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

How a plan to save southeastern Colorado went off the rails

How a plan to save southeastern Colorado went off the rails

Steve Wooten and R.C. Patterson at the Mustang Pavilion, in Kim, Colorado (JZ)

About a decade ago, the Army proposed a massive $1 billion expansion of the site, up to 7 million acres. It would have involved seizing private lands — through a legal process called eminent domain — across most of the southeastern corner of the state, an area bigger than Maryland, displacing more than 17,000 people.

A feisty group of local ranchers, farmers, businesses and officials sprang up in response. Wooten became vice president of the Piñon Canyon Opposition Coalition, which allied with university scholars and conservation groups. They surveyed the area and identified its rare and impressive natural and historical resources, including neo-tropic bird migration stopovers and centuries-old Native, Hispanic and Anglo artifacts. In late 2013, congressional representatives from Colorado convinced the military to withdraw the waiver allowing the expansion. Somehow, this ragtag group of ranchers, farmers and nature-lovers had defeated the world’s largest military.

But even as they celebrated their victory, Wooten saw other challenges looming: a long-lasting drought, an up-and-down livestock market, struggling ranches and dying downtowns. “We see our young people not coming back from college and opening new businesses here because they don’t see an economic chance. We have more attrition than we have growth,” Wooten says. “That should be a wakeup call.”

Wooten’s family sells landscaping stones, raises horses, and opens its lands to hunting, art workshops and “guest ranching” to get by. That led him and others to embrace the idea of “heritage tourism” — bringing in visitors who want to experience an area’s natural and human history. Perhaps they could preserve the region’s resources, avert future Army expansions, bring in money and even attract new residents.

“My thought is, how do you create a community that is economically stronger and more diversified and balanced, and I saw a heritage area as a tool to help us do that,” says Wooten.

He had no idea that garnering the necessary support would make defeating the U.S. Army seem almost easy in comparison.

“How a plan to save southeastern Colorado went off the rails”

High Country News, November 23, 2015

Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?

Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?

The Arkansas River, swollen by heavy spring rains in 2015, in rural Crowley County, Colorado (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

Colorado cities have siphoned more than 100,000 acre-feet of ag water — enough for about 200,000 homes — from the Arkansas River Basin alone since the 1970s. In Crowley County, farming has vanished, school-class sizes are half what they were 50 years ago, and tumbleweeds from dried-up fields pile up along fences and block roads. “That’s what they’re stuck with, because there’s no more water,” says John Schweizer, a farmer and rancher in neighboring Otero County. “It’s gone forever.”

Schweizer is president of the 35-mile-long Catlin Canal, which irrigates about 18,000 acres of farms. He’s hoping that the trial run of something called the Arkansas Valley Super Ditch will save the basin’s remaining communities and farms. The initiative is not actually a big ditch, but rather a scheme that allows six of the valley’s irrigation canals to pool their water rights and temporarily lease them to cities. Starting in March, five Catlin irrigators “leased” a total of 500 acre-feet of water, which would normally supply their fields, to nearby Fowler and the cities of Fountain and Security, 80 miles away. Under the agreement, communities can use the farm water to supply homes and recharge wells for up to three years out of every decade. During those years, the irrigators will have to fallow, or rest, some fields, yet will still be able to earn money from the water itself and farm the rest of their land.

Supporters believe the Super Ditch could eventually enable farms and cities to share up to 10,000 acre-feet of water. “We look at leasing water just like raising a crop,” says Schweizer, who is avoiding any potential conflict of interest by keeping his own farm out of the pilot. “It is a source of income, and anybody who’s doing that can have the water next year if they want to farm with it. And they are still in the valley, so the community stays viable.”

Statewide, cities have acquired at least 191,000 acre-feet of agricultural water, eliminating farming and ranching on millions of acres. Water managers estimate Colorado could lose up to 700,000 more acres by 2050. Like Schweizer, officials consider water leasing, also called lease-fallowing or rotational fallowing, a promising way to slow that loss while satisfying urban thirst, particularly since alternatives like new dams and other big water-development projects face regulatory hurdles and environmentalist opposition. Colorado’s draft water plan suggests the state could meet up to 50,000 acre-feet of its future water needs — and avoid more buy-and-dry — through such water-sharing deals.

“Can leasing irrigation water keep Colorado farms alive?”

High Country News, June 8, 2015

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