Author: Zaffos

Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound

Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound

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. (JZ)

When the afternoon work break ends at Saratoga Forest Management, an earsplitting ruckus resumes as dozens of sawmill workers return to their posts. Inside the two-story facility, timber is debarked, sawed, sorted and sent to dry in a kiln. By day’s end, the mill will crank out 300,000 board feet of premium studs — enough framing lumber for about 20 average-sized American houses. Not bad for a business that was sitting idle 18 months ago.

All the lumber produced here comes from pine-beetle-killed or infected lodgepole pine and Engelmann spruce, with many studs carrying the distinctive blue stain of beetle damage. Saratoga, a small southern Wyoming town of fewer than 1,700, sits in the midst of the state’s most severe pine-beetle outbreak, says Clint Georg, who reopened the mill with partners in January 2013 after a 10-year lull.

The Saratoga mill and another recently restarted stud mill in Montrose, Colorado, are reviving the Rocky Mountain region’s wood-products industry. Both use beetle-killed wood to produce lumber. The byproducts, like sawdust and wood chips, are used by other businesses to make stove pellets, building materials and other goods. Other scraps go to a biomass power plant to produce electricity. Together, these industries are putting beetle-killed trees to use, perhaps reducing forest fire risks in the process. Yet the mills remain hampered by a lack of raw materials.

The Forest Service now sells far fewer board-feet than it once did, as the agency emphasizes new-era forestry that relies less on logging the biggest trees. The stud mills, lacking enough timber, can’t run at full capacity. They need logs and timber sales to stay afloat, Georg says, and the businesses using the byproducts need the mills.

With wood trickling in instead of flowing, Georg and others are worried that the uptick in their business may not last. Neither the industry nor the agency has quite figured out how to restore forest health while guaranteeing a steady flow of timber.

“Rocky Mountain sawmills rebound”

High Country News, November 10, 2014

The Cradle of Wilderness

The Cradle of Wilderness

Trappers Lake, White River National Forest, Colorado (Photo via USFS)

In the summer of 1919, the Forest Service dispatched Arthur Carhart, a young landscape architect, to survey Trappers Lake in western Colorado’s Flat Tops—a remote and rugged corner of the state spiked with volcanic cliffs and lush forests. Carhart’s assignment: Plan a new road that would circle the lake and provide access for 100 homes and a marina. After taking in the pristine setting, Carhart couldn’t do it. He returned to his bosses with an entirely different concept. He called for the road to end before the lake and said its shores and woods should be preserved from development. “There are portions of natural scenic beauty which are God-made,” he wrote in a 1919 memo for a forest supervisor, “and…which of a right should be the property of all people.” The plea won over the Forest Service; it made Trappers Lake off-limits to new roads and logging and mining.

The strict protection for Trappers Lake served as a template for what became known as “wilderness.” Carhart’s vision set in motion a four decade–long political battle to officially preserve many of the country’s natural areas that culminated in the creation of the Wilderness Act 50 years ago last month. “Carhart changed the course of how we manage national forests and other public lands,” says Ken Coffin, district ranger for the White River National Forest’s Blanco District, which includes Trappers Lake.

“The Cradle of Wilderness”

5280 Magazine, October 2014

Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise

Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise

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

Seven upstream dams  have already altered flows, reduced fish populations, and affected communities along portions of the Lower Mekong River, which flows through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But the impacts may soon get much worse as a new era of hydroelectric dam-building begins in the Lower Mekong Basin. Eleven major hydroelectric dams — mostly within Laos — and dozens of dams on tributary streams that feed into the Mekong have been proposed or are under construction.

River experts say that if a dam-building boom proceeds as planned, it could diminish essential flood pulses and decimate fisheries and riverside gardens that are dependent on variable flows and sediment. That, in turn, would affect the diets and livelihoods of 40 million people dependent on the Mekong, the “greatest inland fishery in the world,” according to Ian Baird, a geographer at the University of Wisconsin who lived and studied in Laos for 15 years.

“Life on Mekong Faces Threats As Major Dams Begin to Rise”

Yale Environment 360, February 20, 2014

Water projects stuck in regulatory limbo

Water projects stuck in regulatory limbo

Construction of Moffat Tunnel near Denver, 1936 (Denver Water)
Construction of Moffat Tunnel near Denver, 1936 (Denver Water)

In the past decade, Jeff Drager has watched his two daughters grow up, graduate from high school and college and start their first jobs. Yet he’s still stuck on the same project at work – winning state and federal approval to build a new water reservoir.

Begun in 2003 and scheduled to be up and running by 2011, the project, known as the Windy Gap Firming Project, like many others across the state, still is mired in regulatory delays.

Whether or when Windy Gap will be built is still unclear 10 years after the first regulatory review took place.

Three other major water projects face similar delays and uncertainty.

Similar delays and cost overruns have plagued nearly every other major Colorado water-development project that has sought regulatory approval since the 1990 defeat of Two Forks Dam.

After more than a decade of drought and a new wave of growth, water utility planners believe the project review system is broken and must be fixed. Legal experts and environmental watchdogs say the projects themselves are outdated in concept and that utilities need to rethink how they obtain, store and deliver water.

Drew Beckwith, a policy analyst with the Boulder-based Western Resource Advocates, compares large water projects to the lyrics of sad country-western songs: They’re always late and in need of money. They don’t live up to expectations and they’re risky. Beckwith said he believes the delays and overruns are more indicative of a planning issue than a process problem.

“It’s no surprise that the environmental-review process takes a long time,” he said. “These are big, complex projects that have lots of impacts on communities and the environment, and it’s appropriate to take a long hard look.”

“Water projects stuck in regulatory limbo”

BizWest (Northern Colorado Business Report), September 6, 2013

Busting Out of Boom and Bust

Busting Out of Boom and Bust

Methane flaring from natural gas well (image via Ecowatch)
Methane flaring from natural gas well (image via Ecowatch)

From the growing mountain town of Carbondale, Jock Jacober and his three sons operate Crystal River Meats, processing grass-fed beef that he and other local ranchers raise. Started in 1999, the specialty business has grown to distribute to Whole Foods and Natural Grocers supermarkets. Most of the ranchers rely on U.S. Forest Service grazing leases in Coal Basin and other designated roadless parcels in the Thompson Divide. “For 100 years, guys have been running cattle up there,” Jacober says. “It’s a good place to grow food for the valley.”

Jacober, the son of a petroleum geologist, says, “I’ve watched energy development all my life across the West.” …  In the past decade, companies have employed hydraulic fracturing—the use of chemical-laden fluids to crack open and reach shale-rock and tight-sands formations—to drill tens of thousands of oil and gas wells on private and public lands in western Colorado, and the industry isn’t done yet. This latest boom in the West’s energy cycle threatens the region’s landscape on a scale larger than any other.

While ranchers like Jacober hold grazing leases in the Thompson Divide, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has leased the mineral rights to the ground underneath for oil and gas exploration. Since 2008, Jacober and other locals have been working to protect the expansive public landscape.

“Virtually all of the guys we run with think that if you get development started up there, we’ll eventually be out of business,” says Jacober, who sits on the board of directors of the Thompson Divide Coalition, a group of ranchers, local officials, farmers, river runners, hunters, and environmentalists. “There won’t be range for cattle anymore. It’ll be range for trucks hauling water and fracking fluid and for pipelines.”

“Busting Out of Boom and Bust”

Sierra Magazine, July/August 2013

 

Port Gamble Predicament

Port Gamble Predicament

Meeting of Kitsap Forest & Bay Project at Port Gamble S'Klallam Reservation, April 2012
Meeting of Kitsap Forest & Bay Project at Port Gamble S’Klallam Reservation, April 2012

A western Washington tribe and timber country are trying to put 160 years of sticky history aside to protect the local forests and bay shorelines, including shellfish beds that still provide subsistence meals for local Indians.

My November 26 cover story for High Country News explores how a shared past is complicating efforts for a promising future on Port Gamble Bay. For the story, I made two visits to western Washington (including on a reporters’ expedition through the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources), and spent time amid the forests, shorelines and communities surrounding Port Gamble.

 

 

 

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The Ever-Evolving Farmer

The Ever-Evolving Farmer

lamar hay crew 1912
Hay crew, Deeter Farm, Lamar, Colo., 1912 (Source:www.waterarchives.org)

During a summer of drought, farmers, ranchers and agricultural researchers in Colorado are living with and adjusting to environmental changes and economic realities. I wrote on Colorado farmers’ adaptations and attitudes  during dry times (“The Ever-Evolving Farmer”) in the Fall 2012 issue of Headwaters Magazine.

 

 

 

 

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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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Species Road to Recovery

Species Road to Recovery

Gunnison sage grouse (via Western State College of Colorado)

Thousands of birds, wildlife, fish and plant species — including the Gunnison sage grouse and dunes sagebrush lizard — will be considered for protection through the Endangered Species Act over the next few years, but energy companies, and developers are hoping to avoid federal restrictions through voluntary plans. I cover the efforts and battles over species recovery for High Country News in its May 28, 2012 issue.

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