What a pleasure it was to ride Amtrak's Pioneer route, which ran from Salt Lake City to Boise, through Oregon to Portland and north to Seattle. The route operated from 1977 to 1997, hooking up with the California Zephyr to service riders in Colorado.
I remember one fabulous trip to LaGrande, Oregon, getting off at the old train station there, direct from Denver -- whereas now I fly into Boise and drive several hours to eastern Oregon in order to pay a visit. A long train ride with a sleeping berth is just about heaven for travelers. There's the soothing rhythm of wheels on tracks, the dining car with its bright white linen tablecloths, the club car with its easy camaraderie, and -- best of all -- lying on a sleeping berth watching the moon move in and out of clouds as you roll across the open country, drifting into sleep like a baby being rocked by mama.
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The precise number of people who recently rallied in Washington, D.C., for a national "tea party" is hard to come by. Left-wing reports have it at less than a hundred thousand participants, while some right-wingers put it over a million.
Whatever the count, it was refreshing that so many people were concerned about "out-of-control government." It would be easier to take them seriously if they had marched eight years ago to oppose warrantless wire-taps, indefinite detentions, torture and the like, but better late than never.
One persistent big-government complaint I've encountered concerns our familiar incandescent light bulbs. In 2007, Congress passed a law mandating new efficiency standards. It didn't exactly outlaw incandescent lamps, but no such bulb on the market then could meet the standard -- which was easily met by the odd-looking compact fluorescent bulbs.
Why would anyone object to a lower electric bill from more efficient lighting? I don't recall any anger about the improved efficiency standards for electric refrigerators that took effect in 1993.
Well, there are some people who get headaches from fluorescent bulbs. They've never bothered me -- my indoor work history includes many hours under sickly blue-tinged light in newspaper offices and industrial laundry washrooms -- and such headaches as I suffered had nothing to do with the light.
But I am married to a woman who sometimes reacts adversely to bluish fluorescents, and I prefer the warm yellow glow of incandescents. Neither of us, however, is fond of paying any more than necessary to Xcel Energy. We've replaced most household incandescents with CFLs that mimic the warm glow, and so far, it's worked out pretty well. The light has a tone that pleases me, it doesn't give Martha headaches, and we consume less electricity.
Further, I read that the incandescent lamp is becoming more efficient, and the new ones will meet the 2012 standards.
Even so, there's still the complaint that "the damn government is telling us what kind of light bulbs to use."
And I thought "doesn't the government already tell us what kind of light to use?" For instance, our Victorian forebears used gas lights, and surely they're illegal now, given the heat and fire hazard.
Some nosing around the Internet produced a site devoted to gas lights, which pointed out some modern safety features that shut off the gas if the flame goes out, so that the building doesn't turn into a bomb. It also said their legality is determined by local building codes.
I called Bill Paradise, a Chaffee County, Colo. building inspector (the office also conducts inspections in our county's three municipalities).
He told me that your insurance company might have problems if you used gas lights, but they're allowed under the International Building Code used here and in many other jurisdictions.
Blinding electric arc lights? No problem with the building code, he said, and the same held for hot halogen lamps, kerosene and gasoline lanterns, lime lights (hydrogen and oxygen aimed at calcium oxide, used in 19th-century theaters and thus the phrase "in the limelight"), acetylene, candles, whatever other illumination I could think of.
He said the only lighting measure in the International Building Code used by the county was a requirement that recessed lighting fixtures be sealed.
Thus I was wrong when I thought that "the government" already regulated what kinds of lighting you could use in your own home.
And if you're really fond of those inefficient incandescent bulbs that turn 90 percent of their electricity into heat rather than the light you want, you can still use them -- you'll just need to stock up now, or develop a black-market connection, because someday soon you won't be able to buy them legally, and they do burn out.
There has been little noise made about the EPA's relocation of seven Navajo families living near the former Church Rock uranium mine in northwestern New Mexico. Scouring the Internet, I could only find one brief article in the Gallup Independent.
The news was brought to my attention last week, when Cally Carswell and I met with youth activists in Albuquerque on a reporting trip focusing on environmental justice.
"[The EPA] told families they had to move two to three weeks before they were moved," says Leona Morgan, a youth activist who grew up on the Navajo reservation. "They didn't know where, or if they were going to get a food stipend."
The families who were moved live nearest to the 97,000 cubic yards of contaminated top soil that General Electric and United Nuclear Corp. are spending $5 million to remove. The EPA's decision to relocate the families for five months to hotels in Gallup came as a surprise to other residents of the area, primarily because the decision seemed so haphazard, Morgan says.Read More ...
The political comedian Bill Maher this week told President Obama to act on behalf of the "70 percent of Americans who are not crazy" and go ahead with his agenda, instead of trying to please enough Republicans to make a bill bipartisan.
The Democratic senator from Montana, Max Baucus, might heed this advice as well. For more than a year, according to the New York Times, the chair of the senate finance committee has been crafting a compromise health care bill, working the last three months with a bipartisan group known as the gang of six. His unveiling of the 223-page bill today found him alone at the podium, without a single supporter. Michael B. Enzi of Wyoming, Charles E. Grassley of Iowa and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine -- the Republican half of the gang -- said the bill doesn't meet their demands, while the Democratic senators seemed underwhelmed: Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico issued a statement saying the bill isn't perfect (he wants a public option), and Kent Conrad of North Dakota called it a "good start."
Over at dailykos.com, which is following the political circus surrounding the health care issue blow by blow, Kos raged:
Baucus allowed the GOP to delay health care reform in a bullshit effort to find "common ground". Baucus was played, yet he ended up conceding much in exchange for zero.
Pollster Nate Silver had this to say:
...let's be clear -- some of this is Baucus's chickens coming home to roost. When you make a unilateral decision to negotiate with only five other people from a 23-person committee and 100-person Senate, and two of those five people have clear electoral disincentives against supporting any plan that you might come up with, the negotiations are liable to end in failure far more often than not. The flurry of on-the-record statements against Baucus's reform plans -- not "leaks", not trial balloons -- points toward a defective process.
Arizona has more clear, sunny days than any other state in the West. In the summer months, sheets of mirage-casting heat waves pour down across expansive miles of desert. Yet for years this sunny state has lagged in developing its solar industry, relying instead on coal and nuclear power. Recently, though, that’s started to change.
Tucson Electric Power announced today that it is seeking bids for land to build a “utility scale” solar plant near Tucson, along with a few smaller installations that combined could power 727 homes, according to the Arizona Daily Star. Union Distributing Co. also recently announced plans to build solar plants in Tucson and Phoenix to generate up to 85 percent of its own energy. When completed, the combined sites “will rank as the third-largest privately-owned power plant in the state,” reported the Arizona Daily Star. Distributed solar is taking off as well, thanks to deregulation of residential solar installations in Mesa and Gilbert, where “American Solar Electric, one of the Valley’s largest installers, projects it will install 700 to 900 residential systems in 2009,” reported the Arizona Republic.
In July, the state legislature passed a bill meant to spur renewable energy manufacturing through tax credits and incentives. This should attract more manufacturing plants and jobs to Arizona instead of California or Oregon, both of which already have strong solar manufacturing industries and more attractive state incentives:
Federal incentives have helped boost Arizona’s solar industry, along with supportive legislation like the recent American Clean Energy and Security Act, which requires electric utilities to meet 20% of their electricity demand through renewable energy sources by 2020.
All of this is good news for the state economy too, which has been struggling to balance the budget with a $3 billion revenue shortfall. And Arizona leads the nation in employment loss over the past 12 months, according to a Wall Street Journal blog.
Renewable energy manufacturing plants like solar would not only capitalize on the state’s abundant natural resource but provide important jobs and revenue to get Arizona back on track.
See HCN’s recent story on solar taking the place of timber in Washington.Graph from the Greater Phoenix Economic Council.
Our recent story "Lawless future" described the Road Warrior-esque state of some of California's state parks. The state's budget problems meant that parks lost nearly $40 million this year. Short on staffing and law enforcement, many parks saw a surge in vandalism and illegal activity; nonetheless, the state is planning to shut down several parks altogether to save money and further reduce services at others.
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“I think Van Jones is a big part of the future of environmentalism,” Gus Speth, dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert earlier this year. “He, more than anyone else, is bringing together a concern about the environment and a concern about social justice. And, if I had just one thing to say, it is that we in the environmental movement cannot fail Van Jones.”
Less than a year later, have environmentalists already failed Van Jones?
The Monday after Jones resigned from his post as a White House adviser to the Council on Environmental Quality, Arla Shephard and I drove south from Colorado to interview environmental justice activists and community organizers in New Mexico. Jones’ resignation, and the racially loaded witch-hunt that prompted it, made our trip seem all the more timely.
When we asked the organizers we met with about the environmental justice movement's achievements over the past two decades, many of them cited the appointments of Van Jones, Hilda Solis (Secretary of Labor), and Lisa Jackson (EPA Administrator) as proof of the movement’s progress.
But Jones’ departure was a frightening reminder of how much work remains, said Robby Rodriguez, executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project, and stark evidence that Obama’s election did not dawn a post-racial society.
An older couple -- freshly retired from jobs on Colorado's Californicized Front Range -- decides it's time to build a dream home somewhere on the state's less populous Western Slope. They pick a dry mesa, scrubby with sage and rabbit brush, where the views go on for miles. The neighbors graze cows. The meadowlarks sing. Saw-whet owls coo their creepy, truck-backup-beeper mating call all night in the fall. And then an oil company arrives and announces it plans to drill for natural gas from a spot on the couple's land, under which it has recently leased the federal mineral estate from the Bureau of Land Management. The couple is baffled -- they had never considered who might own the mineral rights below their land (a classic split estate), let alone that those rights might be auctioned off by the federal government without any notice.
Over the past several years this has been a pretty common scenario for landowners in parts of the West. As most regular HCN readers know, mineral rights trump the rights of folks who own the land's surface -- they have little recourse against drilling. That part hasn't changed, but a recent article in the Oil & Gas Journal (you'll have to register to view it) suggests the playing field is leveling out just a bit a little earlier in the game. The BLM, which is in charge of federally held mineral rights, is apparently looking to make it standard agency practice to notify landowners when energy companies express interest in the federal mineral estate below their land:
"Once BLM gets the names and addresses from the party submitting the EOI (Expression of Interest), we intend to notify the surface owner of this, and send them a notice if the tract goes up for lease," said Robyn Shoop, the agency's acting senior mineral leasing specialist. . . .
"It's a courtesy on our part because the mineral estate is dominant, but it brings surface owners into the picture sooner," she said.
Shoop told the Oil & Gas Journal that the initiative has roots in the 2005 Energy Act.
Geez guys, it's about time.
In the Rocky Mountains, wedged between Summer Tourist Season and Fall Big-Game Hunting Season, is a relatively brief interval of crowded highways known as Aspen Season. It has nothing to do with the Colorado resort town, and everything to do with the tree, whose leaves change color.
Technically, the leaves don't exactly change color. The yellow (or red, in some stands) was there all along, but was masked by the green chlorophyll during the summer. As summer fades, so does the chlorophyll, and the submerged colors emerge for a few days before the leaves fall.
But even without leaves, aspen continue to practice photosynthesis. You might have noticed a greenish tinge in aspen bark -- that's cholorphyll, and it allows the aspen to continue to respire, and absorb atmospheric carbon, through the winter.
Aspen are odd trees in other respects, too. They generally grow from root suckers, rather than seeds, so all the trees in a grove are genetically identical, and could be considered one giant organism.
Their leaves move in the slightest breeze because their stems are almost flat, and the stem surface is perpendicular to the leaf surface, so there's something to catch the breeze, no matter which way the wind blows.
That's why they're often called "quaking aspen," frequently shortened to "quakers" or "quakies."
Botanists tell us that the color change is not a response to colder weather, but instead to reduced sunlight from shorter days.
Now, this is just a personal impression, but it seems to me that the peak color comes later now than it did a few decades ago. Back in the 1970s, the peak seemed to come about Sept. 10, and now it's more like Sept. 20. (Bear in mind that some years, there's no peak at all because an early storm brought most of the leaves down.)
If it's "hours of sunlight" rather than "atmospheric temperature" that produces golden leaves, then global warming doesn't explain this later peak aspen display. Is there some other factor? Or is my impression of a later peak just plain wrong?
"Burn him, burn him, BURN HIM!"
Little kids, drunken adolescents and other spellbound adults screeched these words in unison while watching fire dancers encircle the Zozobra, Santa Fe's 49-foot effigy that undergoes a ritual burning every year at the start of the fiesta season.
My colleague Cally and I were on a reporting trip in New Mexico when we decided to watch the burning of the Zozobra, also known as "Old Man Gloom." Cally had vague memories of attending Zozobra as a child when she spent her summers in New Mexico, and I figured we couldn't miss the event while we were there.
I had no idea how popular (or creepy) it would be. The Zozobra, as it turns out, is a figure in Santa Fe more revered than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny (he even has a Twitter account). His supposed ability to erase all of your gloomy thoughts and help you start anew draws a crowd of more than 40,000 each year.Read More ...