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Freedom Ride West

James Mills | May 24, 2011 02:00 AM

Editor's note: James Mills is journeying around the West, exploring issues of diversity in Western national parks.

In 1961, a long bus ride from Washington D.C. to New Orleans changed the world forever. The PBS American Experience documentary “The Freedom Riders” documents this journey. As you watch it, I hope that it will open Freedom Ridersyour awareness to the fear and vulnerability a conspicuous minority faces even today while traveling, as they're exposed to the hostility of an entitled majority.

As a person of color, I’ve spent much the last two decades traveling freely, even joyfully around the world. But when driving through remote regions of the U.S. I have to admit a certain apprehension. This is especially true when venturing into areas where I am clearly in the minority. Fifty years ago the Freedom Riders traveled on buses through the South in order to challenge laws of interstate travel that discriminated against African-Americans. And though we may now make our way throughout the U.S. without fear of racially motivated violence or state-sanctioned reprisal there are still forces in play that encourage segregation. If you take a look at one place that should be a safe haven for individuals of all colors -- our national parks -- you'll find they appear to be an area of the country where black people are not entitled to go.

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Biomass energy production in the Interior West

Felice Pace | May 18, 2011 03:00 AM

In November I wrote a post exploring reasons many western political elites are gung ho for biomass energy production. This follow-up post explores the push for biomass energy projects where it is strongest – in the Interior West - and profiles developments in SE Oregon’s Klamath County. 

A wood chip truck is unloaded at a biomass energy production facility

The strength of the push for biomass energy production in the Interior West has a lot to do with economic realities within the wood products industry. Regional demand for wood products is not sufficient to sustain current capacity. That’s nothing new. But in the expanding global timber market, the Interior West’s high production and transportation costs mean the region’s mills can’t compete with firms positioned to take advantage of sea shipping or located closer to markets. Given those realities, big timber must either find new sources of revenue or new subsidies or they will pack up and relocate to the South, the West Coast or overseas where they can compete more successfully.

The rural western political class has gotten the message from big timber: either we get guaranteed supplies and new subsidies or we’re out of business in your area.  This scares the bejesus out of rural politicians who fear losing the industry’s political contributions as well as jobs and property taxes.  Biomass is seen by these elites as the last best hope for maintaining current wood products capacity.

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New Urbanism irks even green Westerners

Jackie Wheeler | May 13, 2011 06:14 AM

 In my last post, I explored what appear to be conflicting views on what we today call environmental justice in Edward Abbey’s cult classic Desert Solitaire. The book is fun to assign to my Environmental Rhetoric students because between the lyrical descriptions of Utah wilderness and the fist-pounding Luddite rants it’s guaranteed to provoke lively discussions, even among the usually sleepy and stealth-texting back row. The upshot of these conversations, if there is one, is that Abbey’s a tough nut to crack, and his brand of environmental consciousness resists pigeonholing.

We’re certainly not the only ones invoking the ghost of Abbey lately; Michael Branch’s recent HCN essay memorably related an episode where he and his friends applied the question WWEAD (What Would Ed Abbey Do) to the seductive temptation of dislodging a precariously-perched hillside boulder. The virtuous greenie would “leave only footprints,” and feel pretty guilty even about those. Though Abbey was green at heart, Branch implies, he wouldn’t be opposed to shaking things up a bit, “freeing” the boulder, even (perhaps especially) if it infuriated the virtuous.

So in the spirit Abbey’s cantankerous brand of environmentalism, I’m going to come right out and confess that I’m not completely on board with the whole virtuous New Urbanism thing. I’ve been stewing about this for awhile, but a recent series of posts in Grist, especially this one which advocates the New Urbanism-friendly plan of abandoning one’s car for a bike and a smart phone, really got me fired up.

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Welcome to Shingle Mountain, Colorado

Michael Harris | May 11, 2011 12:00 AM

So, where does one hide a pile of old roofing shingles that can cover a football field and towers some 30 feet in height?  If you are Denver-based Shingles 4 Recycling, you don’t have to hide such a mountain––not when you can place it in the north Denver, working-class neighborhood of Elyria.

Now, the recycling of used roof shingles is generally a good thing, and needs to be encouraged in Denver and elsewhere.  Old shingles can be ground-up and substituted for crude oil components in the manufacturing of new asphalt products.  And if properly managed, shingle recycling presents very few, if any, environmental concerns.

But when such recycling is not properly managed, you get a situation like Shingle Mountain.  What we see here is, for local community members, quite an eyesore.  But it is also a potential fire hazard and an environmental hazard. According to a joint EPA-industry report, [PDF] old asphalt shingles (particularly those manufactured before 1990) can contain both asbestos and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), many of which are considered to be hazardous.

The mis-handling of used shingles can result in these substances coming loose and getting into the air.  On a rainy day, these hazardous pollutants can wash right off into the street and toward the Platte River, which is just 1,100 yards away.  Even if those materials don't make it to the river they pose a threat.  Chemicals and metals left behind on the street are kicked up into the air by passing vehicles and pose a serious health risk to local residents.

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EJ activist Ed Abbey?

Jackie Wheeler | Apr 28, 2011 11:00 PM

Spring semester is winding down, and the students in my course Rhetoric of the Environmental Movement are reading Edward Abbey’s 1968 memoir, Desert Solitaire. After having duly investigated news reports, scientific studies, websites, and environmental impact statements, they appreciate Abbey’s lively and eccentric voice and his vivid descriptions of the landscape of Arches National Park. As we discuss Abbey’s contribution to environmental discourse in the U.S, it’s a treat for me, too, to revisit Cactus Ed each year.  I’m always confronted with fresh perspectives and layers that have eluded me in previous readings.

Like my students, I have difficulty pinning any particular genre to Desert Solitaire. It contains, in varying degrees, nature writing, Montaigne-style essay writing, scathing polemic, satire, instruction-manual-style directions, travel narrative, and confessional memoir. Where does Abbey stand on environmental preservation? I ask in class.

At first, students want to pin him as a liberal, a libertarian, a primitivist, an anarchist, a romantic, or a radical, and they can find passages that seem to support all of these contradictory labels. Likewise, passages are dug up that refute them all. He was a wily, unpredictable dude, both in his writing and his storied personal life and death, and to underscore this I sometimes share “Ed anecdotes” with the students, such as that about his secretive burial in Southern Arizona’s Cabeza Prieta wilderness.

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Jobs vs. the environment?

Jackie Wheeler | Apr 14, 2011 09:45 AM

A few weeks ago in this space, I bemoaned the slow pace of green energy development in the face of nuclear disaster in Japan and oil-spill devastation in the Gulf of Mexico. As a consumer of both these dirty fuels, I feel complicit in and mostly helpless to change this unsustainable state. I have steadfastly attempted to educate myself in the technical and scientific complexity of both old and new energy sources, but this is no walk in the park for a middle-aged English teacher or, I imagine, for most people outside university or corporate Physics and Electrical Engineering departments. Our only hope, I wrote, is to speak up, not as experts but as citizens fed up with the costs and inequities built in to dirty energy production processes.

Luckily, I got some thoughtful and interesting responses from fellow HCN readers. Nolan Patrick Veesart wrote “if the subsidies that are going to Big Renewables were instead going to homeowners and small businesses (like home-town electrical contractors) Jackie's fears about cost, learning curve, and feelings of guilt would vanish as there would be trained local electricians to do installation and service work (of solar or wind technology) and the price of installing home systems would be reduced.” He was responding to another comment by Janine Blaeloch, who agreed with me that “Big Energy in most any form is becoming a more and more obvious mistake,” but warned that “Big Renewables are in line to become the next biological nightmare.”

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Fish and Wildlife Service denies an Indian her feathers

Marc Dadigan | Apr 07, 2011 05:15 AM

Marine Sisk-Franco has been a Winnemem Wintu Indian for all of her years, and the Northern California tribe’s way of life is all she knows. She’s the daughter of the tribe’s chief and their headman, she’s danced and sung at their ceremonies, and, in 2006, she bravely endured racial taunts and threats from drunken power boaters who cruelly marred her coming of age ceremony, known as a Balas Chonas, as it took place on the banks of the McCloud River.

That ceremony was the tribe’s first Bałas Chonas in 85 years, and the courage and commitment Marine showed as a young teenager during those trying four days was something I admired deeplyœ.

 Marine Sisk-FrancoTo me or anyone who knows her, there’s no doubt that she’s Winnemem Wintu just as any one of us are American.

But this past week she received a letter from U.S. Fish and Wildlife that refused to acknowledge her identity as an American Indian.

Marine had recently applied for an eagle feather permit, and the letter was a rejection notice, something she compared “to having someone tell me I was adopted and that the family I’d known my entire life wasn’t my family.”

Imagine requiring Catholics to apply for a permit to have communion or requiring Jewish people to apply to the Fire Department to light a Menorah. It would never be tolerated.

Yet this federal regulation of American Indian religious practices has persisted. And the policy guiding it discloses how little the government understands (or maybe cares) about the complexity of American Indian identity.

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Using Japan to discuss energy at home

Jackie Wheeler | Apr 05, 2011 03:10 AM

I noticed this week that I’ve been writing and thinking about energy almost constantly. Obviously I’m not the only non-expert who has become obsessed with this subject, but it is interesting to me how something that used to seem so technical and dispassionate now churns the emotions so powerfully. Perhaps it is the very mysteries themselves of fuel extraction, conversion, and combustion that stimulate fear and fascination, and the fact that the whole world is dependent on substances and processes understood by so few. More likely, it is the heightened realization that when things go wrong they go very, very wrong, as in the cases of the recent horrifying BP oil-spill and the continuing crisis at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant.

Nuclear towerOn that subject, I have to say that I was hesitant to write about it, even though I’m on record with deep reservations about anything involving uranium and other radioactive materials. It feels cheap and mean to be smug in the face of so much suffering, and besides, I’m as complicit as anyone in my reliance on dirty power (I will no longer stand idly by when I hear people refer to nuclear energy as “clean”). My home in Mesa, Arizona, is powered by a combination of fossil fuels, coal, and nuclear fission, even though I live in the sunniest region of the country. True, solar panels are cropping up here and there, but they’re still mere gestures toward a possibly sustainable future. I hope to install some myself, but cost is an issue, as is the learning curve involved with installation and maintenance. Like a lot of people, I feel helpless and rather guilty.

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The end of the Mojave coal-fired power plant

Andy Bessler | Mar 23, 2011 03:05 AM

The most recent thud Big Coal suffered around the West happened on March 11, when the 500 ft tall coal smokestack at the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada was demolished as part of the decommissioning process for the plant. While this was a historic end for the storied legacy of the Mohave coal-fired power plant, it also was a sign of the future that lies ahead.

Black Mesa MineThe Mohave coal-fired power plant opened in 1971, and was controversial from the start. Local residents, like Sierra Club member Jack Erhardt, would have to sweep coal ash off his car with a broom before going to work many mornings. The coal for the plant came from Peabody Coal Company’s mine on Black Mesa’s northern rim near the Four Corners. The company transported coal from the mine via only coal slurry line in the country, which stretched 273 miles and sent a mix of half groundwater and half coal to the plant.

This means that water was shipped away from the communities on Navajo and Hopi lands where people use the same groundwater source for drinking water and traditional ceremonies. The water used to move coal to the Mohave plant was pumped from Navajo aquifer deep below Black Mesa. Because of the quantity of groundwater it used, over 4000 acre/feet per year, which ended up at the power plant, where it evaporated in settling ponds, the slurry line earned the opposition of both Navajo and Hopi grassroots activists from several native activist groups: the Black Mesa Water Coalition, To Nizhoni Ani, Dine CARE and Black Mesa Trust. The fight to keep the water from being used to transport coal unified the groups, who preferred the water be available to feed sacred springs and sustain the lives of traditional sheepherders and ranchers. Now that the plant has toppled, it remains to be seen if the Navajo aquifer will bounce back and if the sacred and ancient waters below Black Mesa will recharge. Peabody still uses over 1600 acre feet per year for the Kayenta coal mine that feeds the Navajo Generating Station outside Page, AZ.

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Wild Lands, bureaucracy and the BLM

Jackie Wheeler | Mar 21, 2011 01:00 AM

I've been following BLM Director Bob Abbey's earnest PR campaign to pacify conservatives on the subject of Secretarial Order 3310, the “Wild Lands Policy," which was issued by interior Secretary Ken Salazar in December. The policy was immediately attacked by Orrin Hatch and other Western politicians as an end-run by the BLM around Congress (which alone has the power to designate wilderness areas) and a capitulation to environmental groups. Apocalyptic fears were raised about fragile local economies destroyed in the wake of newly-forbidden energy production, grazing, off-road tourism, etc. Fortunately, the specter of a power hungry bureau locking away high swaths of rural land was quickly addressed by Abbey and others, such as Heather Hansen in a January post in HCN's “The Range" blog. They correctly note that any designation of “lands with wilderness characteristics" will require public notification and involvement, both at the designation stage and the land-use planning stage. The BLM can't simply act on its own, they note; they must consult the public and act in accordance with existing laws and regulations, including those set out by the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969 (NEPA).

So does the controversy end there? Will public involvement ensure that the BLM administers its lands justly, considering human needs as well those of non-human ecosystems?

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