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

What the U.S. can learn from European coal miners’ second act

What the U.S. can learn from European coal miners’ second act

People at an outdoor plaza and café at Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex in Essen, Germany. The site is an UNESCO World Heritage site (Photo by Fredrik Linge via Flickr)

People linger at an outdoor café, children run around a park, and visitors tour a former coal mine, now a thriving museum. The one-time industrial site, which includes an events center, restaurants, and even a Ferris wheel, attracted 1.5 million visitors over the past five years. Zollverein, Germany, once home to one of Europe’s largest coal mines, is now a retail and tourist destination.

The second act at Zollverein may provide inspiration — or aggravation — for down-and-out coal communities in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and elsewhere in the West. March 31, 2016 has become known as Black Thursday in Wyoming since Arch Coal and Peabody Energy announced 465 layoffs at two major mines, amid recent Chapter 11 bankruptcy filings by Arch, Alpha Natural Resources and Peabody. Given the combination of crashing prices, bankruptcies, and a global push to phase out fossil fuels, the layoffs are likely just beginning.

In northeastern Wyoming, where coal provides one out of every 10 jobs and has generated billions of dollars for schools, roads and other public services, plans for a popular museum or conference center seem far-fetched. Good jobs are scarce outside the energy industry, and retirement benefits from faltering companies seem uncertain. Many locals wonder how their small towns will survive.  Given all this, the official government response feels underwhelming.

While Zollverein is a long way from the Powder River Basin — the German mine is near a city of almost 600,000 people — U.S. economists and policy analysts are eyeing Europe, where governments, companies and unions are charting a different path toward life after coal. Overseas, coalfields are also facing job cuts, but unemployment benefits generally last longer, job training and economic-development programs are more extensive and retirement benefits better protected. “The safety net is much different in Europe,” says Robert Godby, a University of Wyoming economist.

“What the U.S. can learn from European coal miners’ second act”

High Country News, May 16, 2016

How some Western cities are leading on climate action

How some Western cities are leading on climate action

This community solar farm in Fort Collins will reduce CO2 emissions by 39,500 tons over its 50-year lifetime (Photo courtesy: Poudre Valley REA)

A college town of 155,000 people known for its beers and bike lanes, Fort Collins, Colorado, adopted an ambitious climate action plan this past spring to cut its carbon emissions 80 percent by 2030 and be carbon-neutral by 2050. The initiative lacks worldwide reach, but it outpaces the goals of the Paris pact, with an aggressive timeline matched by only a few other cities, including Seattle, Copenhagen and Sydney. Even as world leaders have dragged their feet, taking 21 frustrating years and annual conferences to finally set some climate goals,  cities like Fort Collins have charged ahead, determined to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions to avoid ecological catastrophe. 

The city passed its first action plan and started measuring its emissions in 1999. With its purple political background and acknowledged need to wean itself from coal power, Fort Collins could serve as a blueprint for other, similarly sized communities.

Even though the city’s last four mayors have all leaned to the right politically, they have all generally supported climate action. Current Mayor Wade Troxell, a Republican, was among 27 mayors who penned a letter to President Obama this June, asking him to “fight for the strongest possible climate agreement” in Paris and “for federal action to establish binding national greenhouse gas emissions reductions here at home.” While other politically fraught issues, from a city fracking moratorium to relaxed public-nudity laws, have recently split the council, it unanimously approved the aggressive new climate-action plan this spring.

“How some Western cities are leading on climate action”

High Country News, January 13, 2016

Highway injustice in Denver’s Latino neighborhoods

Highway injustice in Denver’s Latino neighborhoods

A rendition of the highway cover alternative for I-70 in Denver that would add a new park space near Swansea Elementary School. (Courtesy Colorado Department of Transportation)

One of Colorado’s most congested highways, I-70 East badly needs repairs or replacement. But the six-lane highway also cuts off Latino neighborhoods’ access to other parts of the city, and its air pollution contributes to some of Denver’s highest rates of asthma and cardiovascular disease.

Neighborhood residents fear that plans to replace it with a larger, partially belowground highway could just exacerbate their problems. What’s more, they claim planners are ignoring a cheaper, community-friendly alternative.

“Highway injustice in Denver’s Latino neighborhoods”

High Country News, December 21, 2015

Logging On and Off

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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Dams & Other Obstacles on the Mekong

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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