Two weeks in the West

  • Blasting avalanches is proposed for Glacier

    Joe Short photo courtesy
  • Border fence of Band-Aid? An estimated 459,000 succeed in crossing the border annually.

    US Border Patrol and GAO

"With no disrespect to the eagle, I’ve always thought that the horse should be our national emblem."

—Singer Willie Nelson, arguing against the slaughter of horses for human consumption

Interior’s fuzzy science. If it were up to many U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists, the Endangered Species Act would now protect the Gunnison’s prairie dog, the Gunnison sage grouse, the white-tailed prairie dog and a host of other critters. But none of those species made the list, thanks in part to Department of Interior Deputy Assistant Secretary Julie MacDonald, who tinkered with or ignored agency biologists’ findings. Documents obtained in October by conservation groups reveal MacDonald’s interference with her own scientific advisers. MacDonald, a Bush appointee whose background is in engineering, not biology, "edited" her scientists’ reports, adding or deleting phrases to reverse the meaning of their recommendations. In a document recommending protection of the Gunnison sage grouse, she injected doubt regarding the grouse’s designation as a species, despite almost universal agreement in the scientific community that it is a distinct species.

Water scales may finally be in balance. More than a decade in the making, the Platte River Cooperative Agreement is almost ready to come to life. Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne signed the three-state agreement divvying up Platte River water in late September. Colorado and Nebraska have also approved it, and Wyoming is expected to sign soon. The river provides drinking water for more than 3 million people, irrigates 2 million acres of farmland, and provides a vital migration stopover for birds in Nebraska. The $317 million agreement tries to balance these needs while restoring habitat for several threatened and endangered species. It calls for the acquisition of 10,000 acres of wildlife habitat in Nebraska and for flows to be increased by 130,000 to 150,000 acre-feet during critical times. Groundwater irrigators along the river will be hardest hit — they can’t drill any new wells, and must reduce their groundwater usage to 1997 levels. The Interior Department will pay $157 million of the total and the states will pony up the rest.

Going great guns in Glacier? In 2004, an avalanche blocked a section of railroad tracks running through the southern edge of Montana’s Glacier National Park for 29 hours. That prompted Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad to propose shelling slide-prone slopes within the park, as is done to manage avalanches along highways throughout the West. But park officials worry that the use of explosives would endanger park visitors and alter the natural role of avalanches. Instead, they want the railroad to build new snowsheds and upgrade existing ones; the sheds are both more effective against avalanches and have less impact on the park. Railroad representatives say the expense — estimated at $110 million — would be prohibitive, but few take that claim seriously. According to Steve Thompson of the National Parks Conservation Association, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, which had $13 billion in revenue last year, can, and should, cover the costs as a normal part of doing business in the mountains. In October, the draft environmental impact statement for the plan was released, listing snowsheds, not explosives, as the preferred alternative. The park will take public comment on the plan until Dec. 22.

Biodiesel isn’t just old French fry oil anymore. The country’s largest biodiesel refinery is being built in western Washington. Upon completion in mid-2007, the Imperium Renewables Inc. plant will produce up to 100 million gallons of fuel each year from soybean, canola and other crops. That amount exceeds last year’s nationwide production total of 75 million gallons, and is enough to replace up to 10 percent of the state’s conventional diesel supply. Until Washington farmers can produce enough feedstock for the $60 million plant, it will import palm oil from Malaysia. Nationally, biodiesel production is likely to hit the 150 million gallon mark by the end of 2006, and half of it will come from the dozen major biodiesel plants already operating in the West. Imperium and other producers hope to cash in on the rapidly expanding interest in alternative fuels and the new laws promoting them, including a Washington statute requiring that by 2008 all diesel fuel sold in the state contain at least 2 percent biodiesel.

A Border Fence or a Border Band-Aid?

A fence — sort of — President Bush signed a bill in October authorizing 700 miles of fencing to be built along the U.S.-Mexico border. It’s the only federal immigration bill passed during a year of congressional debate on the subject.

Critics on both sides of the debate question the bill’s effectiveness: It will leave some 1,300 miles of border unfenced, and it doesn’t contain enforcement measures. Nor does it help foreign workers enter the country legally.

But the fence may never be built, anyway. The double-layer steel fencing will cost between $2 billion and $7 billion, and so far, only $1.2 billion has been appropriated. Whether Congress will pony up more money after the mid-term elections remains to be seen.


Did you hear a pop?

The housing bubble, particularly in the West, is showing signs of deflating or even bursting.

1:127  Ratio of foreclosures to households in Colorado in the third quarter of 2006.

1st, 2nd  Foreclosure rate rank, nationally, of Colorado and Nevada respectively.

23.8  Percentage drop in existing home sales in the West between September 2005 and September 2006.

$332,000  Median home price in the West in September 2006 — 4.3 percent lower than a year earlier.

-9.7  Percentage median home prices are expected to drop in Stockton, Calif., in the coming year. Six cities in central California, two in Nevada, and one in Arizona are among the 10 cities with the highest projected drops in home prices.

$390,138,000  Total amount spent nationwide on constructing new, single-family homes in September 2006

-12.8  Percentage drop in new home construction from the same period last year.


Sources:, the National Association of Realtors, U.S. Department of Commerce, and

High Country News Classifieds