Category: Communities

Stories on communities and culture, past and present

Can coal remain the bedrock of Wyoming’s economy?

Can coal remain the bedrock of Wyoming’s economy?

Wyoming officials view construction at the Integrated Test Center site, July 2017 (JZ)

In recent years, the coal industry has employed one in every 10 workers in Gillette and surrounding Campbell County, Wyoming. But coal is declining as a power source. It can’t compete with cheaper, cleaner natural gas, and eventually, climate change regulations are expected to worsen its prospects.

With roughly 6.6 billion tons of recoverable coal still in the ground, and an economy hooked on mining and burning it, Wyoming can’t seem to quit coal. Instead, state leaders are trying to clean it up and find new uses for it at the Integrated Test Center, where researchers hope to capture carbon dioxide emissions and eventually turn those emissions into plastic, carbon-fiber materials, concrete or fuels.

So far, though, most “clean coal” initiatives have failed. Carbon-based rubbers, asphalts and chemicals have never achieved large-scale commercial success, partly because it’s easier and cheaper to just use petroleum. Highly touted efforts to capture and store emissions from coal plants have also fizzled because costs spiraled out of control. Even in Wyoming, it’s hard not to wonder: Is it smart to keep betting on coal?

“Can coal remain the bedrock of Wyoming’s economy?”

High Country News, September 18, 2017

Fatal Colorado home explosion reignites drilling safety debate

Fatal Colorado home explosion reignites drilling safety debate

Fire burns a home toppled by a natural gas explosion in Firestone, Colorado on April 17, 2017. The blast was linked to a pipeline running from a nearby gas well (Photo YouTube channel White Fire)

On April 17, 2017, Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law Joey Irwin went down to the basement to replace a water heater in Martinez’s home in Firestone, Colorado, a fast-growing bedroom community 25 miles north of Denver. Moments later, a fiery explosion destroyed the house and shook the neighborhood. Both men were killed. Erin Martinez, Mark’s wife, and their son survived.

Following a two-week investigation, the local fire department has linked the blast to a recently restarted gas well, drilled in 1993 and located just 178 feet behind the house and operated by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. A department statement said gas entered the house from a cut, abandoned flowline still connected to the well.

The fatal explosion reignited the fierce debate over the pace and proximity of oil and gas development along Colorado’s Front Range, where booming energy fields have collided with a rapidly growing urban corridor. For years, environmentalists and community activists have furiously pushed to limit drilling near suburban Front Range communities, while the state government and industry leaders have resisted tougher restrictions.

“Fatal Colorado home explosion reignites drilling safety debate”

High Country News, May 3, 2017

What should a community do to protect its immigrants?

What should a community do to protect its immigrants?

Supporters of refugees and immigrants march in Greeley, Colorado, on March 4, 2017 (JZ)

On a sunny morning in early March 2017, over 400 people hit the sidewalks of Greeley, a small city on Colorado’s Eastern Plains. A diverse crowd in sweatshirts, blue jeans, robes, ankle-length skirts and headscarves, they marched to show their support for the city’s sizable refugee and immigrant population. They started at the University of Northern Colorado, wound toward downtown and ended up at the Global Refugee Center, a local nonprofit.

The route was no coincidence: Greeley is an island of cultural and intellectual diversity in a conservative, rural county. Refugees and undocumented workers help keep the agricultural economy afloat, and the university’s international student population has grown in recent years. By most accounts, these new residents have settled in with relative ease.

But as the targets of President Donald Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and new security measures, many have spent the last few months anxious about possible deportations, arrests and general hostility. Though Trump’s latest “travel ban,” which would have suspended immigration from six predominantly Muslim countries, has been blocked, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is stepping up detainments, arresting hundreds of immigrants nationwide. In Greeley, this new political reality has presented local leaders with sometimes uncomfortable choices: What can — and should — the community do to make its new residents feel safe?

“What should a community do to protect its immigrants?”

High Country News, March 28, 2017

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Harvesting in the Park

Harvesting in the Park

Park Service biologists Tania Lewis and Christopher Behnke work with Huna Tlingit tribal member Charlie Wright to record data from a glaucous-winged gull egg. (Photo: NPS)

For centuries, Tlingit people of southeast Alaska lived, hunted, fished, and gathered at Bartlett Cove in Glacier Bay, abandoning and rebuilding settlements as glaciers advanced and retreated during and after the Little Ice Age. But a different historic episode froze the tribe out of the area in 1925 when the National Park Service designated Glacier Bay a national monument and banned Tlingits from their ancestral homeland.

Now, the Huna Tlingit and Park Service are ushering in the tribe’s return to Glacier Bay, with the new tribal house and a renewal of traditional harvesting of glaucous-winged gull eggs in the park.

The progress at Glacier Bay is one sign of how the Park Service is rebuilding its relationships with tribes. In its centennial year, the agency clarified a rule to enable native plant gathering in national parks, and has officially recognized the importance of tribal knowledge and practices tied to the natural world—called traditional ecological knowledge (TEK)—in guiding park management.

“Harvesting in the Park”

Hakai Magazine, September 7, 2016

Keepers of the Flame

Keepers of the Flame

Prairie burn at Turnbull National Wildlife Refuge, Washington (Photo via UWFWS – Pacific Region)

Across the West, a century of vigilant fire suppression has left many forests and prairies dangerously overgrown and degraded, prone to catastrophic wildfires that destroy homes and habitat. Members of The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module, a traveling fire crew of specially trained experts, spend their share of time wrangling wildfires. But they are also applying a science-based strategy to reintroduce and manage fire on the landscapes that naturally need it.

There are just a dozen or so certified Type 1 Wildland Fire Modules across the country, highly trained groups of firefighters prepared to dispatch quickly to remote terrain, equipped with enough gear and food for at least two weeks. Most are run by the National Park Service or Forest Service. The Conservancy’s module is unique for being nongovernmental, and it is dedicated to not only fighting fires but also lighting them. Its members are trained to use prescribed burns—blazes ignited under carefully controlled conditions—and to manage, rather than just suppress, naturally occurring fires as part of a healthy ecosystem.

Since its creation in 2008, this Colorado-based crew has carried out about 60 prescribed burns on some 16,000 acres, and trained hundreds to tackle similar work.

 

“Keepers of the Flame”

Nature Conservancy Magazine, August/September 2016