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A renter's market?

Bill Lascher | Aug 27, 2010 04:54 AM

For the first time in decades it's cool to be a renter. So why is it so hard to rent a home and still be “green"?

This week, as news outlets across the board reported a steep decline in home sales and prices in July, especially in the West, some reported increased preferences for renting, especially with the added uncertainty wrought by high unemployment levels. Particia Orsini of AOL's Housing Watch reported Aug. 26 that Americans, particularly homeowners, are now more likely to think that renting a home is more prudent than buying one. Other news outlets, such as Forbes and the Real Estate Channel and Time's Curious Capitalist" blog, also recently dissected the growing preference for renting.

Orsini cited statistics from Harvard's Joint Center for Housing Studies. I took a glance at that report – titled State of the Nation's Housing 2010 – and found it shows that rental vacancies grew from 2006 to 2009, even though the renter pool was growing at the same time. In fact, U.S. Census Bureau housing vacancy survey data cited by the report shows that fewer people own homes in the West compared to any other region in the nation. The same numbers also show that nearly three-quarters of white Americans own homes while fewer than half of minority populations do.

So, what does this all have to do with the environment?

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The U.N. comes West

Caitlin Sislin | Aug 25, 2010 06:00 AM

In April, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations announced that the U.S. will conduct a formal review of its position on the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), an historic document over two decades in the making. UNDRIP was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in September 2007, with 143 countries in favor and only four – New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the United States – opposing. Since that time, both Australia and New Zealand have changed their position, and Canada has announced a qualified endorsement.

What does this have to do with the West?

In her remarks announcing the review this past April, at the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice stated that:

(I)ndigenous communities continue to feel the heavy hand of history. Our first nations face serious challenges: disproportionate and dire poverty, unemployment, environmental degradation, health care gaps, violent crime, and bitter discrimination.

As Ambassador Rice later commented, “there is no American history without Native American history.” As it is true across the nation, so is this true in the Western United States. The stories of the West’s tribal peoples – stories of resource exploitation and cultural degradation, stories of empowerment and revitalization – are inextricably interwoven into the Western narrative.

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Loving an (artificial) lake

Jackie Wheeler | Aug 24, 2010 03:00 AM

I’m a longtime resident of Arizona. Your reception of this bit of information is likely affected by recent news coverage of my state’s new immigration legislation, isn’t it? Every now and then, the Grand Canyon State wants to reassure the rest of the country that its flaming red-state status is secure, thank you very much. Our “reddest” representatives – Governor, County Sheriffs, State and U.S. Senators, etc. -- have even taken breaks from their re-election campaigns (slogan: “No I’m more conservative!”) to remind you of this on every T.V. network.

So it isn’t surprising that another news item about Arizona may have escaped you: We have one less reservoir.

On the night of July 20th, Tempe Town Lake dramatically, though temporarily, transformed itself back into the Salt River and escaped downstream. A section of the rubber dam that forms the lake burst its seams. Luckily, no people were harmed; coverage on the environmental impact has been largely limited to the fate of the hapless fish left in the few remaining puddles. In an efficient but macabre twist, officials resolved this problem by donating the fresher carcasses to the herpetological society, creating a charming photo-op for that organization’s spokes-alligator.  

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Transportation policy's third rails

Bill Lascher | Aug 20, 2010 07:15 AM

We live in a society of backseat drivers. Or backseat urban planners. Or train engineers. But often, no matter how loudly we clamor, we're not as right as we think. And that costs all of us, even if our convictions rely heavily on rational critiques of public policy.

Think of transportation policy in Los Angeles County, where Measure R, a referendum that cleared the way for a massive transportation reinvestment, is redefining the region's mythos. When I wrote about that shift in my master's project, nearly every source insisted that some other source's position was one step short of throwing low-income riders, the environment, the economy -- or all three -- under the bus. L.A.'s not unique in this case. When it comes to transit, there's a third rail everywhere you look.

L.A. Union Station interior

The interior of L.A.'s Union Station. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

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National Parks for the Whole Nation

Bill Lascher | Aug 13, 2010 03:00 AM

I'll admit it. There are some environmental topics I just don't know much about.

For example, I first heard of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir when friends living near Yosemite invited me to visit during my move from Los Angeles to Portland (that January trip was itself my first visit to Yosemite). I saw a sign and took note of the name mainly because I thought it sounded funny. Of course, it's more than amusing alliteration. News about the state of the Hetch Hetchy and a recent vote on the reservoir's future had me wondering: how many people served by the reservoir have actually been to Yosemite, or any other National Park?

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park. Photo courtesy Bill Lascher.

Though I grew up within sight of Channel Islands National Park, I've only set foot on the islands twice. I did, however, often take vacations with my family to the Sierras and attended a summer camp there. During a summer in my college years I spent a summer living just outside Yellowstone and I've since traveled to a number of other national parks.

There's something else that by my very nature I won't be able to fully understand: what it's like to be non-white in America. When it comes to our national parks, I often felt as an adult like I was “catching up” with friends when I visited, partaking in an experience that I thought was normal, but turns out isn't so common for people who don't look like me.

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What a week for wind

Bill Lascher | Aug 06, 2010 03:00 AM

On Tuesday, July 27, the Los Angeles Times reported the groundbreaking of the immense Alta Wind Energy Center near the Mojave Desert town of Tehachapi. The story described a facility “being called the largest wind power project in the country,” and its potential to generate three gigawatts of electricity for Southern California homes. Though light on opposing voices, the story did quoted the president of the nearby Old West Ranch Property Owners Association, who object to the project.

A day later, Tehachapi – and particularly the Old West Ranch – again made national headlines, albeit for quite different reasons. The afternoon of the groundbreaking a fire broke out on the Old West Ranch. NPR carried the story in its morning news update the next day. Firefighters already strained by a blaze in the nearby Sequoia National Forest struggled to keep up with the inferno. Dozens of homes at Old West Ranch were lost. Despite initial worries, wind turbines were left unscathed.

The news brought a glimpse of what life was actually like at Old West Ranch, where residents lived off the grid and as self-sufficiently as possible. This fact was barely, if at all, acknowledged by media outlets that seemed to have difficulty reconciling the ultra-modern prospect of a $1.2 billion project that could power 600,000 homes with an inwardly-focused community interested in sustainability on a very small scale. While on one hand the wildfires spared a project that could begin to significantly shift energy usage in California, they ravaged an example of an older, quieter, less shiny approach to environmentalism. It was almost as if the fire itself declared that there are acceptable, and unacceptable, approaches to sustainable living – one best left in the ashes of the past, the other glimmering in the future.

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Tribe denies trash

Terri Hansen | Aug 04, 2010 02:50 AM

Editors Note: This piece is cross posted from Mother Earth Journal, where reporter Terri Hansen writes about indigenous people and the environment.

SPOKANE, Wash.—At the last minute, the Yakama Nation blocked a bid by Hawaii to ship their household garbage to a landfill that sits amid their ancestral lands in south central Washington State.

U.S. District Judge Edward F. Shea approved a temporary restraining order filed by the Yakama Nation July 29, pending a thorough environmental review and tribal consultation.

The bales of waste and rotting food were set to leave Hawaii July 30.

Bales of Hawaiian garbage

Photo courtesy Robert Harris, Hawaii Sierra Club.

The tribe filed lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington against the U.S. Department of Animal and Plant Inspection Service, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, and APHIS Administrator Cindy Smith seeks to block the importation of the trash.

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Growth, economics and justice

Bill Lascher | Jul 30, 2010 03:00 AM

As I fretted over what to write in my debut post for A Just West, my mind kept returning to a controversy I used to follow in my first two professional journalism jobs. At both the Pacific Coast Business Timeand the Ventura County Reporter, I covered the story of truck traffic from rock aggregate mines in the Los Padres National Forest through the Ojai Valley. For those unfamiliar, Ojai is a small mountain retreat about 70 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Though the valley is famous for movie stars and private boarding schools, it's also home to hardworking families, rustic ranches, and stunning wilderness. In other words, like much of the West, it's a little bit of glitz and a little bit of grit. 

When a few years ago local authorities decided to permit increased trips of trucks carrying rock aggregate (an important component in roads and other construction projects) through the valley, a coalition of environmentalists and local stakeholders complained the move would increase noise, pollution, safety risks, highway damage and other problems. Mine owners and their allies, on the other hand, insisted that the coalition itself posed the environmental danger. If the opponents got their wish, trucks destined for nearby coastal communities would have to be routed so circuitously that each truck would emit hundreds of additional pounds worth of carbon, not to mention adversely impact many more smaller, possibly less well-organized communities they'd pass through.

The point is an important one however, the question rarely answered or asked was why it was an either/or situation. The quick answer at the time was that the region's growth demanded it. If the nearby cities of Oxnard and Ventura didn't buy aggregate from these mines, they'd buy it elsewhere.

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This Saturday, Prayers for the Peaks

Caitlin Sislin | Jul 15, 2010 04:29 AM

Earlier this week I had the good fortune to share a conversation with David Johns, acting president of the Navajo medicine men’s association. Mr. Johns and his colleagues in the Dine Hataalii Association (DHA) are preparing for a Navajo Nation-wide day of prayer this Saturday, to support the campaign to protect the holy San Francisco Peaks. The Peaks, which rise to 12,000 feet above Flagstaff, Arizona, at the Western edge of Navajo lands, are sacred to thirteen tribes – including the Navajo, for whom the Peaks represent a central locus of spiritual power. Presently, for tribes throughout the Colorado Plateau, the Peaks are threatened by a proposal to use reclaimed wastewater as artificial snow in order to increase the moutain’s ski resort’s annual skiable days.

San Francisco PeaksSaturday’s day of prayer will support the Save the Peaks Coalition, an alliance of concerned citizens based in Flagstaff, AZ, as they head into federal court next week. On July 20th, a Phoenix district judge will hear oral arguments on a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) question: whether the Forest Service failed to properly review the potential environmental and public health risks associated with the use of artificial snow.

This NEPA case follows an epic legal battle under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act which concluded in 2008 when, after a victory before a Ninth Circuit three-judge panel, a rarely-convened en banc panel determined that snowmaking did not substantially burden Navajo religion. In that case, the court found Navajo tradition to be merely a “subjective spiritual experience,” not entitled to statutory protection despite the colossal negative impact that snowmaking will have on Navajo spirituality and cultural cohesion.

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Representatives ask Obama to examine impacts of tar sands pipeline

Caitlin Sislin | Jul 06, 2010 06:55 AM

In late June, the Obama Administration received a letter [PDF] from fifty members of the U.S. House of Representatives, demanding that the President take a hard look at the climate change impacts of a proposed oil pipeline that would more than double the United States’ consumption of Canadian tar sands oil. This 1,600-mile oil pipeline, called Keystone XL, would transport 900,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day from Canada to the Gulf Coast, impacting natural resources, indigenous nations, and agricultural activity along the route.

Stop the Tar SandsIn the wake of the BP disaster, the signatories to the letter expressed their concerns over the “significant energy and environment implications for our nation for many years to come” that would result if the Department of State issued the Presidential Permit for the pipeline. The authors cautioned that the pipeline “has the potential to undermine America’s clean energy future and international leadership on climate change.” At this critical moment in our nation’s energy consumption trajectory, will the Obama Administration heed this call?

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