We’ve been following the glacial progress of the latest Farm Bill for three years now. This massive bill, passed every five years, doles out nearly $1 trillion for food stamps and school lunches, farm subsidies, and conservation programs.
The Farm Bill got its start during the Dust Bowl years, when it was meant as temporary emergency assistance for beleaguered family farms.
But since then, it’s become a permanent fixture of the agricultural landscape, with three-quarters of its subsidy assistance going to giant agribusiness corporations. It’s also become a major source of nutrition assistance for the poor and children – 80 percent of the bill’s funding goes to food programs.
In this gridlocked Congress, it’s surprising to see any piece of legislation move toward passage, but the Farm Bill cleared the House this week and is now headed to the Senate, and President Obama has indicated that he’ll sign it. House Agriculture Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., reportedly called the compromise version “a miracle”.
Following is a summary of some of HCN’s concerns about the bill as it was being negotiated, and how those issues are addressed in the current version of the bill.
There’s no arguing that salmon and steelhead in the Columbia and Snake Rivers have had a tough century. Habitat loss, overfishing, and, most of all, dam construction have reduced the prodigious runs, which once averaged 16 million fish per year, to a fraction of their former glory. What’s up for debate is whether the federal government is finally taking adequate measures to protect the ones that remain.
That ongoing dispute was renewed this month with the release of NOAA Fisheries Service’s latest biological opinion, or“BiOp,” an assessment of whether the federal government’s plan for managing salmon and steelhead in the Columbia Basin is successfully protecting fish. By NOAA’s own admission, the 2014 opinion doesn’t much differ from its 2008 BiOp and a 2010 supplement, which a federal judge struck down in 2011 for their lack of specificity. In this latest court-ordered version, NOAA concludes its salmon plan doesn’t need an overhaul because its core conservation strategies – especially habitat restoration – are indeed staving off extinction for threatened and endangered fish. But salmon advocates complain that, while the status quo might be maintaining populations, it’s not recovering them; and that by not considering more aggressive actions, NOAA’s new BiOp consigns the Columbia’s salmon and steelhead to permanent jeopardy.
Conservationists and fishermen have long advocated for breaching the Columbia Basin’s dams – especially the four in eastern Washington that interrupt the lower Snake River, dams whose hydropower and transportation benefits are, they say, outweighed by their cost to salmon. Federal agencies like the Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration, which markets the region’s hydropower, have for years fought to keep the dams in place. Nonetheless, in 2009, Ken Olsen reported in High Country News that, thanks to a new generation of politicians and fisheries administrators, dam removal just might be nigh. “There are signs that the balance is tipping,” Olsen wrote.
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Like a great eye of reflective silicon, the largest utility-scale power plant in the United States is rapidly materializing in the Mojave Desert. According to company officials, when fully complete, the BrightSource Ivanpah Solar Power Facility will come on line early this year, supplying nearly 400 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 140,000 homes during peak sunlight hours. The Ivanpah plant is in many ways the centerpiece project for dozens of large-scale solar facilities planned across the region.
In spite of the carbon-free energy generated at Ivanpah, the 4000-acre plant on the California-Nevada border has drawn the ire of environmentalists who cite a host of problems, from disturbances to critical habitat for endangered desert tortoises, to plumes of superheated air – or “solar flux” – generated by the circular array of 170,000 heliostat mirrors, which, some fear, could potentially kill large numbers of birds.
While ecological considerations have dominated the discussion, utility-scale solar development also poses serious challenges to the desert’s rich cultural resources – an issue taken up by a 79-year-old activist and former civil rights worker named Alfredo Figueroa.
On a searing day last August, I met with Figueroa in a Mexican restaurant tucked into the back of a gas station on the outskirts of Blythe, Calif. He regaled me with stories about the labor rights struggle in the farm fields of California. In the 1960s, Figueroa took the stage with luminaries of the movement, such as Cesar Chavez and Bert Corona, working with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee and, later, the United Farmworkers Union to improve conditions for migrant agricultural workers across the state.
Over the last decade, Figueroa’s activism has turned toward the desert landscapes that surround his small stucco bungalow in southeastern California, a region besieged by large utility-scale solar projects. The Palo Verde Valley, three hours east of Los Angeles along the Arizona-California border, is one of the most sunlight-rich areas in the country and has become the de facto epicenter of the solar energy rush – a phenomenon that Judith Lewis Mernit recently reported on for High Country News .
In these rugged valleys, Figueroa has discovered what he says are fragmented depictions of scenes from the Aztec codices, ancient texts that tell the story of the exodus of the Mexica people from their ancestral homeland of Aztlan, to Lake Texcoco, the location of today’s Mexico City.
For any American who believes that climate change is not only real but one of the most pressing issues of our time, it's oddly invigorating to hear one's President declare the debate "settled," as Obama did last night in his State of the Union address. "Climate change is a fact," he followed. It's exciting to hear a politician in his position confidently brush aside climate denial. And also a little sad. It's been years since a sweeping majority of scientists agreed that climate change was happening, and humans were helping it to. It's been one year since Obama's second inaugural address, that barn burner in which he proclaimed that God "commanded" the planet to our care, and explained that basic American values demanded a response to climate change: "We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity."
And yet, here we are. A year later, we have only a little more to show for ourselves where federal action is concerned. Here we are, still stuck in a political zeitgeist in which the President is compelled to remind Congress that the world really is warming up, and that a reduction in carbon emissions really is necessary to slow the trend. The more the actual climate changes, the more the political climate seems to stay the same.
Mark Waltermire squints in the winter sunlight, craning his neck to take in the view from his vegetable farm in Hotchkiss, Colo. He jabs his finger toward a mesa: “There,” he says. “And up in there.” Palm to the sky, he makes a sweeping gesture, encompassing the flat-bottomed valley, the staggered mesas; the patchwork of ranches and farms, houses and towns, public and private land, all dead grass and mud after a midwinter thaw.
Waltermire is showing me a handful of the 30,000 acres that the Bureau of Land Management planned to auction off to oil and gas companies here in western Colorado’s North Fork Valley in 2012. He represents the Valley Organic Growers Association in a larger group that opposed the leases and has thus far been successful in convincing the BLM to defer drilling permits. Not only that, but for the first time in recent history, the BLM has voluntarily agreed to consider a proposal written by residents of a small, rural community as a viable alternative to a regional resource management plan.
Like many of Colorado’s public land offices, the Uncompahgre BLM – which oversees 3.1 million acres of western Colorado, including those surrounding the North Fork towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford – hasn’t rewritten its resource management plan in decades. Resource plans guide all aspects of land and mineral management, and updating them is expensive and time-consuming, says state BLM spokesman Steven Hall. For a while, the attitude was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But as Colorado’s energy boom took hold over the last decade, drawing more oil and gas companies to public lands, it became clear that policies written in the 1980s were ill-equipped to govern today’s landscape of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. New technologies have brought drilling to places that land planners of yore never anticipated.
Over the last six years, Colorado has been on “an ambitious planning spree”; 70 percent of it’s 8.3 million acres of BLM lands have been or are in the process of having their resource management plans rewritten, Hall says. “It’s been a tremendous workload for the BLM, and for advocacy groups that follow these (issues).”
The changes rarely come easily. In Grand Junction to the north and Tres Rios to the south, roadless wilderness proponents and motorized users have been sparring for years over new transportation guidelines included in the plans, and oil and gas leases have proven equally controversial. Middle ground has been hard to find.
Here in the North Fork, the Uncompahgre BLM was already in the midst of updating its 1989 resource management plan when the first oil and gas leases were proposed. There was some support for drilling: “If it’s not in my backyard, whose is it gonna be in?” one resident asked. But others were horrified to learn that the parcels abutted schools, irrigation ditches and municipal water supplies. They hoped the revised resource management plan would, as HCN editor Sarah Gilman wrote, “take into account major advances in drilling technology as well as changes to the local area’s economy, demographics and environment, in ways the (old) plan and a smaller scale environmental study covering the leasing proposal (could) not. That, in turn, would ideally mean a clearer balance struck between energy development and other interests.”
But early drafts didn’t satisfy residents’ fracking-related concerns. So they wrote their own – a 103-page alternative that would affect only a fraction of the overall Uncompahgre plan. Its main focus is to keep drilling far from schools, communities and watersheds, and help preserve the rural character of a place where organic farms and vineyards now supplement an economy once based mostly on coal mining and ranching. Surprisingly, in December, the BLM agreed to include the “North Fork Alternative” in its next resource management draft, to be released this summer. That'll be followed by a 90-day comment period and then, barring litigation, a final plan. For many locals, the process has thus far been a huge success.
"What's happening in the North Fork is somewhat historic," says Pete Kolbenschlag, a Paonia-based environmental consultant who worked on the plan. An Uncompahgre BLM representative was reluctant to discuss with me the agency's reasons for including the North Fork Alternative, but Kolbenschlag and others speculate that it may have stemmed from a legal battle that unfolded 100 miles to the north, on the biologically rich Roan Plateau. There, the BLM approved a plan allowing oil and natural gas development without including a proposal written by conservationists and Garfield County citizens that would have limited drilling to the plateau’s edges. In 2012, a U.S. district judge ruled that BLM was wrong and needed to reconsider.
Though it was a forced victory, some western Colorado environmentalists are hopeful that it may nonetheless be indicative of an agency that’s becoming more willing to balance community values, conservation and recreation with mineral extraction.
Mark Waltermire is skeptical, but he’s nonetheless happy that for now, at least, his view from Thistle Whistle farm will remain much the same – and his high-end customers in Boulder will continue to want his produce, untainted by fracking.
“My markets depend on the reputation of my food,” he says. “I just can’t see the future of this valley being in extractive industries.”
Krista Langlois is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets @KristaLanglois2. Photos by the author.
Climate change has always picked winners and losers from the animal world. Some, like unbearably cute, mountain-dwelling pikas are already retreating from lower, warmer elevations in places like Yosemite National Park, and heading for cooler heights.
Beyond existing research on how climate change is responsible for certain species, like pikas or polar bears, shifting elevation, latitudes, or just disappearing from some locations, scientists have yet to find the larger patterns that explain how and why climate change impacts some animals and not others. But a new study of North American mammals, many of them from Western mountains has discerned that smaller mammals, like mice and voles, and those with flexible activity schedules, are much less likely to be affected by climate change than larger ones like elk, caribou and even pikas.
This is good news for diminutive critters, but bad news for many of the charismatic species that people adore. However, this new understanding of which American mammals are most impacted by climate change, and why, could help set conservation priorities – and perhaps make climate more tangible to people who want to see their favorite creatures succeed.
John Entsminger has his work cut out for him, to put it mildly. He will soon be responsible for keeping Las Vegas and its associated sprawl from drying up and evaporating back into the desert. Current Southern Nevada Water Authority director Pat Mulroy, notorious throughout the West for her water-grabbing ways, hand-picked Entsminger to be her successor upon her February retirement after two decades at the Water Authority’s helm.
When Mulroy became the first director of the Water Authority — a coalition of seven local water districts — in 1991, she quickly became known for her tenacity, particularly in going after water in other parts of the state. She spent millions on ranches for the water rights, and millions more in an attempt to pump groundwater from the rural eastern part of the state and pipe it to Vegas in order to shore up existing water supplies, 90 percent of which came and still come from the Colorado River. But as drought gripped the region, even Mulroy turned to conservation. I go in-depth into those efforts and more in The Vegas Paradox, featured in HCN’s urban sustainability issue. (Read it now!)
While Mulroy had her challenges, Entsminger’s are certainly more daunting. Drought has gripped the Colorado River for 14 years (Mulroy took the reins of the Water Authority on the heels of a particularly abundant water decade on the Colorado). The gargantuan effort to build a third water intake in Lake Mead — to replace the first intake, which will soon be marooned above low water — has been plagued with problems, danger, delays and mind-boggling expense. Both population growth and construction seem to be resuming in Vegas after a pause for the recession, even as Vegas, itself, is under a severely warm, dry spell: Only 2.96 inches of precipitation for all of 2013 amidst record-setting heat that killed 41 people. And a federal judge recently dealt a serious blow to the “Pat’s Pipeline” groundwater pumping project, delaying and possibly diminishing and maybe even killing Vegas’ main hope for a backup plan when the Colorado River gets too low to slake the region’s growing thirst.
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Last summer, the excavation of some of the world’s richest mineral deposits – and the degradation of some of the world's richest salmon habitat – seemed well within the grasp of global mining interests. But with the release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited environmental assessment on Jan. 15, the development of Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay slipped just a little bit further from reach – the latest and perhaps most significant in a series of defeats for the embattled project.
The EPA assessment confirms Pebble’s potential to severely damage salmon runs, using stronger language than previous drafts (“could” has turned to “would”) and describing in detail the acidic waste that could leach into watersheds even under routine operation. The report is also turning the tide of political opinion. "Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told the Anchorage Daily News after reviewing the report. Begich, a Democrat, is the first member of Alaska's congressional delegation to publicly take a stand against Pebble Mine, though previous politicians have also opposed it. Former Gov. Tony Knowles called it “terrifying.”
Despite its gargantuan size – the mine itself would consume up to 94 miles of stream and 5,350 acres of wetlands, with an additional 64 streams affected by road building, the EPA found – Pebble has come to represent more than just a fight for one place or one ecosystem. Even people who have never stood on the banks of a river teeming with salmon are deeply invested in this corner of Alaska as a symbol of wildness, a vestige of the ecological and cultural riches that were once bountiful across North America. As HCN senior editor Ray Ring wrote after visiting Bristol Bay last summer, "the restoration efforts I'd reported on (in the American West) were kind of desperate, almost pathetic" in comparison: "The Lower 48 will never regain the kind of wildness that survives in Alaska."
Perhaps some backstory would be helpful. From the 1970s until 2005, Alaska managed most of Bristol Bay as key salmon habitat. Then protections were rolled back, and mining companies discovered more than 55 billion pounds of copper, 3.3 billion pounds of molybdenum and 67 million ounces of gold beneath the headwaters of the Kvichak and Nushagak rivers – a net worth of $300 billion ripe for the taking. A consortium of mining interests from around the world joined financial forces to form the Pebble Partnership, promoting their vision of digging North America’s largest open-pit mine – the kind of project that could create jobs, boost the economy and expand U.S. copper production by 20 percent, reducing dependence on volatile foreign markets.
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Imagine, if you will, that you’re a Kittlitz’s Murrelet – a tiny seabird, feathered in salt-and-pepper. It’s summer, or what passes for summer in a field of Alaskan glaciers, and you’re relaxing in the lap of luxury: Kenai Fjords National Park, where nobody can shoot you, set their dog after you, or lay a finger on your habitat. You’re living large, or as large as an eight-ounce bird can live.
Then winter hits. Reluctantly you depart Kenai and fly west, to the Bering Sea. Your existence takes a sudden turn for the perilous. Gillnets threaten to snag you as bycatch; giant cargo ships steam across your flight path. You live in perpetual fear of oil spills, like the slick that killed hundreds of your cousins back in 1989. Yikes, you think to yourself. Migration is terrifying.
Okay. Stop being a bird. Now you’re a biologist at Kenai Fjords National Park, and you’re worried sick about why your murrelets have declined by more than 80 percent since 1976. They’re doing just fine inside the park’s borders, but every year fewer return to nest on Kenai’s scree fields. You know something is killing them, but the problem lies far beyond your jurisdiction, so forget about being able to help. You’re just responsible for Kenai Fjords.
For scientists concerned about migratory species like the murrelet, the conservation challenge is simple in definition, complex in resolution: Animals move. Parks don’t.
“If you’re managing a park and you’re trying to protect its biodiversity, you have to start thinking outside your park’s borders,” says Steve Cain, senior wildlife biologist at Grand Teton National Park.
That’s the thrust of a new analysis, published by a team of wildlife experts last week in the journal Conservation Biology, that identifies a fundamental problem facing park managers around the country: “The fragmented system of national parks is not sufficient to maintain migratory species or processes.” Park-based migrants not only traverse private property, they also pass through an alphabet soup of public lands – USFWS, BLM, USFS – where management strategies and threats may vary. Fortunately, the paper offers a blueprint for addressing that challenge – one that could substantially change how America’s best idea pursues its mission.
Among the paper’s strongest recommendations is for the “functional (not statutory) expansion of park boundaries” – expanding NPS’ influence without expanding its holdings. In practice, that means more cooperation with other agencies, land trusts and private landowners to secure conservation easements and protect adjacent areas. Under this new model, parks aren’t fortresses of biodiversity – as Elaine Lesline, Chief of the Biological Resource Management Division of NPS, puts it, parks must be “anchors for significant corridors” that span landscapes and are themselves managed by everyone from state governments to local conservation groups.
In a sense, it’s conservation for the austerity era. “I don’t know how much longer we’re going to see the top-down hammer of the government doing conservation,” says Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) senior scientist Joel Berger, the paper’s lead author. “If we don’t engage with private property, we have issues.”
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Dust has become a major concern for climatologists – and anyone who drinks water that comes from mountain runoff – in recent years. Yet while dust storms are cropping up in the eastern parts of the state this winter, the Colorado Dust-on-Snow Program (CODOS) on the Western Slope has yet to report any dust-on-snow events in 2014. In fact, there hasn’t been any dust recorded at a major study site at Red Mountain Pass in southwestern Colorado since September.
According to director Chris Landry, that's not too unusual about having no dust at CODOS thus far in 2014. And even if the recent drought conditions bring CODOS its first-ever January dust-on-snow event (that’s when dust blows onto snow and expedites melting), early season dust isn’t that problematic. When dust settles late in the season, say March, April, or May as is common, it has a bigger impact, since there's more snowpack to melt off.
Although dust on snow is becoming an increasingly stress-inducing topic for water managers, at least our winter snowpack is still not being dusted. Yet disaster could still strike this spring. It remains to be seen whether all the rain that fell late in 2013 will lead to more dust a few months from now. USGS geologist Harland Goldstein says that heavy rains – like Arizona's unseasonable late-November soakings – deposit sediment that, since it's unvegetated, can easily blow away.
Nestled in the western San Juan Mountains, the first major mountain system downwind of the Southwest's vast deserts, the CODOS program at the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies in Silverton is aptly placed to monitor warming, drought, precipitation and other processes that affect the whole region’s environment. As a general rule, no dust at CODOS means no dust in the rest of Colorado’s mountains.
Here's how it works: When dust collects on snow at the Senator Beck Basin near Silverton, Colo., CODOS takes samples and sends them to scientists at Goldstein’s USGS lab in Denver, who analyze its particle size, distribution and chemical makeup of the dust, combining the analysis with satellite imagery of blowing dust events to pinpoint the dust's origins.
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