Two Weeks in the West

 

Autumn in the West may be more brown than gold this year. Aspen trees are dying in large numbers throughout the region, especially in Colorado, home to half the West’s quakies. Researchers are baffled; there’s no discernible pattern to the die-off, and the rate seems to be increasing. In southwestern Colorado, up to 60 percent of the trees have withered. And because the mystery plague kills aspen roots, the source of new sprouts, the shimmering stands can’t grow back. "If this continues," says Phil Kemp, forester with the Dolores Ranger District, "it’s going to have a dramatic impact on the look of the forest."

Fishers, get out your flyrods: The Gila trout is ready for your lures. First listed as endangered in 1966, this native of Arizona and New Mexico was on the rebound when wildfires wiped out almost the entire population in the 1980s. Now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says the fish is recovering — thanks to stream restoration, introduction of hatchery stock and eradication of non-native fish. In July, the agency downlisted the species to "threatened," giving state wildlife agencies the option of allowing limited recreational fishing of the trout. But the New Mexico Council of Trout Unlimited disagrees with the decision, saying it is not based on science or facts.

Big electric bill? Blame salmon. That’s what U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Wash., intends with legislation that is headed to the House floor for a vote. She wants Bonneville Power Administration to add another line item to monthly power bills: each customer’s share of the cost of restoring salmon runs in the Columbia and Snake rivers. "Oftentimes," McMorris told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "the Endangered Species Act is being used as a tool to drive up electricity costs for our electricity consumers." However, BPA customers have seen their rates drop four times in as many years.

Greens and motorheads reach backcountry entente. The House of Representatives approved California’s newest wilderness bill, the latest wilderness-and-motorized recreation package proposed in the West. It would set aside over 277,000 acres of untouched land along California’s North Coast and create a nearly 80,000-acre off-road vehicle and mountain bike playground nearby. The House in July passed a similar compromise bill for Idaho that would set aside 300,000 acres as wilderness while releasing 130,000 acres from wilderness study areas and creating a motorized state park. Oregon’s Mount Hood Wilderness could also grow by more than 40 percent while allowing additional forest thinning under a third House bill, which also passed the House in July. All three bills will head to the Senate for approval.

Staircase stands firm against challenges. Almost a decade after President Clinton created the 1.7 million-acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah, a federal court tossed out what is probably the last legal challenge to its existence. In July, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver ruled that the suit by the Denver-based Mountain States Legal Foundation — alleging that Clinton overstepped his executive authority when creating the monument — had no legal basis. The foundation was the last remaining plaintiff in the case; unless it makes the unlikely move of appealing to the U.S. Supreme Court, the fight is now over.

Las Vegas buys the ranch. The Southern Nevada Water Authority, which supplies Las Vegas with water, announced that it will spend $66 million to buy the Warm Springs Ranch near Moapa. It’s part of an agreement with the federal government to protect habitat for an endangered fish called the Moapa dace while the Authority moves forward with a massive groundwater pumping project in the Great Basin. The Authority plans to spend about $27 million to buy two ranches near Ely to consolidate its control over the aquifer from which it wants to pump.

DATA

Water can soak you

$25,000

Minimum bid allowed for senior rights to an acre-foot of water in an auction in New Mexico’s Pojoaque and Española valleys.

$17.10

Highest bid for an acre-foot of water from Grand Junction, Colorado’s supplemental irrigation program, in which homeowners outbid ranchers 13 to 5.

$240

Price per acre-foot the Phoenix Groundwater Replenishment District pays for Central Arizona Project water.

$6,000

Estimated cost to desalinate one acre-foot of ocean water.

Sources: 1. Santa Fe New Mexican, July 15, 2006, "Firm Puts Water Rights Up for Bid"; 2. Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, July 16, 2006, "Ranchers Thirsting for Water"; 3. HCN, June 12, 2006, "Just add water"; 4. ibid

SNAPSHOT

The bigger the boom, the harder the bust

California, Colorado and Wyoming — along with a smattering of counties in other Western states — are big construction hotspots. Witness this recent map from the University of Montana’s Center for the Rocky Mountain West. In the counties colored pink, red and dark red, construction dollars make up 10 to 20 percent of total personal income. That’s both good and bad news: Although one sector of the economy is booming, the dependency on construction could be disastrous if growth drops off. As in so much of the West’s history, these counties are chained to a boom-and-bust industry.

And for those rosy-colored counties on the map, gloom may lurk on the horizon. The latest figures from the U.S. Census Bureau reveal that construction is sagging in the West, with new housing starts down 11 percent from last year. Existing home sales are doing even worse, and the West has witnessed the sharpest declines, falling by 17 percent compared to last year. Regardless, the median home price has remained unchanged since last year.