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Know the West


The West is the new frontier, for ideas


Editor's note: This is the third part of a three-part package online; the first part is here and the second part is here. The entire package was published in the March 16, 2009 print edition of High Country News.

Redefining rancher politics

Bill Bullard runs the feisty ranchers' group, R-CALF USA, from an office in a cattle-auction yard in Billings, Mont. It's cluttered with technical documents, and from his desk he can hear the sing-song of the auctioneer next door. But don't underestimate this group. It's become a national power in ag politics, lobbying Congress and the White House and pushing ambitious lawsuits.

R-CALF notched up its latest victory against huge corporations in February, when the country's third-biggest meatpacker, JBS, gave up its attempt to buy the fourth-biggest meatpacker. The group had battled against the deal for a year, charging that it would violate anti-trust laws because the four biggest packers already controlled 88 percent of the cattle market (a dominance that often forces ranchers to sell for low prices). R-CALF presented reams of research to the U.S. Department of Justice, and its 10,000 members in 46 states pressured the states' attorney generals. That helped persuade the federal agency and many states to file a lawsuit opposing the deal, which caused the corporations to back down.

Independent-minded ranchers founded R-CALF -- which stands for Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund -- in 1990 to oppose such corporate power and make a political thrust they felt they weren't getting from the biggest ranchers' group, the Denver-based National Cattlemen's Beef Association. That association draws funding from corporate meatpackers and chemical giants such as Monsanto and often "supports policies that are detrimental to the interests of cattle producers," says Bullard.

R-CALF has pushed for Country Of Origin Labeling on meat sold in grocery stores to inform consumers whether or not their meat is from the U.S. (a regulation the packers oppose). Congress passed Country Of Origin Labeling in the 2002 Farm Bill, but the corporations have stalled and tried to find loopholes (such as labeling meat as "a product of the United States, Canada and Mexico"). R-CALF has also worked to get the feds to be more wary of allowing imports of beef that could carry mad-cow disease.

The leader of a Montana environmental group says it's "refreshing to work with R-CALF" -- a welcome contrast to the National Cattlemen's group. That independent spirit has resulted in ups and downs for the group, but in recent years "we've maintained a solid membership base," says Bullard, a former rancher with a political science degree who's headed R-CALF since 2001. "Now we're free to aggressively fight for the interests of (cattle) producers on issues that other organizations are afraid to touch."

--Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Mix-and-match nuclear reactors

No, they still haven't figured out what to do with the waste. But researchers at Oregon State University, in partnership with a Corvallis company called NuScale Power, are developing a small-scale nuclear reactor that they believe is safer than conventional nuke plants.

It's one of several efforts to invent "pocket nukes" that generate electricity without emitting greenhouse gases while also reducing the risks and huge construction costs of traditional reactors.

NuScale uses passive cooling: Because reactor water isn't circulated at high pressures, there are no pumps, which can fail, and less chance of leaks.

The design is modular. A single module -- just 60 feet long and 14 feet in diameter -- would generate 40 megawatts, a fraction of the output of other water-cooled designs awaiting certification from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, all of which are over 1,000 megawatts. Up to 24 modules could be combined for more output; an operator could add new capacity and do maintenance and refueling without closing down the reactor.

To refuel, operators would not need hazmat suits for radiation protection, but "might wear something akin to the bunny suits used to ensure cleanliness in a high-tech manufacturing plant," says Bruce Landrey, NuScale's director of development. That's because the spent fuel comes out underwater and remains underwater for two years while its short-lived radioactive components decay.

NuScale has a one-third-scale test facility at the university and plans to file with the NRC for design certification next year, beginning a complex, highly technical three-year licensing procedure. It hopes to have its reactors in use by 2017.

Meanwhile Hyperion Power Generation, a spin-off of the federal energy lab at Los Alamos, N.M., plans to have 25-megawatt reactors in production within a few years. Hyperion's design, which also needs federal approval, uses only low-level uranium fuel, a different strategy for improving safety.

But nuclear watchdogs remain cautious about embracing these innovations. Even if some risks are reduced, they say, pocket nukes would still be more dangerous than wind, solar and other renewable energy. And terrorists could do great damage if they obtained nuclear material.

Still, NuScale and Hyperion carry the hopes of the nuclear establishment. NuScale drew from Department of Energy-funded research at the Idaho Nuclear Laboratory, Oregon State University and a division of the San Francisco-based Bechtel Corporation. The university's Nuclear Engineering Department, led by Jose Reyes, "essentially started with a blank sheet of paper and designed the reactor from the ground up," Landrey says.

--Marty Durlin, former HCN web editor

Innovator tidbit: Interior Secretary Ken Salazar suggests drilling for habitat in the West -- some federal taxes on oil and gas developments might be used to improve wildlife habitat, offsetting some of the destruction.

'Threshold' nature for urban kids

Mickey Fearn wants you to put yourself in Kenny's platform shoes.

Kenny -- a black teenager from Portland with no wilderness experience -- was told to bring warm, comfortable clothes for his first backpacking trip. So he wore what he had: a full-length corduroy coat and -- yes -- platform shoes. As a result, the following three days of hiking and camping were especially difficult.

That kind of intense immersion isn't the best way to introduce poor city kids to nature, says 62-year-old Fearn, who helped with Kenny's trip as a grad student and now serves as "manager of community connections" for the Seattle parks department. "It's work. You can remember how pretty it was, but you also remember moments when you're eating Cheerios mixed with Tang, because you burned your bacon."

If kids like Kenny experience the wild as unpleasant or unfriendly, they may never go hiking again. And if they never learn to value the natural world, they're unlikely to fight environmental injustices -- pollution, say, or the lack of safe green spaces -- in their own communities.

That's why Fearn, who is black, has spent much of his 42-year career as a parks professional advocating for "threshold experiences" -- close-to-home outings that allow urban kids to gradually get comfortable with nature. Fearn's favorite example is Outdoor Opportunities -- nicknamed O2 -- which reaches teens at three Seattle parks and through the city's 27 community centers. It offers weekly workshops on green topics like solar energy, service projects such as building trails and planting trees, and a variety of outdoor trips -- all for free.

Fearn is low-key about his role, even though it's substantial. He didn't create O2; he's not the guy taking kids outside. But he's trying to encourage the creation and coordination of more such efforts, to reach more kids. "The power I have is the power of influence," he says. "I'm African-American, I've been poor, I've worked as a parks professional, I've worked as a policy person, I've worked for the city's race and social justice initiative. I understand the problem comprehensively, I can articulate it to people, sell (the solutions), and get them going."

And people are listening. As a state parks commissioner, Fearn helped create Washington's No Child Left Inside program, which gave programs like O2 $1.5 million in 2008. Inspired by Fearn, Jonathan Jarvis, director of the National Park Service's Pacific West Region, included a campground in the redevelopment of the Presidio of San Francisco, so that urban families -- even those without cars -- can spend a night outdoors and enjoy a campfire talk.

--Sandra Tassel, freelancer, and Sarah Gilman, HCN associate editor

A rediscovered renewable

Life, to Eric Jacobson, is "happiness, joy and lots of little hydropower plants."

At 53, he's worked on about 40 such plants in Colorado and nearby states. He's tackled other eco-friendly energy projects as well, running a string of natural-gas power plants for decades and piping the excess heat into a successful hothouse tomato business. But microhydro holds a special place in his heart.

"Whenever I had a couple knuckles in my jeans (spare time or dollars) I bought hydro plants, sold hydro plants, and developed them," he says.

Jacobson sees microhydro as a straightforward way for mountain communities -- where solar and wind can be unreliable -- to reduce their electricity's environmental impacts. Microhydro requires two basic ingredients: water volume and pressure. If a project is short on one, it needs more of the other. Fortunately, mountain water supplies often flow from substantial elevations at high pressure.

Many communities can install microhydro turbines on existing infrastructure –– pipelines carrying water to treatment plants, for example -- without new impoundments or substantially different water rights. The water has already been captured, so the impacts tend to be minor. Jacobson thinks "it's almost a social responsibility to harness this power if the impacts are already there."

In the absence of a dam or pipeline, a "run of the river" system, in which water is diverted from a creek or irrigation ditch and returned to the channel downstream, is generally used. If poorly managed, these projects can deplete waterways, harming fish and other aquatic life. But overall, the impacts remain relatively minor. "There's no perfect zero-impact technology," Jacobson says. "Small hydro is absolutely competitive with solar and wind for reducing impacts to a bare minimum."

With state regulations steering Colorado away from carbon-intensive energy, communities are eager for alternatives. Aspen already taps two small hydro plants, and is working to add four more. Rural Hotchkiss, with only 1,100 residents, may revive a microhydro project that's been idle for over a decade. The Colorado governor's Energy Office wants to ease permitting and financial hurdles for projects smaller than a couple megawatts, and truly tiny installations -- plants on backyard streams that might power a single house -- are catching on.

This isn't new territory for Colorado: One of Jacobson's plants is probably the country's oldest working hydropower project. The Ouray plant houses two turbines of similar size: one from the 1990s, the other from the 1890s. The latter is more efficient. To Jacobson, that's a metaphor for how national energy policy wandered off track over the last century. "We've fallen backwards, I think."

--Terray Sylvester, freelancer

Innovator tidbit: Maria Gonzalez Mabbutt, a former immigrant farmworker, helps lead a nonpartisan campaign that has more than doubled Latino voter registration in Idaho in the last six years.

A good old-time modern doctor

Dr. Diane Noton is another innovator who revives good ideas from the past.

For one thing, she makes house calls. She adopted that anachronism during her mid-1990s medical residency in Casper, Wyo. "One of my patients was a woman who worked as a stripper," she says. "She was pregnant but she'd miss her appointments. So I'd go over to the raunchy hotel where she lived, pick her up and bring her to the clinic and take her back home."

These days, Noton runs the Platte Valley Medical Clinic in small-town Saratoga, Wyo. And she still visits patients in their homes if they're unable to come to the clinic or need help nights and weekends when the clinic is closed.

One recent house call began as an emergency: An elderly man in a wheelchair phoned her to report that his kidney dialysis machine wasn't draining. She drove to his home and spent hours fiddling with the machine without success. Desperate, she called a dialysis nurse who suggested that jiggling the equipment might restart the flow. So she helped the man get to his feet and danced with him around the room. Finally, the man's sister phoned and suggested another trick with the tubing, which worked.

"I still joke with this patient, telling him that he just invited me over because he wanted to dance," Noton says.

Other aspects of her practice hearken back to an earlier era when rural doctors were fully immersed in their communities. She was born in Chicago but chose to settle in the Platte Valley, where her family goes back five generations. The 3,000 people in her "patient base" are scattered over hundreds of square miles. She spends a lot of time driving back roads, getting from her own 20-acre spread to the clinic, visiting patients and going into the mountains to respond to hunter and off-road-vehicle accidents.

She also visits high schools to talk frankly to students about their sexual behavior, even though she's been criticized by conservative Christians who want only abstinence counseling. But her method seems to have worked: In the first year after she bought the practice, there were eight teenage pregnancies in families she cared for; now, the yearly average is one or none.

At 41, she's paid off the loans for med school and buying the practice ($500,000). She relieves stress and stays in shape by rock climbing, skiing and long-distance running on dirt roads, which she finds "meditative." "A physician," she says, "should lead by example."

--Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Creating public nooks and crannies

Marci Macfarlane and her husband, Chris Radcliffe, uphold their city's unofficial slogan: "Keep Portland Weird."

The two artists, who live in a funky, semi-industrial neighborhood called Overlook, have been embellishing the acre of city-owned grass in front of their home for years, installing whimsical sculptures, such as a Mardi Gras tree strung with beaded necklaces and disco balls.

But the land isn't maintained by the city: People park cars on it; prostitutes and other street people loiter at night, and vandalism is rampant. "It's pretty much been forgotten space," says Macfarlane.

So she and Radcliffe (who helped start the Burning Man anarchy festival in the Nevada desert) are working with the city to turn the land into an official park -- an open-air art gallery for the neighborhood's artists.

This grassroots effort is part of an innovative thread in Portland, where forgotten or unattractive spaces like intersections, sidewalks and even bridges are often transformed into pocket parks, murals and sites for guerilla performance art. Creative types instigate many projects, and a local nonprofit, the City Repair Project, mobilizes people during a 10-day "Village Building Convergence" each spring.

Over the years, they've built bike racks and teahouses, native-plant gardens and landscaping, provocative information kiosks and benches shaped like stacks of books (outside the city library), a lighthouse (sheltering pedestrians from the rain) and a bicycle wheel (honoring a teenage cyclist who was killed nearby in an accident).

"It's some of the most important work," says Mike O'Brien, who's with the city's Office of Sustainable Development. "They're doing what I would call social building -- creating social bonds that are so important to having a sustainable community."

The Overlook project houses an underground tank and is on land owned by the Portland Water Bureau. It's one of seven "hydro parks," a concept that sprang up in 2006, when the city water commissioner decided to turn eyesores into spaces where neighbors can stroll, walk their dogs and have picnics.

City Repair, which was founded in 1996 by a group of young activists, wasn't directly involved at Overlook, but one of the group's artists, Brian Borello, helped with the park's overall design. "What I've been trying to do," Borello says, "is just create cool places, meaningful places in the neighborhoods, but using neighborhood resources (and) local talent, local ideas, trying to create a pride of place."

--Jennifer Anderson, freelancer