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Going it alone

Terray Sylvester | Jun 15, 2009 05:30 AM

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 Kivalina2and 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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An end to the "Snow War"?

Michael Wolcott | Jun 15, 2009 03:20 AM

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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Landscapes of power

Jonathan Thompson | Jun 15, 2009 12:54 AM

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.

Jonah Field equipment

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.

Bunkhouse

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. 

rocksprings bank

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.

 

Bee on thistle

 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.

 

 


 

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2008 wildfire redux

Felice Pace | Jun 13, 2009 04:20 AM

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:


    Fireline and Burn-Out Yolla Bolla Wilderness

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Adobe Town drilldown

Jodi Peterson | Jun 12, 2009 08:01 AM

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.

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Government hunters become poachers?

Ed Quillen | Jun 12, 2009 05:14 AM


    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.
 

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What the FRAC do we know?

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?

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A woolly problem

Jodi Peterson | Jun 09, 2009 09:15 AM

Domestic sheep and bighorn sheep don't mix. Or at least they shouldn't, say most biologists. The tame sheep tend to infect their wild cousins with fatal pneumonia. In Idaho's Payette National Forest, the Forest Service has even banned grazing in areas where flocks might encounter bighorns (see our story Sheep v. Sheep). Recent developments have made the state's bighorn and sheep ranching conflicts even more contentious.

The sheep industry and a few scientists maintain that there's no proof that domestics transmit disease, so there's no need to shut down grazing allotments on bighorn turf. One of the most vocal critics, Marie Bulgin, head of the Caine Veterinary Teaching and Research Center in Caldwell, Idaho, a state animal lab, has testified that "seventeen years plus of research by numerous researcher (sic) has not been able to prove that such is the case." Now, an advocacy group is charging that despite Bulgin's statements, Caine Center researchers have known for the past 15 years that domestic sheep can give deadly diseases to wild bighorns. The AP reports:

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Unprecedented poaching in California

Marty Durlin | Jun 09, 2009 06:40 AM

According to officials at the California Department of Fish and Game, the illegal sale of wildlife and "wildlife parts" generates something like $100 million per year -- and it's going up, as hard economic times have forced the state to cut back on game wardens. Only 230 wardens regulate 159,000 square miles of land, including 1,100 miles of coastline going 200 miles out to sea. The number of game wardens in California is the lowest per capita in the U.S.

According to the San Francisco Chronicle, game wardens have investigated the following:

-- Late last month, 11 people were arrested and 120 citations were issued in Sonoma and Mendocino counties after an elaborate ring of abalone poachers with headquarters in a hotel room was discovered.

-- In February, two people were arrested in Monterey County after they were caught with 51 black abalone, a federally listed endangered species.

-- In February, five antelope were fatally shot near Susanville by someone driving along a country road. The shooter just left the animals, two of which were pregnant, one with twins.

-- In 2007, a San Diego man was arrested by Redding undercover agents and charged with soliciting the killing of bears in Shasta County so he could buy their gallbladders. A gallbladder-processing operation was discovered when wardens arrested the man, who had a passport and tickets to fly to Southeast Asia. Bear gallbladders are used for medicinal purposes in Southeast Asia and can fetch $2,000 an ounce.

-- In Sacramento, a man was arrested after investigators used DNA evidence to identify the meat from 28 separate deer that had been shot in Calaveras, El Dorado and Placer counties. He was selling the carcasses from his house for up to $150 a piece.

"Over the last year and a half we've seen a marked increase in poaching and in people just killing animals and leaving them there for no apparent reason," Fish and Game enforcement chief Nancy Foley told the Chronicle. "I don't think it is a need to put food on the table. It's usually for greed and money and because people know we have a shortage of game wardens in the state."

California Fish and Game spokesman Patrick Foy told the Chronicle that wildlife officers -- who last year issued 14,543 citations -- catch between 1 and 5 percent of all violators. The penalty for poaching deer and waterfowl in California is a maximum of six months in county jail and a $1,000 fine, but Foy says many poachers have been fined as little as $150 and given probation.

 


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Is humanitarian aid really "littering"?

Michael Wolcott | Jun 09, 2009 05:10 AM

In summer, the southern Arizona desert is among the most merciless environments on earth. Temperatures spike at 120 degrees. Shade is scarce. Each year hundreds of undocumented migrants die trying to walk north from Mexico.
 
The grisly accounts of survivors and the quickly-mummified evidence on the ground suggest that a cooked brain and water-starved sensory neurons must know something of hell. The mouths stuffed with rocks, the claw marks--it happens. There are files.
 
For the past five years, the Tucson-based humanitarian group, No More Deaths, has worked to reduce such misery by providing migrants with food, medical care, and--most importantly--emergency water. The group has a bumper sticker: “Humanitarian aid is never a crime.”
 
Maybe that bumper sticker should read “almost never”: two No More Deaths volunteers, Walt Staton and Dan Millis, have been convicted of littering--for leaving drinking water in the desert.
 
Staton, 27, was found guilty on June 3 of littering federal property after he admitted to leaving jugs of drinking water on migrant trails that cross the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge. He faces up to one year in prison and a $10,000 fine when he is sentenced on August 11. Millis, who was convicted in a similar case last September, has appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court. Staton also plans an appeal.
 
The two cases focus attention on a humanitarian crisis along the U.S.-Mexico border that is arguably the direct--and intentional--result of federal policy.
 

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