the DOI’s Instagram page. It features smoldering shots of some of our iconic public landscapes and landmarks including Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Washington Monument. But something which appeals to me about the project is that after scrolling through all 251 daydream inducing images, I met some new (to me) must-explore places. They include: Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, Chiricahua National Monument in Arizona and the ridiculously breathtaking Becharof National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

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Turning climate change talk to action

Red Lodge | Nov 18, 2012 10:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

I have a file on my desktop called “Cool Ideas.” It’s filled with news items on practical steps Westerners are taking to address climate change. I collected them over this election year while the issue drew platitudes and punch-lines from the candidates but little meaningful discussion on the national level. Some highlights from my file include:

  • The plan to build a biomass plant in Eagle County, Colorado is forging ahead. When it starts humming in 2014 it will burn wood chips from beetle-killed pines and other “junk” wood, to generate 11.5 megawatts of electricity.
  • Not far from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, at the Fighting Creek Landfill, trash is treasure. Earlier this year Kootenai County and the Kootenai Electric Cooperative debuted their multi-million dollar plant which uses garbage gas to power 1,800 homes.
  • The Aspen Ski Company is plunking down over $5 million to capture methane vented from coal operations at the Elk Creek Mine in western Colorado. The project will both prevent the powerful greenhouse gas from entering the atmosphere and will generate three megawatts of electricity, or roughly the amount the company uses for its annual operations.
  • The West is a hotbed of research and testing for the underground storage of carbon dioxide. One project, Rocky Mountain Carbon Capture and Sequestration, is studying a site near Craig, Colorado to potentially store 4.6 billion tons of carbon from power plants, natural gas processing plants, cement plants, oil shale development and other industries.
  • An unusual consortium including Montana Hutterite farmers, an Idaho wind energy  developer and the federal government have joined forces to build the first silo-shaped wind turbine, capable of producing 100 kilowatts of electricity.

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Sportsmen given credit in Montana's Dem governor win

Ben Long | Nov 12, 2012 03:05 AM

Although not as highly watched as Montana’s seat in the US Senate, sportsmen are also being given partial credit for tipping the scales toward the Democratic victor, Steve Bullock, over Republican Rick Hill in the 2012 race for Montana Governor.

A Lee newspapers analysis quoted Bullock campaign manager Kevin O’Brien, as he passed around the credit.

“Overall, the constituencies supporting our campaign were motivated, energized and worked harder than I’ve ever seen groups work on the ground to turn out supporters, to communicate with undecided voters about the important issues in the race,” he said. “I think that’s what pushed us over the top.”

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