A Sticky Situation with Tar Sands

Protestors with Peaceful Uprising at the test pit of the planned Utah tar sands mine (via Peaceful Uprising)

Protestors with Peaceful Uprising at the test pit of the planned Utah tar sands mine (via Peaceful Uprising)

Scientists call tar sands “one of the first fuel sources we (should) avoid” to limit climate change and other pollution, so plans for a Utah tar sands mine–the first major one in the United States–is a big concern for environmentalists and others.

My September/October 2015 article for Audubon Magazine, “Tar Sands Mining Hits the American West,” covers the plans for the Utah mine.

Sagebrush Market Ready to Open

Rancher T. Wright Dickinson surveys sage grouse habitat on his cattle’s summer range. (JZ)

Rancher T. Wright Dickinson surveys sage grouse habitat on his cattle’s summer range. (JZ)

The greater sage grouse lives amid sagebrush rangelands on more than 78 million acres across the West, but overgrazing, subdivisions and sprawl, and energy drilling and development has resulted in massive sagebrush loss and fragmentation in recent decades.

With the bird under consideration as an endangered species, a government listing could cost $5 billion in annual economic activity. That has ranchers and others in Colorado and elsewhere are figuring out how they can create a sagebrush marketplace that could make protecting and restoring sagebrush and grouse a money maker.

For my April 2015 story, “In the Sagebrush Marketplace, A New Way to Protect Species,” for Yale: Environment 360, I visited the high country of northwestern Colorado to figure out just what a sagebrush bazaar looks like and how it might help both grouse and ranchers.

Red States Get Redder

A tractor works the fields in the Great Plains (U.S. Agricultural Research Service)

A tractor works the fields in the Great Plains (U.S. Agricultural Research Service)

Climate change has become a partisan matter with many Republican politicians denying humans’ role in global warming and claiming not to understand climate science. But some of the most loyal Republican Congressional districts, particularly in the Midwest, are projected to face some of the most severe temperature shifts and precipitation declines from global warming — despite their elected officials’ stances on climate change.

I write on the analysis and the political and environmental issues following the 2014 midterm elections for Slate in my story, “Red States Are Getting a New Shade of Redder.”



Logging On and Off

Sawmills in Colorado and Wyoming are amid a resurgence and putting beetle-killed trees to use, likely reducing fire risks in the process. But the mills remain hampered by a lack of raw materials while management on national forests limits logging of big trees and focuses on forest health.

My November 2014 story, “Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound,” for High Country News, looks at how mills have revived and whether the industry’s needs can align with those of the forests.

Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management's sawmill

Clint Georg, at Saratoga Forest Management’s sawmill, which reopened in 2013 after a 10-year closure. (Joshua Zaffos)


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Fracking Fracas

Polis townhall

Congressman Jared Polis addresses fractivists, August 2014

A last-minute backroom deal among Colorado Democrats scrapped plans for a potentially divisive anti-fracking ballot measure. The move may save the party’s candidates, particularly Governor John Hickenlooper — a loyal industry supporter — and Senator Mark Udall — who faces a tough reelection. But “fractivists” say a vote is coming sooner or later.

I report on the Democratic family feud and the fractivist fallout for High Country News in the August 12, 2014 issue. For the story, I traveled to Boulder to watch Congressman Jared Polis (Democrat) speak with — and hear it from — angry fracking opponents outraged at his decision to pull back the ballot measures.

The Road to Flood Recovery

Hwy7 floods CDOT

State Highway 7 near Lyons, Colorado following Sept. 2013 flooding. (Image courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)

Floods devastated Colorado communities in September 2013, destroying homes and roads, burying water-works and irrigation equipment, and altering the courses of rivers and creeks.

My article, “Race to Recovery,” in Headwaters Magazine, Summer 2014, looks at the pace and scope of recovery after the floods, and how communities banded together to restore rivers and repair irrigation ditches to improve their form and function.

Along the course of reporting, I visited with restoration leaders, ditch company managers, and engineers involved in all stages of response and recovery, and got views of the damage and restoration happening across Colorado’s Front Range. Continue reading

‘Sawasdee’ for Students in Need in Thailand

Just a few decades ago, universities in Thailand were reluctant to admit students with disabilities, partly due to a surprising historical legacy of Buddhism.  But with new laws guaranteeing education and access for all children, U.S. and Thai researchers are now looking at how schools are meeting the challenge for a new generation of students. A feature for the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of Northern Vision, the magazine of the University of Northern Colorado.

Phuttamonthon Buddhist Park, near Mahidol University, Salaya, Thailand.

Phuttamonthon Buddhist Park, near Mahidol University, Salaya, Thailand.

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Dams & Other Obstacles on the Mekong

"Life by the Mekong River" by International Rivers (Photo from Xayaburi Dam site, October 2012)

“Life by the Mekong River” by International Rivers (Photo from Xayaburi Dam site, Oct 2012)

With a massive dam under construction in Laos and other dams on the way, the Mekong River is facing a wave of hydroelectric projects that could alter the river’s ecology and disrupt the food supplies of millions of people in Southeast Asia.

I wrote “Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise,” for Yale Environment 360 in February 2014. The story relies on my travels along the lower river from the mountains of northern Thailand to the delta in Vietnam during fall 2013, and interviews with villagers, activists and environmentalists, and scientists.

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Evening approaches near Toson Hulstai Nature Preserve, eastern Mongolia

Mongolia has the fastest growing economy in the world, fueled by its untapped mineral wealth. But the development threatens the country’s unparalleled wildlife and environment and its singular nomadic traditions, dating back to the empire of Genghis Khan.

In the February/March 2014 issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine, my story, “Giant Steppes,” takes readers to the beautiful yet fragile landscapes of Mongolia and covers how government leaders, wildlife managers, and herders are working to protect the country’s epic grasslands and desert — and its unique culture. Continue reading

The Power and Energy of Water

"Boulder Power Plant Park" by Jason Bellegarde (via Flickr)

“Boulder Power Plant Park” by Jason Bellegarde (via Flickr)

The energy-water nexus defines the mutual relationship between two essential resources. My Fall 2013 article for Headwaters Magazine, “The Power (and Energy) of Water,” explores how planners and policymakers in Colorado and the West are increasingly evaluating energy sources based on their water use and looking at how their choices can help address growth, climate change and other issues.