By Courtney White. Originally posted on NewWest.net, 4-28-2010
The apparent declining interest in the environment among Americans was much on my mind as I attended the 21st Annual Southern Plains conference in Lubbock, Texas, recently. Organized by the nonprofit Ogallala Commons, the event focused on a famous date in environmental history. No, it wasn’t the upcoming 40th anniversary of Earth Day, but the 75th anniversary of ‘Black Sunday’ – April 14th, 1935 – when a massive dust cloud arose from the Great Plains like a biblical vision and blew topsoil all the way to Washington, D.C., and out to sea.
It was the Dust Bowl, of course – a national calamity of epic proportions that still reverberates today. It was a ‘perfect’ storm of ecological and economic havoc. Massive tilling of prairie topsoil, abetted immensely by the introduction of diesel-powered tractors, followed by a series of unusually dry years in the early 1930s, followed by big winds put hundreds of millions of tons of fertile soil into the air. Nearly one-third of the human population left the area as a result, most never to return.
It wasn’t an act of God. The 1920s were a period of ‘irrational exuberance’ in the nation, characterized by rapid technological innovation, crazy speculation in real estate markets, a bull run on the stock market, distracted regulators, social excess, widespread consumerism, cheap products, fast deals, and an uncritical faith in Progress. On the land, this translated into the ‘big plow-up’ where nearly every acre of the Great Plains that could be planted to wheat or other grains was planted, whether there was a cloud in the sky or not. In their exuberance, farmers transformed a healthy, functioning prairie ecosystem – fabulous country for herbivores of all stripes – into a tilled-over wasteland. Then they prayed for rain.
Unfortunately, God lost his temper.
“The dust storms that swept across the southern plains in the 1930s,” wrote historian Donald Worster in his seminal book titled The Dust Bowl, “created the most severe environmental catastrophe in the entire history of the white man on this continent. In no other instance was there greater or more sustained damage to the American land, and there have been few times when so much tragedy was visited on its inhabitants. Not even the Depression was more devastating, economically. And in ecological terms we have nothing in the nation’s past, nothing even in the polluted present, that compares.”
Not yet – but it could be coming.
That was the message of the conference, and its keynote speaker, Dr. Worster. He said climate change is on its way to dwarfing the Dust Bowl of the 1930s by an order of magnitude. He noted that according to climate models, one of the worst ‘hot spots’ in the nation for drought sits directly atop the area of the previous Dust Bowl, which means we could lose America’s breadbasket, for good possibly.
That wasn’t all. According to Dr. Kevin Mulligan, a professor of Economics and Geography at Texas Tech, and another speaker at the event, serious trouble lurks underground. His sobering presentation focused on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is a vast underground reservoir of fresh water created over the span of millions of years and which has been drawn down dramatically in less than a century by irrigators up and down the southern Plains. Mulligan and his students have mapped the Aquifer extensively, discovering that not only is it shallower in places than people originally thought, it is also being drawn down (often at a rate of 800 gallons a minute) faster than anticipated.
In fact, they have determined that in many spots industry will run out of useable water (i.e., 30 feet of water or less) not by the end of the century, as predicted, but by 2030 – only 20 years from now.
“This will certainly mean the end of pivot irrigation in the region,” he announced calmly to the audience.
Of course, Dr. Mulligan’s maps, much like Dr. Worster’s history lessons and climatologists’ prognostications about global warming are disputed by Industry, dismissed by politicians, and ignored by an apathetic public. One local activist I spoke with said this about the future: “When they run out of water, the irrigators will simply leave, and we’ll have a different economy. Again.”
This, of course, is the pattern of New West economies – exploit a resource until it is nearly exhausted and then move on. It doesn’t matter if the resource is pelts, bison, gold, oil, trees, water, scenery, people, or climate – the desire to use until used up is powerful and terrifying. The trouble is we’re beginning to run out of exploitable stuff, such as ancient aquifers. The question now, I believe, is whether the next New West will be “moving on” to the next exploitable commodity, if one can be found, or something more enduring and resilient.
Courtney White is the executive director and co-founder of the Quivira Coalition and the author of Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West as well as countless articles and essays on the region. His Along the Frontier column runs on NewWest.Net twice a month. Read more from Courtney at his Web site, www.awestthatworks.com.
This week's featured reader photo is one of the entries to our current photo contest, The People of the West. You can enter your photos that capture the West's people to this contest until May 9, 2010. Check out our contests page for more information on this and other writing and photography contests celebrating HCN's 40th anniversary.
On a sunny day in late March 2010, a young wolverine known as F3 poked her head out of the mouth of a log-box research trap in Montana’s Absaroka Range, looked around, and then, in a blur of snow, surged off into the wilderness. Around her neck was a new GPS collar that we’d fastened in place two hours earlier, after determining - to our disappointment - that she hadn’t given birth this year. This device will download locations via satellite at two hour intervals until October 2010, when the collar will fall off and the information that it contains will become part of the sparse but growing collection of data on wolverines in the Lower 48.
The meaning of existing data on the wolverine is in question yet again as the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced on April 15th that it is undertaking a fourth review of the species’ status. A paucity of information has twice stymied attempts to list the wolverine under the Endangered Species Act, in 1994 and 2001. A third petition was turned down in 2008, despite the publication of a wolverine-focused edition of the Journal of Wildlife Management that essentially doubled the number of existing peer-reviewed articles on wolverines in the contiguous US. These papers hinted at genetic fragmentation, loss of habitat, and threats due to mortality, but the USFWS concluded that wolverines were not warranted for protection because the US population was not distinct from the Canadian population. The current review is in response to environmental advocacy groups’ lawsuit following the 2008 decision, which they allege was based on politics rather than science. Much of the information under review will be the same that was considered in 2008, but two substantial research articles have been added to the literature in the past six months.
Read More ...
Last month, shortly before we collared F3 and watched her disappear into the snow-draped forest, scientists linked wolverine distribution to persistent spring snow in a paper published in the Canadian Journal of Zoology. Female wolverines den in snow, and rely on snow caves to protect and insulate their kits until the babies are ready to emerge in late April or early May. The paper’s authors found that all of the world’s known den sites occur in areas with persistent spring snow, and that 95% of telemetry locations during the summer also occur within this range. Researchers writing in Ecology in November of 2009 take this connection one step further by modeling Rocky Mountain wolverines’ dispersal routes among their high altitude habitat islands and showing that the most efficient paths follow landscape features that also have persistent spring snow. These models conform to data on genetic distance among populations. Put simply, wolverines need snow not only to den, but to reach each other to breed in the first place.
We might be a little premature in posting this photo, in April, since it represents the Tetons in August. But it's such a lovely picture, and gives us something to look forward to: long summer days with beautiful views. It's great to live in the West. Add your photos to our Flickr pool; we pick one a week to feature on the Grange blog.
A few weeks ago the New Mexico Environmental Law Center’s media director, Juana Colon, suggested I should write a blog post about policymakers’ recent embrace of nuclear power as just a way to enrich the world’s economic elites while at the same time continuing to subject poor and minority communities to various kinds of radioactive pollution, and therefore continue to encourage wasteful energy consumption. Her words were actually a lot angrier and profanity-laced, largely because the office had been preoccupied with a series of preposterous pro-nuclear pieces of legislation during the state legislative session (Such as declaring nuclear power green energy [PDF] and seeking that it become part of the governor's clean energy efforts [PDF]) Adding to that, President Obama had also just announced his intention to increase the subsidies the public would lavish on the nuclear industry.
I’ve thought a lot about Juana’s suggestion and there are a lot of interesting aspects to the nuclear power puzzle that deserve some ink.
To begin with, there’s the issue of who benefits from increasing nuclear power generation. At every point along the nuclear fuel chain, the flow of money reinforces current economic and social power disparities. In an interesting case of metaphorical biomimicry, public handouts to the nuclear industry tend to get larger as they move up the nuclear fuel chain, much the way bioaccumulated toxins become more concentrated the higher they move up the food chain. At the beginning of the fuel chain – uranium mining – economic benefits go either to large multinational corporations and their executives, or just to the executives, in the case of junior mining companies who subsist on speculation. At the generation phase of the fuel chain, corporate elites accrue even more benefits. As President Obama’s nuclear loan guarantees demonstrate, when the taxpayer is handing out money, the really big bucks go to a few corporate interests, in this case the Georgia utility, Southern Company. Exelon, GE and Areva will no doubt not be far behind with their hands stretched out.Read More ...
Today, Coloradans have a chance today to shape the future of America’s National System of Forests, some 193 million acres of mountains, grasslands, rivers and lakes all across the country. The U.S. Forest Service is hosting more than 30 national town hall meetings to hear, straight from the people who use these lands, why our nation’s forests are so important. One of those meetings will be held tonight in Lakewood, Colorado, with sessions following throughout the region [PDF] beginning tomorrow in Missoula and Billings, Montana, and in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.
Chances are the Forest Service is going to get an earful. Colorado alone has 14.5 million acres divvied up among 11 national forests and two grasslands. From adventures scaling Colorado’s famous “14ers” to sportsmen and anglers setting out to their favorite haunts, Colorado’s national forests have many fans, representing many different voices.
However, these lands are also used for timber, grazing, and even oil and gas development. Historically, development agendas have driven how the Forest Service decides to manage these lands and their resources.
National parks across the country, including California’s desert national parks like the Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, and Death Valley National Park have begun developing action plans to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions as part of the National Park Service Climate Friendly Parks Program. The Climate Friendly Parks Program helps individual parks reduce their climate pollution, offers special public education programs about how global warming is already affecting our parks, and helps inspire visitors to embrace climate friendly solutions like using clean energy, reducing waste, and making smart transportation choices.
California’s desert parks are some of the largest national park sites in the lower forty-eight states and attract millions of visitors each year. This leads to a unique set of problems in reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.
For example, Mojave National Preserve, located in eastern California, was created by the 1994 California Desert Protection Act.
The 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve has singing sand dunes, spectacular rock formations, pristine night skies and a diverse array of plant and animal life. It’s made substantial investments in clean, renewable solar energy, energy efficiency programs and implemented aggressive recycling programs. The problem is that biologists, geologists, archaeologists and maintenance staff have to drive vast distances, sometimes hundreds of miles in a single day, to protect plants, animals, archaeological and geological resources. That not only translates to a great deal of fossil fuel being consumed, but also to greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the park’s largest source of greenhouse gas emissions comes from mobile sources.
When I first saw this image thumbnail in our Flickr pool, I couldn't really tell what it was. I enlarged it for further examination, and found a beautifully-composed image with a strong message and a lovely title: "Hopeful."
The State of California is in the middle of a process that will result in the state’s Fish and Game Commission designating an array of near shore marine reserves along the length of California’s coast. The reserves are intended to preserve and restore marine resources including commercially valuable fisheries.
The California Department of Fish and Game (CDFG) was charged with developing the reserves when the California legislature passed the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) in 1999. Several abortive efforts by CDFG and a 2004 amendment to the Act led to the current effort.Read More ...
Yesterday marked the close of the first official hunting season for wolves ever to take place in America’s lower 48 states. More than 250 wolves were killed as a result of Montana and Idaho’s hunting seasons and more than twice that number have been killed overall since wolves lost federal protections in May of 2009.
And while assessing the true biological impact of the delisting decision and subsequent hunting season on the regional population will need further observation and time, one thing is clear: The optimistic talks of an official hunting season leading to a greater tolerance for wolves in the region were seemingly based on wishful thinking.
As the hunt draws to a close, tensions over wolf management remain high. Last year there were more illegal killings of wolves in the Northern Rockies than there were in 2008. Unscientific anti-wolf rhetoric in the West has become so commonplace and unchallenged in regional media articles that it’s in danger of becoming accepted as ‘fact.’
Recent headlines from across the region showcase the escalating persecution wolves face from many sides: from the usual vocal anti-wolf interest groups to political candidates and state legislative officials looking not to inform but to incite fear by whipping their constituents into an irrational wolf-hating frenzy.