Two weeks in the West

  • A Canada lynx released in April 2005 in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado

  • A humpback chub, above. Water gushes from the open jet tubes at Glen Canyon Dam, right, part of an experiment to try to restore beaches and fish habitat downstream


Tired of smog-ridden suburban sprawl and strip malls? Perhaps it's time to escape to one of the West's national forests, parks or other sundry public lands for a deep, calming breath of fresh air. But even that Western staple is becoming as hard to find as affordable real estate in a ski town.

The federal Western Airborne Contaminants Assessment Project recently found 70 nasty chemicals and heavy metals in the snowpack, lakes, vegetation and fish of 20 national parks and monuments from Alaska to Texas.

The latest attractions at places like Rocky Mountain, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks include fish laced with high concentrations of mercury and the banned insecticide Dieldrin. Other treats awaiting wildlife and tourists include DDT, PCBs and PBDE - a commonly used flame retardant that affects liver, thyroid and brain development.

Borne aloft by wind and weather, the contaminants come from as far away as Asia and Europe, and as close as the nearest factory farms and feedlots.

Grazing and gas drilling are also taking their toll. Over the course of the last century, the West's air has become five to seven times dustier than it was before European settlement, thanks primarily to widespread grazing that started in the 1800s, a new study says. And Wyoming's rural Sublette County, in the throes of a natural gas boom, posted its first-ever air-quality alert Feb. 27 after ozone levels in the Pinedale area rose 50 percent higher than the federal health standard. Ozone, which causes respiratory problems, is a key component of smog usually found in big cities.

Still, drilling on the Pinedale Anticline shows no signs of slowing, and new pipelines promise to keep things bullish. The January completion of the Rockies Express Pipeline, which carries gas from Colorado and Wyoming to the Midwest, and a resulting spike in gas prices have some Wyoming producers already ramping up operations. The El Paso Corp. recently announced plans for a new pipeline to carry gas from the Rockies to California, the latest of three such proposals.

At least mercury pollution from U.S. coal-fired power plants may be on the way down. In February, a Washington, D.C., appeals court shot down the Environmental Protection Agency's controversial mercury pollution trading scheme, which the agency set up in 2005 in lieu of broader mercury limits. The court also toppled an agency rule that had removed coal-fired power plants from a list of industries that must use the best achievable pollution-control measures. Now, new plants must install equipment to control mercury, arsenic, lead, chromium and other toxic emissions in accordance with the Clean Air Act. That could spell trouble for proposed coal-fired power plants - including the Desert Rock in New Mexico and Toquop in Nevada, as well as at least six others in the West - by upping project costs considerably, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Meanwhile, major investment banks Citigroup Inc., JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley announced that they won't finance new coal plants that don't address greenhouse gas emissions, and the federal government has suspended its own loan program. Lobbyists and companies are ratcheting up their efforts to promote coal in anticipation of November's presidential election, with one industry group, Americans for Balanced Energy Choices, expecting to shell out some $40 million this year.

The EPA isn't the only federal agency heading back to the drawing board. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is revisiting habitat protections for the threatened Canada lynx and taking another look at protecting the white-tailed prairie dog and the greater sage grouse. The rulings on those critters are three of eight endangered species decisions the agency is reviewing because Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior Julie MacDonald "revised" scientific opinions with her now notorious red pen.

The Fish and Wildlife Service, sans MacDonald, now proposes to designate 42,753 square miles of new critical habitat for the lynx - over 20 times more than the 1,841 square miles it designated in 2006. More than half of the land is in the Northern Rockies, the Cascades and around Yellowstone. None of it, however, is in Colorado, where state officials have spent more than a decade and $5 million trying to re-establish a viable population of the reclusive cats.

The Colorado River through Grand Canyon National Park got a makeover in March amid much media fanfare, as the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation unleashed about three to four times more water than it usually does from Glen Canyon Dam.

The feds say the experimental release - only the third since the dam went up in 1963 - will scour sand brought in by tributaries back onto the river's banks, rebuilding beaches and restoring habitat for the endangered humpback chub.

Though the release will help in the short term, says Dr. Jack Schmidt, a lead researcher on the experiment, it's ultimately going to take much more frequent floods - potentially coupled with piping sand and sediment around the dam at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars - to rebuild sandbars and bring the ecosystem back to health. Unfortunately, because of human demand for the dam's water and electricity, even infrequent floods are "enormous political compromises."

High Country News Classifieds