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Why West?

Cally Carswell | Aug 19, 2009 02:06 AM

In an attempt to clear the craziness clouding the health care debate and drum up support for a public option, President Obama parachuted into unfriendly territory last Saturday—and not for the first time. It was his second visit to Grand Junction, Colo., in conservative Mesa County, where John McCain spanked him last year, 64 to 34 percent.

Obama made his first pit stop in GJ while on the campaign trail last fall. And though he appeared this time as sitting President, the event had all the makings of a campaign gathering: fans and protesters, rolled-up shirt sleeves, Obama-brand rally signs, and echoes of the man as candidate:

These struggles have always boiled down to a contest between hope and fear. It was true when Social Security was born. It was true when Medicare was created. It's true in today's debate.
So if you want a different future—a brighter future—I need your help. I need you to stand for hope.  I need you to knock on doors.  I need you to spread the word, because we are going to get this done this year.

Sound familiar? Obama’s back on the campaign trail, and back to relying on the rhetoric and strategery that won him the presidency—given how it worked out last time, it isn’t a bad game plan.

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Obama in Grand Junction

Marty Durlin | Aug 14, 2009 07:10 AM

Promoting his health care package, President Obama will appear Saturday, August 15 in Grand Junction, Colorado, where some of Western Colorado's angry natives are primed -- by right-wing talk show host Glenn Beck  and others -- to vent their opposition, not just to Obama's health care proposal but to his presidency as a whole.

Some 4,000 people -- not only from Western Colorado but also from the Front Range, Utah, Wyoming, New Mexico and Nevada -- are expected to attend an anti-Obama rally in the morning (the President speaks at 4 pm). The Western Slope Conservative Alliance has organized a string of speakers to speak against Obama and his policies, including state Sen. Josh Penry (angling for the GOP nomination for governor) and U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah).

According to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, opposition groups are planning to line streets around Central High School (where the President will make his appearance), but are not planning to attend the town hall meeting inside.

Meanwhile, Obama's Organizing for America group is asking people to come out to support the President.

Should be quite a show.

HCN's Cally Carswell will be live-Tweeting the event starting around 4 pm Mountain Time.

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A culture of violence

Arla Shephard | Aug 12, 2009 10:47 AM

On July 12, a gang member brutally attacked a female police officer on the Oglala Sioux’s Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The officer was forced to shoot the suspect and is now in hiding with her family, said John Mousseau, chairman of the Oglala Sioux Tribal Council, at a hearing in D.C. last month. The same officer makes $35,000 a year with no health benefits and no retirement package, he added.

Mousseau and other tribal leaders from across the West gathered before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs to discuss the increased amount of gang activity plaguing reservations all over the country. The violence  is taking a toll on tribal law enforcement offices that are often understaffed, underfunded and overworked.

“We do more with little,” said Sampson Cowboy, director of the Department of Public Safety on the Navajo Nation in Arizona, where there are now 225 documented gangs, compared to 75 gangs in 1997. “We have 0.06 police officers for every 1,000 people... and answer 289,000 calls every year.”

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A bear ate my old landlord?!

Sarah Gilman | Aug 11, 2009 12:10 PM

The title of this blog has a horror movie ring to it. It even sounds a little too ridiculous to be real.  But for High Country News staffer Tammy York, it's the truth. This isn't the sort of thing we usually report on, but it's a pretty incredible (and tragic) story to have so close to home. (And, being cutthroat journalists, we couldn't let the L.A. Times -- they plan to call Tammy tonight -- get this on record before we do.)

Back in 2002, Tammy moved into a basement apartment in Donna Munson's quiet log house, nestled on a densely vegetated 40-ish acre parcel between the small mountain towns of Ridgeway and Ouray, Colo. Munson had put an ad in the paper, but at first she resisted the idea of Tammy becoming her tenant. Not because Tammy had lots of loud parties or 50 cats (she didn't), mind you, but because Tammy had two young children: a one-year-old daughter, and a four-year-old son. As Tammy quickly found out, Munson was worried about the kids because she was in the habit of feeding several black bears, right off of her upstairs deck.

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Natural gas, the miracle fuel!

Jonathan Thompson | Aug 11, 2009 10:15 AM

Geez, it seems like it was just a few months ago that the natural gas boom was busting and the drill rigs were sent a-packin'. Natural gas prices cratered, thanks to the general economic malaise, and big shale gas plays in other parts of the country really dug into the West's drilling boom. Meanwhile, all the folks losing their jobs on the rigs blamed stricter regulations (and environmentalists and Democrats) for their woes.  Now, it looks like natural gas is poised for a comeback. And who's touting it the most? Environmentalists and Democrats!

The arguments are honest and even reasonable, to a degree: Natural gas emits about half the carbon dioxide as coal, and right now natural gas is not too pricey. Furthermore, switching from coal plants to natural gas plants would be cheaper and quicker than building the equivalent solar, wind or even nuclear generation. In many cases, the infrastructure and transmission already exists to, first, ramp up existing natural gas plants, and then to switch coal to gas or cofire. Meanwhile, recent projections say that, thanks to deep shale gas finds, there's plenty of gas to be drilled.

Still, the about face of greens and Dems on this issue has been shocking ... sort of. A few months ago, some of these same folks were demonized by the natural gas industry because of their push for more regs. Now, well... when the drill rigs return to your neighborhood, these are some of the folks you can thank:

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Stimulus funding targets irrigation efficiency

Felice Pace | Aug 10, 2009 12:25 PM

Drought intensified this summer throughout California and most of the West. Already over-allocated, water supplies are short across most of the West prompting irrigation cutbacks, dewatered streams, endangered species conflicts and protests in irrigation-dominated areas like the west-side of California’s San Joaquin Valley.  Drought also exacerbates water quality problems; less streamflow means more concentration of pollutants and greater negative impacts to fish and other Public Trust resources.

Under these circumstances the April announcement from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) would distribute $84.8 million for “vital watershed projects” was especially welcome.  Vilsack recently announced another 42.3 million in recovery funds for watershed projects.  Both amounts are part of the federal government’s economic stimulus program. Many funded projects are located in the West. According to USDA information, most western projects will pay for infrastructure and equipment to enhance on-farm irrigation efficiency. 

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Don't feed the animals

Sarah Gilman | Aug 10, 2009 11:35 AM

Sad proof that it's not wise to feed wildlife:

Last week, a housekeeper found the partially eaten body of 74-year-old Donna Munson outside of Munson's Ouray County, Colo., home. Munson regularly fed nine bears, and had been repeatedly warned by officials to stop. Authorities have since determined that Munson was killed by a 394-lb male black bear. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reports:

“We don’t know for sure, but what we feel it was one of the bears who regularly came to her residence,” (Ouray County Sheriff’s investigator Joel Burk) said.

Authorities believe Munson was standing on her porch, behind a seven-foot high wire fence she had built on the property, at the time of the attack. The wire fence includes holes, roughly 4 by 6 inches wide.
“We believe she was close enough to the fence for the bear to be able to reach through and make contact with her,” Burk said.

Munson appeared to have been dragged underneath the fence — multiple wounds were found to her head, torso, and legs, he said. Munson’s walker (her daughter told The Daily Sentinel she was in failing health and showed signs of dementia) was found on the porch, Burk said.

Bear attacks are extremely uncommon, especially lethal ones. This fatal attack is only the third recorded in Colorado. Back when I was a reporter working the bear beat at the Aspen Daily News, Colorado Division of Wildlife Spokesman Randy Hampton gave me the rundown on the two others:

In 1971, a newlywed on his honeymoon in Grand County was dragged out of his tent and killed by an older male black bear. When officials tracked down and killed the animal, they found it had worn, abscessed teeth and a plastic bucket in its stomach, indicating that it was probably desperate for food, Hampton said.

In 1993, a black bear broke into a camper in Fremont County and killed its 24-year-old male occupant after the young man fired off a shot that only grazed the bear's ribs.

However, black bear attacks tend to be  more common than grizzly attacks, if only because there are more of the former in the lower 48. If you're morbid like me, you might find this comprehensive list of fatal bear attacks pretty interesting.


A Solar Plant a Tortoise Could Love

Judith Lewis Mernit | Aug 10, 2009 10:03 AM

On the Web site of, Mark Gunther describes Bill Gross as "a serial entrepreneur" and "one of the most interesting business people I've known." Gross is the guy who gave Google its paid-search idea. He likes robots. He has Google's money invested in his electric car project (only fair, right?). He also may be the guy to best solve the land wars that continue between desert conservationists and national environmental organizations over large-scale concentrating solar thermal power (CSP) in the desert.

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Bribery slips under the border

Ariana Brocious | Aug 10, 2009 07:41 AM

It starts with a $50 bill. Then $5,000, just to look the other way at the port of inspections. Suddenly the formerly-loyal U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer has become yet another link in the chain of corruption, bribery, contraband and violence that plagues the southern border.

And he’s not the only one.

An Associated Press investigation has found that U.S. border officials are being charged with criminal corruption in numbers previously unseen: More than 80 federal, state and local law enforcement officials have been leveled with such charges since 2007. 

Meanwhile, both governments are stepping up patrols, according to the AP:

As Calderón sent thousands of soldiers to northern Mexico to stop the gruesome cartel violence and clean out corrupt police departments, Customs and Border Protection — the largest U.S. law-enforcement agency — boosted its border forces by 44 percent, or 6,907 additional officers and agents, on the southwestern border.

At the same time, CBP saw the number of its officers charged with corruption-related crimes nearly triple, from eight cases in fiscal 2007 to 21 the following year.  

Corruption runs the gamut, allowing activities such as drug-trafficking, human smuggling, weapons trade and unauthorized entries across the border--committed by high-ranking, established BP officials down to recent agency hires, some of whom are planted by the drug trade. And while bribery (a bargain for smugglers to ensure safe passage) is the leading incentive, drug cartels frequently use another powerful motivator—offering agents a choice between “plata o plomo”--silver or lead.

As continuing border wall construction endangers wildlife and the President requests ramped-up CBP funding, citing Mexico’s long-reputed corrupt officials has been an easy way to dodge the blame. But it finally seems we’re taking a necessary hard look at our own side of the problem. 

 bordercorruption graph

Graph from the Arizona Daily Star.

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West Nile figures trickling in

Marty Durlin | Aug 10, 2009 05:18 AM

The Centers for Disease Control say that only 35 cases of the West Nile virus have so far been reported in the United States this year, but the season is just getting started: late summer and early fall are the times when most infections occur.

Of the 35 cases, 19 are in the West and 10 of those cases were reported as encephalitis/meningitis. Researchers caution that the high percentage of neuroinvasive disease is often overstated because serious cases are more likely to be reported than mild cases.

In 2008, 1,356 cases were reported nationwide, including 44 fatalities. About half the cases were neuroinvasive. There were 680 cases in the West, with California reporting the highest number (445) and Washington the lowest (3). There were 398 cases of encephalitis/meningitis, with California again having the most: 292. Montana and Wyoming reported no cases of neuroinvasive disease.

The peak of West Nile infection in the U.S. occurred in 2003, when cases totaled nearly 10,000 nationwide and 264 people died of a neuroinvasive strain.


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