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Changing Currents: Picturing a Northwest Without Cheap, Public Hydropower

Felicity Barringer
Jan 29 2018

The power gained by harnessing the Columbia River paved the way for industrial development and widespread farmland irrigation. But what if, instead of public utilities, that power had been sold by private firms seeking profits?

The Dam that Started it All: Erected between 1934 and 37 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Dam was the largest of its time, and the first in a series of impoundments of the Columbia River that electrified and irrigated the Pacific Northwest.

The Dam that Started it All Erected between 1934 and 37 by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Bonneville Dam was the largest of its time, and the first in a series of federal impoundments of the Columbia River that electrified and irrigated the Pacific Northwest. Bonneville Power Administration via Flickr
 

By Felicity Barringer

After the creation of states of the Pacific Northwest following a series of treaties with Native tribes in the mid-19th century, the area’s most dramatic transformation came with the arrival, in the late 1930's, of large-scale, low-cost hydropower developed by the government from the muscular Columbia River system.

The power gained by harnessing the Columbia River paved the way for industrial development and widespread farmland irrigation. But what if private firms seeking profits had developed the power? This blog again looks at how the West might be different if a major event had — or had not — occurred.

‘Electricity and Power Made So Cheap That They Will Become A Standard Article Of Use’

By the time of the Great Depression, “There had been a debate going on for decades between public and private power,” said John Findlay, an historian at the University of Washington. In the early 20th century, success in the turbulent power markets had brought enormous wealth to men like Chicago’s Samuel Insull, whose face inspired the cartoon plutocrat of the Monopoly board game.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1937
President Franklin D. Roosevelt visiting the construction site of the Grand Coulee Dam in 1937.   National Archives

The collapse of Insull’s empire of electric holding companies “contributed a great deal to the fall of the stock market” in 1929, said Libby Burke, an historian at the Bonneville Power Administration. Other scholars disagree about the utility bubble’s role, but public dislike of private electric companies was pervasive as the Great Depression took hold. In 1934, Franklin Roosevelt, speaking at the site of the Grand Coulee dam on the upper Columbia River, said, “We are going to see electricity and power made so cheap that they will become a standard article of use…”

Roosevelt’s Bonneville Project Act of 1937 called for a federally-constructed hydropower grid and federally-controlled distribution of the power. In the decade thereafter, the populations of Washington and Oregon grew by more than 37 percent, almost double the rate of the U.S. population. The hydropower and World War II sparked an economic revolution.

What if a call for private power had prevailed? Counterfactual arguments are endlessly debatable. This one explores a question that keeps coming back. In 1984, the Grace Commission, appointed by President Reagan, recommended privatizing all federal systems for generating and transmitting power. Last spring, President Trump’s first budget proposed privatizing Bonneville’s transmission assets.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s policy of cheap power was sold with the strumming guitar of Woody Guthrie, the federal pitchman.

In the 1930s, Roosevelt’s policy of cheap power was sold with the strumming guitar of Woody Guthrie, the federal pitchman, who lionized dams “for the farmer and the factory and all of you and me.” “Once Franklin Roosevelt comes to power,” said Professor Findlay “they want to introduce the idea of a planned economy, a coordinated economy. Public power got a huge boost from that.” Carol Opatrny, a longtime consultant to lawyers and companies dealing with the Bonneville Power Administration, said simply, “Higher prices would have slowed things down.”

The biggest evidence for their argument: the arrival of the power-hungry aluminum industry in the late 1930s. Production of aluminum ingots requires large, steady and continuous amounts of electricity. It requires roughly 10 times the power needed to make steel, glass, or paper.

Graphic: BPA Wholesale power rate– Over Decades, an Increasing Bargain
Decades without a wholesale rate increase made BPA power an ever-greater bargain, until investments in new power plants drove prices up. Source: Northwest Power and Conservation Council
 

In the East, the first big company, Alcoa, usually located factories near hydropower sites, sometimes generating its own hydropower. It didn't come to the Northwest by accident. The Bonneville Power Administration was charged with managing and marketing the hydropower from the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams. With local towns, businesses and politicians, BPA aggressively courted the industry. Their big draw: cheap power. In 1940, private companies serving towns with aluminum smelters, like New Kensington, Pa., charged industries up at least double the Bonneville rates per kilowatt-hour, based on the Federal Power Commission’s archival data.

BPA’s additional mandate, to electrify rural areas, set it apart from private companies, whose profit motive discouraged the practice. As Ms. Burke said, they “weren't going to spend the money to send electricity to those places” in areas with few customers.

The Northwest’s Beating Electric Heart

Founded by congress in 1937, the Bonneville Power Administration is one of four regional energy marketing agencies under the U.S. Department of Energy. It was created to sell energy generated by new dams on the Columbia River, like the Bonneville Dam outside of Portland (1937) and the Grand Coulee Dam (1942).

Graphic: The Northwest’s Beating Electric Heart– map of Bonneville Power Administration’s service area

Graphic: Harnessing Northwest Rivers to Meet a Regional Growth Spurt
Graphic: Harnessing Northwest Rivers to Meet a Regional Growth Spurt

Aside from price, the attraction for industry was “an abundance of power was available 24/7,” said Ms. Burke. Ms. Opatrny noted that other power-hungry industries, like primary metals, pulp and paper, steel, and chemicals, also arrived. “They came as the [power] load enabled further development. It was the availability and relatively low cost that brought them in droves,” she said.

The arrival of aluminum production came as World War II broke out. The strong, lightweight metal was crucial to building America’s arsenal. Boeing built bombers with it; Kaiser shipyards along the Pacific coast used it for warships. BPA devoted large electrical resources to the “mystery load,” — power from two of the eight generators at Grand Coulee was set aside to create the plutonium for the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki.

Now 31 dams provide hydropower for the Federal Columbia River Power System. The BPA sells it to 142 of the region’s consumer-owned electrical utilities — public power districts — and six of the area’s eight investor-owned utilities. In 2018, the BPA is the source of about one-third of the region’s electricity, and BPA power reaches California and the Southwest.

Aluminum has long ceased to be the industrial king of the Columbia River. Six decades after 10 aluminum smelters were built, the power-hungry offshoots of a very different industry have followed their footsteps. Almost all of the smelters around the river have been shuttered. About 3 gigawatts of electricity could have remained idle.

After Aluminum’s Decline, A Search for New Customers

Then, in the first decade of the 21st century, technology firms, which need copious and reliable power to run and cool huge data centers, moved in. Would they have come without cheap public power? Unclear.

There were at least two other lures. First, tax breaks. Just as locals did in the 1930s, the towns and counties around the Columbia River competed to attract firms, offering huge tax breaks. Second, the region’s technologically savvy workforce. And some technology executives have expressed a preference for “green” power.

Data centers — the muscles and memory of the Internet — are essential to the reach and profitability of companies like Amazon and Microsoft.They are now in Washington towns like Wenatchee — a former smelter town — and Quincy and Oregon towns like Boardman and Prineville.

Graphic: As Aluminum Cools...Data Centers Spin Up
Graphic: As Aluminum Cools...Data Centers Spin Up


Sources: The Seattle Times, The Oregonian   Geoff McGhee
 

Aluminum and the internet. “Both industries are power-electricity intensive,” said Massoud Jourabchi, manager of economic analysis at the Northwest Power and Conservation Council. “The main difference… is that power was a much larger cost of the aluminum industry than of the data centers. Profit margins weren't that high for aluminum.

“…Both needed cheap, reliable power, but the revenue picture was not the same. You're dealing with selling aluminum versus selling advertising. … The margins and the industries are quite different — and they're at different stages of their life cycle,” Mr. Jourabchi said.

How Would Salmon Fare Under a Privatized BPA?

The notion that Columbia River hydropower is environmentally sound gets strong pushback from Native Americans and environmentalists, who point to the decimation of salmon species. Their age-old journeys downriver to the ocean as juveniles and upriver to spawn as adults are impeded by dams. Manipulations of the river system have added further insults.

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists 13 Columbia or Snake River stocks of salmonids as threatened or endangered. The BPA spends $250 million to $300 million a year on recovery methods like habitat restoration, fish hatcheries, and fish ladders. The total exceeds $621 million annually when one includes things like debt service and loss of revenue when river water is deployed to help salmon, not to generate electricity.

Since managing the dams and selling cheap hydropower is a federal job, does that mean salmon recovery efforts have more funding with federal control of power than if private firms were in charge? Northwestern tribal leaders think so. Fishing experts working with Native American groups say that private utilities are responsible to a tough boss that BPA doesn't have: shareholders. And private firms have no legal responsibility to honor the 19th century treaties guaranteeing fishing rights. Tribes have opposed privatization of the BPA.

An Island of Green: Irrigated agriculture on the banks of the Columbia River northeast of Yakima.
An Island of Green Irrigated agriculture on the banks of the Columbia River northeast of Yakima.   JBrew via Flickr

Lowering the Cost of Agriculture... and Enabling Irrigation

Agriculture is another industry whose needs Bonneville has served over the decades. As David Freyberg, an associate professor of civil engineering at Stanford University, explained, “The cost of delivering irrigation water is partially subsidized by the sale of electricity. So even though the power [from Bonneville] is cheap, some of that goes to subsidize the delivery of irrigation water. If the power were private, that would not have happened at all.”

And, he said, “farming uses a good bit of energy. There are a lot of groundwater wells, for example. The lower price of electricity does facilitate agriculture.” He added, “If power were private, the lack of irrigation would have precluded agriculture.”

From ‘Economic Backwater’ to Vital and Balanced Economy

No cheap power, less aluminum. No cheap power, probably less of a war industry. No cheap power, a slower migration of electricity into farmland, so a slower rise of the region's orchards and wine industry. No cheap power, less to attract data centers.

Reviewing the full regional picture, Mr. Jourabchi said, “The whole economy of the Northwest is resource based. Having access to reliable electricity at below-national-average prices has helped bring that kind of industry into the region. If we didn't have cheap power what would industries have done? It's the cart and the horse. … You might have had more efficient kind of productivity if you had a more expensive cost.”

But cheap public power, he said, “has certainly made a contribution to the development of the Northwest.” Not a small one. No cheap power, less aluminum. No cheap power, probably less of a war industry. No cheap power, a slower migration of electricity into farmland, so a slower rise of the region's orchards and wine industry. No cheap power, less to attract data centers.

“The Pacific Northwest began as an economic backwater, more like a colony that would send raw materials to the nation's industrialized centers and purchase … finished products,” explained Jeff Hammarlund, a recently retired professor at Portland State University, specializing in Northwest energy policy. “As a result of our low-cost, reliable, and virtually carbon-free power system, our region has blossomed into a more vital and balanced economy based largely on energy-intensive industries. We've become an important center for innovation that contributes benefits extending far beyond the Columbia River basin.”

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Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Danielle Nguyen and Carolyn P. Rice

Articles Worth Reading: April 22, 2019

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Judge Rules Environmental Analysis Required Before Ending Coal Mining Ban on public lands. A federal district judge in Montana said that the Interior Department was wrong to overturn the Obama-era ban on coal leasing without doing any sort of environmental review. The ruling did not, however, reinstate the ban or prescribe exactly how the current Interior Department must conduct its environmental review. The New York Times

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California’s Karuk Tribe Battles to Protect Itself from Fire Threats amid drier forests and rising temperatures. With none of California’s large emergency assistance budget being allocated to the state’s 106 tribal nations, the Karuk tribe must compete with other tribes for grants or prescribe burns to protect their 1 million acres of territory. Compared to other ethnic communities, Native Americans are more likely to live in areas with the highest potential for wildfires and the lowest capacity for response and recovery. High Country News

Chemical Taints California Water in Paradise, California, where 85 people died last year in the nation’s worst wildfire in a century. The chemical benzene, which occurs naturally in fire and is linked to leukemia and anemia, got sucked into water pipes, largely thanks to plastic melting during the fire. It will take two years and up to $300 million before Paradise residents can safely use local water for drinking, cooking, and bathing. Associated Press

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Wild Horses Find Homes After Controversial Roundup last fall, which some believed would end in the horses being sold to Mexico for food. Out of 261 wild horses rounded up from the Modoc Plateau and moved to corrals in Modoc County, all but 30 have been placed in homes. After the roundup, they were housed over the winter in the Double Devil Wild Horse Corral and were fed and cared for by the Forest Service and volunteers. San Francisco Chronicle

Articles Worth Reading: April 9, 2019

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Measurements of the Health Impacts from Oil and Natural Gas Extraction May Be Indequate, A UCLA study reviewed three dozen journal articles published over the past six years and found a positive correlation between individuals’ poor health and their proximity to fossil fuel extraction operations. High levels of suspected carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, and ethyl-benzene have been measured at oil and natural gas sites. Science Daily

California Adopts New Wetland Protections to Counteract Federal Rollback. A new state policy plan will counteract the proposed rollbacks. The state regulation establishes protections for human activity, preventing some areas from being paved over or plowed. California’s waterways, 90 percent of which have been lost to human sprawl, are important for drinking water, flood protection, groundwater recharge and wildlife. San Francisco Chronicle

Trout Lovers Trek To the Río Grande to See Juvenile Cutthroat Added to the river at Questa’s Cutthroat Fish Festival. Relocating cutthroat to expand their populations has become an annual tradition in the Wild Rivers Recreation Area near Cerro, New Mexico. Conservationists have worked for decades to increase the native cutthroat population in northern New Mexico. Almost 10,000 trout were relocated during this year’s event. Taos News

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Fish Numbers Plummet As Pumping and Invasive Clams Upend the Food Web in the San Francisco estuary, a new study from the University of California, Davis, reveals. Microscopic algae called phytoplankton are at the base of the food web (phytoplankton are food for zooplankton, which are food for fish). Clams, brought in the holds of oceangoing vessels, and freshwater pumping by California’s two major water delivery projects have cut phytoplankton by 97 percent from the late 1960s, prompting a similar dramatic drop in the number of fish. Daily Democrat

Articles Worth Reading: March 26, 2019

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The Colorado Drought Contingency Plan Is Now Before Congress, as representatives of all seven Colorado River states, including California, ended their arguments and agreed on a final version. Bypassed were the demands of the Imperial Irrigation District for $200 million in federal funds to clean up the fetid and deteriorating Salton Sea. Successive droughts have meant that the Colorado River, which serves 40 million people and 7,812 square miles of farmland, needed new agreements for dividing water in times of shortage. After California’s Colorado River Board, by an 8-to-1 vote, provided the final state’s approval, state representatives met in Phoenix with a top federal water official and sent a letter to Congress seeking its approval. The plan sets up new formulas for water use if Lake Mead drops below a crucial level during a prolonged drought. Desert Sun Salt Lake Tribune

Mining, Drilling and Grazing Now Easier as the Sage Grouse Management Plan of 2015 Loses Its Bite. The old plan was a cooperative effort to ensure the birds, several hundred thousand of which live in the oil-rich rangeland of 11 western states, didn’t decline so far that endangered species protections would kick in. The old program set out special “focal areas” requiring protections for the chicken-sized, ground-nesting birds; these are now gone. Cattlemen felt the 2015 requirements were too rigid and applied at too fine a scale; the 2015 rules also required that energy leasing in some areas be prioritized away from areas best suited to the grouse. A Center For Western Priorities representative said, the changes mean “the administration will drive the sage grouse closer to an endangered species listing.” Associated Press New York Times Wyoming Public Media Western Livestock Journal

The Navajo Generating Station’s Last Possible Savior Won’t Save It. By a 9-to-11 vote, a committee of the Navajo Nation Council rejected a plan for a tribal firm, the Navajo Transitional Energy Company, to explore buying the power plant and the coal mine that supplies it. For the last couple of years, NGS owners had pulled out or signaled they wanted to. The tribal enterprise wanted to save hundreds of jobs held by Navajos. But the barriers to this solution included a demand by the power plant’s owners for a cap on the liability for cleanup, which could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Seth Damon, the council’s speaker, said the “Navajo Nation Council signaled that it is time for change. In order to develop a healthy and diverse economy that does not overly rely on any particular industry, the … council will advance new and innovative development initiatives.” Indian Country Today

Articles Worth Reading: March 11, 2019

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Art Installations Thrive in the Coachella Valley. Desert X, a biennial art exhibit, opened this past weekend. It showcases art in mediums that range from fabric to cell phone, all to connect people with the valley and its human history. Explore some of the installations in this photo gallery. The Desert Sun

Articles Worth Reading: Feb. 25, 2019

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The Senate Approved the Natural Resources Management Act expanding existing public lands, creating new national monuments, protecting miles of rivers from development, and preventing mining around Yellowstone and North Cascades National Parks. Controversies arose over a provision that could allow the return of hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land to Alaska Natives. These brought into clearer view the different priorities and fraught history of conservationists and Indigenous peoples. The Washington Post The Guardian The Washington Post (Op-Ed) High Country News

Representatives From the Quinault and Tohono O’odham Nations, the Calista Corporation, and Heartlands International Spoke About the Ongoing Impact of Climate Change on Native communities. The House Natural Resources Committee’s new subcommittee for indigenous peoples of the United States, in its first punlic meeting, heard how changing seasons and rainfall are altering growing seasons, food availability, and by extension, affecting cultural practices. Low-lying communities are particularly vulnerable to changes in precipitation and sea-level rise. The Arizona Mirror YouTube

A Multi-Part Exploration of the Colorado River’s Challenges Ends With an Ode to the River’s Former Wildness and a look at restoration efforts. Today, the Colorado River is a highly engineered river, plagued by invasive species of plants and fish. Some of its most biodiverse regions are man-made, and their future hangs in the balance with the future of water. Yale Environment 360

Across the Western U.S., Thousands of Cacti and Succulents Have Been Stolen From Public Lands. The market for these plants is lucrative, and rare species attract the attention of collectors and thieves. Removing the plants from their habitats can limit their chances of survival and endanger the remaining individuals. Even though thieves face felony charges and thousands of dollars in fines, the illegal trade continues. Innovative attempts to curb the poaching include cloning succulents and microchipping saguaros. The New Yorker The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: Feb. 11, 2019

New Restrictions on Colorado River Withdrawals in Dry Times Are Close, but the federal Bureau of Reclamation says, in effect, “close only counts in the game of horseshoes.” The Arizona state legislature met the bureau’s deadline as it agreed to the drought contingency plan formulated by all three states in the river’s lower basin, but the final deals with Native tribes and with California’s Imperial Irrigation District aren’t done yet. The arguments go on. Cronkite News

Native Trout Are Making a Comeback in Colorado, but It’s Taken Decades. As the West was colonized, so were its streams; native fish suffered as non-native ones were introduced. The native greenback cutthroat trout was mistakenly declared extinct in 1937, but its history turns out to be much more complicated. Today, the subspecies survives, but barely, and scientists do not agree on a solution for the fish’s future. Biographic

Ranchers in Montana Want Consumers to Know Where Beef Comes From. The U.S. imports roughly 10 percent of its beef -- from countries like Canada, Argentina and Uruguay -- but it doesn’t have to be labeled as such. Country of origin labeling, Montana ranchers argue, will help consumers make more informed choices--and think it will be good for business. If passed, a bill in the Montana State Senate would require this labeling, as well as prohibit labeling as “meat” the cell-based meat now grown in vitro in laboratories. That decision which could be detrimental to this nascent industry. Civil Eats

Sustainable Development and Gentrification Do Not Have to Go Hand in Hand. An affordable housing project in an industrial, low-income neighborhood of Portland could show the country how green infrastructure can help alleviate poverty and keep communities intact. This project includes weatherization of mobile homes and sustainable landscaping. High Country News

We Need Maps to Comprehend the Scale of the Grand Canyon. Be careful, though–some maps are more attractive than they are accurate. As the iconic national park’s 100th anniversary approaches, listen to the Science Friday podcast explore the history of Western mapmaking through the lens of the maps of the Grand Canyon. Science Friday

Art Installations Thrive in the Coachella Valley. Desert X, a biennial art exhibit, opened this past weekend. It showcases art in mediums that range from fabric to cell phone, all to connect people with the valley and its human history. Explore some of the installations in this photo gallery. The Desert Sun

Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 28, 2019

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A Surprising Source of Pollution Sits on the Ocean Floor off of California’s Central Coast: Golf Balls. The little spheres from coastal golf courses release chemical pollutants and break down into bits of plastic that can enter the food chain. A local teenager and a Stanford University scientist found and began to remove golf balls from the waters off of Pebble Beach by the thousands, but more keep falling in. NPR

Mapping as a Way of Creating Indigenous Dialogue Around Place and Art: Jim Enote, an indigenous farmer and museum director, says that because most maps use colonial names, borders, and ideas of space, expanding the definition of maps has been a necessary part of his process. National Geographic

Decrepit Dams in Washington State May Flood Towns Downstream. A recent wildfire made the landscape more prone to runoff, and the dams cannot store the increased winter rainfall associated with a warmer climate. Attempts to repair and modify the dams have highlighted the financial and political challenges of managing remote wilderness. as local agriculture and salmon habitat rely on the shrinking summer water supply. The Seattle Times

Animals From Insects to Wolves May Suffer From Construction Along the U.S.-Mexico Border. Physical barriers and habitat loss can separate animal populations and limit migration. Over 1,500 native plants and animals in the region could be affected by construction of a wall, according to a 2018 report signed by nearly 3,000 scientists. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: Jan. 15, 2019

Pacific Northwest Farmers Have Silos Full of Unsold Legumes. The price of garbanzo beans fell by more than half after changes to U.S. trade policy and sanctions on China last year reduced exports. Farmers had already expanded their production, and now they must find a way to pay their debts. Oregon Public Broadcasting

The City of Spokane Is Trying to Clean Up Its Groundwater, which has been polluted by industrial toxins since World War II. Washington state has recently increased the strictness of its water quality standards, but implementation of these standards faces financial, political, and technological challenges. The pollution has accumulated to dangerous levels in the Spokane River fish, which is of particular consequence to the diet and health of the indigenous Spokane people. High Country News

Is Hunting Elk Out of Season Illegal for A Member of the Crow (Apsáalooke) Tribe? The state of Wyoming imprisoned Clayvin Herrera for hunting elk, but the Crow argue that the conviction violates their treaty with the U.S. The case of Herrera v. Wyoming was heard in the Supreme Court last week, and it draws attention to the complexities and contradictions of legal relationships between the U.S. and tribal nations. The Atlantic

Phoenix Has a Public Health Crisis: Heat. Hot days are more frequent, temperatures are rising with climate change, and more than 155 heat-related deaths happened last summer in Phoenix. The city is searching for ways to keep cool during the summer, including umbrellas, text alerts, and creating more shade. The groups that suffer the most, however, are those with the least ability to change their circumstances: low-income communities and the elderly. NPR

Scientists Are Collecting Pictures of Snowflakes from School Children to Analyze Snow Formation and Weather Patterns. Students in the Sierra Nevada can use their phones to take photos of snowflakes and upload them to a citizen science database. Compared to other technologies, this is a more efficient and less expensive means of collecting data on snow conditions, and it gives students the opportunity to learn about research. Science Friday

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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

Apr 22 2019 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
David Bernhardt confirmed as Interior Secretary; Judge blocks decision to end coal-mining ban on federal lands; President Trump signed bill endorsing Colorado River Drought Plan; Karuk tribe struggles to defend itself against fire threats; cancer-causing chemical taints Paradise water; Native American demand drives black market for eagle feathers; and more environmental news from around the West this month.
Apr 9 2019 | ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Increased rain and snow force Oroville Spillway into use; health impacts from oil and natural gas extraction; Northern New Mexico trout drop; record-high Mexican gray wolf population in Southwest; and more environmental news from around the West this month.
Apr 2 2019 | ... & the West Blog
In Utah, outdoor recreation is more and more of a booming business. Its impact on the land is still being understood, but there are few limits in sight.