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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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Sportsmen sealed reelection for Sen. Jon Tester

Ben Long | Nov 07, 2012 10:20 AM

Outside special interests dumped some $30 million dollars on the Montana race for the US Senate between Democratic incumbent Jon Tester and Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, but the race came down to something that costs $19: A Montana resident hunting and fishing license.

Sportsmen issues of access, wolves and gun rights headlined both the news columns and the advertising in both campaigns. Sen. Tester convinced Montanans he understood their values, and their outdoor way of life.

sen. jon tester, d-mt

Montana voters went for Mitt Romney 56-43, and then turned around and reelected Sen. Tester by a margin of five percentage points. Rehberg spent nearly $10 million trying to convince Montanans that Tester was a liberal clone of President Obama. That message failed.

It failed in part because Tester invested major political capital in listening to Montana sportsmen and women, and then pulling the levers of power for them.

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In the West, the rare earth rush is on

Jackie Wheeler | Nov 06, 2012 04:00 AM

Recent news about the scarcity of rare earth minerals caught my attention just as I was reluctantly learning how to use my new Droid Razr. I am about a decade late for the smart-phone revolution, as I am with most gadgetry. You are welcome to laugh at me for this. I think I have the hang of the tapping and sliding now, but I’m still not fully convinced that 24/7 access to the web is enriching life in any meaningful way beyond some extra convenience for my employer. This crotchety attitude was amplified by the reminder that while “smart” communication is paperless, it’s hardly green.

The crisp colors on my new phone’s screen, the lightning-fast circuitry, and the great speaker sound come to me courtesy of, among other ingredients, dysprosium and praseodymium, two of the many rare earth minerals that until recently have been almost exclusively mined and processed in Baotou, China. Due to backlash that resulted from international coverage of such environmental abuses in Baotou as heavy smog and open settling ponds containing radioactive thorium and uranium (by-products of rare-earth processing), Chinese rare-earth mining companies claim to be cleaning up their act, which is good. However, demand for rare-earth minerals (which are not really rare, just difficult to extract) remains high, and this brings us right here to the West.

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Rants from the Hill: My home lake

Michael Branch | Nov 05, 2012 02:00 AM

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

Edward Abbey began Desert Solitaire with the following words: “This is the most beautiful place on earth. There are many such places.” Well, my home lake here in Silver Hills is the most gorgeous place on the planet, in just the way Cactus Ed intended. It is nestled in a gently sloping basin surrounded by granitic hills that are dotted with bitterbrush and big sage. In the spring, balsamroot and lupine cover the upland slopes in a drapery of yellow and purple, while the pink flush of desert peach ignites the rocky draws. In late summer, golden domes of rabbit brush appear everywhere. Green fingers of ephedra, which emerge from a blanket of snow in winter, are grazed by pronghorn and mule deer. My home lake is also a jewel on the necklace of the Pacific inland flyway, and is home to at least 80 species of birds. All year round we see golden eagles here, and harriers, red tails, kestrels, ravens, great horned owls, mountain bluebirds. So perfectly lovely is this place that when it came time to marry, I decided to hike Eryn to the top of the nearby hills. There we rested on red granite boulders, gazed out across the stunning expanse of the lake, and decided to spend our lives together. In this place, as in no other on earth, there is a clarity of light, a play of shadow, a catharsis of wind that makes you want to change your life. And there is one more thing I should mention about my home lake. It contains no water.

Desert lakeNow I realize that some people are so shamefully effete, soft, and privileged that they might expect a lake to have water. Some folks may even think they deserve to have water in a lake—that they’re spoiled enough to feel entitled to it. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if there are even people who would argue that a big, empty bowl of land without a drop of water in it shouldn’t even be called a lake. I also suspect these are the same folks who want to dump nuclear waste in the Great Basin desert because there’s “nothing” there. Well, that same nothing fills my home lake, and those of us who live out here in the middle of what the “nothing” people call “nowhere” don’t see our lake as being empty of water. We see it as being full of light and wind. Full of coyotes and rattlers. Full of the kind of space that only the high desert can hold—space that is crowded out of other landscapes by irritating obstructions, like trees and water. Even if there aren’t trees blocking your view, how can you really see a lake if the damned thing is all filled up with water?

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Of coal and cows in eastern Montana

Red Lodge | Oct 31, 2012 11:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

As the Montana Department of Environmental Quality mulls an expansion of a coal strip mine east of Billings, the public has an opportunity to give input on what environmental factors the agency should consider.

Chugging away in the northern corner of the well-endowed Powder River Basin, the Rosebud mine is a 25,000-acre complex. Operators extract 12.3 million tons of coal annually, on average. Nearly all of that feeds the nearby 2,100-megawatt Colstrip Power Station, which supplies electricity to parts of Montana, Oregon and Washington. The expansion would encompass approximately 6,800 additional acres and would extend the life of the mine by roughly 19 years.

This comment period offers a chance to step back and look at the state of coal mining and environmental protection in Montana, and what future Westerners envision for the two.

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Like a rogue net

Joseph Taylor | Oct 29, 2012 11:00 PM

Oregon's salmon politics have taken a curious turn. In late September several sportfishing groups publicly disavowed Measure 81, a voter initiative they had earlier sponsored to ban gillnets on the Columbia River. The reversal followed an announcement by Oregon governor John Kitzhaber that gillnets were his latest cause du mois and he wants them gone [pdf]; it was a preemptive strike against non-Indian netters. Aside from several online messages by Indian and non-Indian groups, however, opponents of 81 have been remarkably silent. The entire brawl sounded like a diver net. In one sense this is merciful. Depending on one's perspective this battle has been going on since 2011, 1908, 1877, 1825, 1810, or 1653, when Isaak Walton published The Compleat Angler. In another sense, though, the silence is terrible, because rural economies hinge on a process that has turned antidemocratic.

gill net historic

L'affaire 81 began in July 2011 when the Coastal Conservation Association started a petition drive to outlaw non-Indian gillnet fishing on the Columbia River. The CCA is to American sportfishing what the American Legislative Exchange Council is to American conservativism. Both are well-funded lobbying groups that write and disseminate prospective laws to receptive legislators at the state and federal level; where ALEC wants to bust unions and liberalize gun ownership, the CCA wants to eliminate nets and promote the angling industry. Measure 81’s petition drive garnered little attention, but its language was very controversial. Gillnetters saw in 81 an existential threat; fishing is one of many blue-collar occupations under assault in the rural West, but few workers have had targets on their backs longer than gillnetters. State lawmakers saw conflicts between 81 and the Columbia River Compact, an agreement between Oregon and Washington that emerged from similarly shortsighted initiatives long ago. Indians saw 81 as another potential attack on their treaty-guaranteed fishing rights. The CCA submitted signatures in May and in July Oregon’s Secretary of State approved 81 for the November ballot.

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Putting a price tag on existence

Red Lodge | Oct 16, 2012 10:55 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

There’s an important change brewing in the protection of endangered species. It appears to push economic considerations higher up in the part of the law dealing with critical habitat designation. The shift comes in the form of a proposed rule by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agencies that determine which plants and animals require federal protection, and would change when economic analyses for critical habitat designations are conducted and published.

Critical habitat is defined in the Endangered Species Act (ESA) as a specific geographic area that is essential for the conservation of a threatened or endangered species. Basically, all species need space to feed, to rest and to reproduce. It may include areas that are not currently occupied by a species, and it can include both public and private land. Scientists rely on several criteria to identify critical habitat and their determinations are peer-reviewed and open for public comment before they are finalized by the Secretary of the Interior.

The proposed change -- which would require that the economic impact of establishing critical habitat be considered alongside the designation itself -- is being driven by a presidential memorandum issued several months ago in regard to the Northern Spotted Owl, a species that was initially listed as threatened in 1990. It took until 2008 to designate critical habitat for the species, though that plan has been in revision since then. The proposed rule is being touted as a way to reduce regulatory burden, and as a way to exercise “flexibility and pragmatism” in administering the ESA. The agencies insist that both transparency and public comment will be improved by presenting the economic impacts, which normally come later, upfront. I largely disagree. Particularly in our current political and economic climate, forcing the economic analyses to be conducted early in the process could force decision makers to overweight economic impacts, something they are not supposed to do.

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