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Know the West

Two weeks in the West

  It may have surprised some people, but really it was as inevitable as sunrise: After seven years of denial, the Bush administration can no longer ignore the biggest environmental problem facing the West and the entire planet.

Thirteen federal agencies, led by the Department of Agriculture, acknowledged reality in a thick May 28 report signed by three Bush cabinet secretaries. The Effects of Climate Change on Agriculture, Land Resources, Water Resources, and Biodiversity in the United States says the West has already been hit harder than other U.S. regions.

The report adds up bleak predictions from many researchers outside the Bush administration, and provides new details. It says global warming in the West will likely get worse in the next 25 to 50 years, with intensified drought, continued declines in annual mountain snowpacks, and about a 20 percent reduction in runoff in Colorado and the Great Basin. There will be more "extreme" weather, including "intense" rainfalls and dust storms, and erosion, wildfire, weeds, pests and diseases will pose increasing threats to forests, rangeland and crops. Even "iconic, charismatic megaflora such as saguaro cacti and Joshua trees" will have a harder time surviving.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Senate began debating "America's Climate Security Act" -- the first significant attempt to make industries pay some of the costs of greenhouse gas emissions. But debate was all that happened: A real "cap-and-trade" permit system still waits in the future, shimmering like a mirage. The 492-page bill died June 6 because several dozen lawmakers thought it would unfairly impact industries like coal and oil.

Elsewhere in politics, a black man won the Democratic presidential primary in Montana, where less than half of 1 percent of the population is black. Some found this surprising, because a few Northern Rockies communities have a reputation for white-supremacist rightwing militias. But those groups remain in the margins and don't define the character of Montana or the West as a whole. As the last state to weigh in, Montana ratified the political will of the West's Democrats: Barack Obama won seven of the 11 Western states. His rival, Hillary Clinton, won only in the Southwest (New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada and California), where she benefited from her rapport with Hispanic voters.

Montana also shows how mixed-up the West's politics have gotten. A perennial candidate named Bob Kelleher, who'd run 14 unsuccessful races as a Democrat or Green Party member, finally won a primary -- as a Republican. (That'll probably be the end of it, though: Kelleher wants to win the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Max Baucus, something he has little chance of doing.) And Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat running for re-election, got endorsed by the normally Republican National Rifle Association (thus certifying Schweitzer's reputation as the prototypical gunslinging Western Dem).

After 44 years of studying whether the nation should stash thousands of tons of nuclear waste underneath Nevada's Yucca Mountain, the Department of Energy finally handed in the official application seeking the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's OK for the project. The gigantic document had more than 8,000 pages bulging with bureaucratic language, including such well-spun euphemisms as "Stockpile Stewardship" and "seismic disruption scenario."

And in Idaho, most people were not surprised that the richest person in the state -- agribusiness multibillionaire J.R. Simplot -- died. He was 99 and had pneumonia. But it apparently surprised Simplot: According to the Idaho Statesman, "His death occurred moments after he had invited a friend to his home to play cards." An avalanche of news stories on Simplot's life revealed some surprising facts, including that his formal education ended with eighth grade. It was also surprising when someone stole the dead man's trademark cowboy hat, which was displayed in a floral arrangement at the memorial service in the Qwest Arena in Boise, attended by a thousand people. Don't be surprised if the famous straw hat turns up for sale on eBay.

Goliath beats Goliath

Telluride's movie stars, super athletes and service workers no longer have to worry about crashing their hang gliders and mountain bikes into the 22 monster homes proposed for this scenic patch of land outside the tony Colorado resort town's entrance. On June 2, the Colorado Supreme Court ended an eight-year property rights scuffle between the community and a developer when it ruled 6 to 1 that Telluride had the right under the state Constitution to condemn the 572-acre parcel for open space. But don't expect many Colorado towns to follow Telluride's lead: The process is far too onerous and costly for most municipal budgets. Telluride will have to pony up a court-ordered $50-plus million ($24.3 million has come from 1,480 private donations, a handful of which were seven-figure sums) to buy the land, as well as several million dollars to cover interest and its own and the developer's legal fees. And restoring the land itself -- home to mine tailings and old sewage ponds -- may cost up to $20 million.