The June 8th HCN edition included an excellent article on the potential for beaver to restore western watersheds and, in the process, improve water supplies. The piece, however, omitted a few important caveats:
- Before the occupation of the West by white folks, Beaver did not exist in all Western watersheds. This is reflected in the diaries and history of the mountain men. For example, Jedediah Smith scouted from Colorado to Southern California and then North to Oregon. He found some valleys loaded with beaver; but many of the watersheds he scouted – not only in the Southwest but even in Northern California and Oregon -contained no or only a scattering of beaver.
- Many of the places beaver thrived are now fields of alfalfa or pastures for cattle. The Scott Valley where I lived for 40 years was once known as Beaver Valley. The first year Hudson Bay trappers worked it, they took out 50 mules loaded with beaver pelts. But there is no way the beaver are going to be restored in this valley; that would require moving out the people and the cattle. Beaver are still being killed in the Scott Valley as varmints today.
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Today reports from two far-flung airports illustrate the ongoing conflict between modern human culture and animals simply doing what they do.
In New York City -- five months after Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese -- some 2,000 Canadian geese living around JFK and LaGuardia airports will be euthanized starting this week. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given the USDA a permit for the euthanization, releasing the agency from the the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The local geese (as opposed to the migratory birds that flew into the US Airways plane) will be herded into fenced areas at parks and wastewater treatment plants within five miles of the airports, put into crates and "humanely" euthanized .
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Yesterday I read, “What every westerner should know about oil shale,” a report published last week by the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West. It left my ears ringing with a sort of dull reverberation that, while it lasted, actually seemed to be getting louder. I think that ringing sound had something to do with the time line below, which I've culled from the report.
The report offers all sorts of handy information on, for example, the social impacts of boom and bust cycles, shale extraction laws and the latest extraction technologies (Exxon's sounds like the Frankenstein monster of fracking) but in large part, it's a history of shales's many false promises and failures. So it's surprising that it left me with the feeling that commercial shale production isn't so much futile, as fated. Despite all of the hurdles, shale companies have been testing the U.S. oil market for the last century and a half. They've been rebuffed every time. But over the decades we've only become more dependent on fossil fuels, and sooner or later we'll run out of conventional resources. A habit is a hard thing to break. It seems unlikely that we'll skate right over into an alternative energy economy without first tapping a petroleum reserve as huge as the Green River Formation. As the report puts it, “…oil shale may well be the end game of the Fossil Fuel Age. But it is a very big play.”Read More ...
It's fairly common knowledge that the poor, though they've released far less than their share of the world's greenhouse gasses, will feel the nastiest effects of climate change. Usually, we take "the poor," in this case, to mean residents of Tuvalu, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea or other developing states whose governments lack the resources or the inclination to help them. But the poor residents of the industrialized world have been, and will be, disproportionately affected as well. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina proved that, and this recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office makes the point as well.
According to the report, 31 of Alaska's roughly 231 native villages face "imminent threats" from erosion and flooding related to climate change, and most have already been affected to some degree. Twelve are in the process of relocating. Scattered up Alaska's coast and strung along its rivers, the villages have been subject to flooding and erosion when river ice breaks up in the spring, and during coastal storms. Those may sound like run-of-the-mill problems in the far north, but rising temperatures have made them more dangerous. Permafrost -- the glue that holds the land together -- has been thawing, and the sea ice that typically sheltered coastal villages from waves and storm surge has dwindled.
The Government Accountability Office has taken an interest because so far, the U.S. government has done little to address the problem on a large scale.
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Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Arizona skiers may soon be spared the inconvenience of living in one of the Union’s warmest and driest states.
Last week the high court removed the final legal hurdle blocking Arizona Snowbowl from making artificial snow with reclaimed sewage effluent on the San Francisco Peaks—a plan which 13 southwestern tribes say will desecrate their sacred mountain.
In a long-running lawsuit filed against the the U.S.Forest Service (the ski center's landlord) the Navajo and several other tribes had sought protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that to make snow on the mountain would decrease the "spiritual fulfillment" tribal members get from practicing their religion. By declining, without comment, to act on the tribes' appeal of a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court effectively gave Snowbowl the go-ahead.
Lawyers for the tribes say they still have several options (which appear to be long shots) for blocking Snowbowl. For now, though, Snowbowl is free to busy itself with that time-honored Western tradition: moving water uphill toward money.
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A few miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming, a big interpretive sign is titled, Landscapes of Power. Yes, the landscapes are powerful: The massive piece of earth that seems just to have awakened and violently ripped itself out of the land up the Green River from Vernal, Utah; or the cloud enveloped Wind River range, rising up from the glowing Wyoming sage.
But today's drive took us through landscapes whence a different sort of power is derived -- mostly of the fossil fuel variety. Early this morning, HCN Executive Director Paul Larmer, Multimedia Reporter Jeff Chen and I headed out of Paonia, and paralleled the route of the train that hauls coal from the three massive underground coal mines up river. We passed through Grand Junction, where many a gas field service worker lives. To Rio Blanco County, where compressor stations pop up along a valley floor, not far from rock art panels, including a giant, red Kokopelli. On to Rangely, a town that owes its existence to fossil fuels. Chevron found oil here back in the thirties, and the place boomed after World War II -- it was incorporated in 1947. Today, pumpjacks dance their slow grind all over town, and, according to the checkout girl at the White River Market: "There's not much to do around here unless you're a drinker." Jeff, though, found a bull to ride, even with nothing to drink.
The landscapes of power don't dissipate. Vernal, Utah, at the heart of a big natural gas play, is surrounded by industrialization. In the Frachtech yard between town and the muddy brown Green River, huge space-age trucks sit shiny and green, ready to inject hydraulic fracturing material into the earth. Guys hose off their Halliburton trucks in monster-sized car washes. Motel parking lots hold a mixture of tourist's cars and the white pickup trucks ubiquitous in gas country. Just on the other side of town -- a surprise to us -- half a mountain had been scraped bare then reclaimed. This wasn't for energy, but fertilizer: The Simplot phosphate mine, which had transformed the landscape almost as dramatically as the much older, much slower geologic forces that had warped huge fields of rock nearby. Or as dramatically as Flaming Gorge Dam, which generates hydropower with the water of the Green River (we missed the daily tours, unfortunately, and got chided for stopping on the dam, a security threat).
Still, surprises and beauty await amidst the wreckage. Up on a high plateau south of Rock Springs, a pipeline scar is visible way off into the distance, yet that doesn't stop the light from seemingly seeping from the sage and the grass. Powerlines snake their way into the distance south of town, but raptors still dive for prairie dogs. Rock Springs itself, which appears from the Interstate to be no more than a glorified man camp, has its own surprises. Arts and crafts era homes line streets near downtown, where handsome buildings stand beautiful but abandoned -- a reminder of past booms and busts.
We continued north out of Rock Springs, past the Interstate-side truck stop detritus, up onto a sage-covered plain, into a sky ominous with dark clouds toward the Wind Rivers. Near a space filled with industrial equipment and trucks, we turned left, and headed into the Jonah Field, where a frenzy of drilling is happening. Stop the car here, and the background grinding hum is constant. In the distance, flares from the rigs, which pierce the horizon. Once rolling grassland, the machinery has taken over. And yet. Pronghorn still dance nimbly, watching closely over fawns. The evening light still merges with the Wyoming Range in the distance. This boom, too, will someday contract. These huge spaces that characterize the West, however, will persist.
Photos, from top: Equipment near the Jonah Field, Rangely accommodations, Rock Springs bank, and native pollinators at work on a non-native thistle on Douglas Pass.
Recently I had the opportunity to backpack in Northern California’s Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness. The wildflowers were wonderful and among the many birds I got a close up look at a Lazuli Bunting.
One day I climbed Black Rock Mountain which provides spectacular 360 degree views – including a view of several of last summer’s wildfires. One of those fire areas lay below my feet, mostly inside the wilderness. Forest Service firefighters had constructed a fireline with a bulldozer on the wilderness border. They had also fired a burn out into the wilderness from that line. Here is a photo showing the fireline (light line on the right) and portions of the burn out:
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The tussle over Adobe Town continues. This spectacular chunk of Wyoming's Red Desert has been in the sights of energy companies for years (see our story The desert that breaks Annie Proulx's heart) . But the area has also been designated "Very Rare or Uncommon" by the state, in recognition of its unique geology, fossils, and habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn and other wildlife. Now, the BLM plans to lease 11,000 acres of the Red Desert for oil and gas drilling, including land adjoining the Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area.
Some of the Red Desert lands that BLM offered for leasing in early June are lands that the agency officially declared had wilderness qualities in 2003. They're also within the Monument Valley Special Management Area, which the BLM is considering designating an "area of critical environmental concern".
The BLM is accepting comments on the proposed drilling through June 15th.
Among the subsidies we taxpayers provide for agriculture, especially stock-raising in the West, is an agency euphemistically called "Wildlife Services," which sounds like an organization that provides salt licks or improves habitat or something along that line.
But it's the old Animal Damage Control agency under a new name. It has the same mission: professional government hunters going out to kill predators, like coyotes and mountain lions, that go after cattle and sheep.
Now there's an account of "poaching" by Wildlife Services hunters. One of the hunters in Nevada reported -- to both his regional office and to the FBI -- that some of his colleagues illegal killed mountain lions from government airplanes.
And in return for his diligence, he got fired because his job was eliminated, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. So he's filed a "whistleblower" complaint. You can read the press release here.
Drilling for natural gas really hasn’t been the most natural process. Numerous reports of groundwater contamination have skeptics and homeowners worried over hydraulic fracturing, a process used in nine out of 10 natural gas wells in the U.S.
But finally, some proposed legislation to oversee the drilling: Representatives in both the House and the Senate introduced bills yesterday “to amend the Safe Drinking Water Act and give the Environmental Protection Agency authority over the controversial drilling process,” ProPublica reports.
Hydraulic fracturing was exempted from federal water laws under the Bush administration’s Energy Policy Act. That meant EPA scientists couldn’t really study the correlation between fracturing and nearby pollution.
Currently, the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing are considered proprietary ingredients, so the energy industry doesn’t have to disclose what they are. (Sort of like, Coke; we don’t know all the ingredients, but boy, we just can’t get enough of it.) If passed, the FRAC Act -- Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act -- will require the energy industry to disclose their trade secrets.
The House bill, introduced by Diana DeGette, D-Colo., Jared Polis, D-Colo., and Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., will now be debated in the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The Senate version was introduced by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Industry officials say regulation at the state level is sufficient. Federal oversight would cost each new natural gas well $100,000, they say. But honestly, what’s a few-hundred-grand to a multi-billion-dollar industry?