Last summer, I visited Rocky Mountain National Park for the first time and, to be frank, was a little disgusted. Not by the park itself – the mountains were beautiful, even if the beetle-kill and $20 backcountry permits were disheartening – but by the salt-water-taffy-munching, airbrushed-tee-shirt-wearing crowd glutting the park’s gateway community of Estes Park, Colo., turning it into a kind of Jersey Shore of the Rockies.
Yet by the estimation of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., Rocky Mountain National Park is one of our country’s “real treasures.” Alaska’s Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve and 133 other little-visited parks? Not so much.
Coburn’s determination of what constitutes a “real treasure” stems from his calculation of how much federal money is spent on each park visitor, leading to the conclusion that less popular parks, like Yukon-Charley, drain taxpayer resources and siphon money away from pressing maintenance at world-famous destinations like the Grand Canyon. Coburn’s report of wasted money and “misplaced priorities” in the Park Service, released last fall, laid out a kind of national-park popularity contest in which the only good ones are those making the most money. It also outlined ways to increase profitability, such as by raising senior citizens’ fees.
Yet two reports released this week by the Interior Department suggest that all parks are economic drivers, even the less popular ones. The first report, a breakdown of the economic impact of national parks in 2012, found that visitor numbers were up by 3.9 million from the previous year, to a total of 282.8 million. Visitors spent $14.7 billion in gateway communities like Estes Park, and supported 243,000 jobs – mostly in hotels, restaurants and bars.
Perhaps more striking, though, is what happens without national parks, as illustrated by the second report’s evaluation of last fall’s government shutdown. Roughly 7.88 million people were turned away during the 16-day period when the country’s 401 parks and historical sites barricaded their entrances, resulting in a $414 million loss in tourist spending.
During a symposium on natural resources and sustainability last Friday at University of Colorado, Boulder, law professor Charles Wilkinson took a look at a group of panelists that included two former secretaries of Interior, and in a moment of appreciation for their service, declared them “Western royalty.”
No one said anything particularly groundbreaking at the event. There was talk about how there should be policies to incentivize mining, oil and gas companies to innovate toward environmentally sustainable strategies, for instance, but not a lot of new ideas about exactly how to do that. Still, it was far from boring. Here are three things I learned in 10 hours last Friday (plus some extra research):
The seed of what we now call sustainability started the Civil War, took root in 1905, and blossomed in 1982.
To help put the “sustainability challenge” in perspective, two professors recapped the idea’s history – a rivetingly nerdy tale for anyone invested in ongoing issues surrounding things like forest management and sustainable agriculture.
It was Edmund Ruffin, farmer and political rabble-rouser who fired the first shot in Charleston, S.C. in 1861 that helped set the stage for the Civil War. After finding that the previous century of tobacco had depleted the ground of nutrients on his property and that of many others, Ruffin began regularly publishing studies on soil in his home region. And fed up with what associate history professor Paul Sutter described as a “pattern of impermanence” in land use, he became one of the United States’ first agricultural reformists.
The man credited as the forefather of today’s sustainability movements, the inaugural U.S. Forest Service chief, Gifford Pinchot, may never have used the word sustainability, but it’s what he meant. Following the creation of the service in 1905, the Connecticut native vastly increased acreage of national forests and instituted practical steps toward the philosophy of “greatest good for the greatest number” in the long-term. By the time he was fired in 1910, Pinchot had begun to put our forests to use in a way that would help sustain for future generations many values and resources of the land, rather than just timber. This idea marked a break from the notion that national forests should consistently provide commercial product no matter the environmental cost.
Last week, Wilkinson pointed to efforts in the Yellowstone ecosystem to sustain the futures of bison, wolves, and the tourist economy as a contemporary example of Pinchot’s philosophy.
According to the professors – and a Google algorithm that analyzes every word published in millions of books that are now digitized online – it was the 1982 United Nations World Charter for Nature that marked the beginning of the use of the term “sustainability” as we know it today. Gro Harlem Brundtland, the Norwegian prime minister central to a global environmental movement in the early ’80s, launched the concept with her groundbreaking 1987 report, “Our Common Future.” In it she laid a framework for long-term strategies for sustainable development, including everything from establishing national family planning policies to keep population growth under control to including, rather than ignoring, the economic consequence of forest degradation when measuring timber profits.
Sutter called this movement “sustainability synthesis, which combined environment and development strands that had been somewhat at odds before that.”
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For the third time in less than two years, I’ve been perusing the classifieds for a place for my family to rent in Durango, Colo., the town in which I grew up. Each time the pickings get slimmer, the prices get higher, and the process gets more agonizing.
We’ve been driven to this masochistic ritual because this home — like the last rental we lived in — is going on the market. Given the exorbitant amount of money they are asking for the home, we shouldn’t have to worry about it selling anytime soon, so should feel secure here. If, that is, we lived in a rational real estate universe. Durango, like so much of the West, is not a rational real estate universe.
I suppose we should feel lucky that we’re not in Williston, N.D., which made national news recently for having the highest average rent in the nation. An apartment in that little wind-blown town on the prairie can cost as much as one in San Francisco or New York and the artisan toast craze hasn’t even hit North Dakota. A 3 bedroom apartment in Williston can go for as much as $4,500 per month (granted, it’s furnished and all, but still). Bakkenrent.com offers luxurious, 250 square foot “two bedroom apartments” — which appear from the pictures to be particle board boxes wrapped in white plastic — for $2,195 per month. One of the bonuses of living here? “Alcohol consumption in moderation allowed.” “It’s the perfect housing solution for you and your workforce,” reads the ad.
And that workforce factor is key. Williston’s real estate market has gone zany thanks to relatively reasonable economic factors. There are a lot of jobs, thanks to the oil boom, and they pay well enough that even that $4,500 apartment is “affordable,” at least for the lucky family that can snag a couple of those jobs. When new jobs came to town and wages went up, so did rent. Makes sense.
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If there was a moment when the California drought fully entered the national media spotlight, it came earlier this month when President Obama swooped into California’s parched Central Valley and announced $200 million in federal emergency aid. The president’s visit came days after the announcement of a bill from California Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, which would provide $300 million in funds for water projects and also accelerate the approval process for water transfers from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta. Last Friday, Governor Jerry Brown announced $687 million in drought relief from the state.
For weeks leading up to the arrival of the president and relief funds, media reports had been painting a picture of a state being laid to waste by lack of precipitation. At the beginning of the month, the Department of Water Resources announced a zero percent allocation from the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta for the state's 29 public water agencies – a first in the century-long history of the state’s infrastructure that shuttles water from Northern to Southern California. And last week, the Bureau of Reclamation followed suit, declaring that no water would be coming from federal reservoirs and canals to the Central Valley. According to the California Department of Public Health, 17 communities statewide are at risk of running out of water altogether. Images of parched farms in the Central Valley and small towns in northern California with reservoirs reduced to mudflats have filled front pages of national papers and slots on nightly news broadcasts.
The trouble with the sudden rush of national media attention is the glaring lack of context that accompanies many reports.
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The Pacific fisher, a small, carnivorous forest-dwelling mammal, is a candidate for listing under the federal Endangered Species Act this year, and big wildfire could be to blame – or rather, the lack of it.
Ecologist Chad Hanson’s recent research on the fisher population of the southern Sierra Nevada shows that the animals – aptly described as “the love child of a ferret and a wolverine” – actually seek out post-fire habitat, especially areas that have burned at higher severity, where most of the trees are killed. In a 2013 study, the first to ever examine the relationship between fishers and fire, Hanson used dogs trained to detect Pacific fisher scat, tracking where they eat, sleep, raise their young and otherwise use forest habitat. He has yet to decipher exactly why fishers need post-fire habitat, but he suspects that the combination of downed logs, standing burned trees and natural regrowth create an ideal environment for the small mammals that fishers prey on.
The idea that there might be a wildfire deficit might seem odd in a time when the consensus among fire managers appears to be that we are experiencing increasingly frequent and more intense wildfire in the West. But a study released this month, co-authored by Hanson, says that contrary to commonly held belief, the majority of Western forests actually had more high-severity fires before fire suppression began 100 years ago than they do now. It seems ironic, then, that current Western forest management practice is based on the belief that only low- to moderate-severity fire was common before fire suppression, and that high-severity fire is a product of that suppression, exacerbated by climate change, and is largely damaging to wildlife and habitat. So high-severity fire – which burns 70 to 100 percent of woody vegetation and climbs from the ground to the treetops – is prevented as a matter of policy.
Let me start right off by saying that I failed. Miserably. Last summer I moved to western Colorado after spending most of my 29 years in exceptionally rainy places, and amid discussions of water rights and fights and rivers drying up and unraveling, I decided it would be a good idea to limit my own water footprint. For one week, I’d live on just five gallons of water a day. Then I’d write about it.
I could envision two possible endings:
Scenario One: While standing naked in the bathtub, smugly dribbling water over my head from a cup dipped in a bucket, I conclude that I must be in the 99th percentile of environmentally conscious Americans because living on five gallons a day requires little sacrifice. My houseplants thrive, I remain clean and good-natured, and the brilliant essay I planned to write suffers because it was too easy.
Scenario Two: One week into my experiment, I am ragged and filthy. My plants have withered and I've been shunned at work for peeing in a chamber pot under my desk. I am desperate for a hot shower, and when I finally turn on the faucet and step into the tub, I experience deep revelations that lead to a brilliant essay about limiting my water supply.
Scenario Three never made an appearance in my daydreams, but this is what really happened: It's Monday night – a mere three days after my resolution to live for a week on limited water – and I am sitting in bed freshly showered. I did not shower with a bucket. In other words, I didn't even make it to the end of the week.
For me, five gallons a day was a quirky experiment. For the 17 California communities on a list released last month by state health officials, it may become reality: As drought tightens its grip on the state, each community is at risk of running out of drinking water within 100 days. Officials are discussing trucking in water as a possible solution.
In one such place, a town of 1,200 called Lompico, water comes from underground aquifers replenished by rainwater. The problem is, there hasn’t been much rain lately: California received an average of just 7 inches in 2013, compared to their usual 22, and the Sierra Nevada snowpack that feeds many reservoirs is at 12 percent of normal. Lompico residents have been asked to cut their water usage by 30 percent, but as Water District Board president Lois Henry pointed out to the San Francisco Chronicle, “We live in the Santa Cruz Mountains. People don't have lawns. They don't have gardens. How are they going to conserve 30 percent?"
California isn’t the only state to face water shortages; residents of Magdalena, N.M., might be able to offer a few water-conserving suggestions. Last June, Magdalena’s sole well ran dry, and for several weeks Socorro County officials had to truck in water from the county seat, 30 miles away. For a while, families received two plastic water bottles and a five-gallon tank per day. The medical clinic shut its doors. Restaurants switched to disposable plates. Tourism effectively ceased, and some people living in rental properties packed their bags and moved on. It was like a glimpse into a drought-wracked dystopian future – or a not-so-distant future, if predictions that the California drought will persist for several months or longer prove accurate.
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With thick fur and snowshoe-like feet, wolverines are well-adapted to live in snow caves and run straight up mountains. Their high elevation lifestyles have helped them stay out of harm’s way in recent decades, and stage a slow comeback from the rampant carnivore persecution of the early 1900s. Though elusive and tenacious, they won’t be insulated from human impacts forever. They face a precarious future as climate change eats away at the snowpack they need.
That’s why the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing to add them to the endangered species list, even as a handful of wide-ranging wolverines are venturing into states where they haven’t been seen for generations. The agency was slated to make a listing decision earlier this month as part of a legal settlement with environmental groups. But reputable wolverine biologists have criticized the scientific underpinnings of the agency’s proposed listing decision, especially the parts related to snowpack. Now, the FWS is delaying the decision for another six months so they can reconvene with scientists about wolverine habitat and climate impacts to it.
If wolverines are listed, they will join polar bears in having the dubious distinction of receiving federal protection in the name of climate change. Even if that can’t do much to curb climate impacts, it would renew discussions about federal and state wildlife managers reintroducing experimental populations of wolverines in higher elevation refuges like Colorado, to help maximize their survival prospects in the U.S.
A listing will also send a strong message about the fragile future of mountain snowpack that so many people depend on for water. But the prospect of a decision based on climate models, rather than more traditional, tangible, threats is already attracting attention. As Bob Inman, a wolverine biologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Montana wrote in his peer review comments, “The magnitude of the precedent that this ruling establishes warrants careful scrutiny.”
The home of the West’s most pitched battles over oil and gas development is once more in the news for major energy policy reforms. On February 23, Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission voted in significantly stricter statewide rules governing air pollution from oil and gas development, including the nation’s first state-level controls on the industry’s emissions of methane – a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.
The rules, which officials will begin implementing this year, “require companies to detect leaks and fix them (and) install devices that capture 95 percent of emissions — both volatile organic compounds and methane,” reports Bruce Finley for the Denver Post. State officials estimate that they will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), which contribute to the formation of lung-damaging, smog-making ozone, by 92,000 tons, and methane, by tens of thousands of tons. The measures are part of the state’s efforts to bring the urban area’s air into compliance with federal health standards.
Air quality hasn’t been helped by a recent drilling revival, driven in part by advances in the oil and gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wherein a mix of water, sand and chemicals are fired into the ground to stimulate hydrocarbon production. With rigs moving closer to more communities, several have banned or otherwise voted to restrict the practice in hopes of avoiding accompanying air and water pollution, as well as public health impacts. A recent study in Environmental Health News has stoked those fears with the finding that women who live near gas wells in rural Colorado are more likely to have babies with congenital heart and neural tube birth defects.
With many enviros staking out hardline positions – calling for more local bans and even a statewide moratorium on fracking – the state, the industry and some environmental groups have been working to find common ground on how to lesson industry’s impacts. The new air quality rules are a good example, brokered as they were with the Environmental Defense Fund and the major energy companies Anadarko, Noble and EnCana.
Contrails feather out across the hard-blue February sky, and the unforgiving light of mid-morning accentuates the bright reds, oranges, and synthetic blues of the fake flowers at the foot of scattered headstones, mostly engraved with Hispanic names. A Virgen de Guadalupe statue, hands clasped together, miniature rosary and cross hanging from her neck, stares down at the dirt, sun-cracked and blemished by not one blade of grass or weed or leaf, as though this cemetery is both meticulously cared for and utterly ignored, all at once. A constant high roar, or perhaps a hiss, drowns out the sound of my camera’s shutter click, as I’m careful not only to get the shrine in the frame, but also the condenser towers, like giant robot phalli, looming frighteningly close.
Like nearly every other acre of the landscape in this swath of northwestern New Mexico, the St. Mary’s Cemetery has been inundated by the gas patch. Its graves butt up against a big fence, just behind which are the tangle of big pipes and cooling towers that are part of Conoco-Phillips’ San Juan Gas Plant, one of a handful of similar facilities in this neighborhood of beaten down trailers, modest homes and a houseboat beached inexplicably in a plot of sand next to an arroyo.
I look around furtively before shooting another photograph, just in case someone suspects me of being a terrorist scout, casing the joint for a future attack. If questioned, I’ll tell them I’m photographing small graveyards in the region for a cultural project. But what if I were to tell the truth? What would I tell them then?
That I’m looking for glimmering shards of beauty? Here? In the gas patch?
Few places are as imbued with the energy economy, and its detritus, as San Juan County, New Mexico. This is not a sudden boomtown like, say, Williston, N.D. It’s been in a chronic state of boom and bust since the 1920s, when oil was discovered nearby. Uranium mines and mills, coal mines and massive power plants and natural gas followed. Workers and wildcatters and corporations came in droves, drilling at least 40,000 holes in the earth over time, some as deep as 14,000 feet, causing the sleepy little farming town of Farmington to balloon into a bustling, sprawling mini-city. The county’s population jumped from 18,000 in 1950 to 53,000 a decade later; today it’s around 130,000.
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It’s an interesting moment for immigration reform in the United States. The very phrase has come to symbolize the failure of the Obama Administration to push much meaningful change through Congress, since the Senate bill to create a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented migrants floundered amongst GOP opposition last year. Perhaps it was the federal shutdown that threw reform off the rails. Or maybe Republicans just aren’t ready to stop shooting themselves in the foot by alienating one of the fastest growing minorities in the country.
Though politicians on both sides of the aisle are still demanding to see reform in 2014, it’s unclear how quickly the issue will make a serious comeback. But new data from the Transactional Records Access Clearing House, a research group at Syracuse University, show that an increasing number of unauthorized immigrants are beating deportation charges. Several hundred thousand undocumented people are deported yearly – 368,644 in fiscal year 2013 – for anything from running a stop sign or crossing the border illegally to committing a violent crime.
The rate of these deportation cases that ICE is losing is now higher than at any time in the last 20 years. As the Associated Press reports, over 78 percent of those facing deportation in Phoenix have won their cases this fiscal year, a marked change from 35 percent in fiscal year 2010. Since October 2013, immigration judges have seen 42,816 cases across the country, and allowed nearly 50 percent of those defendants to stay in the U.S. at least temporarily, up from just 24 percent five years ago. California and Oregon show some of the strongest shifts toward leniency. Utah is one of the few states to resist that change, with judges there still more likely to side with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in booting migrants out of the country.
So why has ICE been losing more cases? “We really don’t know,” says Susan Long, a statistician and sociologist with TRAC. “That would be a good question to ask ICE.” (At the time this story was published, ICE had not responded to requests for comment.) Long is wary of drawing conclusions about the reasons. because the trend could be caused by a variety of factors. But one thing’s for sure – she and other researchers were surprised by the numbers.
To begin with, Long had thought that the rate of deportation would have actually gone up thanks to a 2011 federal initiative. The push to close thousands of pending deportation cases in an effort to trim the massive backlog and prioritize immigrants who truly pose a threat to public safety, led Long to believe that the rate of immigrants able to fight off deportation would go down, not up. In other words, a more focused deportation strategy was supposed to result in fewer court cases but a higher rate of deportation for those that did in fact make it to court.