There are just four days left before the legislative year ends and Congress calls it good – or mediocre, as it may be – for 2013. This Congress passed the fewest number of laws since 1947, earning the unfortunate title of “least productive in history.” So it should come as no surprise that several major pieces of legislation are still hanging in the balance, in need of a miracle to make it to President Obama’s desk before we ring in the New Year.
Here are a few bills recently introduced, and some that have been kicking around for ages, that we’re paying particular attention to at High Country News.
For starters, the much-anticipated farm bill, originally created to help an agricultural industry reeling from the Great Depression, is nine weeks past deadline. The bill allocates some $97 billion in federal money each year, and as HCN has reported, has big implications for crop insurance, conservation programs and food security, among other things. There’s been renewed effort this week to defy partisan antics and get it passed. "Sometimes things take forever, but when all the gears notch up correctly, it can move at lightning speed," Congressman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., chairman of the farm bill conference committee, told reporters. If it’s still untouched in January 2014, food prices will likely rise as ag programs go unfunded.
The Grazing Improvement Act, introduced two years ago by Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., passed the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources in November. The law would extend grazing permits from the current 10 years to up to 20, and generally expedite the process for gaining permits to Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands. Proponents of the bill say that those two agencies “have consistently — for more than a decade — carried a backlog of grazing permit renewals due to overwhelming and unnecessary National Environmental Protection Agency assessments.” The Sierra Club and other environmental groups say the bill would exempt grazing allotments from environmental review. A similar bill, sponsored by Congressman Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, awaits action in the House.
In the dark of a far-north winter night, amidst 70-mph winds, the nine-member crew of the tugboat Alert released its towline and set the Kulluk oilrig adrift on heaving seas. Loaded with about 139,000 gallons of diesel and 12,000 gallons of combined lubrication oil and hydraulic fluid, the Kulluk ran aground off uninhabited Sitkalidak Island 45 minutes later. It was New Year’s Eve, 2012, and the Alert and the Aiviq, another boat contracted by Royal Dutch Shell, had been towing the Kulluk from Shell’s first exploratory well in the Beaufort Sea, off Alaska’s north coast, to a Seattle shipyard, when they were caught in the terrible Gulf of Alaska storm.
Fortunately the rig didn’t spill any fuel. But the accident was just the latest in a long line of mishaps that plagued Shell’s Arctic drilling efforts last year, reports Fuel Fix, leading the company to suspend its efforts for the 2013 season. Ships drifted out of control or caught fire; a spill containment barge was damaged during certification tests after months of construction delays; air pollution violations landed the company $1.1 million in Environmental Protection Agency fines this September.
The incidents have become a primary refrain for Arctic drilling opponents leading up to the close today of the public comment period for the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management’s 2016 Chukchi Sea lease sale, and to the Interior Department’s long-anticipated proposed offshore Arctic drilling rules, which were recently delayed until February. Canadian officials are also evaluating proposals to drill that country’s portion of the neighboring Beaufort Sea. And a group of jailed Greenpeace activists were released on bail last week after climbing onto an offshore drilling platform belonging to Russia’s state-run Gazprom in protest of that nation’s Arctic drilling program.
“We must discard the view that environmentalism means living around trees and that urbanites should always fight to preserve a city’s physical past. We must stop idolizing home ownership, which favors suburban tract homes over high-rise apartments, and stop romanticizing rural villages. We should eschew the simplistic view that better long-distance communication will reduce our desire and need to be near one another. Above all, we must free ourselves from our tendency to see cities as their buildings, and remember that the real city is made of flesh, not concrete.”
-- From Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser
The Beat Coffeehouse, in Downtown Las Vegas, feels a bit like a fishbowl. Whether the fish are inside the coffee shop or out on the sidewalk and streets depends, I suppose, on one’s perspective. But there’s little doubt that the big plate-glass windows divide two distinct cultures on this particular Monday morning. Scattered about at tables inside, a few men, each dressed as if he’s out of a GAP commercial, pound away on their Mac laptop keyboards; two twenty-something women yammer on about their Sex-and-the-City-esque weekends; and one fastidiously disheveled guy appears to be interviewing another for a job, replete with references to the latter’s LinkedIn profile. At the coffee counter, 39-year-old Tony Hsieh, the CEO of tremendously successful online retailer Zappos, stands in line in his usual uniform: Zappos t-shirt and jeans. His intensity can be felt halfway across the room.
Just inches away, on the other side of the glass, grizzled, deeply weathered men pass by, each with his own distinctive limp, looking straight off the pages of Richard Avedon’s In the American West; a 20-something man in a shiny suit, salmon-colored shirt, no tie, stumbles blearily out of the El Cortez hotel across the street, looking as if he has gone 12 rounds with a slot machine, an endless stream of well drinks, or both; families pass by as if lost, almost all of them with American-flag themed shirts (it’s Veteran’s Day). Nearly everyone passing by seems to be smoking cigarettes, either old-school or the new e-cigs, which look like miniature hookahs.
The deep contrast between these two scenes is transformation incarnate. The Downtown Las Vegas of the past — a place that increasingly seemed to be where the folks on the losing end of the craps tables ended up — is giving way to something that looks a little bit more like the scene in the coffee shop that Monday morning. While such transitions have occurred somewhat organically in other areas (think Williamsburg in Brooklyn or the Mission District in San Francisco) this one is being pushed along rather aggressively by both public and private entities. That includes Hsieh and his colleagues, who have put up $350 million to launch the Downtown Project, which describes itself as “a group of passionate people committed to helping transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world … by inspiring and empowering people to follow their passions to create a vibrant, connected urban core.”
That’s a tough row to hoe in any city, but in a Southwestern sprawler like Vegas, where passions tend to be of a baser kind, it’s a big task. Like so many other Downtowns, Vegas began its decline after World War II, as the car and suburbs took hold and people oozed outward into desert tract homes. The Strip, most of which lies not in Las Vegas proper but in unincorporated Clark County, sucked up much of Downtown’s former glory with its resort casinos so massive that each is essentially its own city. Downtown withered. Big casinos and even county buildings were left empty. Residents tended to be career panhandlers or the homeless. The streets were reportedly plagued with crime. (For an in-depth history, read this excellent series by the Las Vegas Review-Journal).
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It's always tempting to reflect on how wonderful the West used to be. You know what I mean: Conservationists and Natives lament that the first invasions by white settlers wrecked everything, and ranchers and loggers long for a return to the era before 750-page environmental-impact statements. Who among us hasn't conjured up wistful images of the good ol' days when the prairies played a symphony of native plants and wild bison herds plodding to the horizon, and the mountains sang out hymns of old-growth forest sanctums, hormone-disruptor-free streams, untrapped beaver and unshrunk glaciers?
One of my favorite images, evoked in histories of many Western places, portrays the original grasses in a wonderful way: The good ol' grass grew so tall, it brushed the stirrups of cross-country horse-riders. "Early American surveyors riding through the virgin tallgrass prairie found the grass stirrup high to their horses," says a typical account, from a federal Environmental Protection Agency report. Another, from The Elemental Prairie: Sixty Tallgrass Plants, describes a pioneer-era horse ride by Army officer and Western explorer Stephen Kearny: "It was virgin tallgrass prairie, and Kearny and his men rode stirrup-deep through young bluestem and flowers ..."
There are many accounts of stirrup-high native grass on the good ol' prairies, as well as in the good ol' mountain valleys, and even the good ol' Southwestern deserts. William O. Douglas, the only unabashed conservationist to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, got sentimental about stirrup-high grass in the good ol' Pacific Northwest. The image also appears in the definitive biography of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, in a description of the first white settlers in the good ol' "Hill Country" around Austin, Texas: "... when they saw the grass, they felt the journey had been worth it. 'Grass knee high!' one wrote home. 'Grass as high as my stirrups!' wrote another. The tall grass of the Hill Country stretched as far as the eye could see, covering valleys and hillsides ..." There's even a "cowboy prayer" describing the tallgrass as a heavenly experience we can enjoy once again after we die, "when we make that final ride to the country up there, where the grass grows lush and green and stirrup high ..."
Modern researchers occasionally conclude that a particular account of good ol' stirrup-high grass is a myth, but by and large, the remembrances are considered legitimate. The remembrances are also melancholy, as the native tallgrass that once covered more than 100 million acres in this country has been almost completely wiped out by sodbusting for farming and other developments, as is shown by this Nature Conservancy map of some of the remnants of untilled prairie (the dark green areas hadn't been tilled by 2003, yellow areas had been sodbusted):
I'm writing about this now, not only as a sentimental remembrance, but also to point out a new scientific discovery. A team of researchers led by the University of Colorado-Boulder has found that the good ol' tallgrass apparently owed its existence to something very subtle -- "the diverse assortment of microbes that thrived in the dark, rich soils beneath the grass," especially "a poorly understood phylum of bacteria, Verrucomicrobia."
Last month, two Utah Boy Scout leaders inadvertently became internet sensations after posting a video of themselves toppling one of the ancient rock formations that gives Goblin Valley State Park its name, then laughing and high-fiving each other. The men, David Hall and Glenn Taylor, said they acted out of concern for public safety, but many of the 4.5 million people who caught a glimpse of their glee on YouTube didn’t buy it. An outcry ensued, and the men were demoted from their leadership roles in the Boy Scouts.
As of this week, however, charges still hadn’t been pressed, because although defacing federal monuments is a federal offense, applicable state laws in Utah are aimed at the destruction of man-made property that can be assigned a financial value, Utah State Parks Director Fred Hayes told the Salt Lake Tribune. Now, in direct response to the goblin-topplers, state Rep. Dixon Pitcher, R-Ogden, is drafting new legislation that would impose stiff fines on people who damage Utah’s natural wonders. The proposed law could go into effect next year.
It’s the start of snow season, which means that everyone who cares about water is keeping an eye on the mountains, anticipating how long we’ll ride the wave of snowmelt into next summer. The runoff season is never as predictable as anyone would like, but in the last decade or so there’s been a new wild card that makes the snowpack’s bounty seem even more capricious – spring dust storms.
Southwest Colorado’s snowpack is the West’s hardest-hit when spring winds carrying tiny dust particles slam into the mountains. That cinnamon layer coating the snow means that it absorbs more of the sun’s radiation, heats up, and melts faster than clean snow (it’s the black t-shirt versus white t-shirt effect). As water managers in the Colorado Basin plan for the region’s impending water crunch, and more dust is blowing around the West, they are starting to realize that dust is a hydrological game-changer.
The Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, in Silverton, Colo., began tracking dust on snow in the San Juan Mountains in 2003, but dust has been worse in recent years, including 2013. In a recent study looking at the combined impact of climate warming and dust on the Upper Colorado River Basin's snowpack, researchers found that “extreme” dust years like 2009 and 2010 advance spring runoff timing by three weeks, compared to moderate dust years. That’s a total of six weeks earlier than runoff from clean snow.
That doesn’t bode well for water users or for ecosystems. Normally, snow doles out water gradually over the spring and early summer, but when dust spurs snow into early melt-out, that gives soils a head start on drying out in the summer and irrigators are more likely to end up water-short later in the season.
That result adds more detail to what earlier research has shown – that at least in the short term, dust has a bigger impact on the speed of mountain snow melt than increasing temperatures do. While the new study was based on a model covering the Upper Colorado River Basin, at a snow monitoring site on Red Mountain Pass near Telluride, dust from the 2009 and 2010 storms advanced melt by 50 and 43 days compared to a clean snowpack. “It’s as if somehow you had magically added two to four degrees Celsius to the temperatures we experienced during those years,” says Chris Landry, the executive director of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies.
They’re all public lands – and none of them can be reached by the public.
Western lands have long had a patchwork of owners: federal, state, local, tribal and private. In the late 1800s, the federal government gave railroad companies every other square mile along rail corridors, creating a public-private checkerboard. But because it’s illegal to even step across a corner from one public parcel to another, many of those pieces of land remain inaccessible. Others are marooned in a sea of private property with no right of way. Some landowners even illegally close public roads across their holdings.
In the Rocky Mountain West, more than 4 million acres of federal public land are effectively off-limits, because there’s no permanent, legal way to access them. The nonpartisan Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based group focusing on public-land protection, recently used GIS mapping to quantify such “shuttered” lands, mostly managed by the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. Their analysis, which the Center describes as "conservative," came up with the acreage figures shown in the map.
Federal land managers often can’t get access to those parcels either, as the Bozeman Daily Chronicle notes. So those lands effectively become part of the private domain of adjoining landowners.
“We have no authority over private land, so unless we have permission, we cannot access that,” BLM spokesman Brad Purdy said. “These little pieces are not only difficult for the public to access but they’re difficult for us to manage.”
But private-property rights advocates defend the ability of landowners to close roads across their property. Reports the Great Falls Tribune:
PERC President Anderson, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, says a well-organized effort is underway by access groups that believe public access to public and even private resources is “somehow a God-given, Constitution-given, somehow-given right.” In his view, the public and public agencies are becoming more aggressive in seeking public access through private property.
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Like many of the historic mountain towns in Colorado, most of the mining that goes on in Ouray these days is of tourists, not ore. In between high alpine jeep tours and ice climbing, visitors can get a glimpse of Ouray’s romanticized mining heritage by dining at the Goldbelt Bar & Grill and the Silver Nugget Café, taking the Bachelor Syracuse gold mine tour and panning lesson, and retiring to a 1890s-era Victorian hotel. In the mountains outside of town, the last of the mines that built this picturesque pocket-sized town have been dormant since the 1980s, when the price of gold took a huge plunge.
But the high silver and gold prices of recent years have piqued the interests of investors, who believe profitable amounts of minerals still lie deep within the mines, or in the discarded tailings piles that dot the hillsides. As mining returns to Ouray, so do the risks that accompany it.
On November 17, two miners died from carbon monoxide poisoning inside the Revenue-Virginius silver mine, which was purchased by new owners Star Mine Operations in late 2011 and re-opened in February. A team of miners tried to rescue them, but were forced to turn back to avoid succumbing to high levels of the colorless, odorless deadly gas. It’s not clear who’s at fault for the fatalities, but a preliminary Mine Safety and Health Administration report found that the miners died in an area where an explosion had recently been detonated.
The tragedy has hit hard in Ouray County, population 4,500, where many residents and business owners were excited about the return of the mining industry. “Tourism is a seasonal economy at best; the return of mining is a good thing all around for everyone, and it also will be fun,” David Houtz, a jeweler from nearby Ridgway, told The Montrose Monitor in February.
That positive sentiment remains (perhaps minus the fun part), even after Sunday’s accident, when Robert Stoufer, owner of Ouray’s Buckskin Booksellers and a member of an economic development group, told The Denver Post, “mine is not a four-letter word here.”
The Revenue-Virginius’s safety record has come under scrutiny since then. In August, The Watch reported that work at the mine was progressing “feverishly, with three shifts of miners working 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and surface workers putting in 10-hour days, five days a week.” The silver mine has an accident rate 115 percent above the national average, according to The Watch, although none of the accidents were very serious and included things like debris falling into a worker’s eye or an employee cutting his hand on a utility knife.
Still, says Ellen Smith, managing editor of Mine Safety and Health News, the elevated rate suggests miners were rushing, and perhaps being careless. “Those little things start to add up and you have to say, ‘stop and slow down.’ You’re not being mindful as you work,” she said. “And if you want to work safely, you have to be mindful.”
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Last week, California regulators proposed new rules to oversee hydraulic fracturing across the state, and depending on whom you ask, they are either a move toward stronger oversight of the extraction of the state’s oil reserves, or a thinly veiled capitulation to industry.
The regulations come as a result of SB 4, which was introduced by Democratic state senator from southern California Fran Pavley, and that became law in September. SB 4 is the state’s first attempt at statewide regulation of the controversial extraction technique, in which water and other chemicals are injected underground at high pressure to shatter hydrocarbon-bearing formations to release oil or gas. According to the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the technique has been used in the state for decades. Yet, until now, fracking has received hardly a glance from state regulators. A 2012 report from the Environmental Working Group found that by the mid-1990s more than 600 wells had been fracked in a single California oil field – in spite of the insistence of state regulators that the process was “occasionally used for a brief period.”
The draft regulations proposed under SB 4 are the culmination of a long and contentious process and come amid efforts in other Western states to more carefully regulate or ban fracking. As HCN reported earlier this week, several cities along Colorado’s Front Range have banned the practice, and Wyoming recently introduced rules to monitor groundwater impacts of oil and gas development.
The California rules would require neighborhood notification, a groundwater monitoring plan that would “prioritize monitoring of groundwater that is or has the potential to be a source of drinking water,” and public disclosure of the cocktails of chemicals used in fracking operations. The new law also stipulates that oil companies must report any earthquakes caused during drilling and disclose the amount of water to be used in the stimulation of each new well, where that water will come from and how it will be disposed of. (Currently, the state does not require oil companies to disclose this information.)
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In today’s edition of the HCN Death and Disease Report: The emerald ash borer, a half-inch long, iridescent green beetle that’s decimated Eastern and Midwestern hardwood forests, has touched down in the West for the first time. Foresters in Boulder County, Colo., noticed a “suspect tree” on Sept. 23, and now it’s official: the emerald ash borer has joined spotted knapweed and zebra mussels among the state’s least-welcome visitors, right up there with people who stop dead in traffic at the sight of an elk.
Experts say it’s only a matter of time before the pest, which is native to Asia, continues to spread westward, threatening native trees and urban forests alike.
The emerald ash borer was first discovered in Michigan in 2002. By 2011, it had spread to 15 states, mostly through the transportation of infected firewood. Today, it’s reached 22 states and two Canadian provinces, and more than 50 million ash trees have been killed by the larvae, which feed on the inner bark, disrupting the tree's ability to transport water and nutrients. Regular applications of insecticides can help, but only if the infestation is caught early. Most trees simply die.
Colorado marks the farthest West the emerald ash borer has yet been detected, and though the state Department of Agriculture is taking steps to quarantine Boulder County, a friend of mine who works full time battling invasive beetles back East told me, simply, that the emerald ash borer “can’t be stopped.”