How the West’s public lands fared in 2022

It was a bad year for dams and a good one for ‘green’ metals.

 

This is an installment of the Landline, a fortnightly newsletter from High Country News about land, water, wildlife, climate and conservation in the Western United States. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

It’s that time again — the time of mass (and massively conspicuous) consumption, awkward office parties, Christmas carol-induced psychosis, and, most importantly, the end of the old solar year and beginning of the new one. So happy new year to you all, and here’s hoping the sun does, in fact, successfully reverse its course and head back northward lest we all get thrown into eternal darkness. And speaking of darkness, it’s also that time when we look back and assess the 12 months that have passed, otherwise known as the dreaded year in review.

Yeah, I know, I used to hate these things too: Who needs to reread old news? But in recent years, I’ve found that there’s so much going on — or so it seems — that it’s kind of nice, or at least useful, to be reminded of some of the biggest stories from the year, if only to have that reaction: That really happened? In 2022?!

Let’s get to the year’s biggest themes in the Landline universe:

War in Ukraine

No, there was no artillery fire in Idaho — except maybe to release an avalanche or two — and the Russians did not try to sabotage power grids in the Northwest (although our own homegrown white nationalist Putinistas might well have tried). But Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has rippled across the Western U.S. in a big way, impacting people from Carlsbad to Kemmerer and beyond. And we’re not just talking about the oligarchs who own Aspen mansions.

Most significantly, the war has shaken up the energy landscape. Rising oil prices have spurred new drilling in the Permian Basin of southern New Mexico. And as Russian natural gas exports dwindled, Europe turned to the U.S. and its vast stores of methane, some of which made its way across the Atlantic in liquefied form, driving up prices over here. That has not only lured a few drill rigs back to natural-gas-producing areas in Wyoming, New Mexico and Utah, it’s also made coal more attractive to utilities, spurring production from western Colorado and Powder River Basin mines.

Massive machinery at work in the open-pit Wyodak coal mine in the coal-rich Powder River Basin outside Gillette, Wyoming.
Carol M. Highsmith’s America, Library of Congress collection

And even the domestic uranium mining industry, which was virtually dormant a couple years ago, has begun stirring again, as politicians and reactor operators shun Russian nuclear fuel. Folks in the rural coal town of Kemmerer, Wyoming, just learned that they’ll have to wait until 2030 or so to get a promised new nuclear reactor. The reason? The only fuel for it currently comes from Russia, and no one wants to buy anything from Putin and his friends.

Damned Dams

No, I’m not using “damned” as a pejorative here. Well, maybe a little. Consider it a plain old descriptor here, appropriate for the imminent doom of some river-blocking, fish-harming, silt-collecting edifices. If it’s not climate change rendering Southwestern dams useless, then it’s tribes and environmental groups finally scoring huge wins in their decades-long fight to liberate Northwestern rivers. For example:

  • This was the year that the American non-water-geek public learned that “dead pool” meant something other than a violent but humorous action figure. And when federal agencies went from “Huh? Lake Powell seems to be shrinking,” to “Oh, crap! Lake Powell’s going to hit dead pool and Glen Canyon Dam could fail if we don’t do something fast!”

  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that the best (and probably only) way to recover beleaguered salmon and steelhead fisheries in the Northwest is by breaching damsNo sh*%, Sherlock! — specifically the four big ones on the lower Snake River. (Stay tuned to org for Anna V. Smith’s feature on the dams.) This is a huge step toward eventual removal, bolstered by bipartisan support from U.S. lawmakers.

  • And federal regulators greenlighted the removal of four dams on the Klamath River in southern Oregon and Northern California, brightening prospects for troubled salmon and other fish on that river.

Green is the New Gold

Demand for “green metals,” the minerals used abundantly in clean energy applications, including electric vehicles and solar panels and wind turbines, is surging, along with federal subsidies for the same. (And don’t @ me about how these minerals — copper, lithium, cobalt, nickel — are used for all kinds of applications that aren’t so clean. I know, I know. …) 

That has sparked the biggest mining rush on Western public lands since the uranium craze of the 1950s. Firms are staking claims and forwarding proposals to mine lithium — used in EV and grid-scale batteries — from Nevada to Colorado and everywhere in between. Global mining companies are adding a shade of green to their persistent PR campaigns for new and gargantuan copper mines (and trying to make those mines “sustainable” by adding solar panels or using electric haul trucks). And the first cobalt mine in the nation opened in Idaho this fall.

No matter how green the minerals may be, the mining itself is usually no better than older forms of mining, i.e., not terribly green at all. And in many cases, the prospective mines are targeting lands that are culturally significant for Indigenous peoples, just like the gold and uranium rushes of old.

The Year of Vacillating Natural Disasters

Back in late May, before the year was halfway done, we were ready to declare 2022 the year of fire. If the early-season pattern continued, most of the West would be charred or in flames come September. After all, two of New Mexico’s largest fires on record were still raging, not long after the McBride Fire in that state destroyed 200 homes, and even as the Rio Grande continued to dry out. Major fires burned through oak and ponderosa in Arizona and hundreds of thousands of acres in Alaska. All of this on top of the Marshall Fire, which destroyed 1,000 homes at the very end of December.

But then came relief, or at least a different kind of destruction, depending on your location and perspective, in the form of unexpectedly intense rains. The dry Rio Grande was revived. Arroyos in Tucson turned into raging rivers, while cars floated down usually dry washes in Utah’s Capitol Reef National Park. Moab’s main drag abruptly became a navigable stream. And, most devastating of all, the Yellowstone River in Wyoming and Montana swelled up and overflowed its banks, due to a rapid snowmelt and heavy rains, destroying roads, inundating towns and carrying away multifamily homes. Even the pathetic remnants of Lake Powell got a minuscule boost from all the summer rains.

All this meant that fire season was mostly over and done with in the Southwest come July. Though fires in the Northwest blanketed Seattle with smoke for a time in late summer, the overall acreage burned during the traditional fire season in summer and early fall was lower than the really big-burn years of the past decade, including 2020. As we write this, snow is piling up in the Sierras, the Northwest and, especially, Alaska. But whether weather patterns hold throughout the winter is another question altogether.

Courts, Congress and Compacts

The U.S. Supreme Court, with its gung-ho conservative majority, attacked women’s rights, eviscerating reproductive freedom. It also dealt a blow to federal efforts to stem climate catastrophe and heard potentially far-reaching cases regarding tribal sovereignty and water rights and the Clean Water Act. Congress actually did something and passed a climate-related bill chock full of subsidies for clean — and not-so-cleanenergy. (See green metals section, above.) A gusher of federal funding aimed at plugging and cleaning up abandoned and orphaned oil and gas wells shone a spotlight on a pervasive and long-neglected problem. Meanwhile, the Biden administration, plagued by high gasoline prices, continued its back-and-forth approach to energy development on public lands. The Colorado River Compact reached its 100th birthday, but it felt more like a dirge for a dysfunctional document than a party, as dozens of tribal nations worked to fix its fatal flaws. And at the end of the year, Western water managers and federal officials gathered in Las Vegas to continue to try to figure out how to cut 4 million acre-feet of consumption — the equivalent of about a dozen Las Vegases — from the Colorado River to keep a system that 40 million people rely on from collapsing. 

We heard from you! The Landline on the environmental impacts of population, consumption and affluence drew a record number of responses of all sorts. Here’s a couple:

I partially agree with author about affluence being more important than simple overpopulation. However, this ignores the fact that most people with currently small footprints idealize an affluent lifestyle. If the average person were happy with their footprint (and not striving to increase), it would be a simple matter of targeting the wealthy for cuts. But people from all income levels currently strive for more. Most parents want their offspring to move up the income ladder, most kids aim for more than their parents had. Everyone needs to curtail their material goals AS the currently wealthy cut back to avoid simply redistributing the excess.

Also, the idea that smaller homes are cheaper to heat/cool only holds when comparing modest to large houses. Tiny homes are actually very hard to regulate because (1) thin, less insulated walls; (2) they often lack cross ventilation; (3) they have limited ability to create microclimates. In Las Vegas, pre-A/C houses relied on thick walls, L or U shape designs that created shaded interior areas, and windows that could be opened, close, or curtained to adjust airflow (cooling) and sunlight (warming). Tiny apartments without yards tend to be very expensive! Modest homes are much more efficient than either tiny or large.

Finally, it is true that we in Las Vegas were able to reduce water use while almost doubling our population over 20 years. However, this involved a one-time rebuilding of the entire valley’s wash system to capture and recycle all the water we used to let runoff. Now that it is done, we can’t repeat this feat for the next population increase. It is easy to cut back the first time (when starting with a wasteful system), but is progressively harder as system develops more efficiency. So, controlling population growth is still the only lasting solution.

It makes sense to target affluence and wastefulness first, but with understanding that this merely buys us time to control our population. As demonstrated in Las Vegas, our year 2000 water conservation plan would have resulted in halving our water needs … but instead it allowed us to double population, and now we are facing the same dire drought concerns again! Technology and downsizing does help, but only so far, and then we are back to population limits.

Sascha Horowitz
Las Vegas, Nevada

Jonathan and HCN,

Is the problem the number of people on Earth or the level of consumption of its most affluent fraction?

It's both, in my opinion. And if anyone's solution is to tell the people in developing nations that they need to have fewer children, or to tell Americans that they need to reduce their consumption in a way that sounds to them like a moralistic demand to lower their quality of life, then they can expect a similar response from both populations that can be expressed with two words, or one finger. And that ends the debate. These are both trees that are best not barked up.

That may seem to put us in a dismal predicament, but I don't think so. It does mean that environmentally conscious people have their work cut out for them, because they need to try to change — using positive language — what people all over the world define as "an increasing quality of life." It needs to be communicated by genuine environmentalists, over and over and in great detail as to the means, that the quality of life on Earth for humans in all parts of the world can be even radically increased while yet radically reducing that product of "number of people" multiplied by "negative environmental effect per person." An increase in people's choices does not preclude a decrease in people's impact. Indeed, a decrease in people's impact may REQUIRE an increase in people's choices — as an increase in the choices of women in developing nations might lead to the desired reduction in births, and an opening up of both the kinds of low-impact energy production available and the kinds of cultural activities that are valued for their simplicity and small ecological footprint might work at the problem from the other end. We need to not bring people down with moralistic lecturing, but to lift people up into the joy of new choices and new opportunities that set us on the path toward the new Earth.

Andrew Aldrich
Oakland, California

Your news tips, comments, ideas and feedback are appreciated and often shared. Give Jonathan a ring at the Landline, 970-648-4472, or send us an email at [email protected].

Jonathan Thompson is a contributing editor at High Country News. He is the author of Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands. 

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