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Articles Worth Reading: June 17, 2019

... & the Best

The BLM moves forward with the one of the world’s largest solar developments on federal land near Las Vegas; an obscure global cactus trade blooms illegally in Arizona’s federal desertland; prison inmates return to the fields in numbers not seen since the Jim Crow era; and other recent news from around the West.

By Sierra Garcia

Convicts are Returning to Farming—and Anti-Immigrant Policies Are the Reason. Now the jobs that Mexican and Central American farm laborers often fill are left empty. Agriculture-intensive areas such as Washington, Idaho, and Arizona are turning to convict leasing on a scale not seen in more than 100 years. Like undocumented immigrants, convicts don't have the same level of legal labor and wage protections standard in most situations, and are often apyed well below the minimum wage. Although the Jim-Crow era practice, which used mostly black prisoners, was banned at the start of the 20th century, in the 21st century it has made a lucrative comeback. The Conversation High Country News

The Federal Bureau of Land Management Plans to Push a Massive Photovoltaic Project in the Nevada desert near Las Vegas; it would be the largest solar array in the country and one of the largest in the world. Some conservationists object to the proposed location of the 11-square-mile solar array and battery system, which is home to the threatened desert tortoise. The area also abuts several popular outdoor recreation areas. When constructed, the project could provide solar power to Nevada, California, and Arizona as early as 2021.E&E News Las Vegas Review Journal

This Year's Snowmelt Surge Is a Welcome Reprieve for the Parched Southwest, a “complete turnaround” from the two-decade drought that has left reservoirs and rivers running low across the region. Water levels in major reservoirs, like Lake Powell at the Utah-Arizona border, have risen up to a foot a day. The extreme reversal has pushed rivers to their limits, replenished the Rio Grande, and made some popular rafting and camping spots unusable. Exceptionally low 2018 water levels in Lake Powell, which supplies water for Arizona, California, and Nevada, had led to speculation that Arizona would face a lower water allowance this year. Colorado Public Radio News 

Cactus Smuggler's Case Reveals 'Growing Problem' of Rare Cacti Pilfered from public lands to serve a burgeoning domestic and international trade. The smuggler was convicted of illegally collecting over 500 cacti from the Lake Mead National Recreation Area along the Arizona-Nevada border. The cacti were sold online for more than $20,000, and included species that take decades to mature. Because cacti can be relatively easy to smuggle and conceal, authorities worry about the challenge of protecting delicate desert ecosystems and threatened species from the growing popularity of the prickly plants. E&E News 

An Effort to Recover Suspected Agent Orange Chemicals From Wallowa Lake has ignited fears over possible water contamination and speculation about the origins of the barrels. Recreational divers discovered ten100-gallon drums in the Oregon lake last summer labeled as containing herbicides 2,4-D and 2,4,5-T. These are key ingredients in the infamous Vietnam War defoliant (and carcinogen) Agent Orange. The delicate removal process began ten months after divers first reported the barrels at the lake bottom. The Oregonian

The West's Worst Fires Aren't Burning in Forests, but on scrub-covered open rangeland in the Great Basin region, which includes Idaho, Utah, and Nevada. Because wildfires on the sparsely populated open range don't attract as much public attention as forest fires, nine million acres of scrubland have quietly burned away on the range in the last five years alone. There are even fewer resources available to fight the remote range conflagrations than for forest fires. The frequent fires on the range may permanently destroying scrubland habitat essential for over 300 species, like pronghorn and sage grouse, where fires have burned too hot and too often. High Country News

 

Previously: Articles Worth Reading: June 3, 2019

 

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...& the Best

Western Articles and Media Elsewhere
Compiled by Felicity Barringer, Sierra Garcia and Danielle Nguyen

Articles Worth Reading: September 9, 2019

The Destructive ‘Blob’ of Warm Pacific Water May Be Coming Back if warming surface waters are not scattered by winds over the next few months, federal scientists say. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports the current Alaska-to-California swath of strikingly warm water closely resembles its predecessor. The ‘Blob’ led to the deaths of millions of sea lions and sea birds five years ago, and was associated with the sharp decline in salmon runs. Seattle Times

Administration Targets California’s Authority to Set Standards for Auto Emissions, while the Justice Department opens an antitrust investigation into four automakers who had made a pact with the state about the pollution limits that they would meet in years to come. The four automakers, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen and BMW, earlier this summer said they would follow stricter emission standards than those set by the Trump administration. The administration is opening the antitrust investigation while the Transportation Department and the Environmental Protection Agency both are telling California it lacks authority to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions. The state has had independent authority to regulate auto emissions for more than four decades. Politico

Utah Trees On the Chopping Block The Bureau of Land Management is working with heavy earth-moving equipment to wrest knots of juniper and tall pinyon pines from the landsape around the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. The stated purpose is to improve habitat for sage grouse and allow the growth of fodder for cattle and deer – prized targets for hunters. But the area of slightly more than 1,000 square miles where the activity is set to place has been the site of significant archaeological and cultural finds. Less than 10 percent of the ground has been surveyed, and undiscovered artifacts could be endangered by the activity. Also, the use of heavy equipment in these delicate landscapes can lead to the incursion of invasive species. National Geographic

Changing Wyoming’s Economics As Its Superpower, Coal, Crumbles A decade ago, the state of Wyoming collected $500 million more from tax and related revenues on coal extraction than it does today. Mines are shutting, wrenching the economies of counties that depended on them. Two reporters worked to get under the skin of what these developments – and the way coal is losing out to competitors like natural gas and renewables – mean for the Jim Bridger mine in southwestern Wyoming. A seven-part package called “Powering Down” looks at coal as both a cultural touchstone and an economic driver, and contemplates a future when the mineral superpower has no more strength. Wyofile

Could a New ‘Grand Bargain’ on the Colorado River Gain Traction? The law of the river has tended to give the lower basin states of the Colorado River watershed – like California and Arizona – the right to call on the upper basin states, like Colorado, Utah to ensure they get their share of water, as allocated in a 1922 compact. But that compact was based on overgenerous assumptions about the river’s total flow. And the severe drought of recent years has reduced the river’s flows – never as big as once believed – by about six percent. There is talk, but not yet action, on creating a “grand bargain” that would take away states’ rights to demand their 1922 share, while ensuring that they would maintain access to water for crucial needs. The idea, which makes clear that the river’s flow is 2.5 million acre-feet below the 15 million acre-feet calculated in 1922, is enshrined in a paper circulated at a University of Colorado forum this summer. The question now is whether it will gain traction. Denver Post

What’s In A Name? The landscapes of the West have been called by many names, as different civilizations passed through. Now the names given in the last 200 years by western Europeans are getting another look. Davis Mountain in Nevada’s Great Basin National Park is getting a new name – it was named for Jefferson Davis in 1855, before the southern states seceded and he became the president of a rebellious slave-owning confederation. As of last month, it is called Doso Doyabi, or “white mountain” in Shoshoni. A series of similar naming questions are popping up from Washington – should Mt. Rainier bear the name of a British officer? – to Wyoming to Alaska. A look at how the people of the 21st century are reconsidering the names of the 19th. National Parks Magazine

Articles Worth Reading: August 26, 2019

Many of The West's Estuaries Have Vanished, replaced with farmland and cities, leaving only 15 percent of the original wetlands intact. Although wetland destruction has been rampant across the United States for centuries, the recent study is the first to estimate the full scope of the lost wetlands that once existed where much of Los Angeles county, the Puget Sound’s northern embankment, and the area near Tillamook Bay where dairy cows stand today. Wetlands shield coastal communities from sea-level rise and extreme storms; researchers emphasize that intact wetlands will be the best protectors for coastal communities, making them the least likely to vanish under rising seas. Oregon Public Broadcasting

‘Snow Droughts’ Are Coming For The American West more often because of climate change. The new research estimates that the likelihood of an intense four-year drought like the one California faced from 2012 to 2016 will increase a hundredfold by the second half of this century. The forecast is disastrous for the region’s multi-billion dollar ski resort industry, which will also face peak snowpack shifting to before the spring break height of the season. National Geographic

Federal Scientists Produced A Report Showing Water Diversions Would be a Critical Blow to endangered winter-run Chinook salmon in California and could cost struggling orca whales offshore their food supply. Immediately, other federal officials were dispatched to vet, and possibly revise, it. Just two days passed before fisheries and water officials got an e-mail telling them “fresh eyes” would examine the data for the next two months. Environmental groups have called foul. Sacramento Bee

What Happens When Public Lands Become Tribal Lands Again? A reporter investigates after a multi-decadal legal battle, only in this case, within months of the transfer, a fire burned a large chunk of the land. The Cow Creek Band of Umpqua Tribe of Indians had some of their traditional lands in southwest Oregon restored in 2018, after 165 years of illegal federal use in violation of a treaty signed with the tribe. The issue of land ownership pitted some environmentalists against tribal leaders, who proposed controlled burns and limited lumber extraction on their land. The recent wildfire ravaged more than a fifth of the land recently transferred back to the tribe. High Country News

A French Saddlemaker Embraces the American West by learning, perfecting, and now teaching the art of traditional western leathercraft. Pedro Pedrini’s passion for the American West and classic western saddles drove him from the Alps in his native France to Oregon, California, and Canada. After four decades of practicing his chosen craft in the United States, he is seen as a consummate artisan. In addition to crafting saddles, he now teaches classes in northern California on leather tooling and saddle creation, hoping to ensure that the knowledge and techniques of western saddle-craft will live on. East Oregonian

The World’s Largest Wildlife Bridge Will Allow Mountain Lions – and other species – to regain most of their old range in the Santa Monica Mountains northwest of Los Angeles. The Guardian

Articles Worth Reading: August 12, 2019

The Desert Gets A Biocrust Skin Graft in an attempt to reverse the severe erosion, amounting to up to 8,900 pounds of annual soil loss per acre in the Southwest. The thin but hardy film of microbes helps maintain desert ecosystems, ensures healthier air and water, and protects archeological resources. But it can take anywhere from 20 to 2,000 years to regrow once destroyed by oil and gas development or recreational land use. Ecologists who have grown successful artificial biocrusts in labs and greenhouses are now struggling to transplant the homegrown biocrusts onto the desert. These efforts have sparked internal disagreement between land managers and scientists about whether to continue to replace biocrust, or focus time and money on preserving still-intact desert areas instead. High Country News

A Clean Energy Breakthrough Could Be Buried Deep Beneath Rural Utah in a subterranean salt dome, part of which is across the street from an existing transmission line to Los Angeles County. The vast network of salt caverns could act as an enormous battery, using a decades-old technique to store large amounts of energy — in this case,renewable energy. With the neighboring coal plant scheduled to close in 2025, the salt dome is in a perfect position to become a major component of Los Angeles County’s commitment to be 100 percent renewable by 2045. Los Angeles Times

Mountain Goat Eradication Is A High-Flying Balancing Act In Olympic National Park. Helicopter teams are charged with capturing, hog tying, and safely relocating these tenacious invasive animals. The elaborate airborne relocation efforts aim to eradicate all mountain goats from the park, where they have wreaked havoc on the ecosystem. They are being moved to their natural habitat of the North Cascades Range, where the native mountain goat population is in decline. The project transported 115 goats last year alone, and so far, tracking devices show that the transported goats are surviving as well as their Cascadian-born kin. The goats that altogether evade their captors, or “muggers,” will eventually be killed to rid Olympic National Park of mountain goats for good. High Country News

This Remote Corner of Nevada Is One Of The Darkest Places in The World, and is now also the newest and largest Dark Sky Sanctuary in the United States. Like all Dark Sky Sanctuaries, the 100,000-acre sanctuary at Massacre Rim lacks legal protection. The International Dark Sky Association bestowed the title on Massacre Rim, recognizing it as one of the best spots in the world to view a night sky unobstructed by light pollution. The area is more than an hour’s drive from the nearest settlement and over four hours from the nearest city; its extreme isolation allows visitors to see the Milky Way shine so brightly that it casts shadows. The audio segment of this story is under four minutes and accompanied by a short written article. NPR

The Pacific Coast Salmon That Are Most Threatened by Climate Change travel furthest to spawn, new research shows. Dams for flood control and irrigation, water diversions and logging have pushed more than 50 runs of salmonids onto lists of endangered and threatened species; climate change may be the coup de grace for some. Inland waterways far from the coast, where some salmon spawn, are getting warmer, and may get too warm for young salmon to survive. Chinook salmon at the greatest risk in three places: California's Central Valley and the Columbia and Willamette River basins. Also at risk are coho salmon in Northern California and Oregon and sockeye salmon from Idaho’s Snake River basin. Inside Climate News

Articles Worth Reading: July 30, 2019

Megadroughts Could Return to Southwestern U.S. on a scale not seen for half a millennium thanks to climate change. A new study reveals that the region can expect atmospheric conditions similar to those that caused decades-long ‘megadroughts’ in the middle ages, which likely destroyed the thriving Chocan civilization. A slight global cooling around 1600 halted the megadroughts, but with current global climate change, experts fear a return of extreme dryness to the Southwest. National Geographic

The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Goes Solar in a bid for energy independence, job creation, and environmental stewardship. With more than half a million acres of land and only 2,000 residents, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe hopes to point the way for other tribes with vast tracts of flat, sunbaked land to develop and export solar energy. By some estimates, solar energy on tribal lands in the lower 48 states alone would exceed by fourfold the amount needed to power the entire country. High Country News

Coalition Urges Senators to Back Herd Fertility Curbs for Wild Horses to rein in their extreme overpopulation and resultant environmental damage from large herds trampling sensitive rangeland. The contentious issue has brought together unlikely allies, uniting the ASPCA, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and the Public Land Trust. All are pushing for a plan that would reduce the wild horse population by more than 60 percent in a decade – without euthanasia. The visceral public opposition to killing the classic western icons makes a plan based on intensive fertility control alone likelier to succeed in Congress. E & E News

Feds Look Again at Reintroducing Grizzly Bears to the North Cascades, an ecological boon that would bolster the top predator’s current estimated population of 10 bears within the North Cascades. The National Park Service and Fish and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reopened the public comment period last week, a decision conservationists celebrate and ranchers bemoan. Former Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke surprised stakeholders last year by signaling the federal government’s support for moving forward a reintroduction scheme. The Seattle Times

A New Yorker Describes Moving to the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado, where people live with pioneering self-sufficiency and isolation. The valley’s several hundred residents live on some of the cheapest and most punishing land in the country, with minus 40-degree temperatures in winter and and no trees for lumber or protection. The profile showcases a lifestyle remarkably similar to nineteenth century homesteaders, and examines what drives broadly diverse people to live on The Last Frontier. Harpers

Articles Worth Reading: July 15, 2019

Phoenix Tries To Reverse Its 'Silent Storm' Of Heat Deaths, which rose to 155 people last year and will only continue to climb with global climate change. The city, which now experiences at least 100 days over 100 degrees each year, plans to redesign its layout to increase shade and create more aggressive outreach programs to prevent heat-related deaths. It hopes to become a leader and a model for other cities struggling with rising average temperatures and health challenges. NPR

California Lawmakers Approve Legislation For $21 Billion Wildfire Fund to help public utilities pay out homeowners in wildfires connected to the power providers. The new legislation aims to stabilize fears that wildfire damage claims could permanently cripple California utilities, making them a risky investment vehicle. Pacific Gas & Electric, northern California’s major utility, filed for bankruptcy after its equipment was blamed for igniting some of the worst wildfires ever recorded in California last year. Reuters

Renegotiating The Columbia River Treaty Six Decades Later will be a very different process from the original negotiations between Canada and the United States. The treaty governs management of the Columbia River watershed, a region about the size of France; parts of it are set to expire in 2024. The renegotiations will retain the original treaty’s focus on coordinated flood control and energy security across the vast region, but will add environmental concerns as a third pillar of managing the river. The new negotiations will also include First Nations and other native representatives who were entirely excluded from the original treaty negotiations. High Country News

A 700-Mile Solo Float On The Green River Led to a Comprehensive New Book on western water distribution and policy analysis, as described in an interview with the author Heather Hansman. The environmental journalist and rafter intersperses her policy research and stakeholder interviews with her personal experience navigating the major river through Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. This podcast episode of the “Go West, Young Podcast” is 25 minutes long; this interview begins at 4:44. Center for Western Priorities

‘Goats Are the Best Tool’ for Cheap, Chemical-Free Fire Prevention – and demand for herds-for-hire is exploding in the western US as wildfire season looms. Prolific vegetation growth from heavy winter rains combined with extreme wildfires in recent years have towns, cities, and private owners across the west eager to clear out potential wildfire fodder. Goats are a cheap, efficient, and hungry solution, and herds are hard at work across the western states. The Guardian

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 »

 

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Sep 9 2019 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Pacific water temperatures indicate that fish-killing warm water nicknamed ‘The Blob’ may soon be back; Utah trees going under the axe to improve sage-grouse habitat and cattle ranching; a deep look at the economic future of eastern Wyoming from the fading Jim Bridger mine; renaming mountains in Nevada and Washington; and more recent environmental news from around the West.