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After the standoff, what's next for Bundy and BLM?

Christi Turner | Apr 18, 2014 06:05 PM

With armed militia on one side, armed federal agents on the other, and about 900 cows in the middle, the Bureau of Land Management last Saturday called off its roundup of rancher Cliven Bundy’s “trespass cattle,” releasing the 300 or so cows it had already collected back into the desert.

BLM director Neil Kornze said that the agency made the call to protect both their agents and members of the public, after armed pro-Bundy supporters, many of them belonging to antigovernment militias, made a highly public show of force that heightened tensions during the multi-day standoff in Clark County’s Gold Butte region, 80 miles east of Las Vegas.

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Trespass cattle, suspected to belong to Cliven Bundy, roam the Gold Butte region. Photo courtesy of Rob Mrowka.

After 20 years of flouting the law, Bundy owes the BLM over $1 million in unpaid grazing fees and fines and has defied two court orders. Former agency insiders and legal experts say the feds may have little choice now but to round up Bundy himself. Some of the armed militia members who showed up at the scene could face legal action as well. Nonetheless, the outcome of the standoff may set back the BLM’s future dealings with other recalcitrant cattlemen. It likely damages the agency’s public image, and may encourage the idea that the agency will capitulate if threatened with force.

“In 40 years of working for BLM and with BLM, (the Bundy standoff) is the most extraordinary thing I’ve ever experienced,” said Mike Ford, former deputy director of the Nevada BLM. “All that people have seen on the national news – their vision of BLM right now is uniformed, gun-toting police officers.”

Rob Mrowka, senior scientist for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the recent events seem to have already emboldened other livestock producers with anti-government leanings to challenge federal law. Mrowka had heard through sources with the BLM that the agency has received calls in other states this week from ranchers wanting to renegotiate public lands grazing terms.

In terms of how to resolve the Bundy issue in particular, “I do think the agency and the government have some options available to them,” said Bob Abbey, who was Nevada state director of the BLM between 1997 and 2005, national BLM director between 2010 and 2012, and who dealt with Bundy on several occasions during his tenure. “One thing would be to meet with the judge and see if the judge were willing to issue a contempt of court citation against Mr. Bundy,” which would allow the agency to put him behind bars for ignoring court orders.

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The Gold Butte is managed by the BLM and permanently closed to grazing. Photo courtesy of Rob Mrowka.

The Department of Justice is staying mum on the issue for now, while the BLM has said only that Bundy will be dealt with “administratively and judicially.” Sen. Harry Reid, De-Nev., who has called Bundy and his militia supporters “domestic terrorists,” said Thursday that a task force has been formed to address the issue. A sizable number of militia men are still camped near the Bundy ranch.

In retrospect, the agency’s handling of last week’s roundup could arguably have been better. Abbey suggested that having BLM agents on the ground specifically to address protesters’ concerns may have helped keep the crowds more tempered. That didn’t appear to happen last week, and the BLM hasn’t responded to requests for comment on how they dealt with the standoff.

Bundy’s “Last Man Standing” position and the standoff that ensued are extreme, but hardly new to the world of public lands ranching. Since at least the Sagebrush Rebellion days, a virtual war over the federal ownership and regulation of the West’s public lands has flared on and off. Some cases in point:

In 1991 Nevada rancher Wayne Hage claimed rights to roughly 752,000 acres of public land, in a case that stayed tangled in the courts for decades. In 1997, illegal cattle grazing in Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument proved a bigger headache than fossil hunters. And in 2004, 70-year-old rancher Wally Klump refused to move 28 head of cattle from public land in the Arizona mountains. He sat in jail for a year in contempt of court until he finally agreed to remove his cattle.

These rebels and Bundy have their supporters, like those who are calling the rancher a hero victimized by federal overreach. Yet not all the likely backers are on Bundy’s side. The Nevada Cattlemen’s Association issued a statement Wednesday expressing sympathy for Bundy’s situation, lamenting federal regulations that favor the environment over grazing. But it also said, “We cannot advocate operating outside the law to solve problems.” Even ultraconservative pundit Glenn Beck has come out against the Bundy camp protesters, and points out, “There’s about 10 or 15 percent of the people (who support Bundy and) are talking about this online who don’t care what the facts are. They just want a fight.”

From both sides of the political spectrum, Bundy’s critics say the rancher’s professed staunch allegiance to the state is inconsistent with his refusal to recognize that the Nevada state constitution upholds federal ownership of the land his cattle graze.

And while the buzz about all this drones on, the long-term repercussions for Bundy and the BLM remain unclear. For now, the agency is still doing more listening than talking. The Southern Nevada BLM communications office voicemail politely asks callers to comment on the “trespass cattle” after the tone. “Rest assured,” the voice says, “that all messages are being listened to each night.”

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.

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North Dakota, BLM look to curb natural gas flaring

Emily Guerin | Apr 17, 2014 11:35 PM

Temperatures were in the single digits on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Reservation in early February when Debbie Dogskin began to take off her clothes. In the throes of late stage hypothermia, people act irrationally as cold clouds their thinking.

The 61-year old was found dead in a friend’s mobile home, an empty propane tank outside. Trailers in this frigid corner of the northern prairie are often patched together with ill-fitting doors and drafty windows. Inside some homes, “you can find frost in the corners of rooms up on the ceiling,” Rev. John Floberg of the Standing Rock’s Episcopal Church told the Episcopal News Service.

Like many parts of the country, the Standing Rock Reservation experienced a severe propane shortage this winter. Unusually cold temperatures in the Midwest combined with the fact that farmers used more propane than they normally do to dry out a huge harvest of wet grain at the end of the season sent fuel prices through the roof. The week before Dogskin died, propane was selling for $4.57 a gallon in North Dakota. That’s almost three times higher than in winter 2013.

Yet some 250 miles away, oil rigs tapping Bakken shale were burning off millions of cubic feet of propane-rich natural gas a day – the same gas that, if captured, refined and sold, could have kept Dogskin’s trailer warm.

The waste is largely an infrastructure problem, says Ryan Salmon, the senior manager for the oil and gas program at Ceres, a national non-profit focused on sustainable investing. Unlike oil, which can be easily stored on site in a tank, natural gas is hard to compress and store. It must first be captured at the wellhead and transported via pipeline to a processing facility. The pace of new drilling has been so fast, Salmon says, that the pipeline infrastructure hasn’t caught up. Plus, comparatively low natural gas prices mean pipelines would take a long time to pay for themselves. In December 2013, flaring in North Dakota hit a new record: 36 percent of all natural gas produced as a byproduct of drilling for oil went up in smoke. The amount of flaring is even higher on the Fort Berthold reservation, the swath of tribal land at the center of the Bakken oil boom, where infrastructure is even more lacking than elsewhere in the state.

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Against the grain: Proposed FDA rule has beer-makers foaming

Ben Goldfarb | Apr 17, 2014 10:00 AM

In 2013, New Belgium Brewing, the Fort Collins, Colo.-based purveyor of libations like Fat Tire and Ranger, whipped up exactly 792,292 barrels of beer. Considering each barrel is capable of filling somewhere in the range of 60 six-packs, that production made for plenty of happy drinkers (including, on more than one occasion, yours truly). But New Belgium also satisfied non-human consumers, too, by selling 64 million pounds of “spent grain” – the ingredients left behind after the brewing process – to beef and dairy farmers, who feed the porridge-like substance to their cows.

“For hundreds of years, brewers have had this great symbiosis with farmers,” says Bryan Simpson, New Belgium’s director of media relations. “It’s a very elegant system.”

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There's no more reliable way to get Americans riled up than to do something that affects their breweries. Photo courtesy of Flickr user Aaron Molina.

While many operations give away their used grains, selling the stuff can be a lucrative sideline: Spent grain goes for about $50 per ton nationwide, and total annual sales add up to around $160 million (most of it to the big boys, Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors). Now, though, brewers claim this centuries-old harmony is threatened by new Food and Drug Administration rules that could make it harder for beer-makers to sell or donate their spent grain as cattle feed.

The proposed regulation stems from the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), legislation designed to prevent food contamination. That’s a worthy goal: Salmonella and E. coli outbreaks are distressingly common, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that 48 million people are sickened – and 3,000 killed – by foodborne illnesses annually. The FSMA seeks to reduce that toll through measures like increased inspections and quality control for food imports, and the law drew praise from food safety advocates when it was signed in 2010.

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"Production vs consumption" in Moab

Jodi Peterson | Apr 15, 2014 12:00 AM

Moab, Utah seems to be coming full circle. Early prospectors discovered useful minerals – uranium, vanadium, potash and manganese – near the farming and ranching outpost, and in the 1950s, Moab became known as the “Uranium Capital of the World.” Thirty years later, the boom was over, the mines closed down, and homes stood empty.

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Road through Arches National Park. Courtesy Flickr user Ben Grogan.

Moab then reinvented its economy to exploit another natural resource – the stunning redrock scenery.  The area became a major tourist destination with two national parks, a state park, and world-class mountain biking, jeeping, ATV riding, river rafting and rock climbing.

Now, the Moab area seems to be swinging back toward industrialization, with a stack of new proposals for wells, mines and pipelines -- even as it’s still mopping up the 16-million-ton uranium tailings pile left by the last boom. The Grand County council and some business leaders believe that energy development and recreation can coexist, but many locals fear that a wholesale return to extraction will drive away tourists and ruin the landscape. The Deseret News reports:

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Corporate giant Xanterra takes over operations at Glacier National Park

Krista Langlois | Apr 14, 2014 04:55 PM

As winter fades to bright green spring in northwest Montana, three men are hitting the pavement in the towns of Kalispell, Whitefish and Columbia Falls, shaking hands at local businesses and visiting Rotary Clubs like politicians on the campaign trail. The comparison isn’t far off: the men are the new faces of Glacier National Park, and they’re eager to build relationships with the surrounding communities.

Among them are new park superintendent Jeff Mow and the CEO of the Glacier National Park Conservancy, Mark Preiss, who’s arrived with a plan to triple his organization’s annual giving. The most-discussed newcomer, however, is Xanterra, the giant concessionaire owned by billionaire Phil Anschutz. Last fall, the National Park Service ended a long-standing relationship with former concessionaire Glacier Park, Inc. (GPI) – which has been part of Glacier since the park’s inception in 1910 – and granted Xanterra a 16-year contract to operate Glacier’s lodges, dining establishments and fleet of red busses. 

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Mega-concessionaire Xanterra will take over operations at the Many Glacier Hotel in Glacier National Park this season. Photo courtesy Flickr user Mark Stevens.

Critics of the decision dismiss Xanterra’s arrival as a Walmart-esque takeover – another example of a national corporation monopolizing its industry and giving a local business the boot. But though Xanterra’s presence in town hasn’t been without controversy (and its first season hasn’t yet begun), the company has thus far proven a good neighbor. The third member of the trio is former GPI employee Marc Ducharme, who’s been hired to manage Xanterra’s operations in the park. Other GPI employees have also been put into high-ranking positions. And with GPI maintaining a presence at several private lodges, the new deal may ultimately mean more jobs for the region.

“It all seems really healthy to me,” says Rhonda Fitzgerald, owner of the Garden Wall Inn in Whitefish and a member of the state tourism council. Fitzgerald also hopes Xanterra will bring its stellar environmental record to the region: In Yellowstone (where the concessionaire last year won a 20-year extension of its contract), Xanterra has implemented a recycling program in nearby towns and buys local produce for its restaurants. “They’ve really walked the walk,” Fitzgerald says.

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A pipeline built years ago may start to export Rocky Mountain gas to Asia

Jonathan Thompson | Apr 14, 2014 08:30 AM

In the summer of 2010, construction began on the Ruby Pipeline, a 680-mile interstate artery for carrying as much as 1.5 billion cubic feet of natural gas per day from the Opal Hub in southwestern Wyoming to the Malin Hub in southern Oregon. The project crossed sensitive sagebrush plains and something like 1,000 creeks and rivers, and the Center for Biological Diversity and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe tried to stop the line in the courts due to its impact on endangered fish and sacred lands. Yet unlike, say, the Keystone XL pipeline, the Ruby garnered very little national or even regional attention or controversy. After all, it was just another strand in the web of pipelines and transmission lines that crisscross the Western landscape.

At the same time, another proposed project was moving forward in southern Oregon. The Jordan Cove LNG import terminal, on a spit in Coos Bay, had received Federal Energy Regulation Commission approval several months earlier to unload liquefied natural gas from special tanker ships coming from Asia, Russia or the Middle East, re-gasify it, and then put it in the still-to-be-built Pacific Connector pipeline, which would carry it back down to the Malin Hub — the Ruby’s termination point. From there, the imported natural gas would be shipped to California and the Pacific Northwest.

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The Ruby Pipeline was built back in 2010 to get Rocky Mountain natural gas to markets in the Pacific Northwest and California. Now, it could become the critical link in getting that gas to Asia. Source: BLM.

A few years earlier, when planning began on both projects, demand for natural gas was high and domestic supplies limited. But by the time the Ruby Pipeline was under construction, the two projects together didn’t make a lot of sense. The demand for all that natural gas simply wasn’t there any more, and by 2010, prices had crashed from a high of nearly $11 per thousand cubic feet to just $4, rendering the notion of importing LNG absurd. It was nothing a change of a couple of letters couldn't fix: After long pooh-poohing the idea of natural gas exports, the Jordan Cove proponents changed their import terminal proposal into one for an export terminal.

In late March, the Department of Energy granted conditional approval to Jordan Cove to export up to .8 billion cubic feet of LNG per day to nations that do not have a Free Trade Agreement with the U.S. Though the approval — the first of its kind on the West Coast aside from Alaska —  was not a surprise, it did come a bit more quickly than anticipated, perhaps due to new pressure from politicians from natural gas-producing states who are trying to use the crisis in Ukraine to globalize U.S. natural gas, ostensibly in order to weaken Russia, the main supplier of gas to Europe.

By no means is the terminal a done deal. Proponents of the $7.5 billion project still must navigate oodles of federal and state red tape before they can begin construction, not to mention stiff opposition from various quarters.

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Rancher vs BLM: a 20-year standoff ends with tense roundup

Christi Turner | Apr 11, 2014 10:25 AM

Rancher Cliven Bundy claims he fired the Bureau of Land Management about 20 years ago.

“When I decided that I was paying grazing fees for somebody to manage me out of business, I said, ‘Hell no,’ ” Bundy says in a video of a presentation he gave in February. “And what did I tell them? I no longer need your service as a manager over my ranch, and I’m not going to pay you for that no more.”

“As far as I’m concerned,” he adds, “the BLM don’t exist.” The federal government might as well not, either.

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Some of Cliven Bundy's cattle graze nearby a spring in Gold Butte, an area completely closed to grazing. Photo courtesy of Rob Mrowka.

Despite a running tab of court injunctions, complaints and conservation conflicts involving the BLM, the National Park Service, Clark County and environmental groups, and nearly $1 million in fines, Bundy has continued to run cattle on the federally-owned Bunkerville Allotment in the southern tip of Nevada, about 100 miles from Las Vegas. Over the years, the Department of Justice has more than once canceled BLM plans to round up the trespass cattle after blatant threats of violence from Bundy and his supporters, says Alan O’Neill, retired superintendent of the Lake Mead National Recreation Area adjacent to the allotment. The sieges at Ruby Ridge and Waco that fueled the ‘90s anti-government militia movement were fresh, he explains. “We were trying everything we could to resolve the issue peacefully. But he got more and more recalcitrant.”

This week, though, the BLM finally began rounding up Bundy’s estimated 900 cattle from a 1,200 square-mile area, putting an end to the illegal grazing once and for all.  The agency isn’t saying exactly why now is the time to act; O’Neill suspects that the threat of lawsuit from the Center for Biological Diversity against the local and federal government for not implementing existing court orders may have forced the agency’s hand.

The situation quickly escalated. One of Bundy’s sons was arrested Sunday for refusing to stay off the lands BLM has closed during the cattle roundup.  Videos from Wednesday show Bundy family members and supporters, including out-of-state militia members, angrily cursing and gesturing at BLM agents attempting to contain them within a “First Amendment Area” set up for protesting. More out-of-state militia members claim to be on the way, saying “they’re going in with force.” While Gov. Brian Sandoval disapproves of BLM’s handling of the situation, others applauded the agency for showing restraint in the face of threats. It was Bundy’s own promise to “be more physical” with the BLM during the impoundment operation, after all, that led the agency to set up strict public protest areas and press policies in the first place. “This is incendiary stuff,” former Nevada Gov. Richard Bryan said on a Nevada news show Thursday, expressing fear of more violence on the way. “Some of these folks are frankly half a bubble off...People really believe that the federal government has no jurisdiction over anything.”


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Mojave Desert is an amazing carbon storehouse

Sarah Jane Keller | Apr 10, 2014 11:15 PM

Add this to the list of why deserts are awesome: they can suck a bunch of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

For ten years, researchers in southern Nevada piped extra carbon dioxide into the Mojave Desert’s air. Their goal was to learn about the capacity of arid ecosystems to absorb carbon dioxide as we continue to burn fossils fuels. In their study published this week in journal Nature Climate Change, they discovered that when they suffused the air above research plots with carbon dioxide levels equivalent to those anticipated by 2050, plants still removed lots of carbon from the atmosphere.

Upon digging up the plots at the end of the experiment, researchers found that the areas living in a simulation of 2050’s carbon-rich atmosphere stored about 20 percent more carbon in the soil compared to untreated desert. That storage came from plants using carbon dioxide during photosynthesis, which they then pumped into the soil through their roots. It may not sound surprising that more carbon dioxide in the air leads to more of it stored in the soil, but there are limits to how much carbon ecosystems can absorb. And with scrappy shrubs instead of massive trees, it wasn't a given that the desert could take up quite so much.

 Experimental plot at the Nevada National Security Site, where additonal carbon was piped into the atmosphere for 10 years. Researchers walked on platforms to avoid disturbing the microbial soil crust. Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.
Experimental plot at the Nevada National Security Site, where additonal carbon was piped into the atmosphere for 10 years. Researchers walked on platforms to avoid disturbing the microbial soil crust. Photo courtesy of National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office.

And if arid and semi-arid ecosystems worldwide are as carbon-hungry as the Mojave, that’s good news. It means those dry lands, which cover about 47 percent of the non-ocean Earth, have a great potential to mop up the carbon dioxide we’re adding to the atmosphere. The study’s authors estimate that deserts and semi-arid places may absorb four to eight percent of global carbon emissions by 2045, assuming they all act like the Mojave did between 1999 and 2009. The researchers also estimate that deserts already account for 15 to 28 percent of the current land-based uptake of carbon emissions today.

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Threatened lynx are bycatch in Idaho trapping resurgence

Ben Goldfarb | Apr 10, 2014 09:30 AM

Last January, in the snowbound mountains that crease northern Idaho’s Boundary County, an unnamed trapper found what he thought was a live bobcat in his baited wire cage. He shot the creature on sight, hoping for a pelt that would fetch up to $2,000 on the fur market. But when he lifted the carcass from the snow and saw its enormous paws, he realized he’d made a terrible mistake: he’d just shot a threatened Canada lynx.

To his credit, the man reported his error to the state’s Fish and Game Department and eventually paid around $400 in fines and court costs. While the trapper’s restitution didn’t save that particular feline, here’s some solace for lynx-lovers: Conservation groups now plan to sue the state of Idaho for permitting trapping that leads to lynx bycatch.

Conservation groups are suing the state of Idaho to prevent lynx from ending up as bobcat bycatch. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Incidental capture isn’t an everyday occurrence. Over the last two years, there have been just three such incidents, and in the other two cases the lynx were released unharmed. Still, with habitat fragmentation and climate change threatening the chionophilic cat’s environs, every lost lynx is a blow. “The population in Idaho is down to as few as 100 individuals,” says Ken Cole, National Environmental Policy Act coordinator for the Western Watersheds Project (WWP), one of the groups behind the litigation. “When you’ve got so few animals, each and every one matters.”

In their declaration of intent to sue, WWP and its co-litigants, the Center for Biological Diversity and Friends of the Clearwater, argue that by allowing trapping that harms lynx, even accidentally, the state is in violation of the Endangered Species Act. To avoid liability, Idaho could apply to the federal U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for an Incidental Take Permit, which would require the state to develop a conservation plan to reduce mistaken trapping. Such a plan, say environmental groups, should include restrictions on lethal traps, increased monitoring, and a mandate to check traps daily in lynx habitat to prevent the rare cats from languishing for days.

Those rigorous measures are even more important given the resurgence of trapping, an industry that once appeared as dead as the beaver-hat craze. Fifteen years ago, High Country News ran a story that prophesied the demise of commercial and recreational trapping at the hands of animal-rights groups. Today, though, it’s clear that reports of the practice’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Spiking fur demand has pelt prices at a 30-year high, providing $2.7 million in income for Montana’s trappers in 2012 alone. In Idaho, the ranks of registered trappers have doubled. “The market is strong and improving,” Toby Walrath, president of the Montana Trappers Association, told The Missoulian in December. “It’s a good time to be a trapper right now.”

Where’s all that demand coming from? Asia: the world’s most ravenous consumer of exotic animals and their disembodied parts. “When I started in this business the world’s biggest fur fair was in Frankfurt,” the CEO of one fur company told Canada’s National Post. “Now the biggest is in Hong Kong and the biggest after that is Beijing.”

As more trappers take to the woods, incidental kills have climbed. In Idaho, where a certain livestock-predating canine is considered Public Enemy No. 1, the prevalence of wolf traps means even more unintentional captures. According to documents the state released last year in response to Cole’s records request, 15 fishers, 13 mountain lions, a black bear, and what was undoubtedly a very surprised goose were among the 118 non-target animals killed by trappers during the 2011-2012 season.

That sounds like a lot of critters, and bycatch certainly deserves addressing – especially when threatened species, such as the lynx, are among the casualties. Just to keep things in perspective, though: in 2012, Idaho’s motorists ran down over 5,000 animals.

Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.

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Can cacti help San Joaquin Valley farmers survive a drought?

Krista Langlois | Apr 09, 2014 10:25 AM

When I finally got a hold of John Diener, the busy 62-year-old farmer was en route to his organic broccoli field in central California's San Joaquin Valley. I could picture the scene: a truck bouncing over a dusty track, golden morning sunlight, rows of bright green plants meeting a blue sky.

The vision was idyllic. But this area, one of the nation’s most agriculturally productive, has a problem: in places, the soil is killing the crops it’s meant to grow. Before a maze of irrigation ditches transformed it into an agricultural belt, the San Joaquin Valley was an ancient seabed, a vast stretch of arid soil high in salt, selenium and boron. Now, decades of irrigation and poor drainage have concentrated the naturally-occurring minerals to toxic levels, and the current drought is only exacerbating the problem without rain to drive them deeper into the water table, the soil is growing even less hospitable.

Even the irrigation water is briny; 57 railroad cars worth of salt are pumped into the valley each day, and environmental concerns prohibit farmers from funneling the wastewater back into rivers and ditches as they once did – meaning the minerals accumulating on their land have nowhere else to go. Roughly 400,000 acres are at risk of becoming unusable because they’re too salty.

Some of his neighbors have taken land out of production, but Diener – who recycles 99 percent of his water and has won national conservation awards – would like to live out his days on the farm his family has worked since the 1920s. “I don’t think of land as a disposable resource,” he says. “I don’t want to sell the farm. So the reality is, what are we going to do to remediate the soil?”

Enter U.S. Department of Agriculture scientist Gary Bañuelos, who’s built a career of figuring out what grows best in some of the world’s worst soils. (Chernobyl cabbage, anyone?) Bañuelos says the worst part of the drought for San Joaquin farmers isn’t that there’s not enough water for irrigation, but that there’s not enough water to leach the minerals out. “If you don’t push the salt out of the roots (with water), the molecules migrate toward the surface and bring the salt with them,” he explains. “That’ll eventually kill the plant.”

At least, it kills most plants. But what if there were a plant that thrived in sodium- and selenium-rich soil? One that required very little water and even improved soil conditions by volatilizing selenium – sucking it up and off-gassing it? After decades of research, Bañuelos has patented four new varieties of just such a plant: Botanists call it opuntia ficus-indica. Hispanic-food lovers know it as nopales. See also: prickly pear cactus.

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