The morning of Friday, February 21 dawned bright and clear in the rolling boreal forest of the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve, east of Fairbanks, Alaska. The temperature topped out at eight below zero.
Earlier in the week, a family of 11 wolves known as the Lost Creek pack loped beyond the preserve’s boundaries as they followed the Fortymile caribou herd, their main food source. Unfortunately for the wolves, the caribou herd’s proximity to a road — a rarity in Alaska — also makes it an important food source for local subsistence villages, and for families from Fairbanks and beyond. So to help ensure food security, the state’s governor-appointed Board of Game bolsters the herd’s numbers by killing some of the wolves that prey on caribou calving grounds.
Board chairman Ted Spraker insists that he doesn't hate wolves. “I think wolves are the most exciting animals in Alaska,” he says. Still, Spraker is bound by a 1994 state law requiring Alaska to manage wildlife to support abundant moose, caribou and deer populations for subsistence hunting, often at the expense of predators.
Under former Gov. Tony Knowles — the state’s only Democratic governor since 1990 — predator control efforts like aerial wolf kills effectively ceased. In some places, ungulate populations dropped. “Subsistence opportunities were in shambles,” Spraker recalls. “People in rural parts of the state were suffering.” So in the dozen years since Knowles left office, Alaska has played catch-up, leading to what some conservationists call “a war on wolves and bears” and creating tension between state and federal wildlife officials.
Recently predator control has grown especially lethal. In parts of the state, the Board of Game has authorized the use of artificial light to rouse black bears from their dens and shoot them as they emerge (“spotlighting”), as well as baiting brown bears, increasing bag limits and lengthening the hunting season to months when wolves and coyotes are raising pups. The idea, says Spraker, is to go all-out now so programs can be scaled-back or eliminated once ungulate populations are back up in the future.
Joan Frankevich, Alaska program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, doesn’t particularly care for such practices, but she accepts that the Board has the right to do what it will on Alaska’s 105 million acres of state land. What she does not accept, however, is that the Board has also tried to implement similar regulations in Alaska’s 22 million acres of national preserves. In Alaska, national preserves are dually managed by the National Park Service and state agencies, with the state largely assuming responsibility for wildlife management and hunting. For decades, the arrangement worked smoothly.
Oh how a housing bust, a nasty economic downturn and a shale oil and gas boom can change things.
Seven years ago this spring, the Census Bureau released a flurry of numbers about the economy and growth, which then spawned a bunch of articles about which parts of the country were growing fastest and why. Topping the list were mostly suburban, sun-belt counties with subprime mortgage-related housing booms. Palm Coast, Fla., gained the highest percentage of population between 2000 and 2006. Western counties near the top included Douglas in Colorado, Teton in Idaho, Lyon in Nevada, Washington in Utah and Pinal in Arizona. Forbes summed up the driving forces of the growth boom:
The high cost of urban living, cheaper land in the suburbs and new business opportunities in periphery communities are contributing to this boom. Not surprisingly, many of the most popular counties are in the South and Southwest–warm, business friendly, inexpensive and less populated than the Northeast.
Last week, the newest Census numbers were released, documenting the fastest growing metro areas in the U.S. between 2012 and 2013. The results look a bit different than they did back before the boom. The top five fastest growing counties now are:
1. Williams, N.D. (Unemployment rate: 1 percent)
2. Duchesne, Utah (Unemployment rate: 3.5 percent)
3. Sumter, Fla. (Unemployment rate: 5.4 percent)
4. Stark, N.D. (Unemployment rate: 1.7 percent)
5. Kendall, Tex. (Unemployment rate: 4.7 percent)
The fastest growing metro areas are:
1. The Villages, Fla.
2. Odessa, Tex.
3. Midland, Tex.
4. Fargo, N.D.
5. Bismarck, N.D.
6. Casper, Wyo.
And, finally, the fastest growing micropolitan areas:
1. Williston, N.D.
2. Dickinson, N.D.
3. Heber, Utah
4. Andrews, Tex.
5. Minot, N.D.
6. Vernal, Utah
Now, I don't know what's going on in The Villages in Florida, but I do know that nearly all of the other places listed above are in or near the oil and gas patch. Gone, apparently, are the days when amenity migrants and equity refugees flock to warm climates where houses are sprouting like weeds in the desert. Now people just want jobs. And these days the jobs, like it or not, are in the oil and gas industry.
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The guides warned us, of course. Or they sort of did.
It was sometime after the river outfitter’s shuttle van had passed through the latticework of gates and fences that guards the steep, hairpinned road to the boat-launch at the base of the Hoover Dam, and possibly right before we realized that we had left our two-burner stove back in Alison’s truck, in the parking lot of a casino hotel towering beigely over an otherwise nearly buildingless swath of desert around Lake Mead.
March 19 had dawned beautiful and bluebird in what we had dubbed Baja, Nevada – a 12-mile stretch of clear turquoise water with intermittent hotsprings through the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, where my three college lady friends and I planned to kayak at a luxuriantly sluggish pace for four days. Green rattlesnakes will chase you, the guides told us as we wound into the steep gorge. Scorpions will roost in your sandals. Brain-eating amoebas will Swiss-cheese your frontal lobes if you’re stupid enough to snort the hotspring water. And in the afternoon and at night, the water level can rise without warning as dam operators let more or less through Hoover’s hydroelectric turbines to feed fluctuating power demands in Arizona, Nevada and California. Make sure your gear is secure, the guides fingerwagged, and your kayaks well-tied overnight. Yes, of course, but the stove? we clamored. The eating of delicious things was, after all, a top priority. The guides exchanged glances. Tight federal security around the dam meant there would be no driving back for it. That left hoofing it out from the first side canyon, about a mile downriver.
Three hours later, Alison and I began the eight-mile roundtrip hike to the freeway and the hotel on the rim, while Sarahlee and Laura held down a campsite and explored an island in the middle of the river. The route was a spectacular scramble along sandy wash bottoms and up boulders and ragged fixed lines. Spring-fed ferns and algae wept down the canyon’s walls and an ankle-deep stream of hot water threaded its middle, curling periodically into deep, sand-bagged pools. By the time we had strapped the cornery bulk of the stove to my back, we were congratulating ourselves on the incredible luck of finding this place, and of finding a way to retrieve this key piece of gear. “Winning!” we called out with fist pumps. This battle cry would become our river-trip refrain, but it didn’t much jive with what had been happening down below.
Idaho’s sweeping new ag gag law, enacted in February, raises so many red flags that the Animal Legal Defense Fund has filed a lawsuit against it, only the second suit of its kind in the nation. But this time, in a new twist on ag gag litigation, the animal rights non-profit is joined by conservation groups, too.
That’s because this new statute – designed to prevent people from documenting what goes on in factory farms, like all of the now seven total ag gag laws in the U.S. – is alarmingly broad, according to senior ALDF attorney Matthew Liebman, affecting “virtually any place where there’s any interaction between humans and animals and plants.” The law defines an agricultural facility as “any structure or land, whether privately or publicly owned, leased or operated, that is being used for agricultural production” (emphasis added), and makes it a crime for virtually anyone to film or photograph in such places without express consent. But with such a broad definition, the law could potentially apply not only to factory farms and slaughterhouses like ag gag laws in other states, but also to public parks, restaurants, nursing homes, grocery stores, pet stores, and virtually every public establishment and private residence in Idaho, according to the lawsuit.
The law’s definition of “agricultural production” is also a catch-all, referring to any activity related to the production of food, fiber and fuel, including everything from construction, maintenance, pesticide or herbicide handling, planting, irrigating, harvesting plants, raising or producing, animals, and processing or packaging any agricultural product – and more. Dan Steenson, an attorney for the Idaho Dairymen’s Association (IDA) and author of the statute, is quoted in court documents as saying that the law could even apply to an employee who photographs a non-animal related violation – a blocked fire exit, for example.
But according to Bob Naerebout, executive director of the IDA, "The bill protects farmers and their families from misrepresentation, lies and deceit by individuals that intended to damage what they have worked a lifetime to build.” The law, he said, does not punish people for reporting illegal, unsafe or unethical activities – a direct contradiction to how ALDF and its 11 co-plaintiffs interpret the statute.
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When President Obama bestowed national monument status upon the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands — a 1,600-acre stretch of rocky California coast that teems with abalone and sea lions — earlier this month, the reaction was predictable as a high tide at full moon. While conservation groups rejoiced at the presidential protection, House Republicans snarled at what they considered egregious executive overreach. According to congressman Rob Bishop, R-Utah, Obama’s decree was “purely political and undermines sincere efforts to reach consensus on questions of conservation.” To Bishop and his House peers, the monument designation was nothing but a federal land grab.
Now Bishop and other Republicans are seeking to restrict the president’s ability to declare national monuments through H.R. 1459, the “Ensuring Public Involvement in the Creation of National Monuments Act,” which will go to the House floor for vote on Wednesday. The bill, which Bishop sponsored back in July, would limit the president to creating one national monument per state in each four-year term and require environmental reviews for all monuments larger than 5,000 acres – gumming up the executive branch’s ability to swiftly conserve lands. The left-leaning Center for American Progress calls H.R. 1459 a de facto “No More National Parks” policy.
The executive power to create monuments derives from the Antiquities Act of 1906, a piece of legislation that’s no stranger to controversy. The Act has been used by every president since Theodore Roosevelt to conserve some 70 million total acres, including many of America’s iconic landscapes, from the Grand Canyon to Death Valley to Utah’s Bryce and Zion. Though those sites are now among our best-loved parks, monument proclamations have often been greeted with congressional fury at the time of their announcement. When Franklin Roosevelt established Jackson Hole National Monument in 1943, Wyoming Sen. Edward Robertson called it a "foul, sneaking, Pearl Harbor blow.” (Bishop’s rhetoric has been mild by comparison – the worst he’s said is that President Obama “punked” the House. Evoking Ashton Kutcher isn’t quite as inflammatory as comparing the POTUS to Emperor Hirohito, but times change.)
Of course, the reason Congress has spent so much effort trying to rescind the Antiquities Act is precisely because it cuts the legislative branch out of the loop. Some might say that makes the Act unconstitutional – hi, Doc Hastings! – but, to others, that’s exactly why it’s indispensable in this era of congressional obstruction. Until it tabbed Michigan’s Sleeping Bear Dunes this winter, Congress hadn’t created a single wilderness area since 2009, and it’s only designated one national park since 2004. If not for President Obama creating monuments at a respectable (albeit not quite Clintonian) pace, the last half-decade would’ve been a near-total wash for public lands protection.
Republicans love to talk about “public involvement” – heck, it’s right there in the name of the bill – but if they were truly paying attention to recent developments in the West, they’d know that the public wants more monuments. New Mexico’s Rio Grande del Norte, designated last April, has been instantly embraced by everyone from ranchers to Taos Pueblo tribal officials, thanks largely to the 300 jobs and $15 million in annual revenues that the monument is expected to generate. (That’s typical: while conservative leaders enjoy grumbling about the cost of maintaining public lands, virtually all parks are powerful economic engines.) Another 2013 monument, in the San Juan Islands, was similarly popular. Meanwhile, designation for Colorado’s Browns Canyon is gaining momentum; check out Iraq War veteran Garett Reppenhagen’s recent op-ed on why public lands protection is about more than just money. (Though, okay, the economic engine thing is nice!)
Given the wide and growing imbalance between conservation and energy development on our public lands, it’s vital that Congress preserve the executive’s ability to swiftly protect America’s special places. Though H.R. 1459 would probably be D.O.A. in the Senate, let’s hope it doesn’t even get that far.
Ben Goldfarb is an editorial intern at High Country News. He tweets @bengoldfarb13.
“We farmers here in the United States might as well recognize that we are a minority group, and that the prevailing interest of the nation as a whole is no longer agricultural,” wrote Dust Bowl farmer Caroline Henderson in a letter to a friend later published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1936. She lived in the eye of the eight-year drought, in the Oklahoma panhandle, and farmed wheat. She is now credited with creating one of the best written-records of Dust Bowl history. “Hay for the horses and the heifers remaining here cost us $3 per ton, brought by truck from eastern Oklahoma,” she wrote.
That was a lot of money back then. Hay prices are much higher today – the national average is always over $100. But dire drought conditions in California have driven them way up in recent months, putting dairies and ranchers in a pinch similar to Henderson's. Many livestock producers in the corridor between Bakersfield, Calif., and Merced are buying hay that would normally be under $200 per ton, for as much as $325, and are looking to Pacific Northwest states and as far away as Texas and Colorado for competitive prices. Prices in California have risen by $50 per ton in just the past two months.
In similarly drought-stricken Nevada, where alfalfa accounts for 90 percent of the crops grown, hay producers are preparing for a difficult season for the third year in a row. Some counties’ water supplies are less than half of their normal size. Yet the dry conditions also have a silver lining: High prices have brought much-needed financial relief for producers, according to Jay Davison, an alternative crop specialist with the University of Nevada –even if they’re a nightmare for dairies and livestock producers in California.
“This has been a lifesaver,” he said. Since Nevada hay farmers have struggled with a weaker market in past years, many were in desperate need of improved prices, Davison said. And though alfalfa is a particularly water-intensive crop, the high prices incentivize farmers to grow as much of it as they can – long-term water supply be damned.
This spring, millions of Americans will snap together rods, tie flies and spinners to monofilament, and, from a boat or streambank, cast to a rising fish. In many places, their quarry will be the born-and-raised products of hatcheries, facilities in which fish are artificially bred for the benefit of anglers. Nevada will stock a million trout in its waters this year; Oregon, 7 million. Washington plans on releasing a remarkably precise 17,140,634 trout and kokanee. A few years ago, California turned nearly 50 million fish loose in its lakes and streams.
Hatcheries have their advantages: According to a 2006 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service study, every dollar spent on rainbow trout hatcheries generates around $37 in net economic value. And that’s to say nothing of less tangible gains – the kids, lured to rivers by fat, hatchery-raised trout, who later advocate for watershed conservation. But as scientists uncover the damage that captive-bred fish can inflict on wild ecosystems, it’s becoming clear that, used unwisely, hatcheries can yield more costs than benefits.
The latest evidence comes from Kristy Bellinger, a PhD candidate at Washington State University. Bellinger bred five separate lineages of cloned rainbow trout, from totally wild trout to fish whose ancestors had been hatchery-raised going back over 100 generations. She placed fish from each lineage in a tank and then startled them into “sprint speed” – the quick burst of movement that fish use to dodge predators and catch food. Typically, big fish are also the strongest and fastest, and Bellinger figured that the hatchery offspring, which had been bred for size for generations, would be the best sprinters.
But that’s not what she found. “As they grew bigger,” she says, “they were slower.” Fish that came from the highly domesticated line – the one descended from 100 hatchery generations – were sluggards; in fact, it was hard to get them to sprint at all. Other, slightly-domesticated lineages didn’t swim as poorly as the hyper-hatchery line, but were still slower than wild trout.
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Brandon Yule, a volunteer firefighter in Worland, Wyo., was called to the scene of the Big Horn River flood at 7 a.m. An ice jam under a bridge had apparently caused the river to rise overnight, and water was starting to flood nearby homes. But by 9 a.m., Yule and the team still couldn’t get a view of what was causing the water to continue to rise. “I thought it would be an opportune time to request from the incident commander that I retrieve my Quadcopter” – his personal drone – “to send it up and see if we could see what the extent of the event was,” he said.
Yule returned with his drone, took a few minutes to prepare it for launch, and sent it out over the Big Horn River to survey the scene of the flood. Thus was a hobby drone effectively drafted into an official emergency response team in Washakie County for the first time ever. And it pulled its weight: The drone got a view of the flooding in a quicker, cheaper and more flexible manner than resources would typically allow. Flying above the swelling river, the lightweight drone captured high-definition photo and video with its GoPro camera, showing officials what they couldn’t see from the ground – the extent of the flooding, the size and location of more ice jams clogging the river in other places – and helping them plan their next moves, like whether to evacuate residential areas, where to lay sandbags and which towns to inform downstream. And all this, without resorting to the expensive, complex and inherently risky measure of a helicopter flight, and without wasting time.
(Video courtesy Brandon Yule.)
The Star-Tribune reports officials from Wyoming’s National Guard and Office of Homeland Security who were on hand for the response got an impromptu demonstration of the potential for this type of drone in disaster management. “They were all amazed at the technology and how well it worked to see what we couldn't from the ground,” Yule said. The extent of that technology: A Quadcopter drone equipped with a GoPro camera, and a live video feed to a 7" screen hooked to Yule’s remote control on the ground – all for about $1,600.
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In the early 1980s, it wasn’t so uncommon for a visitor to Midland, Texas, to saunter off his private jet and into a Rolls Royce dealership. Eight Midland oil barons made it onto Forbes’ list of the 400 wealthiest Americans, “an amazing statistic considering that the city’s population was only 70,000,” notes Texas Monthly writer Skip Hollandsworth.
It was the height of the oil boom in the Permian Basin, a geologic formation that underlies southeastern New Mexico and West Texas. The Permian was a place where newly drilled oil wells spurted into the sky, producing 600 or more barrels of oil a day. But by 1983, the 10-year energy crisis had ended, Saudi Arabia amped up production and the price of oil dropped. West Texas emptied out, and since then, oil production in the Permian has sputtered.
Now, thanks to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing – the same technology that turned quiet western North Dakota towns into congested cities teeming with roughnecks – the Permian is on its way to another boom. The region’s aging, under-producing vertical rigs are being replaced by new, horizontal drilling operations that can suck crude from hard to reach places.
In the past five years, horizontal drilling in the Permian has exploded: the number of rigs has increased fivefold. Since 2011 alone, companies have drilled over 9,300 new wells. The federal Energy Information Administration expects Permian oil production to surge to over 1.3 million barrels per day in 2014, from just 800,000 barrels in 2007. The basin is now the country’s largest oil producer.
Water is one of the key ingredients facilitating the boom. In the Permian Basin, like many other oil and gas producing regions, water is scarce and over allocated. A new report by Ceres, a Boston-based environmental non-profit focused on sustainable investing and business, found that more than 70 percent of the Permian’s oil wells are in areas of extreme water stress, which means over 80 percent of surface water and shallow groundwater is already allocated.
In the summer of 1925, John Scopes, a 24-year-old high school science teacher in Dayton, Tennessee, became one of most infamous defendants in U.S. legal history. In March of that year, Tennessee passed a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution. A month or so later, the American Civil Liberties Union placed a newspaper ad offering representation to any Tennessee teacher willing to violate the law and become the face of a legal battle lawyers hoped to take to the U.S. Supreme Court. The ad caught the eye of community leaders in Dayton, who thought a high-profile trial -- and the media attention and tourists who'd come with it -- could give their struggling town an economic boost. They solicited Scopes, who agreed to become the "test" defendant.
Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in a biology class, and his lawyers appealed. The Tennessee Supreme Court upheld the law, but overturned the Scopes verdict on a technicality, preventing higher appeals. It wasn't until 1968 that the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue, deeming a similar Arkansas law unconstitutional. But their ruling didn't put the issue to rest. Some states responded by passing laws requiring teachers to give "equal time" or "balanced treatment" to evolution and creationism. Those laws were also struck down. Still, the anti-evolution movement persisted – and still does. In 2012, Tennessee passed a law preventing school administrators from disciplining teachers who choose to teach students about the "scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses" of evolution.
But this time, the law included a new twist: It allowed teachers to give climate change the same treatment. Tennessee's approach has caught on in some Western states, albeit less successfully. Bills were introduced in Colorado and Arizona in 2013 to allow teachers to question "controversial" scientific theories – specifically evolution and climate change. These bills represent "the third wave of antievolutionist strategy," wrote National Center for Science Education deputy director Glenn Branch in BioScience last fall. Though the bills ultimately failed, they were the "tip of a menacing iceberg," according to Branch. "It is now routine for evolution and climate change to be targeted together in attacks on science education."
In fact, in Arizona, and more recently in Wyoming, climate change, not evolution, was the primary provocation for the attacks. This month, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead signed a budget passed by the legislature that included a footnote prohibiting the state Board of Education from adopting the Next Generation Science Standards (though there appears to be some lack of clarity about what exactly the footnote means for what the Board can and can't do). The standards were developed by more than 20 states, the National Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Science Teachers Association, and an independent education reform organization. They establish a common framework for K-12 science education, laying out what knowledge and skills students should have when, and how to assess their progress, but not standardized curriculums. They are the first national science standards likely to be broadly adopted by states, and the first ever to require climate change to be taught in schools.
That change is controversial in Wyoming, a state bankrolled by a cornucopia of fossil fuels: coal, oil, natural gas. "(The standards) handle global warming as settled science," Republican Rep. Matt Teeters, one of the budget footnote's author told the Casper Star-Tribune. Reporter Leah Todd wrote that "Teeters said teaching global warming as fact would wreck Wyoming's economy."