Skip to content Skip to navigation

Beyond the Coal Boom: Powder River Basin Residents Look to a Diversified Future

Alan Propp
Mar 6 2017

A coal train rumbles through central Gillette, Wyoming in February

A coal train rumbles through central Gillette, Wyoming in February.    Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

By Alan Propp

In the heart of the Powder River Basin — the wellspring of more than 40 percent of the coal mined in the United States — nearly every coffee shop and restaurant displays a poster that reads: “Stay Strong, Gillette.” This exhortation to a coal town on the skids is underscored by the image of a haul truck, one of the massive machines with 13-foot wheels that rumble 24/7 through a dozen nearby mines.

Gillette is, both literally and figuratively, built upon coal and related industries. Full mile-and-a-half-long coal trains inch through highway overpasses, winding past billboards promoting coal machinery factories and parts-repair companies. Now, however, the trains are fewer and farther between, and their paths are dotted with signs reading “For sale” and “We’re moving!” Last March, miners’ worst fears came true when Peabody Energy and Arch Coal executives called workers in and, one by one, handed them envelopes with their weekly schedule — or a severance package.

Last March, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal laid off more than 500 miners on a day that has become known as “Black Thursday.”

The companies laid off more than 500 miners on March 31, 2016, a day that has become known as “Black Thursday.” The impact of subsequent bankruptcies of coal companies Arch, Peabody, and Alpha rippled through the community. By the end, Gillette — a town of around 32,00 people — had lost over 2,500 coal-related jobs, and no one knew when the bleeding would stop. The fear was palpable.

The nationwide decline of coal is testing the resilience of the Powder River Basin. Residents used to a thriving economy, a top-notch education system, and an excess of job opportunities are learning to live with less. They are wondering, too, if the economy of the area can be changed, so life is less of an economic roller coaster.

For some, the latest downturn is just part of the boom-and-bust life. For others, however, it represents a wake-up call that cannot be ignored if the character of the community is to persist. As Eric Trauger, a Gillette teacher, puts it: “Stay strong Gillette, sure; but also get smart, Gillette. We need to change.”

Coal is not the first mineral to buoy the fortunes of Gillette and Campbell County. For years, jobs and income poured in from cyclical oil plays. But the rise of cheap natural gas has meant a decline in oil and coal. The crash of both provides a sharp motivator for change. Toby Pierson, a miner at the Black Thunder mine, compares this newfound awareness to the new attitudes stemming from the change in Washington. “Now everybody’s sitting on the edge of their seats, wondering what’s going to happen next. Now we pay attention, because we’re not as safe as we used to be.” 

Tax and economic reform in Wyoming often starts in the bust phase of the economic cycle but grinds to a halt as soon as a resource boom occurs. Phil Christopherson, the chief executive of Energy Capital Economic Development (a Gillette-based organization that attempts to drive economic diversification) believes that during bust times the state needs to set the foundation for future stability.

The Workings of a Powerhouse in Peril

A haul truck ascends from the open pit at the Black Thunder Mine south of Gillette.

A haul truck ascends from the open pit at the Eagle Butte Mine north of Gillette.   Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

The scale of coal mining in the Powder River Basin is nearly unfathomable. Huge haul trucks are dwarfed by draglines that remove up to 500,000 pounds of overburden (surface material blocking access the coal) at once and dump it in areas of the pit that have already been excavated. Massive explosions echo off the walls of the mines, loosening the overburden and coal and making it easier for shovels to gouge out the coal and load it on haul trucks. The coal, once crushed in a machine called a hopper, is loaded onto mile-and-a-half long trains that transport it to power plants that generate electricity for more than 38 states. Much of it goes just across the border in South Dakota, but some ends up as far as Arkansas and Georgia. In a nation until recently addicted to coal as its primary electricity-producing resource, the Powder River Basin’s 12 mines occupy a role of massive importance. 

A National Powerhouse: Wyoming’s Coal Country

Buffeted by low resource prices in recent years, Wyoming's coal industry is retrenching – laying off workers, then rehiring some of them as independent contractors without benefits or job security. It’s a steep decline for a longtime anchor of the economy of Campbell County in northeastern Wyoming. The countryside surrounding Gillette, Wyoming, is home to some of the largest coal mines in the United States, exporting low-sulfur coal to dozens of states. Below are some production figures for the coal industry just prior to the recent slowdown.

Coal Production by Mine in Campbell County, Wyoming, 2014

Destination States for Coal Exports, 2014

Powder River Basin coal production, 2001-2015

Annual Powder River Basin coal production, 2001-Q3 2016

Sources: Energy Information Administration; Wyoming Mining Association; State Inspector of Mines of Wyoming; Wyoming State Geological Survey; Natural Earth Data    Geoff McGhee
 

The significance of the region’s coal production to the nation is not lost on its residents, who show a sense of pride when talking about their work. That pride, however, is now tinged with the anxiety that comes with the plummeting price of both coal and oil. This decline is driven by the confluence of many factors, primary among which are the cheap abundance of natural gas born of the introduction of horizontal fracturing technology, and more stringent environmental regulations on coal mining.

The Powder River Basin, and Wyoming as a whole, voted heavily pro-Trump; residents are cautiously hopeful that coal companies can halt the production decline when the coming administration eases environmental rules. Few are enamored with President Donald J. Trump himself, but they believe that lighter federal regulations and oversight will allow coal to compete, giving them a reprieve from their economic free fall. Many see coal as too important to the U.S. energy future to fully abandon, and they are relieved to have a president whose views align with theirs.

However, they know that market conditions do not bode well for the future of coal, particularly as natural gas costs trend downward. As Phil Dillinger, a Buffalo-based worker at the Eagle Butte Mine plant, bluntly states: “It’s not rocket science. Natural gas is going to continue to take a bigger slice of the [energy] pie.” According to the latest EIA data, coal and natural gas are nearly even in the percent of US power they produce (around 32 percent) — a dramatic shift from just a decade ago, when coal was around 50 percent and natural gas hovered closer to 20 percent (EIA). 

The bust following a decade of coal boom has led to a sense of exhaustion with the boom-and-bust cycle and a dramatic shift in residents’ outlook for their economic futures. Many were drawn to the region by resource extraction booms in oil, uranium, bentonite, or coal, and have stayed for the community that they found. With expansive plains dotted by pronghorn, stretching from the Bighorn Mountains in the West to the Black Hills in the East, the Powder River Basin offers a stunningly beautiful landscape in which to raise a family, and residents have come together through a shared sense of purpose.

Stacy Moeller, a mine shovel operator at the Caballo mine, in Gillette.
Stacy Moeller, a mine shovel operator at the Caballo mine, in Gillette.   Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West

The coal boom nearly singlehandedly caused the population to spike from 17,600 in 1990 to nearly 30,000 in 2010. As Dillinger said, “Gillette was built by energy. It’s an energy city.” Stacy Moeller, a mine shovel operator at Caballo, similarly credits the Gillette’s success to coal, “our financial base for two decades.” While the cost of this prosperity is the mines that scar the landscape near Gillette, citizens take pride in the post-mining land reclamation process, which returns the land to its original image. They speak with pride of the flourishing ecology of reclaimed land, the lack of invasive species, and the removal of any indication that coal was ever extracted there. 

The selfsame connection to coal that drove Gillette’s rise, however, precipitated the town’s steep fall since coal’s peak in 2007. Norman Grams, a museum docent who has witnessed Gillette’s flourishing over his 68 years in the town, admits that it is the first time that everything is down. The coincidence of low coal and oil prices means few economic options are left, and the loss of income means a loss of the underpinning of basic institutions.



Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

The education system (a large source of state pride) is among the state’s first victims. This loss that hurts keenly, economic planners say, since future generations will inevitably require a strong education more than ever. Extractive industries boosted the Wyoming education system’s quality, propelling it to among top five states in the nation in per-student spending. However, the state now faces massive budget cuts; state legislation will likely slash education funding more than $400 million annually.

“We’re down about 500 kids in Campbell County alone,” says Jenny Mashak, a Gillette teacher. “Statewide we’ve lost about 1000.” Teachers, as much as anyone in the region, are learning to do more with less: picking up extra hours for less pay and fewer students. These cuts hurt particularly because education will be critical to the region’s future should coal (and other resource extractive industries) continue to decline. As new jobs require more technical training, the school and university network in the state will become increasingly important.

Kacee Hardy, another local teacher, outlines the historical trend: “We have so many kids who are like ‘I don’t need school, I’ll just drop out, I don’t need my diploma.’” New industries, however, will more likely require more technical skills and higher education degrees, leading Trauger to believe: “To me, education is the key to downturn-proofing Gillette.’”

For Mike Johnson, the mayor of nearby town Buffalo, “Diversification is going to be huge to avoid these peaks and valleys.” Local governments are coordinating to attract more data, tech jobs, and light manufacturing to Buffalo and nearby cities as part of a larger statewide program.  As Phil Dillinger said, “change happens. Why not be proactive instead of reactive?”

For some, the interest in diversification is a long time in coming. Phil Christopherson has for years tried to attract new industries to the Powder River Basin. One solution, he believes, is to use the natural resources here, not send them East. “Let’s take what we have — minerals — and instead of just shipping them out, let’s build something with the raw materials we have and then ship that finished good out,” he said. Coal can be made into activated carbon (a key ingredient in air and water filtration) carbon fiber (an extremely strong, light metal), and char for agriculture. Now he and others must draw attention to the different possibilities beckoning in a region with plentiful natural resources and a labor force surplus.

Choosing to Hang On, Hoping to Change, or Both



Alan Propp, Bill Lane Center for the American West
 

Many of the laid off workers have been re-hired on a temporary basis, taking pay cuts and the loss of benefits in order to retain employment. Nate Hardy, a miner at Rawhide, sees it as an inconvenient necessity for workers. “I’d have a lot of animosity about coming back to the company that got rid of me, but you do what you gotta do. You gotta make a paycheck,” he tells me. “It’s desperation.” 

A major result of the turmoil has been the erosion of trust in coal companies’ commitment their employees’ interests. It is an industry whose workers’ attitudes are all about their own bottom lines.  Pride in being a part of coal’s world has faded.

They know there are other opportunities beyond coal, and they want to find them. “We’re bright diverse people, and we’re not opposed to change,” says Stacy Moeller. “It’s just those jobs aren’t here yet.”

The truth, for many, is simple: the community that they so value needs to evolve. Phil Dillinger, who has worked in coal for over 15 years and raised a family in Buffalo, has a jaded perspective, thanks to his disappointment in the attitude coal executives’ have shown their workers. Settling into his couch after a 12-hour night shift in freezing conditions, he joked that each day he promises himself he will retire after just one more shift. After a long discussion about the trajectory of coal in the region, he leaned forward and summed up its future, emphasizing each word with clipped hand gestures. “We are now facing a new Powder River Basin.” 

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Conservation Underground: Researchers Propose a Way to Block Subsurface Exploitation

A new paper suggests that “mineral easements” might provide a tool to block hydraulic fracking and the oil and gas wells that have been sources of fear and opposition from New York to California.

 

 

 

Reader Comments

Submit your own thoughts and questions by using the form at the bottom of this page. Entries will be reviewed and posted as we get them.

Elizabeth Zach Sacramento, Calif.

Responding to Beyond the Coal Boom: Powder River Basin Residents Look to a Diversified Future

Re Alan Propp's "Beyond the Coal Boom: Powder River Basin Residents Look to a Diversified Future": I was a media fellow at the Bill Lane Center for the American West in 2015, my reporting project focusing on the growing influence of women farmers and ranchers in the region (as described here in this overview for the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/women-expand-their-home-on-the-r...). As such, I traveled to the Powder River Basin to interview Bernie Barlow, whose husband Bill had deep family roots in the area. Together, they ranched outside of Gillette. When I visited her, she was about ready to leave the ranch and move to a retirement community in Sheridan. We talked at length about her husband's dedication to resource preservation and stewardship and his efforts to fight back Big Energy, as described well here in an undated Sierra Magazine article: http://vault.sierraclub.org/sierra/200605/profile.asp In 1973, Bill and some neighbors met at a local barn and formed the Powder River Basin Resource Council. The group lobbied both state and federal legislators for tougher protections for landowners and the environment and in 1977, the group celebrated passage of the federal Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Yet it seems, unfortunately, just from reading Alan's story that the Council's work has somehow gotten lost in the shuffle of hard economics over the years, an unfortunate and not uncommon narrative in the energy industry.

3/7/2017, 11:38am

Submit a Comment

We'd like to know what you think. We will not share your email address or add you to any lists. If you'd like to be notified about new blog posts and news from the Center, you can join our mailing list.

You will receive emails no more than once a week. We will not share your information.

 

...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Melina Walling, Benek Robertson, Maya Burke, Kate Selig and Francisco L. Nodarse

Articles Worth Reading: July 6, 2021

The Causes of the Drought Explored by specialists, who point out that in the past two decades, precipitation in California is down 10 percent compared to the last century, mimicking the days of the Dust Bowl in the 1920’s and 1930’s — but at a time when things are up to two degrees warmer. Other scientists are finding links between extreme weather — heat waves, droughts, wildfires — and fundamental changes in the jet stream, which serves as a kind of steering current for the atmosphere. It has been leaving enormous high-pressure systems over the northeastern Pacific, deflecting storms headed to California and forming summertime heat domes. Santa Rosa Press Democrat

The Impact of the Northwest Heat Dome: Many Deaths and a Climatologist Confronts Heat Stroke. British Columbia has reported at least 486 “sudden and unexpected deaths” the last five days of June. In Oregon, at least 63 people have died; police note that a preliminary investigation suggested the Pacific Northwest heat wave was responsible. In Washington, at least 20 people died because of heat. In northern California, the climatologist Peter Gleick tells of coming close to heat stroke. Washington Post Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists

More Impacts of the Drought: A Grasshopper Plague, Trees Dying of Thirst and Farmers Razing Almond Trees. Grasshoppers thrive in warm, dry weather, and populations already were up last year, setting the stage for a bigger outbreak now under way. Such outbreaks could become more common as climate change shifts rainfall patterns, scientists said. In Arizona, up to 30 percent of junipers are dying off. In California, farmers are deciding to cut down their almond trees. Associated Press The Conversation Atlas Obscura

Low Wages Lead Firefighters to Leave California. Starting pay for members of highly-trained “hotshot” teams that fight the kind of wildland fires that have devastated the state: $13.45 an hour, similar to what high schoolers make at fast-food restaurants. Unemployment checks can be higher, and their state counterparts are paid twice as much. KNTV Newsweek

New Mexico Oil Boom Brings Production Back to Pre-pandemic Levels. The state’s oil production now exceeds North Dakota’s, putting it No. 2 in the country. Drillers pumped a record 1.18 million barrels a day in March, up from 1.13 million barrels a day in the same month a year ago, legislative staffers told the state's finance committee earlier this week. Texas, the biggest oil-producing state, produced 4.7 million barrels a day in March, down from 5.4 million before the pandemic, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. E&E Daily

The Country’s Cultural Divide Reflected In a Fight Over an Oregon Trail. “Yamhill is the urban-rural divide personified,” said one resident. In Oregon, as in other Western states, The “urban-rural divide” is shorthand for the cultural, Yamhill County received a grant to purchase the abandoned railway right of way to be repurposed it as a public trail. An early phase would span 2.8 miles, connecting the towns of Carlton and Yamhill/ The towns differ widely. Though Carlton grew with timber, wine revived it. Nearly every Main Street storefront houses a wine-tasting room. In Yamhill, most storefronts stand vacant, and yard signs and flags project a different vibe: “Blue Lives Matter” and “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted for Trump.” Trail construction between the towns began in 2020. But by spring 2021, building stopped. High Country News

Vivid Pictures of the Drought’s Impact on the Lake Shasta Reservoir Los Angeles Times

Articles Worth Reading: June 21, 2021

CNN Is Highlighting the Most Relevant Maps of drought conditions, stream flow and projected rainfall. CNN

Small Farmers in California May Take 100,000 Acres Out of Production thanks to the year’s water scarcity. Civil Eats

A Utah Town No Longer Issues Permits for New Buildings requiring water hookups. Oakley, a city of 1,500 people with water supplied by two springs and a well supply the city's water, wants to head off a potential crisis. Leaders at rural water associations in Utah, Arizona and Colorado said the Oakley is likely the first, but not the last, municipality to halt growth in response to water scarcity driven by a megadrought. E&E Daily

The Area of Land Planted in Cotton in the West is Sharply Reduced. Arizona’s cotton acreage is declining while California, which once had one million acres of the finest Pima cotton; this year will plant less than 100,000 acres. Farm Progress

Using AI to Stay One Jump Ahead of Wildfires. Those watching for developing fires to catch them early are turning to a powerful new partner: Since May 1, artificial intelligence software linked to cameras has been sifting through all the images of forest areas in peril, comparing them with historical photographs at a rate impossible for human eyes. If anything looks amiss, the system alerts the dispatch center. The goal is to investigate potential fire starts earlier and get firefighters to them more quickly. In the weeks since Sonoma County fully activated the technology, AI has bested 911 calls by as much as 10 minutes. Scientific American

Interior Secretary Haaland Seeks Restoration of the Utah Monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, recommending this move in a report she sent to the White House. Former President Trump reduced the area of Bears Ears by nearly 85 percent, and cut Grand Staircase-Escalante almost in half in December 2017. President Biden is said to be inclined to overturn Trump’s actions. Washington Post

The History of the Now-Defuct Keystone XL Pipeline was a 13-year arc that began with strong-willed advocates of fossil fuel determined to send Canadian tar sands south through the mountain West and ended this month with the supporters giving up the fight. As the presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said, “It went from a routine infrastructure project to the symbol of an era.” A look at what happened along the way, and how it energized the environmental movement. Insideclimate News

Federal Approval of Transfer of Klamath Dam Licenses seems to ensure success for the plants to dismantle the four dams. Salem Capital Press

A Graphic Look Inside the Strangling of the San Joaquin River and the new possibilities for some sort of renewal for a self-sustaining population of Chinook salmon below the Friant Dam. The effort has met resistance, particularly from agricultural interests. But the San Joaquin and its salmon have also shown tantalizing signs of rebirth. Sierra Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: June 7, 2021

The Wages of a Worsening Drought: Lake Mead, the symbol of the modern, settled West, will soon fall into shortage territory; tensions build at the head of the Klamath River where drought hammers farmers and tribes; the California desert is changing and Joshua trees struggle to survive. Arizona Republic Jefferson Public Radio Los Angeles Times

The Future of the Orcas of the Pacific Northwest is Coming Unmoored, as the muscular imprint of development has changed everything they depend on, from once-plentiful salmon runs to clean water. As Washington state’s population has grown to nearly 8 million and the region continues to boom with the expanding technology industry, salmon and orcas are in a race against time. Seattle Times

Returning Land to Native Control is How Conservation Groups Begin to Choose to accomplish their aims. Looking to indigenous management styles that evolved over many centuries of cultures immersed in nature, some environmental groups are becoming part of a burgeoning movement to repatriate some culturally and ecologically important lands. In 1908 the U.S. government seized some 18,000 acres of land from the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to create the National Bison Range in the heart of their reservation in the mountain-ringed Mission Valley of western Montana. Last December, President Donald Trump signed legislation that began the process of returning the range to the tribes, which manage the range’s bison. Yale Environment 360

To Kill Wolves or Not to Kill Them? That is the question that divides many western state legislatures fro their environmentalist constituents. In recent weeks, legislatures in Montana and Idaho broadened the ability of hunters and trappers to shoot the animals from ATVs and helicopters or set lethal snares. Idaho can now hire private contractors to kills the wolves. Still, the size of wolf herds is increasingly robust. Nonetheless, conservationists are pushing for the federal government to reinstate the finding that wolves deserve protection under the Endangered Species Act, which they lost in 2011. Associated Press

The Theater of Protests Over Old-Growth Logging in British Columbia. The logging is happening on Vancouver Island near the Pacheedaht First Nation’s reserve. All the actors — protestors, Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Natives whose views on logging are not predictable — play their parts. “We’re playing this guessing game between all these protesters and where Pacheedaht stands, and we stand in the middle,” said the Pacheedaht’s former chief councilor, Arliss Jones. “So maybe things didn’t happen perfectly. Nothing ever happens perfectly.” A look at the ritual and the complexity of a fight over old-growth logging. Hakai

A Video Examines the Role that Closed-Door Negotiations With Hunters and Ranchers Played in smoothing the way for creation of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert-High Rock Canyon conservation area. KCET

Articles Worth Reading: May 25, 2021

Campaigners are Pushing Oregon Lawmakers to Impose Rules for Worker Safety During Natural Disasters. After devastating fires that exposed workers to hazardous air quality and dangerous heat conditions, California employers are required to halt operations or provide respirators when the AQI reaches 151, but without similar rules, Oregon farmers, grocery store employees, and others were exposed to an AQI of 500, the highest on the scale. Though state agencies are in early phases of drafting new rules, the regulations may not be ready in time for this year’s fire season. The Oregonian

Democratic Leaders In New Mexico Have Not Passed Meaningful Legislation to Curtail Fossil Fuel Use, despite their promises of a green future. An investigation from Searchlight New Mexico reveals that more than a third of New Mexico’s state budget comes from oil and gas revenue, and that Democrats as well as Republicans accepted large contributions from oil and gas companies. Searchlight New Mexico

California Farmers Are Deciding Which Crops to Save and Which to Jettison as a severe drought puts irrigation systems in jeopardy. That choice often means abandoning labor-intensive foods and concentrating on crops that require less water or are more lucrative. Because of the six-year-old Sustainable Groundwater Management Act, farmers and ranchers can’t depend on groundwater reserves in the future. So they are evaluating their water portfolios, attempting new agricultural techniques, and bracing for losses. That could mean higher prices at the supermarket. San Jose Mercury News

Tazlina Villagers in Rural Alaska Are Fundraising to Buy Back Their Traditional Lands from the Catholic Archdiocese of Anchorage-Juneau, which has put the property up for sale for $1.86 million. The church offered to sell the land to the village before putting it on the open market, but a realtor has suggested that the asking price is high and the villagers are scrambling for funds. Even so, tribal representatives remain optimistic that they will be able to make the purchase. Indian Country Today

A Cultural Group is Crafting Hawaiian Names for Seabirds after European arrivals stripped many of their native taxonomies. Climate change threatens many of the birds in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument; the nomenclature committee hopes the new names will bring new awareness and concern to these vulnerable species. Hakai

The History of Stanford’s Searsville Lake. With this podcast and multimedia piece, KQED’s Bay Curious podcast investigates the history of Searsville Lake at Stanford’s Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve KQED

Dive Into a Detailed Infographic of the Colorado River Basin with this map that explores water, agriculture, and wildfires. Lincoln Institute

Articles Worth Reading: May 10, 2021

The Department of the Interior Dropped a Deregulation Proposal from the Trump administration that would have weakened rules on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic. The proposal, announced in December 2020, was among a series of attempted environmental rollbacks at the end of Trump’s presidency and would have made it easier for drilling companies to file exploration plans. Associated Press

Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon Approved Litigation Funds to sue other states that block energy imports from the state’s dwindling coal industry. The move from Wyoming may complicate the plans of West Coast states seeking to reduce their reliance on coal power. While Wyoming coal advocates have cited concerns about their workers’ futures and have proposed carbon capture technology as an alternative avenue for the state to reduce emissions, legal and energy experts insist that coal’s market will continue to decline. Denver Post

The Electric Vehicle Transition Is Driving Demand For Lithium, which could be a boon for California’s Imperial Valley. Near the Salton Sea, an Australian company called Controlled Thermal Resources has invested in a geothermal energy facility that will also expose reserves of lithium without producing significant carbon emissions. Experts are optimistic that the market focus on renewable energy and the development of the Salton Sea lakebed could align, leading to a new “Lithium Valley” in the state. NPR

Southwestern Tribes Are Calling For An End to Water Insecurity after the COVID-19 pandemic revealed severe inequities in access to water on reservations. A new report highlights the challenges faced by Indigenous communities; many lack basic indoor plumbing and running water or rely on contaminated water sources. Tribal leaders now hope to use the new report in crucial negotiations over the management of the Colorado River. Experts say that river’s flow will continue to diminish as a result of climate change, exacerbating water shortages. Insideclimate News

An ASU Professor Has Created the First Parcel of Land to be Legally Owned by Wildlife by expanding on existing legal frameworks for “pet trusts,” which provide legal protections for animals. Professor Bradshaw has turned an acre of her property into a wildlife-friendly habitat, and hopes that a practice of transferring ownership to backyard animals will help homeowners cultivate a sense of stewardship for the environment. Some conservationists and legal experts are unsure of the solution’s practicality, but Bradshaw says that the future of U.S. biodiversity cannot rest on public land management alone. Arizona Republic

Robert Bullard’s Fight for Environmental Justice Isn’t Over despite a lifetime of pioneering work exposing the unequal impacts of pollution on Black and brown communities. Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, recently received a lifetime achievement award from the United Nations Environment Program, but says that his work continues as a teacher of future generations of environmental and climate justice advocates. Texas Observer

See How The West Has Changed Since The Last Census in this data visualization showing population and apportionment of Congressional seats. California was the only Western state to lose a seat, while Montana, Oregon, Colorado all gained a seat; Texas gained two. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: April 26, 2021

Governor Gavin Newsom Announced Plans to Ban Hydraulic Fracturing in California by 2024 as part of a longer-term goal to cease oil extraction in the state by 2045. While fracking does not represent a majority of California’s oil production, Newsom has described the move as a symbolic action. Environmental advocates say Newsom’s proposed clean energy timelines are not fast enough, but he has faced opposition in the state legislature toward more aggressive proposed measures to ban oil and gas production. Some speculate that the guarded anti-fracking move was made with an eye on Newsom’s upcoming recall election. NPR The New York Times

Idaho’s State Senate Voted to Allow Private Contractors to Kill 90 Percent of Wolves in the state to protect hunting and agricultural interests. The population has held steady at about 1500 wolves for the past two years, but ranchers and farmers say reducing the number to 150 could reduce the financial losses associated with wolves attacking sheep and cattle. If the wolf population falls below 100, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may resume management in the area. Associated Press

The Environmental Protection Agency Is Reversing Its Decision to Keep California From Requiring More Stringent Tailpipe Emission Controls than those of the federal government. With 13 other states signing on to California standards, 36 percent of the U.S. auto market is in states abiding by the tougher rules. The Trump administration sought to throttle California’s decades-old freedom to set standards to clean the nation’s dirtiest air. The Washington Post

Researchers Consider Environmental Impacts of the Border Wall in Southern Arizona, which ecologists say threatens wildlife and poses greater risks of damage from flash floods. Indigenous communities mourn the damage to sacred lands, which they say cannot be undone by removing the wall. The Biden administration must now decide whether halting construction is enough, or whether further action is necessary to improve conservation outlooks and land management practices at the border. Arizona Republic

East Palo Alto Residents Collaborate With Scientists and City Government to Fight Sea Level Rise in this multimedia feature from the Pulitzer Center’s Connected Coastlines Initiative. Although East Palo Alto’s budget is hundreds of times smaller than San Francisco’s, their plans to mitigate the threat of sea level rise are well ahead of much of the Bay Area. Even so, a historical legacy of disinvestment, racial segregation, and regional disparities could undermine East Palo Alto’s strategies, which include replacing old levees and accounting for infrastructure upgrades to sanitation systems and electrical towers. Experts say a coordinated effort will be necessary to keep the entire Bay safe from catastrophic flooding. KQED

Native Fishermen Compete With Industrial Trawlers For Declining Halibut Populations off the coast of Alaska, where warming temperatures wreak havoc on Bering Sea ecosystems. Crab, pollock, salmon and halibut numbers are all shrinking, but industrial fishermen don’t feel the pressure; even as they target lower-value species, they waste millions of more expensive fish like halibut as bycatch. Now, fishery managers are discussing new limits that would reduce waste and even the playing field for Native fishermen, but industrial operations are fighting the new restrictions, saying it’s unrealistic to reduce bycatch in practice. National Geographic

Anglers On The Los Angeles River Face A Tenuous Future as the city plans to revitalize the waterway with a new system of parks and cultural centers. Many destitute Angelenos rely on the river for food, shelter and refuge; the city will likely remove homeless encampments as part of their new investments. Homeless advocates worry that the new parks will create a wave of “green gentrification” that leaves out already marginalized communities. High Country News

Eastern Washington Is Investing In Clean Hydrogen Energy Infrastructure amidst debate over the alternative fuel’s viability. Supporters believe producing combustible hydrogen could help eliminate fossil fuels used by heavy emitters like the construction and aviation industries, but the technology is costly. However, the Pacific Northwest has an advantageous surplus of clean power from wind and solar farms, which engineers say makes the region an optimal place to test a pilot program. Inside Climate News

Wind Turbine Techs Brave Heights in this photo feature on blade technicians who climb and belay on the enormous fiberglass structures to perform maintenance. Patagonia

Articles Worth Reading: April 12, 2021

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Visited Bears Ears as crowds of tourists and looters frustrate advocates seeking to restore the original scope of the national monument. Former President Trump shrank the areas of monuments at Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in 2017, reversing Obama-era protections. Haaland must decide whether to recommend that Biden restore the previous boundaries. Indigenous groups want to see the monument expanded, while Republican politicians, ranchers and miners in Utah resist increased federal protections. Washington Post

Las Vegas Pushing to Become First City to Ban Ornamental Grass. This desert gambling metropolis, whose utility has for nearly two decades rewarded homeowners for replacing grass with dry landscaping – xeriscaping – is planning to go one step further. The utility is asking Nevada state legislators to outlaw about 40 percent of the remaining greensward, arguing that there are almost eight square miles of grass in medians or office parks that no one walks on. Last year was among the driest in the region’s history; for a record 240 days, there was no measurable rainfall. About 90 percent of southern Nevada's water comes from the Colorado River, whose reservoirs at Lake Mead and Lake Powell are near record lows. Associated Press

What’s In Toxic Wildfire Smoke? To find answers, scientists chase storms and rig cargo planes to become flying laboratories. Chemists, immunologists, and other experts have begun using air and ash samples from recent catastrophic fire seasons to unravel the human health impacts of wildfire emissions, though they say fully understanding the long-term effects may take years. National Geographic

Three Interest Groups Face Off In a Scramble Over Temperate Rainforests on the southwest corner of Vancouver Island. A century of logging has depleted about 80 percent of the old-growth trees on the island in British Columbia. An anti-logging group is blockading an area near Fairy Creek. But the Pacheedat First Nation, which gets provincial compensation in exchange for allowing logging in their territory, has not agreed to the blockade, though some tribal members sympathize. Legal action is pending. The Tyee

A New Wildlife Refuge In Albuquerque will become the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest, officially opening this fall. The Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge promises more open space for historically disenfranchised Chicano communities. The new amenities are expected to raise property values, opening the town to potential gentrification, cultural change and excess tourism. Equitable representation for community members in the preserve will be key to grounding the refuge in the values of environmental justice, the refuge’s supporters say. High Country News

Cattle Ranchers Seek Control of Free-Roaming Tule Elk In Point Reyes, prompting opposition from conservationists. When Congress designed the national seashore as public land not only for nature preservation but also for farmers’ “cultural heritage,” it sowed the seeds of repeated conflicts. In the late 19th century, human development nearly drove the elk extinct. Though herds were reintroduced in the 1960s, the species returned to a landscape shaped by cattle. Now, it’s unclear who will control the future of that landscape. Biographic

‘Glamping’ Project In Joshua Tree Puts Sustainable Development To The Test as Airstream tourism company AutoCamp breaks ground on its first high desert tourism attraction. While its designers tout the eco-friendly features of the campus, residents worry that tourism could send housing prices soaring and that heavy tourist traffic could harm desert ecosystems. Desert Sun

Grasshoppers, Opera, And Ecological Collapse intertwine in this audio story of a Wyoming entomologist and his quest to find the truth about a melting glacier. Atlas Obscura

Articles Worth Reading: March 29, 2021

Latino Neighborhoods in the Southwest Are Far Hotter than Anglo neighborhoods, which have more trees and shade. The difference is as much as seven degrees in southern California, according to a new study of 20 urban areas. It shows the poorest 10 percent of neighborhoods are much hotter — four degrees Fahrenheit on average — than the wealthiest neighborhoods nearby. In particular, areas with large Latino populations bear an unequal burden. Arizona Republic

The Interior Department Rescinded a Decision That Had Eliminated Tribal Ownership of a portion of the Missouri River on the Fort Berthold Reservation and given it to the state of North Dakota. Under the Trump administration, a department statement said, Interior had agreed that North Dakota owned mineral rights despite eight decades of legal precedent to the contrary. Now the department says it needs to look more closely at the legality of ignoring the ownership rights of the Mandan, Hidatsa and the Arikara Nation. The Hill

A Republican Congressman’s Proposal to Breach Four Snake River Dams has reopened more than a century of arguments over the structures. Their construction violated treaties, flooded 14,4000 acres, crippled salmon runs and provided both a modest amount of electricity and the ability to barge inland crops to Pacific ports. Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson’s $33.5 billion plan to breach the four dams has renewed that debate. A look at the pros and cons of the proposal, and an advocate’s website visualizing the impact of dam removal. Oregonian Spokesman-Review Magic Valley Save Our Wild Salmon

What Western Governors Say They Care About is reflected in this summary – complete with a word-cloud graphic – from their association’s office’s report on recent state-of-the-state addresses. Not surprisingly, the most prevalent word is “Covid.” It’s followed by “Vaccine,” “Education,” “Infrastructure,” and “Broadband.” Western Governors Association

Covering 4,000 Miles of California Canals With Solar Panels would annually save 63 billion gallons of water from evaporating and provide 13 gigawatts of renewable power, according to a feasibility study published in the journal Nature Sustainability. That is roughly half the new capacity the state needs to meet its decarbonization goals by the year 2030. Wired

The West is Losing the War to Preserve Sage-Grouse Habitat. Human activity and fire have destroyed millions of acres of habitat for the greater sage grouse. A new federal study is deeply pessimistic about the future of the bird as it loses its essential range. Expanding, ferocious wildfires play a major part in the destruction, but so do invasive, quick-burning plants like cheatgrass. Federal and multistate efforts have helped cut the rate of destruction, but a warming climate means land managers are losing their fight. E&E Daily

Ways of Emitting Less Methane, both from leaking oil and gas wells, intentional venting of gas, and even cow burps, are getting new attention. New Mexico’s Oil and Gas Commission just adopted new rules to control oil fields’ venting and flaring of gas. And researchers at the University of California, Davis have increasing evidence that adding tropical red seaweed to cow feed can reduce bovine methane emissions by up to 82 percent. Associated Press Grist

As the Nation’s Largest Wind Farm Is Readied In the Wyoming Town of Rawlins, immense pride in the coal mining that used to power its economy remains. The New York Times “The Daily” Podcast

Larry McMurtry, Novelist of the West, Dies at 84. McMurtry’s stock in trade was de-mythologizing the West of early paperbacks and mid 20th-century television series, and offering a portrait that was more raw and more real. He did so most memorably in the 843-page novel “Lonesome Dove,” about two Texas rangers driving stolen cattle from the Rio Grande to Montana in the 1870s. He was also part of the creative force behind the movie “Brokeback Mountain.” The New York Times Dallas Morning News

Graphics & the West

Where California Grows Its Food

See the most detailed survey ever done of crops and land use in California. It covers nine million acres of land devoted to grapes, alfalfa, cotton, plums, you name it – food for people and animals all over the world. View map »

California's Changing Energy Mix

A look at the energy sources California utilities have used gives us insights into the state’s progress in decarbonizing its electricity supply. In 2015, 35% of total electricity generation (in-state generation plus imported electricity) came from zero-greenhouse-gas sources, which include solar, wind, hydropower, and nuclear. View Graphic »

U.S. Conservation Easements

Conservation easements of various kinds cover more than 22 million acres of land in the United States, according to the National Conservation Easement Database, a public-private partnership. Take a look at our interactive map of nearly every conservation easement, with details on over 130,000 sites. View map »

 

Recent Center News

Aug 2 2021 | Out West student blog
Jada Hallman reminds us to take a step back and to engage with our identity in relation to our sense of home, place, and belonging.
Jul 30 2021 | Out West student blog
Diana Jordan describes her everyday life and the skills she has learned during the summer at the National Conference for State Legislatures.
Jul 29 2021 | Out West student blog
Madalsa Singh helps formulate new energy tariffs at the California Public Utilities Commission