Two weeks in the West

Big coal remains big and the weather gets wacky in the New Year. Is there a connection?

  • Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., in black, meets with protesters at the site of a proposed power plant


“You start doing away with cockfighting, then they’re going to start doing away with rodeos … and then they’re going to start doing away with hunting and fishing.”

—New Mexico state Sen. Phil Griego, D, speaking in opposition to a proposal to ban cockfighting in his state, one of only two in the country where the sport is legal.

In early January, eastern Colorado and much of New Mexico continued to dig out after a brutal pounding by winter storms. Snowfall broke records, stranded travelers and killed some 15,000 cows. But Arizona faces the opposite problem: Winter has thus far dodged the state, leaving snowpack levels at just 38 percent of average.

The severe weather could get even more intense if global warming continues. Last year was the warmest on record, and there’s a 60 percent chance that next year could be even hotter, say British climatologists. Blame goes to elevated levels of greenhouse gases and a resurgent El Niño climate trend.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, D, isn’t going to sit by while global warming ravages his turf. He signed an executive order in December that requires new cars sold in the state to emit less carbon dioxide and also calls for studies of various emission-reducing measures. He follows his California counterpart, Arnold Schwarzenegger, R, who last year signed a bill forcing industry to slash greenhouse gas emissions and is expected to target automobiles next.

Coal — one of the world’s leading sources of greenhouse gases — keeps chugging along, though. Last year, U.S. coal mines set a new record for production, with Western producers pulling 30 million tons more coal out of the ground than in 2005. Another record for the industry: 47 people died in mining accidents in 2006 — the highest number of deaths since 1995. Most of those deaths happened in the East, but 2007’s first fatality was in the West, on Jan. 6, at Oxbow’s Elk Creek Mine near Somerset, Colo.

A new coal mine might dig into Kane County, Utah, near the boundary of Bryce Canyon National Park. Alton Coal Development hopes to lease 3,851 acres of public land from the federal Bureau of Land Management. The public now has a chance to weigh in for energy jobs or park tourism.

Northwestern New Mexico activists prefer clean air to energy jobs, and literally stood in the way of a proposed power plant to make their point. In January, Navajo District Judge Genevieve Woody ruled that the protesters may keep pro-testing. However, they have to stop illegally blocking a road to the plant site, so workers can continue studying the plant’s potential impact on the environment.

Other tidbits from the West…

In San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom, apparently desperate to keep pro football in town, invited the 49ers to build a stadium at the decommissioned Hunters Point shipyard. A hot problem: Until 1969, the shipyard was home to a major nuclear research facility and wide-scale mishandling of radioactive material; $400 million has been spent on remediation, but it’s unclear whether the site can be cleaned by the 49ers’ 2012 deadline.

A Colorado program that allows landowners who put land into conservation easements to sell their state tax credits has cost the state $193 million in foregone tax collections so far, according to a recent audit. But there’s no database detailing how many acres have been easement-ized or where they are located. A separate Internal Revenue Service review found that land appraisals — the basis for tax credits — are often illegally inflated.

Near Payson, Ariz., a new deer and elk crosswalk could reduce roadkill. When an animal approaches the highway, lights warn drivers, and fences guide the animal across the road. The device cost $700,000; wildlife underpasses cost $3 million each.

The invasion has begun. A marina employee recently found live zebra mussels in Lake Mead, according to the 100th Meridian Initiative, a group that has tried to keep the invasive species out of the West. Located on the Arizona/Nevada border, Lake Mead is 1,000 miles west of the nearest established population of the bivalve, which multiplies prolifically, starves competing organisms and plugs up water intakes.

Going downhill

1936: The year Sun Valley Ski Resort opened, making it the oldest ski resort in the United States

478: Number of ski areas operating in the U.S. in 2005

3: Number of ski areas prohibiting snowboarding (Taos, N.M.; Alta, Utah; Deer Valley, Utah)

6/6.9: Number in millions of snowboarders and skiers, respectively, in the United States

82: Cost, in dollars, for a one-day lift ticket at Colorado’s Vail Resort for the 2006-’07 ski season

39: Number of skiing (29) and snowboarding (10) fatalities in 2005-’06, out of 58.9 million user days

85: Percentage of fatalities that were male

32.4/27.7: Average age of male/female skiers

21.3/23: Average age of male/female snowboarders

51/49: Percentage of skiers who are male/female

74/26: Percentage of snowboarders who are male/female

12,840: Elevation (in feet) at the top of the highest chairlift in North America: Breckenridge, Colorado’s Imperial Express Superchair



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