Ten years ago, Jennafer Yellowhorse picked up an out-of-print archeology book titled A View from Black Mesa and read about a vast trove of artifacts unearthed on a lonesome plateau of Navajo land near the Four Corners. “Right in my backyard,” as she says, “but I’d never heard of it; no one had. So I started asking questions.”
Her questions would lead to the heart of the Southwest’s energy infrastructure and the largest archeology project ever conducted on U.S. soil.
In 1967 Peabody Energy needed to clear land it was leasing on the Navajo reservation to strip mine coal, but ancient Indian dwellings and graves were in the way. So, as required by law, it hired a team of archeologists and they dug up roughly 1.3 million Navajo, Hopi and ancient Anasazi artifacts – including the remains of 200 Native Americans – which have been warehoused at two universities ever since.
The warehousing of human remains is a particular affront to many Navajos and Hopis, who believe the spirits of their ancestors cannot rest until their bones are properly buried. "Digging them up was a violation of natural laws. They were never meant to be in a museum,” Norris Nez, a Navajo medicine man, said through a translator.
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In 1881, a Brulé Lakota man in South Dakota who shot and killed another member of his tribe was sentenced to death by federal officials who thought the tribal punishment of eight horses, $600 and a blanket was too lenient. The case set a precedent that certain crimes committed on tribal lands are to be tried in federal, rather than state or local, courts.
One hundred and thirty years later, on the same reservation, 17-year-old Bryan Boneshirt, a Rosebud Sioux, pleaded guilty to homicide for beating and strangling MarQuita Walking Eagle. State courts are prohibited from sentencing juveniles to life in prison without parole, but because cases for certain crimes involving Native Americans on reservations go straight into the federal system, which has no such restrictions, Boneshirt was tried as an adult and sentenced to a 48-year sentence without parole. He’ll likely spend the rest of his life in jail.
Boneshirt’s crime was heinous, says Troy Eid, chairman of the national Indian Law and Order Commission, a non-partisan advisory group. Yet if the same crime had been committed off-reservation, say by a teenager in Denver, the defendant would have been tried in district or state court and received a significantly shorter sentence, even if he was tried as an adult. The fact that Boneshirt was subject to a different, harsher set of laws simply because he lived on a reservation is indicative of the “extraordinary dysfunction” of Native American criminal justice, Eid adds.
In a groundbreaking 324-page report on tribal safety released last month, Eid and his eight co-commissioners found that Native American juveniles serve sentences roughly twice as long as those served by any other racial or ethnic group, and that two-thirds of all juveniles serving time in federal prisons are Native. “It’s extraordinary,” says Eid, a law professor and private attorney. “(Current laws) create a systemic inequity that’s absolutely appalling.”
The good news is that system can be fixed through a combination of federal, state and tribal actions over the next ten years, say Eid and his co-authors. The 40 recommendations in the report, “Roadmap for Making Native America Safer,” include ways to revamp the juvenile justice system to cut recidivism, increase local jurisdiction and ultimately send fewer Native youth to federal prisons. The report also calls for reducing the gaps in public safety that may be at the root of many violent crimes in Native communities. Rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder among Native youth are roughly three times the national average, for example – about the same as those of veterans returning from wars in the Middle East. The judge who sentenced Boneshirt acknowledged that the teenager had been abused “since infancy” and suffered from fetal alcohol syndrome.
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If an old-timer Denver wildcatter named James K. Munn has his way, there’s going to be an oil drilling boom in Escalante, Utah. Escalante’s a small town in the southern part of the state, placed right smack dab in the center of some of the most spectacular landscape in the West.
Naturally, many residents, especially those who moved here for the scenery and solitude, or who live off the tourists who come for that same scenery, are upset. They are aghast at the prospect of seismic thumper trucks rolling across the land, of brightly lit drill rigs piercing the night sky, of the tangle of roads and fleets of trucks that accompany a boom, of the potential impacts to air and water.
And just as naturally, others are excited. The old, ag-based economy has long been fading, and tourism – drawn mostly by the Escalante-Grand Staircase National Monument – is seasonal, the wages are low, and the whole thing can get shutdown overnight at the whims of a bunch of loonies in Washington. The economic benefits of an oil boom are well-known: An influx of high-wage jobs leads to increased upward mobility, a lot of contractors to fill hotel rooms and restaurants, a big boost to county property tax revenue, and state severance taxes, which will hopefully make their way back to the community and improve quality of life. If the oil holds out and prices stay high, it all adds up to long-term prosperity and a way to keep local kids from fleeing to make a living.
Or not. Last week, Montana-based non-profit Headwaters Economics released its study of 207 Western counties with high levels of oil and gas development. “Oil and gas activity can have a strong immediate positive impact on employment and income,” researchers concluded. “Our analysis, however, finds that when fossil fuel development plays a role in a local economy for a long period of time there are negative effects on per capita income, crime rates, and educational attainment.”
Headwaters’ study is unique, the organization says, because it is among the first to look at long-term impacts of oil and gas drilling – the study period is from 1980 to 2011 – rather than just focusing on boom or bust times.
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Dressed in long pants, long-sleeve shirts and closed-toed shoes, a team of researchers from Colorado Parks and Wildlife gathered in a sagebrush-grass meadow near Gunnison, Colo. this summer, each with a GPS in hand. Lining up 10 meters apart along the border of a virtual grid, they walked straight lines over a Gunnison’s prairie dog colony and dropped quarter-sized peanut butter cubes behind them. It was one of three Gunnisons colonies where the delectable cubes became just a treat for any animal that found them, but at another three, the cubes contained a vaccine against sylvatic plague, which has ravaged the West’s prairie dog populations.
This was the first year of a larger three-year study of the real-world effectiveness of the new Sylvatic Plague Vaccine (SPV), now being conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey and local partners across seven Western states. In the lab setting, the vaccine has effectively protected 90 percent of animals tested, and tests show that it lasts for at least nine months once ingested. Now it’s time to find out whether SVP works in the wild.
When plague was first introduced to the U.S. in the early 1900s, likely by rats that traveled on ships from Asia, it caused a human outbreak of disease and death in San Francisco. From there, the disease moved east, stopping mysteriously near the 100th meridian. In 2008, it started moving east again, showing up in South Dakota for the first time. Not many people have caught it -- the Centers for Disease Control reports an average of seven cases of human plague each year across the nation. But the disease has become one of the major reasons for the decline of all four of the country’s prairie dog species, including the federally protected Utah prairie dog and the Gunnison’s prairie dog, which was a candidate for federal protection until this fall. Prairie dogs have very low immunity to plague, and an outbreak can wipe out a colony. And even when there are no outbreaks happening, plague can exist at low levels in a population, causing a slower die-off.
Sylvatic plague also hits black-footed ferrets from two angles. Ferrets are susceptible to the plague bacteria too, but more importantly, when plague kills off a prairie dog colony, any ferrets living nearby lose their main food source. Plague has been one of the main obstacles to a successful recovery to the struggling ferrets, which were thought to be extinct twice in the past century. While SVP doesn’t work to protect ferrets against plague directly, by treating prairie dogs, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey say the work could help the ferrets reestablish as well.
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The recent cold snap has destroyed low temperature records in the West. In parts of Montana it hasn’t been this frigid since the ‘70s, grape growers in California have been anxious about their vines freezing, homeless shelters have been filling up, and in Oregon it's been so cold that even a geothermal bathing pool had to close. That’s right, it was too cold even for hot water.
Perhaps now you’re wondering: Why has it been so darned bone-chilling? The answer to that question has roots in the Arctic, and points to why people in the Lower 48 have a stake in the climate of the Far North.
The West’s recent Arctic stay-cation has come courtesy of the polar jet stream, whose high-altitude winds are responsible for many daily weather conditions. The jet stream often keeps cold air barricaded around Canada and Alaska, but in early December a lobe of the jet stream began dipping south from the Arctic, clearing the way for frigid air to spill into the Western U.S, and pushing warm air into the Arctic. If you imagine the jet stream as a racetrack of wind around the North Pole, lately its had an unusually big, loopy curve that dropped it into the southwest (for a general idea of what it looks like, see the cool NASA animation of the jet stream later in this story).
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As we reported in October, the first investigation of Arizona's Yarnell Hill Fire, in which 19 hotshots were killed this summer, drew extremely cautious conclusions. No "direct causes" of the accident were identified, no one was blamed. Policies and protocols, the report said, were not violated. It was almost strangely timid, leaving some to wonder: How could 19 young men have lost their lives if so few mistakes were made?
That report was commissioned by the Arizona State Forestry Division, the agency that oversaw the firefighting effort on Yarnell Hill. Now, a separate investigation, this one from the Arizona Division of Occupational Health and Safety, has been completed -- and it reached much more damning conclusions. The Associated Press calls it a "stinging rebuke" of the first investigation.
Worst of all, it bluntly concluded that protection of "non-defensible structures" -- houses that didn't have adequate clearings around them to allow firefighters to safely fight encroaching flames -- was prioritized above firefighter safety. Firefighters should have been told to stand down before the storm arrived that blew the fire up, lead investigator Marshall Krotenberg told the Arizona Industrial Commission, which administers and enforces worker safety laws. "The storm was anticipated, it was forecasted, everybody knew it," Krotenberg said, according to the AP. "But there was no plan to move people out of the way."
Protecting private properties -- often ones built hazardously close to thick forests, and with poorly cleared buffer zones or none at all -- is increasingly part of wildland firefighters' job description. According to a recent Arizona Republic investigation:
Often, communities don’t get the “defensible space” religion until after a disaster, opting to enjoy the thick greenery and overlook its dangers.
When the U.S. Bureau of Land Management offered to help Yarnell-area residents clear chaparral from their properties last year, only four stepped forward, according to Jack Rauh, who helped found the Peeples Valley Fire Department and worked for years as a fire assessor, trying to convince people to clean up their land.
Last year, the Yarnell fire chief passed up a $15,000 grant for brush clearing, citing a lack of volunteers to do the work.
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Imagine taking a horse-drawn sleigh ride among an elk herd numbering in the thousands. At the National Elk Refuge, such an adventure is available to winter visitors from mid-December through early April. (These) rides are the most popular winter activity, allowing riders a unique wildlife viewing experience and an incredible opportunity for photography
That’s how the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website touts the National Elk Refuge outside Jackson, Wyo. Up to 7,000 elk spend winters on the refuge, munching alfalfa pellets and thrilling visitors, who come within yards of the majestic creatures during sleigh rides.
In four dozen other feedgrounds scattered across five Western states, roughly 32,000 elk get free winter rations, courtesy of taxpayers. But crowding that many ungulates into a relatively small area provides opportunities not only for amazing photos, but also for the spread of all sorts of diseases.
Conservationists have been warning of the danger for decades. Back in 1994, the Yellowstone Interagency Brucellosis Committee reported, “The evidence is overwhelming that winter feeding of elk has proven to perpetuate and enhance the spread of diseases, especially brucellosis. Once certain contagious diseases become endemic within a population of elk, bison, or other wildlife, they become very difficult, if not impossible, to eradicate.” A 2002 HCN story noted that, “Brucellosis (a disease that causes ungulates to abort) is virtually non-existent in Wyoming elk that have never used feedgrounds. In fact, the farther elk are from feedgrounds, the better their rate of calf survival.”
The coal train was one of the first things I noticed when I moved to Paonia, Colo., the hometown of High Country News. When it chugged through town, whistle blasting, my bedroom windows rattled like teeth in the cold. If I was on the phone, I would tell the person on the other line to hold on until it passed. I remember another recent transplant explaining her similar experience on our community Facebook page and asking the crowd if she would ever get used to the whistle blowing in the middle of the night. Yes, she was told, but just remember: that trainload of coal pays the bills for many people here in the valley.
Soon there may be fewer trains. One of our local coal mines (there are three in the valley) just laid off most of its nearly 300 miners after a fire and an underground roof collapse forced the company to abandon its longwall, a massive piece of equipment that can cost $50 million. Now, workers at another local mine are worried they could lose their jobs, too, if the Tennessee Valley Authority, the largest public power company in the country, doesn’t renew its coal contract, which expires at the end of the year.
TVA has been buying Colorado coal since the early 1990s, when the first President Bush amended the Clean Air Act to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants. To meet the new regulations, Eastern utilities like TVA, which formerly got a lot of its coal from the Southeast, began substituting with Western coal, which is generally less sulfuric.
I have two daughters, ages 12 and 14. They’ve lived in the Southwest for most of those years, and they’ve never seen the Grand Canyon. This, in my wife’s eyes at least, is a sin. My sin.
“Why don’t you take them if it’s so important?”
“Hey, you’re Mister Southwest guy. I took them to see the Mona Lisa. It’s your responsibility to show them the Grand Canyon.”
I have my own long list of Western places I have taken my kids, and I have my own high-minded, maybe even snobby reasons for leaving the crowded overlooks at the Grand Canyon off that list for 14 years. But I won’t bore you with that. It’s all just cheap justification anyway. I have deprived my children from seeing one of the wonders of the natural world, and I’m the worst parent ever.
For Thanksgiving this year, we headed south and west to California to visit my family-in-law and get a little bit of ocean time before winter’s harshness hit. The first night we made it to Flagstaff, and when we awoke in our hotel, three inches of snow covered the ground. As I choked down the watery coffee at the hotel breakfast, I heard one of the hotel staff telling another family about the different driving options to get to the Grand Canyon. There was a blinding flash of light and in it I saw redemption.
“On the way back home,” I announced, tracing our route on my tattered AAA Indian Country map, “we’re going to the Grand Canyon!” And thus, combined with my pledge to eat at as many frozen yogurt places as possible on this trip, I would regain the parental high road.
But first, we continued westward through a climatic menagerie. Just a few hours after seeing crunched and flipped cars along a slushy I-40 outside of Flagstaff, we saw big trucks towing jet skis down by Lake Havasu. As we sped through a stretch of vast desert under a moody sky south of Needles, my 14-year-old demanded we stop. She is a photographer, and the social media sites Tumblr and Instagram have a thing for open desert, especially if they are adorned by a ribbon of road stretching into infinity. Photographers on these sites are paid in “notes” or “likes” or “follows,” and measured in this currency, my daughter is about 600 times wealthier than I am, though I once had some success with a shot of a highway underpass.
Walking around amongst the ocotillo, their long fingers reaching into the cloudy sky, we found all kinds of surprising detritus to photograph: A door from a cabinet, an RC Cola can that my kids found fascinating (it had the 70s era flip top of my youth). We saw a flying saucer and found a shiny hubcap that, when launched into the wind, hovered in the strangely humid air for what seemed like forever. We saw a fence covered in old shoes. In Palm Desert it was 80 degrees, the morning’s snow a faded memory, and bougainvillea hung lasciviously from the stuccoed walls of gated communities.
To me, the sheer scale of California is both baffling and spectacular, whether it’s the freeways that fill up canyons and flow over hills as though they weren’t even there, or the avocado orchards clinging to hillsides; the vast beaten-down terrain of Pendleton Marine base, or the long line at the In-N-Out Burger somewhere on the northern edge of Los Angeles sprawl where I ate my first fast food burger in years, all smothered in American cheese, onions and some mystery sauce, not more than 15 feet from the I-405 off ramp. When traveling, one must adhere to local tradition.
In six lanes of traffic, traveling at ungodly speeds (my wife drove, of course) we passed through a bustling oilfield right in LA’s urban heart. We gazed upon a 340-ton boulder suspended over a concrete trench. We hiked through the Devil’s Punchbowl. We saw hundreds of wind turbines, a giant kinetic sculpture, glowing white on the Tehachapi Mountains, and inadvertently stumbled into Barstow and its outlet stores on Black Friday, only to see a consumer frenzy in the desert.
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The struggle to protect Browns Canyon, a rugged stretch of the Arkansas River in central Colorado, has been waxing and waning since the area was first studied for wilderness designation in the 1970s. Several attempts to create a new federal wilderness have been floated since then, and though they’ve come tantalizingly close, none have yet passed.
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., wants to change that. A former Outward Bound director, wilderness proponent and mountaineer (he’s climbed Denali, Aconcagua and 26,000 feet of Everest), Udall announced on Tuesday the culmination of a project he’s been working on for 18 months: a bill to create a brand new, 22,000-acre National Monument in Browns Canyon, including 10,500 acres of wilderness. After soliciting thousands of comments and holding several public meetings, Udall seems to have found a recipe for success – the support of local businesses, national monument designation (which offers more flexible management than pure wilderness), and unchanged access for hunters, ranchers, off-roaders and human-powered recreation such as rafting.
“There’s tremendous support on the ground,” says Matt Keller, the national monument campaign director for advocacy group The Wilderness Society. “Senator Udall and his staff have done a tremendous job listening to people’s concerns and addressing them.”
But noticeably absent from the discussion has been Rep. Doug Lamborn, the Republican who represents Chaffee County, where the Canyon is. Though he has yet to make an official statement, Lamborn’s spokesman told High Country News Wednesday that the Congressman does not support Udall’s bill, and still has “concerns over the lack of consensus … from certain residents.”