Two weeks in the West

  • No stinky snow on tap for Snowbowl’s skiers

  • The late John Denver catches a natural high with Colorado state song


“An industry of this size is not something you can just turn on its head in six weeks.”

—Colorado Oil and Gas Association Executive Director Greg Schnacke on the rash of oil- and gas-related bills moving through the Colorado General Assembly


Sacred trumps sewage: Snowbowl ski area near Flagstaff, Ariz., wants to use treated wastewater to make snow. But area tribes, including the Navajo and Hopi, didn’t like the idea of yellow snow spewed all over their sacred San Francisco Peaks. So they sued, and on March 12 they won: The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, comparing the proposal to requiring baptisms to be conducted with toilet water, said that snow made from sewage (even if it’s purified) violates the tribes’ religious freedom. The court also determined that the Forest Service’s environmental analysis of the plan failed to consider what might happen if some hapless skier ate the snow. The owner of the ski area said he would appeal the case to the Supreme Court.

The American West: Land of wide-open spaces, rugged individualism, methamphetamines and venereal disease. Gonorrhea cases are swelling in the West, even as they shrink in other parts of the country, according to a March report from the Centers for Disease Control. California and seven other Western states saw a 42 percent increase in the disease from 2000 to 2005, indicating that the incidence of sexually transmitted disease is going up generally. Public health officials attribute the apparent rise, in part, to more and improved screening. But methamphetamine use may also be a factor. The drug, relatively prevalent in the rural West, creates an increased urgency for sex, and a 2003 study by the CDC found that meth users are more likely to have casual or anonymous sex than non-users.

If the West is the nation’s energy colony, then some of the subjects are getting restless.

New Mexico’s state Legislature in March passed a bill intended to stop gas and oil drillers from running roughshod over owners of split-estate lands. The bill requires energy companies to provide extensive information to surface landowners prior to drilling for the reserves below. It also requires companies to reclaim the drill site, and allows landowners to recover costs for loss of agricultural income or land value.

Colorado lawmakers are considering their own split-estate bill, along with three other gas- and oil-related bills this session. One would overhaul the commission that regulates gas and oil drilling in the state. Currently, the Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s mission is to encourage and promote energy development, and its members are mostly connected to the industry. The proposed bill will tweak the commission’s mission to include protecting public health and the environment, and the membership will be diversified to be less industry-heavy.

“Landowners have been at the mercy of companies for a century,” says Gwen Lachelt of the Oil and Gas Accountability Project. But, she says, the passage of the New Mexico bill and the potential success of the Colorado bills mark “a shift in the paradigm."

Montana’s green energy-related bills have yet to shift anything, though: Laws that would have upped environmental standards on coal, oil and gas operations appeared dead, while five bills that favor the energy industry seemed headed for approval. But still alive in mid-March was a bill to reduce statewide emissions of greenhouse gases, and Gov. Brian Schweitzer finally unveiled his “clean and green” energy bills — which include tax breaks for alternative power projects — on March 16.

Other legislative accomplishments: Colorado lawmakers designated John Denver’s “Rocky Mountain High” as the state’s second official song, despite critics’ claims that it glorifies drug use. New Mexico legislators named the bolo tie as the state’s official neckwear and banned cockfighting. Wyoming lawmakers voted to give filmmakers a greater financial incentive to work in the state; the Oscar-winning movie Brokeback Mountain was filmed in Canada, although set in Wyoming. And Idaho legislators killed a bill that would have increased oversight of the state’s elk-ranching industry.

A flock of wildlife refuge managers, biologists and other refuge workers will be scanning “help wanted” ads beginning this spring. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service budget woes have forced the agency to “reorganize” its refuge system. Hardest hit is the Southwest region, which announced March 8 that it plans to slash 38 jobs, including 22 in New Mexico and Arizona. It will also combine some refuges to cut costs.


Data: Mindset

2 - National ranking in terms of suicide rates for Nevada and Montana (a tie).

11, 36 - National ranking of Montana and Nevada, respectively, for per capita spending on mental health.

4, 5, 6, 7, 9, 10 -  National ranking in terms of suicide rates for New Mexico, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Oregon, respectively.

49, 50 - National rankings of Idaho and New Mexico, respectively, for per capita spending on mental health.

10.1 - Percent of people in Utah suffering from at least one major depressive episode in 2004.

1 - National ranking of Utah in terms of percent of people suffering from at least one major depressive episode in 2004.

6.5 - Percent of persons in Utah aged 12 and up who used pain relievers non-medically in 2004.

1 - National ranking of Utah in terms of percent of people aged 12 and up who used pain relievers non-medically in 2004.

17 - Percent of youths age 12-17 who binge drink in Montana, the highest in the nation.

87 - Rate per 100,000 of teen deaths by suicide, homicide or accident in Montana, second-highest in the nation, after Alaska.

Sources: Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count data book, American Association of Suicidology, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, National Alliance on Mental Illness
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