Category: Public Lands

Stories about public lands policy and management

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds

An oil rig on the Pawnee National Grassland, Colorado (Photo via US Forest Service)

An hour’s drive northeast of Denver and encompassing an area twice the size of the city, the Pawnee National Grassland’s whopping diversity of songbirds and raptors has earned the area a reputation as a birder’s paradise. Some people drive hundreds of miles and fly in from around the world each summer to view mountain plovers and burrowing owls, lark buntings and McCowns’s longspurs.

But in recent years, birders have begun spotting a whole other family of beasts nesting in the Pawnee. Oil and gas drilling has skyrocketed in the area over the past decade, part of a nationwide industry boom that has tapped underground shale formations up and down Colorado’s Front Range. Just as he tracks the birds he sees, Gary Lefko notes the pump jacks and well pads that have sprung up on the grassland. On some outings, he has seen dozens of tall blue flames from flare stacks, burning off unused methane and glowing in the half dark in and around the Pawnee. Along state highway 14, which runs through the grassland, Lefko and his wife count the tank batteries — silos that store oil — and other industry equipment that keeps filling in pieces of the prairie. “There’s more every time,” Lefko says.

Amid the massive grassland, the industry impacts may not seem like much. The Pawnee still mostly looks like an empty, undeveloped canvas of greens and browns. But each new well pad and scraped patch of ground and every truck that rumbles along and kicks up dust from the dirt roads affects this subtly beautiful ecosystem. The piecemeal energy development destroys bird and wildlife habitat and alters the shortgrass prairie in ways that even scientists don’t fully understand. Some compare the impacts to death by a thousand cuts for the flora and fauna of grasslands already in decline.

“The BLM Just Sold More Leases on the Pawnee — and Environmentalists Say That’s for the Birds”

Westword, July 28, 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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Sifting Through Soapstone

Sifting Through Soapstone

Replica of a bison vertebrae pierced by a prehistoric spear point, from Soapstone Prairie Natural Area.
Replica of a bison vertebrae pierced by a prehistoric spear point, from Soapstone Prairie Natural Area.

Soapstone Prairie holds archaeological clues to the living, eating and travel habits of people since the last Ice Age. And researchers are still unearthing new artifacts and forging theories at the 19,000-acre high-plains natural area outside Fort Collins.

My Spring 2013 story for Fort Collins Magazine, “Sifting Through Soapstone,” covers my travels on the prairie with Colorado State University archaeologist Jason LaBelle, and what Soapstone’s prehistoric treasure trove tells us about how early human settlers migrated across and lived on the North American landscape.

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One Last Look Across the Range

One Last Look Across the Range

BobAbbey
Bob Abbey speaking at public meeting in eastern Montana, September 2010

The chief of America’s largest land-management agency sat down to share some parting wisdom with me before retiring and after nearly 3 decades of working on environmental challenges across the West.

My interview with former director U.S. Bureau of Land Management director Bob Abbey, “Abbey’s Road,” ran online for High Country News in October 2012.

 

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Timber Road Rage

Timber Road Rage

Chris Winter, of Crag Law Center, checks out logging- runoff impacts on the Tillamook State Forest.

A battle over the effects of logging and roads on salmon streams and drinking water is moving up to the Supreme Court, with sides disagreeing over just how perilous the problem — or a solution — is. I visited the Tillamook State Forest in Oregon — ground zero for logging runoff — this spring to look into the issue for High Country News.

My July 23, 2012 article, “Oregon ignores logging road runoff, to the peril of native fish,” looks at environmentalists’ concerns over runoff impacts from timber operations in the Pacific Northwest and beyond, and the claims behind their lawsuit.

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