In December 1960, the iconic Western author Wallace Stegner wrote a letter to a University of California, Berkeley researcher in support of what would become the Wilderness Act. Wilderness is important, he wrote, because it “was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it. It is good for us when we are young, because of the incomparable sanity it can bring briefly, as vacation and rest, into our insane lives. It is important to us when we are old simply because it is there – important, that is, simply as an idea.”
Stegner’s eloquent urging helped pass the Wilderness Act four years later. The act defines “wilderness” as an area 5,000 acres or more that retains its primeval character, provides opportunities for solitude and unconfined recreation, and where “man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” Since 1964, the feds have created more than 750 wilderness areas and designated over 100 million acres of federal land as wilderness (see here for more wilderness facts).
2014 will mark the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary. To get a sense of public perception of wilderness today, as well as current management challenges, HCN spoke with Dr. Troy Hall, professor and head of the department of conservation social sciences at University of Idaho. Hall spent 13 years as a wilderness ranger in Oregon while she pursued advanced degrees in anthropology and forest resources, focusing on management and visitor experience of wilderness. She’s currently helping Yosemite National Park assess how visitors are using its wilderness areas.
High Country News Tell us about the context in which the Wilderness Act was passed. What was going on in America at the time?
Troy Hall The automobile has taken off. We have big initiatives putting highways all over the country. We’ve got increasing population. We have affluence after the war. We have major extractive uses of forests, together with some big development projects like dams that really galvanized environmental activists. The writers of the Wilderness Act were concerned we’d lose these unique opportunities that were dependent on wild places.
HCN The Act seems difficult to manage for because it is a bit vague. How have land managers coped with that challenge?
TH The Wilderness Act says we should maintain wildernesses in an essentially pristine way, but that we should also manage them to be untrammeled, to be wild. Well, a lot of folks say those things are incompatible. Fire is a good example. We’ve been suppressing fires and people describe fuel accumulations as unnatural, so to “restore” (to natural conditions) requires active management. The one I wrestle with is solitude. In a really heavily used wilderness, you might say we are not providing opportunities for solitude. How can we do that? You could limit use like they do on (Idaho’s) Selway River, where they allow one launch a day. But that’s confining.
HCN You’ve extensively studied visitor attitudes towards crowding. How much does it bother people to see lots of other hikers in the wilderness?
TH People are really adaptable. Even where they run into a lot of people they often will say, “it was busy on the trail but when I got to a lake I could find a beautiful area where I was by myself.” We often hear people say, “sure, would I like it better if there were more solitude, but I don’t really want to accept the trade offs that would entail. I’d rather run into a few people than (have use limits or a permit lottery).”
HCN How does technology impact solitude and primitive and unconfined experiences provided for by the Wilderness Act?
TH It clearly reduces self-reliance and challenge. If you know that you can push a button on some device and somebody will come find you, that is a very different experience from hiking seven days where you told somebody the day you’re leaving and if you don’t show up we’ll start looking for you. But GPS also allows people to get to places where traditionally they haven’t gone. If you feel comfortable you can navigate by GPS to some remote meadow and spend a few days by yourself, potentially you could have more solitude.
HCN Here at HCN we’ve been thinking a lot about diversity and how to make national parks relevant to America’s growing minority populations. I assume wilderness areas face that same challenge?
TH The majority of people who visit wilderness tend to be upper-middle class, white, and male to a certain extent. But some of the national surveys that have been done suggest that wilderness and things like watershed protection, clean air and wildlife habitat are extremely well-supported across demographic groups in society. So even demographic groups that don’t visit wilderness tend to place very high value on it.
HCN What challenges do you see on the horizon for wilderness areas?
TH The challenges we face moving forward are on a different scale all together. What does climate change mean in terms of managing wilderness? What do you do when a major species drops out of the ecosystem? Should we allow that to happen? There are some huge challenges that can’t be dealt with on a wilderness-by-wilderness basis. We may need some fundamental re-thinking about the role of wildernesses in connecting different ecosystems.
Interview conducted and edited by HCN correspondent Emily Guerin. She Tweets at @guerinemily. Photo courtesy Troy Hall.
It came as a shock last spring, at least to me, when BrightSource Energy decided to suspend its Hidden Hills Solar project near Pahrump, Nev. For starters, I had a story going to press whose conclusions were somewhat tied to the looming specter of Hidden Hills, a large concentrating solar “power tower” project which would have occupied five square miles of the Mojave Desert just north of Death Valley National Park. Plus, I’d always had the impression that the Oakland, Calif.-based BrightSource subscribed to Winston Churchill’s apocryphal dictum for success: “Never, never, never give up.” But while the company's ambitions have weathered controversies over funding, cultural artifacts and desert tortoise, it appears they have finally met their match: Birds that die in the specific kind of facility BrightSource specializes in. And not simply by colliding with towers or mistaking shiny solar panels for water. They die by burning.
The problem figured prominently in public hearings over Hidden Hills, where researchers with the California Energy Commission described the bird-death problem in detail. That wasn't what derailed Hidden Hills, then-BrightSource spokesman Keely Wachs reassured the media; instead, the company just wanted to focus on a different project: A collaboration with Spanish developer Abengoa on a project in Riverside County, Calif., close to Southern California’s border with Arizona, called the Palen Electric Generating Station. Another developer, Solar Millennium, had won approval in 2009 to build a solar plant at the Riverside site, using parabolic solar trough technology — no towers, just long tubes of mirrors that heat water in tubes. After Solar Millennium went bankrupt, BrightSource and Abengoa took over, figuring that building Palen using BrightSource technology would only require an amendment to the prior application, allowing for the change to a new technology.
The changeover proved more difficult than predicted. Fearing that the Palen project would “very likely result in significant and unmitigable impacts to biological resources,” the California Energy Commission issued a decision to deny the amendment to the application December 13. The commission was particularly concerned with potential injuries to birds who might fly through the field of solar flux, the intense heat and energy field that forms around the particular kind of plant BrightSource builds, in which fields of supplicant mirrors reflect sunlight up to a 500-foot tower. The sun's concentrated radiant energy zaps birds in mid-air — while they're migrating, feeding, or just flying around.
The theoretical safe level of solar flux for birds is one minute of exposure at 5 kilowatts per square meter. In the skies above the Ivanpah Solar plant the Mojave on the California-Nevada border, solar flux near the tower is a hundred times higher than that. The facility has not gone into full operation — it's 99 percent complete and only partially online — and already dozens of birds have been found dead just in the the last few months. Some of the dead and injured are not species common to the Mojave; they may have been seduced by the illusion of water the mirrors present from the sky, and drawn into a death trap during migration.
A few weeks ago, High Country News contributing editor Craig Childs dropped me a note asking for some help with his annual winter solstice production, Dark Night. Would I write and read a series of poems about descending into darkness – specifically “death, ice, fear, what is inside the deep, blue, scarier crevasses of your mind” – and then wrap up with one that clawed its way back out into exuberance or revelation or some such?
It is the purpose of the show, after all, to nod to all the dark in the world on the darkest night of the year, even as performers call back the light by sharing stories, music and a big thrasher of a dance party.
In these first lightening days after solstice, then, this seems a fitting frame to apply to some of the year’s biggest Western environmental stories. And if you care about how the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate change, 2013 has been a dark year indeed. Advances in technologies like hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have cracked once troublesome shale formations and caused oil and natural gas production to surge, in the West drawing from big plays like North Dakota’s Bakken formation, Colorado’s Niobrara, the Permian Basin in New Mexico and Texas, and, coming down the pike, California’s Monterrey shale. According to the federal Energy Information Administration’s 2014 energy outlook, U.S. crude oil production will likely average 7.5 million barrels per day for 2013, the highest since 1991, and by 2016 will break 9.5 million barrels per day, nearing and later possibly slightly surpassing the U.S.’s all time peak production level, set in 1970. Meanwhile the EIA anticipates a 56 percent increase in natural gas production over 2012 levels by 2040.
That explosive growth led many energy experts to declare dead and irrelevant the theory of Peak Oil – the point where global oil production will max out and then steadily decline, necessitating the development of alternative fuels and approaches to transportation, now a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.
In some ways all of this is good news: The U.S. is cruising towards the holy grail of energy independence, oil patch communities have been a flamingly bright spot in our otherwise guttering economy, and, in theory, we no longer have to scramble to innovate in the face of apocalyptic scenarios involving the steep decline of our favorite drug, good old crude. Except these developments also further forestall urgently needed action to curb the emissions that are warming our planet – a much larger threat to our economy in the long run than a waning fossil fuel industry could ever be. And the U.S. is encouraging yet more drilling by steadily moving towards exporting its hydrocarbons, permitting liquid natural gas terminals and even considering lifting its moratorium on exporting domestic oil.
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.”