Author: Zaffos

Harry Reid exits the ring

Harry Reid exits the ring

Senator Harry Reid (UNLV Photo Services / Geri Kodey, via Center for American Progress Action Fund)

Senator Harry Reid retired in December 2016 at age 77, leaving an impressive public-lands legacy, forged through compromises. During his five terms in Congress, Nevada went from having fewer than 67,000 acres of federal wilderness to nearly 3.4 million acres, plus new national parks and conservation areas. “And every piece of legislation was mine,” says Reid. “It hurt my political career in some places, but it was worth it because it was good for the state.”

Reid traces his own environmental awareness to his youthful visits to Piute Springs, a Mojave Desert oasis a day’s bumpy drive from the remote mining town of Searchlight, where he grew up. When he returned home as an adult to show his wife his beloved refuge, the springs and a nearby old military fort had been trashed. “Since that day, I have done everything I can to preserve the environment,” Reid says, including helping to create the Mojave Natural Preserve, which protected the springs.

A Mormon convert and one-time boxer, Reid paired a commitment to Nevada and the environment with a pragmatic but stubborn tenacity. Representing a state with minimal, albeit growing, political influence, Reid became the Democrats’ ranking Senate leader. He jockeyed Obamacare and the 2009 stimulus package through a polarized Congress. He fended off plans to locate a high-level nuclear waste dump in Nevada, and helped develop his state’s renewable energy industry. And while his environmental record isn’t spotless, his accomplishments serve as proof of his ability to flat-out get things done in Washington.

“Harry Reid exits the ring”

High Country News, February 20, 2017

House Republicans want to ‘repeal and replace’ the ESA

House Republicans want to ‘repeal and replace’ the ESA

The Gunnison sage grouse is a threatened species protected under the Endangered Species Act (Photo via U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Utah Congressman Rob Bishop is leading a charge to completely repeal the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Since 1973, the ESA has enabled the federal government to recognize species as “threatened” or “endangered,” and to set rules and restrictions on human activity to protect and recover at-risk wildlife, fish, insects and plants. The act is considered a global beacon for preventing extinction, and environmentalists insist that the ESA rarely blocks development.

But Bishop and other Republicans instead see a law that creates expensive and time-consuming regulations for landowners and industries, with few success stories. For years, they have tried to modify and weaken the law. But Bishop has even said the ESA is so dysfunctional that lawmakers may “simply have to start over again,” and “repeal it and replace it.” That might mean giving state wildlife management agencies primary responsibility for species conservation. Protections could vary widely, and since states get their funds from hunting licenses and fees, they might be tempted to prioritize game management over at-risk species.

ESA proponents have so far largely succeeded in fending off the attacks. But with Donald Trump on his way to the White House, a conservative Republican Congress, and a soon-to-be conservative-leaning Supreme Court, environmentalists and legal scholars are taking Bishop’s threat seriously.

“Any Congressional action that would weaken the Endangered Species Act at all would be pretty dramatic,” says Dan Rohlf, a professor at Lewis and Clark Law School in Portland. “What Rep. Bishop is talking about would be a major decision in the environmental history of this country.”

“House Republicans want to ‘repeal and replace’ the ESA”

High Country News, December 28, 2016

A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition

A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition

Initiative 732 supporters get ready to canvass in Seattle (Photo courtesy of CarbonWA campaign)

Soon, Washingtonians will vote on Initiative 732. It would be the first statewide carbon tax in the U.S., and a major step toward reducing climate-changing pollution. For Court Olson, a civil engineer and long-time Sierra Club member, voting ‘yes’ on the measure is a no-brainer. “We desperately need to get off fossil fuels and incentivize clean energy,” he says. “And the most effective first step is to put a price on fossil fuels and carbon emissions.” Initiative 732, in his view, is “the right thing to do.”

And yet the proposal has run into some surprising opposition — from environmentalists, social-justice groups and the state Democratic Party. The Sierra Club and Washington Environmental Council have taken formal positions opposing the measure, while the climate activist group 350 Seattle endorsed and then unendorsed it this summer. Meanwhile, many of these groups’ members, including Olson, are campaigning for I-732. 

“A tax on carbon pollution faces surprising opposition”

High Country News, October 25, 2016

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

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions

Climate activists protest a BLM oil and gas lease sale in Denver in May 2016 (JZ)

Lease sales, where energy companies bid for the right to drill for oil and gas on federal land, used to be mundane events. But lately they’ve become raucous, with climate activists in Salt Lake City, Denver and Reno urging the government to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Eventually, they hope to end public-lands drilling altogether.

In response, some industry leaders want auctions to move online — eBay style. The Bureau of Land Management agrees, and will host its first online sale this September. Explaining the move to Congress this March, BLM Director Neil Kornze said online sales are cheaper to host and will speed up transactions. He added that the agency is on “heightened alert” and concerned about safety as a result of incidents like the militia occupation at Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. “And so a situation that we are not used to — separating out who is a bidder and who is not — gives us pause,” Kornze said.

So far, environmentalists are uncertain whether an online system will help or hurt their cause. “If this is part of a broader effort to make BLM processes more efficient and transparent, it’s a great idea,” says Nada Culver, director of The Wilderness Society’s BLM Action Center. But if it simply allows energy companies to escape growing scrutiny, “it’s not progress.”

“‘Keep It in the Ground’ prompts online oil and gas leasing auctions”

High Country News, July 20, 2016

How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?

How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?

Donald Trump Jr. speaks with Field & Stream editor Mike Toth at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership Western Media Summit, June 2016 (JZ)

While speaking at a media summit in June 2016 in Fort Collins, Colorado, Donald Trump Jr. defended keeping federal lands managed by the government and open to the public. He also reiterated his father’s strong support for U.S. energy development, proposed some corporate sponsorships in national parks, questioned humans’ role in climate change, and criticized Hillary Clinton for “pandering” to hunters with “phoniness.”

Trump Jr. has served as an adviser to his father on natural-resources issues and has even joked with family that, should his father win, he’d like to be Secretary of the Interior, overseeing national parks and millions of acres of federal public lands. In Fort Collins, he said he’s not “the policy guy,” but repeated his frequent pledge to be a “loud voice” for preserving public lands access for sportsmen. Trump Jr. also mocked some gun-control measures, such as ammunition limits, boasting, “I have a thousand rounds of ammunition in my vehicle almost at all times because it’s called two bricks of .22 … You know, I’ll blow…through that with my kids on a weekend.”

“How will Trump act on conservation and public lands?”

High Country News, June 28, 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

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects

Cars drive on County Road 43, in Larimer County, Colorado, past a road reconstruction project after the 2013 floods. Some bridge-building may have contributed to a fish die-off (Photo via Larimer Country Road 43 Public Infrastructure Project)

In March 2016, a resident of the small Colorado towns of Drake and Glen Haven — situated within northern Colorado’s Big Thompson River Canyon — reported noticing funky gray water in a side creek of the river and a murder of crows picking at a few dead fish. A few days later, March 7, a large plume of more cloudy water ran down the Big Thompson, leaving behind a massive fish kill. Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials now confirm that more than 5,600 fish, mostly rainbow and brown trout, died in the Big Thompson and its North Fork, and are blaming concrete from a bridge reconstruction project, part of the state’s massive recovery and reconstruction effort following the devastating September 2013 floods.

The die-off is alarming news for the Big Thompson, a popular fly fishing river among tourists and locals, which formerly generated an annual $4.3 million for the region. Larry Rogstad, Colorado Parks and Wildlife Area Manager, says the “iconic” fishery is also important as one of the only rivers in Colorado with wild rainbow trout free of whirling disease. The 2013 floods had already knocked back the river’s fish populations, and Rogstad estimates the recent incident killed more than half of the estimated fish within an eight-mile-long downstream stretch of river.

Jeff Crane, a consulting river hydrologist and restoration expert, says he’s surprised at the magnitude of the fish kill. But he adds that it’s also important to recognize the complexity and ambition behind recovery projects aiming to improve rivers’ natural functions and flood resiliency.

For instance, the previously straightened river now bends and courses through the middle of the canyon, while several new bridges are replacing buried culverts that typically get blocked or exceed capacity during flooding. “We’re actually ‘building’ a whole new river,” says Crane, a proponent of “natural channel design” that mimics natural landforms and uses less grouted rock, or riprap, than conventional flood-protection measures. Despite the fish kill, the local restoration should improve fish and aquatic habitat and reduce flooding damage in the long run, Crane says.

“Thousands of fish die in Colorado, amid flood recovery projects”

High Country News, April 26, 2016

In bison recovery, scientists start small

In bison recovery, scientists start small

The Laramie Foothills Bison Conservation Herd, at the City of Fort Collins’ Soapstone Prairie Natural Area (Photo: City of Fort Collins Natural Areas)

Up to 60 million bison once wandered the plains. The largest land mammal in North America, the bison is now recognized as a keystone species that helps maintain the ecology of grasslands. Their grazing habits influence the diversity of forbs and grasses, and their hooves help aerate the soil. Even their dirt wallows create seasonal habitat for birds and affect how fire moves through grasslands.

Today, there are an estimated 500,000 scattered across the plains but nearly all are managed as livestock, destined to become buffalo burger. Fewer than 21,000 are part of 62 “conservation herds” that are managed for environmental purposes with limited human intervention, and many of those have cattle genes. Even fewer genetically pure animals are considered truly free-roaming and “wild.” Many scientists consider the species to be ecologically extinct, meaning that its functional role in the landscape has been eliminated.

So while the reintroduction of 10 bison in Colorado’s Laramie Foothills may not sound like that big a deal, genetically pure conservation herds like this one are a crucial step toward restoring wild bison to the Western landscape. They could help calm ranchers’ longstanding worries about disease, and over time new herds have the potential to become self-sustaining populations that more closely resemble historic herds — if, that is, state and local managers are willing to give them room to grow.

“In bison recovery, scientists start small”

High Country News, April 6, 2016

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