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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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Wilderness limited

Red Lodge | Oct 03, 2012 11:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

I don’t go to the mega-Whole Foods in Boulder at lunchtime on Saturdays because it’s a madhouse, like some Lord of the Flies experiment where hordes of people jockey to secure a limited supply of resources. According to a study I read recently, when facing the prospect of crowding, I’m an “adjuster,” or one who displaces oneself spatially—I go somewhere else for lunch—and also temporally—I go to Whole Foods only on weekdays.

Those people who are undeterred by the chaos and go anyway are called “rationalizers.” They may not have expected a crowd but quickly adapt to having to throw a few elbows to score the last bento box of sushi. They think, “Well, it is noon on a Saturday at Whole Foods in Boulder.” Basically, they cope with the masses accepting that nothing can be done to change the situation and they might as well suck it up.

The study I was reading, done by the Rocky Mountain Research Station, was not, however, examining crowd control of manic organic food caches, but of wilderness areas. It looked at the questions: What will happen as population grows and management of wilderness becomes increasingly critical? Will we accept a loss of solitude in once soothing places, or will we apply limits to wilderness use? The results were not what I expected, but I’ll get back to that.

They’re pondering such questions about wilderness management in the Aspen-Sopris District of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages portions of five wilderness areas and has some crowding issues. A recent article in the Aspen Times runs the numbers on a few problem areas. The top three are the iconic Four Pass Loop, Conundrum Valley (including its frat-like hot springs) and Snowmass Lake which combined had 21,121 user days, meaning the total numbers of days all users were in those areas (not including day use, which has also soared).

Conundrum hot springs

Conundrum Hot Springs, deep in the "wilderness." Courtesy the author.

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Rants from the Hill: Harvesting the Desert Shoe Tree

Michael Branch | Oct 01, 2012 01:00 AM

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

Rants from the Hill is now a FREE podcast! Listen to an audio performance of this essay, here.  You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or through Feedburner for use in another podcast reader.

On the west side of my home mountain, whose rocky crest delineates the invisible line separating the Silver and Golden states, there is a curiosity that has long puzzled and charmed me. Out along a lonely stretch of two-lane not far from Hallelujah Junction—so named because it is the only place in this long valley where we desert rats can load up on gasoline, water, and whiskey—there stands a strikingly tall and graceful Utah juniper. This unusual tree rises in a grand, angular gesture from a sandy island of sage and rabbit brush, without another tree in sight. Its height, open structure, and twisting musculature distinguish it from the low, bushy junipers up and down the valley, making it a kind of natural monument. Any southbounder rolling in from the Lassen lavalands can feel in the dark just where this tree stands: past Red Rock canyon, beyond the mule deer migration tunnels, not far from the Hallelujah resupply. But what makes this tree so special is something a good bit stranger: it is festooned with hundreds of pairs of shoes.


Girls pointing at shoe tree

I have long wondered why the desert shoe tree possesses such monumental appeal. How did this tree become a celebrated landmark, one we always stop at even though we aren’t sure why? Why do my young daughters consider it such a treat to visit the tree? Why don’t we see the shoe tree as an abomination, a site of litter at best, and desecration at worst? One possibility is that, excepting the road itself, the desert shoe tree is the only sign of human culture along this remote stretch of the Fremont Highway. Perhaps the loneliness we feel out on the empty road is diminished by this strange reminder that we aren’t as alone as this valley’s isolation leads us to believe. Or maybe it’s pure novelty that attracts us. If every tree in the valley were full of shoes, would we instead pull over to photograph the one tree that lacked them? Sometimes it seems to me the tree represents a kind of freedom, an unburdening that occurs when we not only throw something away, but throw it with all our might, flinging some discarded fragment of our lives away forever. Or are we compelled by the pure aesthetic beauty of the form: a giant, graceful, organic structure, etched against the desert sky, with hundreds of parti-colored blossoms dangling and twirling in the sweep of Washoe Zephyr? Or do we simply crave the thrill of doing something so playful, so unfettered? Wouldn’t it be more responsible to keep those shoes a little longer, or give them to someone less fortunate? Absolutely. And that is why we bust a gut trying to sling them into the very highest outstretched branches.

Of one thing, however, I’m absolutely certain. These shoes tell stories. Some do so literally, because their hurlers have inscribed them with a dizzying variety of names, dates, messages, and odd pearls of wisdom. My daughters notice that “Jenny” has explained on the bottom of her flip flops that she is on her way home to Portland from a fantastic week in Yosemite. “William” has shed an expensive pair of wingtips, leaving a note on the sole to tell us that he has just married “Maria” up in Feather River country. The recent date on a low-hanging baby shoe celebrates the birth of “Cezar,” while a pair of deck shoes whose rubber soul is inscribed “For Great Grandma” may commemorate a passage in the other direction. And here we discover a pair of dangling boots fully annotated with their story. They were worn in a faraway warzone by “Ansaldo,” who is at last home safely to the western Great Basin, and who reminds passersby that “Freedom is Not Free.” Welcome home, Ansaldo, wherever and whoever you are.Ansaldo's army boots

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GOP risks much with its zeal to sell public estate

Ben Long | Sep 26, 2012 10:55 PM

The Republican Party has formally embraced a policy to sell off America’s chunks of our public lands. That’s likely to prove as welcome as a hornet in a pair of swimming trunks.generic for sale sign

The GOP 2012 Party Platform espouses a purely market-driven exploitation of natural resources, as opposed to the traditional American system that embraces both the free market and public ownership. The Republicans turned their backs on Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and are now heaping more sod on his grave with a national platform that reads:

Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control.”  [Emphasis mine.]

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Jaguar versus the copper mine

Red Lodge | Sep 17, 2012 10:55 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

There’s an extraordinary 70,000-square-mile region that encompasses part of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northwestern Mexico. This area, called the Sky Islands, is characterized by forested mountain ranges divided by desert or grassland valleys. 

Santa Rita mountainsBecause of the topographic, climatic and biological complexity of this zone, the Sky Islands harbor some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Over half of all North American bird species use the area, as do 104 mammal species and 3,000 plant species. Four species listed as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act live there, including the desert tortoise and western yellow-billed cuckoo, as do nine species listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA including the ocelot and the jaguar (more news on this cat later in this post). 

Roughly 30 miles south of Tucson, smack in the middle of the Santa Rita Mountains portion of the Sky Islands is where a Canadian company, Augusta Resource, would like to blast a 6,000 to 6,500-foot-wide and 1,800 to 2,900-foot-deep hole in the ground. 

According to the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) done by the U.S. Forest Service  on the open pit mine proposal, Augusta Resource (or Rosemont Copper, as its subsidiary is known here) plans to excavate 550 million tons of ore annually of copper, molybdenum and silver. The Rosemont Mine would also unearth 1,228 million tons of waste rock per year, over its estimated 20-year life span. 

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