Skip to content Skip to navigation

“Fire Amnesia” Hurts Efforts to Make Wildland Housing More Resilient

Felicity Barringer
Dec 20 2019

Even after record-setting fires devastated communities around the West, resistance to policies to reduce housing vulnerability persists, particularly if they constrain development.

Embed from Getty Images

The remnants of homes in Paradise, California after the Camp Fire killed 85 people and destroyed more than 18,000 structures in November 2018.   Josh Edelson/AFP via Getty Images

By Felicity Barringer

As rain and snow cover California and the West, they spell an end to this year’s fire season and ease the fears of millions of homeowners living in or near forests. But this respite has an unfortunate byproduct. Less concern about danger can mean more resistance to local moves to tighten up building requirements and zoning codes.

The reasons to fear fire are all too apparent. Between fiscal 2009 and fiscal 2018, the federal government declared 19 major fire disasters, 13 of them in the West. Fire frequency tracks the warming climate: seven of the top 10 fires in California history happened in the last two years, including the two worst. But even after the 2018 destruction — 1.9 million acres of land burned along with more the 21,000 structures — experts have seen fire amnesia set in. Coupled with resistance to government dictates, it frustrates those promoting resilience through building restrictions.

Few, if any, western communities have banned homebuilding in vulnerable areas of private land. The insurance industry had begun to step in: over the past year, hundreds of thousands of insurance policies were revoked. But this month, the California state insurance commissioner temporarily barred insurance companies from canceling policies for one million homes in areas affected by fires this year.

 

Treating Homes Receives Less Attention Than Forest Health

The first focus in fighting the impact of wildfires is to suppress active fires. The second is treating the forest by cutting back the growth of brush and thinning the trees, since forests are where the fires start. But reducing the vulnerability of individual homes or avoiding new construction in harm’s way usually has been a lower priority.

“It takes years of pretty careful study before you realize that it’s about the house itself. The rest of us are thinking, ‘These are forest fires, so the problem is in the forest,’” said Ray Rasker, the executive director of Headwaters Economics, a research firm based in Bozeman, Montana. “It’s the house, damn it, it’s the house.” In an interview with The Associated Press, Ken Pimlott, who just resigned as director of the California’s fire services, called on state officials to consider keeping new subdivisions out of mountain forests or the shrub-covered canyons of Southern California.

“The rest of us are thinking, ‘These are forest fires, so the problem is in the forest.’ It’s the house, dammit, it’s the house.”

Yet local officials are reluctant “to tell people where they can and can’t live, and how they can and can’t live,” said Molly Mowery, the chief executive of Wildfire Planning International. Her firm works with Headwaters Economics in a program to advise western communities seeking to ways to build resilience. Does she know of such restrictions for limiting where development can happen in the West? “Only for wildfire?” Though state codes control how to build, “I can’t think of any community” prohibiting homebuilding in risky areas, she said.

Why? Two main obstacles prevent the embrace of measures to ensure resilience. One is concern about government regulation or the private-market equivalent - cancellation of insurance policies. Another, noted by outgoing fire director Philpott, is the critical need for affordable housing. Any uptick in public appreciation of the need to restrict homes runs into the wave of concern about a lack of affordable housing. “For a variety of reasons, we need to continue to address building… even in elevated fire-risk areas. The affordability and availability of housing is at a crisis level in California,” said John F. Dunbar, the mayor of Yountville in California’s Napa County and president of the California League of Cities.

That said, local communities, from the Bay Area to the Sierras, now pay attention. “We have 478 member cities that have best practices that we’re sharing,” Dunbar said. “Unfortunately, many of our communities are getting educated through these disasters.” Using data from the University of Wisconsin’s Silvis Lab, Buzzfeed News produced a map of areas at risk.

 

Beyond Wildfires, Housing Nationwide Faces Ample Disaster Risks

Rating Disaster Resilience

The insurance company FM Global calculates an annual resilience index of locations around the world.

Map of California zip codes where insurers cannot cancel policies for one year.

Pulling the camera back, Dunbar said that there are many analogies nationally for the wildfire risk to homes in the West, whether from hurricanes in the Southeast, tornadoes in the farm belt, winter storms around the Great Lakes, or earthquakes in California. “To say we should only build and rebuild in areas that are completely safe — well, it’s a challenging task to find a place where it’s completely safe,” he said.

Still, the western United States ranks 22nd worldwide on the insurance company FM Global’s index of resilience, behind the central U.S. (9th) and the eastern U.S. (11th) and Canada (13th). Congress’s General Accounting Office reported that from 2015 through 2018, the Federal Emergency Management Agency used $2.4 billion in cash and in-kind resources for wildfire victims and recovery efforts. Most went for assistance to individuals and debris removal.

Across the country, homeowners resist forced resilience dictates. On the Atlantic coast, if a hurricane destroys a home, it is often rebuilt even bigger. Just one community, Virginia Beach, has banned high-risk development, specifically on a waterlogged parcel of 50 acres. A court has upheld the ban. But this decision is an anomaly.

Even without legal mandates, a growing number of Western communities have taken measures to reduce risk. These focus not on where people build homes but how they build. Since 2010, California has had some of the toughest fire-related building codes in the country. Some communities are purchasing vulnerable land; many work to teach homeowners how to harden their homes.

 

In the West, Skepticism Over Measures to Increase Wildfire Safety

But only a minority of people living in the West favor using local public funds to help homeowners living in the interface between wild lands and developed areas. This came through clearly in recent public opinion poll done by Bruce Cain, a political science professor and Iris Hui, a senior researcher at Stanford University. [Both are my colleagues at the Bill Lane Center for the American West.]

Their poll, conducted three months ago, found that 25 percent of California respondents knew someone affected by a wildfire in the past year, More than half said they had been affected by wildfire smoke. Still, there was scant support (25 percent) for requiring homeowners to abandon wildfire zones after a fire. Some 22 percent favored a ban on rebuilding of homes that wildfires had destroyed.

Yet another obstacle to increasing a community’s resilience is an often-diffuse local decision-making process, involving county and municipal officials and, when it comes to building codes, sometimes states as well. The need to cultivate acceptance for new limitations and building restrictions falls most heavily on local officials.

Only a minority of people living in the West favor using local public funds to help homeowners living in the interface between wild lands and developed areas.

A spokesman for rural California communities argued the issues of home safety should not preempt what he thinks is more important. “What is unfortunate is that the narrative is changing into what should happen in these communities instead of how to maintain and dissect the [basic] issue — mismanagement of forests,” said Justin Caporusso, the vice president for external affairs at Rural County Representatives of California. He went on, “Hardworking rural Californians have been living in these parts for … years. Our forests over several decades have been mismanaged and have led to catastrophic wildfire events that shouldn’t have happened.”

In an e-mail, Rasker of Headwaters Economics addressed Caporusso’s point. “Some say it’s about the home. Others say it’s about the forest. They both may be right, but for different problems they are trying to address…. If you define homes burning as the problem, then the home ignition zone is where the solution is. “

A 2018 article in “Environmental Management” noted that community-based wildfire protection plans “often emphasize forest conditions and landscape-level fuel modification, with less emphasis on changing resident behavior, construction materials or land-use planning.” Why? “Such efforts remain unpopular, particularly in rural areas,” the report said.

As a result, “formal regulation and planning is typically less common than informal efforts to diminish wildfire risk,” wrote the three authors, who were led by Miranda H. Mockrin of the U.S. Forest Service. “Much of the responsibility for adapting to fire falls on local governments and communities, because unlike other natural hazards (e.g. floods) there are no federal mandates to minimize or manage wildfire exposure.”

 

‘I’m Living Here and the Fire Department is Going to Take Care of Everything’

As Jim Webster, program coordinator of Wildfire Partners, based in Boulder County, Colorado, explained, “If you go and move into the foothills, the mountains, and the forest, you’re moving into a fire-risk area.” He added. “People have to understand fire behavior and how homes burn, as opposed to saying, ‘I’m living here and the fire department is going to take care of everything.’” That kind of cultural change he said, “takes time. Seatbelts took time.” But time may not solve everything. Mockrin and her fellow authors found “residents may decline to take adaptive action if they become fatalistic or inured to the hazards, or if they are easily able to cope with wildfire impacts.”

Boulder County extends high into the Rocky Mountains from the city of Boulder, above

Limiting Growth in Wildland Areas Boulder County extends high into the Rocky Mountains from the city of Boulder, above. The county has bought up forest land, in a program originally intended to create trails and recreation.   Mitch Tobin/waterdesk.org

Where have communities adapted to their risks? In Holland, said Dave McWethy, an assistant professor of Earth Sciences at Montana State University. Over centuries, they adjusted to living on low land by the sea. “Instead of just responding in a reactionary way, which is often how societies respond to hazards” said McWethy, “their cultural context allowed them to be more proactive. ‘How do we fix this long-term?’”

One way to hasten the cultural change, said Rasker: Reward resilient communities. “In Montana we didn’t have a speed limit,” he said. “The federal government said, ‘You don’t get highway funds unless you have a speed limit.’ … Why not do the same thing around wildfire? … If you’ve got a wildland-urban interface (WUI) code requiring the use of flame-retardant building material, you’re eligible for certain grants. If you don’t, you’re not.”

 

With Little Time to Do Mitigation, Administrators Mix Threats and Rewards

Putting such ideas into action takes time. And “we’re running out of time,” said Mowery, of the community assistance group CPAW. “In land-use planning, it takes a long time to get people on board. We don’t have a command-and-control government that can say, ‘Tomorrow, we’re all going to build our homes this way.’”

What can be done? The town of Pinetop-Lakeside in Arizona, and counties like Boulder in Colorado and Ventura and Butte in California — where the Camp Fire that destroyed the town of Paradise — are forging a path forward. The recipe for creating resilient communities near old forests, experts say, is part technical, part political, and part psychological.

wildfire-resilience planning page

Amid Deep Forest Cover, a Model Community The wildfire-resilience planning page on Pinetop-Lakeside created by Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire, a joint project of Headwaters Economics and Wildfire Planning International.   Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire

Pinetop-Lakeside is a fast-growing community of 4,361 people near Arizona’s White Mountains, halfway between Phoenix and the New Mexico state line. Two major fires — the Rodeo-Chediski fire in 2002 and the Wallow fire in 2001 — meant forced evacuations and destroyed 500 structures. Today, “we’ve got small micro-forests on everybody’s property that we are trying to mitigate,” Jim Morgan, the fire chief, explained. “Just in our fire district we have 7,500 acres that needs to be mitigated.” Private properties, ranging in size from one-third of an acre to 20 acres, “have become overgrown because the community… didn’t understand tree density and how it relates to fire behavior in catastrophic wildfires,” Morgan said.

 

“Firewise” Program Offers a Standard Set of Approaches to Harden Property

The National Fire Protection Association’s “Firewise” program, designed to reduce a community’s vulnerability, emphasizes how to maintain a defensible space around a home, avoid a home’s intake of wind-borne embers, create fire breaks in landscaping, space trees and remove vegetation. Communities in compliance receive a certificate, which can reduce insurance rates. Five years ago, of the 32 homeowner associations in the White Mountains, none were certified, Morgan said; now 11 have certifications with seven more working toward one. But the changes aren’t always welcome. Some homeowners, he said, “moved up there for the trees and we’re taking trees off their property. For some people, the removal of trees is too dramatic.”


Managing the “Home Ignition Zone”

Research by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1990s helped shed light on how houses react to radiant heat from wildfires – and what puts them at greatest risk.

Illustration showing bands of ignition zones around a house.

The illustration above, by the National Fire Protection Association, shows three zones radiating from a home, each with different suggested treatments for increasing resilience. Starting with the “Immediate Zone” up to five feet around a house, Firewise techniques recommend that homeowners remove dead vegetation, fix loose roof shingles, and remove flammable materials. Further away, experts recommend keeping trees well separated and free of dead material, among other suggestions.

Source: National Fire Protection Association

Pinetop-Lakeside was one of four communities in the West to receive technical planning assistance this year from Mowery’s team, as part of the Community Planning Assistance for Wildfire program. In addition, state agencies gave the town three grants totalling $557,000 to defray homeowner costs. The town is updating its wildfire-protection ordinance; Morgan’s staff can now certify a home as fire-resistant. But just one insurance company, USAA, accepts the certificates. Morgan hopes to see that number grow.

For years, Boulder County, Colorado has bought up forest land, a program originally intended to create trails and recreation areas. Lori Peek, a sociologist at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus, called it, “One of the best wildfire mitigation programs is keeping people out of the WUI in the first place.” Since the years of property buyouts, “the number of homes in our WUI is much smaller [than in neighboring communities],” said Jim Webster, who spearheads the county’s adaptation work.

“In part because we have purchased a lot of land in this area —so it’s not available for development — we haven’t approved a new subdivision since the 1970s,” Webster said. His program to mitigate properties takes homeowner applications but “we only accept the best,” based on answers to 50 questions about the property. After inspection, a county official provides a checklist of requirements. As in Pinetop-Lakeside, homeowners completing required work get a certificate.

The work, Webster said, costs an average of more than $6,000 and takes a typical homeowner more than 80 hours. The county has $3 million in state and federal grants for homeowner subsidies. It has awarded about 800 certificates after examining about 25 percent of the area’s 8,000 homes. “Nineteen homes that the county had helped mitigate were involved” in the 2016 Cold Springs Fire, Webster said. “All 19 survived.”

 

Woodlands Offer Privacy, and Thinning Them Can Be Unpopular

But these local successes aren’t often emulated around the West. Polling data gathered by Stanford researchers show little appetite for using local taxpayer dollars to improve resilience. The poll also showed that people who tend to oppose government intervention also sense less danger: those who described themselves as conservative were less likely to report experiencing wildfire smoke than those with more liberal views.

Doug Teeter, a county supervisor in California’s Butte County, had to flee the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise a year ago. He said townspeople there “like moving to the woods because they like not seeing their neighbors. “On half- or quarter-acre lots that means your vegetation is close to your home. We need to reconsider that. Small acreage can’t have that much vegetation… When density gets high enough, we need to be more aggressive.” He added, “this is horrible, tough public policy that needs to be discussed…. I used to be passionate about the trees. Now I’m passionate about the clearances.”

“I used to be passionate about the trees. Now I’m passionate about the clearances.”

Dan Dunmoyer, president of the California Building Industry Association, said, “We haven’t seen any government actions that prohibit building for fire,” or regulating construction in the WUI. “I’ve seen it for floods, not fire.” Since 2010, when the state tightened building codes, new homes “have, as a majority, withstood even the worst fires. At this point, the marketplace is going to dictate more of the fire-rebuild issues than the government.”

Janet Ruiz, a spokesperson for the Insurance Information Institute, said her industry “gets bashed on both sides. We get legislators who are upset because people don’t get” extra money after a fire, even if “They didn’t contract for it.” And “one the other side… When I go to meetings with fire services they’ll say we shouldn't be [paying for] rebuilding" burned homes. "But that’s not something" insurers can take on, she added — "to restrict building or not.

“There are some areas where [the standard] should be ‘Build at your own risk,’” she said. But whose responsibility is it to say that? The industry's? Not exactly. For insurers, Ruiz concluded, "We can say, 'understand the risk where you build.'"

 

and the west logo

 

Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

 

Read More on Wildfire & the West

Can Prescribed Fires Head Off Devastating Wildfires?

An academic study supports the notion that one way to mitigate wildfires is clearing out trees, brush and brambles in the forest understory, often with prescribed burns. But proponents face a slew of obstacles, from pollution concerns and shrinking seasonal windows, to the vast scale of undertreated western forestland.

 

Are Forest Managers Robbing the Future to Pay for Present-Day Fires?

In the federal government, wildfires have a lesser claim on disaster funds. As fires burn with greater magnitude and frequency, the cost of fighting them is increasingly borne by money earmarked for prevention.

 

 

Read Next in ...& the West

Astride Two Wests, Colorado County Faces a Tricky Economic Balance

With outdoor recreation in its east and fossil-fuel resources on the west, can Garfield County develop an economy that serves both ends?


 

Back to main page

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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, Benek Robertson, Maya Burke, Kate Selig, Francisco L. Nodarse, Devon Burger, and Madison Pobis

Articles Worth Reading: March 15, 2021

California Tribes Fight A Gold Mining Project Near Death Valley which would build an open pit mine on BLM land. K2 Gold Corp., of Vancouver, Canada, hopes to capitalize on rising gold prices using a new cyanide leaching technique to increase yields. The Lone Pine Paiute Shoshone Tribe and local environmentalists oppose the project citing its impact to natural and cultural resources Los Angeles Times

Energy Companies Have Stuck Colorado With Clean-Up Costs of Billions of Dollars for old oil and gas wells. If left unplugged, wells can leak toxins into groundwater and emit methane and other greenhouse gases. Companies are legally required to pay for cleanup, but the funds they provided to the state would only cover two percent of the wells. High Country News

Butterflies Are Vanishing Out West. Scientists Say Climate Change is to Blame. As the region has become hotter and drier, butterfly numbers have declined steadily, according to a study published in the journal Science. Washington Post

Biden Shows Support for Controversial Road in Alaska Refuge. The development project in Izembek National Wildlife Refuge -- first advanced by the Trump Administration -- has been the contested in federal courts by environmental groups. Seattle Times

Oregon Has a New Carbon Cap Program. After Republican legislators walked out on the latest climate bill, Governor Kate Brown issued an executive order for state agencies to draft carbon-reduction rules that would meet the same targets. They hope to have the program running by 2022. Oregonian

Most Colorado River Basin States Plan to Negotiate About Cutting Use. Not Utah. During negotiations over water usage from the Colorado River, Utah is organizing to push for an increased share. Drought conditions have led other states in the region to seek decreases in water usage. “The goal of renegotiating is figuring out how to use less,” said John Fleck, a water scholar. It’s not “staking out political turf to try to figure out how to use more.” Associated Press

A Texas Bill Seeks to Punish Companies That Divest From Fossil Fuels by cutting them off from state investment funds. Republican lawmakers are championing the bill, even as many Wall Street firms shift their portfolios to better reflect climate change. If passed, it would direct the state’s massive investment funds to divest from companies that boycott oil, gas, and other fossil fuels. Texas Tribune

Articles Worth Reading: March 1, 2021

Biden Administration Reviews Proposal to Export Five Million Tons of Natural Gas to Mexico, setting up an early test for its fossil fuel policies. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has recently approved export terminals, despite opposition from tribes and environmental groups. Sempra Energy is behind the proposal: the company owns two major utility companies in Southern California. Los Angeles Times

Tribes Flex Political Muscle in Quest to Co-Manage Parks. The National Congress of American Indians is asking President Biden to "finalize a true co-management agreement” with tribes within his first 100 days in office. Deb Haaland's nomination as the first Native American Secretary of the Interior has instilled hope in tribes seeking greater cooperative management agreements and other collaborative partnerships with the federal government. E&E News

Maritime Shippers Send Empty Containers to China, Refusing to Load Agricultural Exports. Carriers rejected hundreds of thousands of crop containers in recent months, favoring empty containers that would allow for fast turnaround times. This practice has caused particular hardships for American growers such as California’s almond farmers. Farm Progress

XCEL, a Colorado Energy Company Plans to Double its Renewable Energy generation by 2030, closing coal plants and rolling out large wind and solar projects. Consumers will shoulder the $8 billion required to get 80 percent of the company’s Colorado energy portfolio powered by renewables. Colorado Sun

A Clam Crisis Is Developing in California as fishermen’s new interest in the clam industry and their widespread use of hydraulic pumps has forced State Fish and Wildlife personnel to enact emergency restrictions. Harvest limits have been flouted, and new pumps allow for increased ease of clam harvest. Regulators suspect that illegally harvested clams are filling the vacuum left by black-market abalone – abalone poaching has declined since the fishery’s closure in 2018. Seattle Times

The Interior Department Rescinds Grazing Rights for Controversial Oregon Ranchers. The decision comes days before cattle were scheduled to roam 26,000 acres of public lands neighboring the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, site of a fatal standoff with those defying public-lands controls. Hammond Ranches Inc. had its grazing allotments revoked, after the Interior secretary’s office found that the Trump administration hadn’t allowed for sufficient public challenges. Washington Post

Articles Worth Reading: Feb 16, 2021

The Continuing Drop in Sierra Snowpack Has Led to an End to Free Water Deliveries the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power had made to ranchers annually. This has left local officials and environmentalists concerned that dewatered pastures will increase the risk of wildfire and reduce sage grouse habitat. Los Angeles Times

To Save Snake River Salmon, A Republican Congressman Wants to Breach Four Dams. Rep. Mike Simpson of Eastern Idaho has proposed a massive, federally-funded dam removal effort beginning in 2030. Many stakeholders are uncertain about the future of the $33 billion proposal, which would replace the hydroelectricity from the dams and provide alternatives to barging crops downriver. Simpson hopes this will preserve endangered salmon and support local economies. Idaho Statesman

Coachella Mandates Hazard Pay for Farmworkers under its jurisdiction in southeastern California. About 8,000 farmworkers live in Coachella Valley, with 30 percent of these in the city itself. Farms have been a common site of Covid-19 outbreaks. Workers often struggle to find protective gear and many occupy shared housing. As of mid-February, at least 12,787 farm workers have tested positive for Covid-19, and 43 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network’s outbreak tracker. The Counter

To Win State Control of Federal Lands in Utah, Suits Claimed Thousands of Wilderness “Roads” Existed. Their existence has been in dispute since suits were first filed in 2012, and a recent judicial ruling, saying wilderness advocates were improperly cut out of the certification process, may mean years more litigation. Some in state government are asking if the effort is worth it. Salt Lake Tribune

Environmentalists Fighting Tejon Valley Ranch Development Invoke Native Claims that the California condor qualifies as a cultural resource. In an appeal of a federal court ruling that allowed nearly 9,000 acres to be developed with homes and a golf course, the Center for Biological Diversity and local tribes argue the development in condor habitat would harm the bird. A dozen years ago, a landmark agreement between the ranch and major environmental organizations protected 240,000 acres of the ranch’s land and allowed development on the remaining 30,000 acres, including the land now in dispute. The Center was not a party to the agreement. Mynewsla High Country News

Montana’s National Bison Range Now Under Native Control. After 25 years of and on-again, off-again federal effort to transfer management of the range located on the Flathead Indian Reservation from the Interior Department to the Confederated Salish-Kootenai tribe, the final legal agreement was reached in December and earlier this year the transfer took place. Charkoosta

California Legislators Consider Vast Expansion of Offshore Wind. A new bill would require California to set a target of constructing 3,000 megawatts of offshore wind by 2030. Fishermen and environmentalists are still somewhat wary of offshore wind, but the bill has attracted support from labor leaders across the state. San Jose Mercury-News

Articles Worth Reading: Feb 2, 2021

On U.S. Public Lands, Can Biden Undo What Trump Has Wrought? President Biden’s ambitious agenda for public lands includes bans on oil and gas drilling and restored protections for key areas. Reversing the Trump administration’s policies, however, may be made difficult by conservative courts and rules changes. Yale Environment 360

Why Utah’s Wild Mink COVID-19 Cases Matter: In Utah, which faces similar problems to those encountered by the Netherlands last year, thousands of farmed minks have died of Covid-19. The affected sites have been forced into quarantine, and a wild mink tested positive for coronavirus last month -- the first wild animal to have naturally been infected with the virus. High Country News spoke with Dr. Anna Fagre, a virologist and veterinarian at Colorado State University, to help put the recent COVID-19 outbreak among wild minks in context. High Country News

Timber Tax Cuts Cost Oregon Towns Billions. Then Polluted Water Drove Up the Price. In rural Oregon, logging-related water contamination has threatened their access to clean, safe drinking water, forcing small towns to spend millions on new water infrastructure. The future of logging regulations remains murky for the nation’s top lumber producer. For decades, Oregon has allowed logging companies to leave fewer trees behind than in other states. Propublica/Oregonian

The Interior Department Effort to Relocate Jobs to Colorado Prompted a Mass Exodus; some 41 of 328 employes slated to move to Grand Junction, Colorado actually made the move; the rest left the agency. The Bureau of Land Management’s loss of so many longtime career employes – only 60 jobs were left in place in the Washington office -- is an example of the Trump Administration’s success the federal government. Washington Post

An Exploration of the Reasons to Cherish Microbiotic Soils. Fungi, lichen, cyanobacteria, algae, and other tiny organisms live in just the top few millimeters of soil; these crusts are critical to the health of the desert, and can be damaged repeated trampling by people, cattle, or off-road vehicles. Sierra Club

Some Ecological Damage from Trump’s Rushed Border Wall Could Be Repaired; conservationists are urging the Biden administration to remove sections of the barrier that cut across critical habitats, block migration corridors, and damage watersheds. The coalition opposing the wall has identified specific problematic sections to be potentially removed. Scientific American

Tens of Millions of Birds Pass Through Two Corridors in the West: California’s Central Valley and the Colorado River Delta. New research finds that more than 82 million birds pass through these regions during spring migration, with tree swallows concentrating in the Colorado delta and Anna’s hummingbirds in the Central Valley. This data helps define critical habitats for western birds, with up to 80 percent of some species’ populations passing through the two areas. Yale Environment 360

The Navajo Generating Station, a Major Employer and a Major Polluter on Navajo Land, has Been Demolished after Navajo and Hopi community members fought for years to close the facility. Now, Navajo and Hopi community members are outlining steps for community restoration, such as securing electricity and clean water access for residents, as well as job training. Center For Health, Environment And Justice

Articles Worth Reading: January 19, 2020

A Forever Drought Takes Hold in the West. The U.S. Drought Monitor — the nation’s official tally — shows Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico mired in “exceptional drought.” This type of drought is only supposed to happen every 50 years, but it’s now a regular occurrence. Even if rain and snow arrive in the coming months, parched soil will slurp it up, leaving less for riverbeds. Axios

“We’re Bound by That River,” one water expert said of the Colorado River, which supplies water to 40 million people. “All of us, regardless of our legal rights, regardless of what’s on paper, we need to consider how we can use less water. And we need to take action immediately.” The Colorado Basin and its water managers must juggle the laws that are decades old, new agreements and persistent aridity. The huge reservoirs of Lake Powell and Lake Mead have shrunk dramatically. Some observers say the rules governing distribution of the Colorado’s waters need to be fundamentally reimagined. Arizona Republic

Unlikely Coalitions Form to Block New Port Facilities to export fossil fuels. Teaming with Native Americans, ranchers and sportsmen, environmentalists have worked to block nearly every effort to export coal, oil and liquified natural gas from the West Coast. They just claimed another major victory this month – the latest of more than two dozen -- when a proposed coal-export terminal in Washington state was called off. Associated Press

“Fossil” Groundwater Is Being Depleted in California, and its users can’t rely on it being replenished any century soon, according to new study. If the water tucked underground for 100 centuries is used for the crops and pools of the 21st century, the fossil water stores will disappear for good. “It’s just like taking gold out of the ground, out of a mountain,” said Menso de Jong, the study’s lead author. “The gold is not going to grow back.” San Jose Mercury News

Apaches Sue to Stop First Step in Approval of Copper Mine Near Sacred Site. If an environmental study’s publication is blocked, the process of approving the mine planned by Resolution Copper might be derailed. A podcast interview with the reporter covering the controversy, Debra Utacia Krol of The Arizona Republic. KSUT

To Help Rural Economies, One-Third of Spotted Owl Habitat in Oregon Was Excluded from Protection. The size of the protected acreage has yo-yoed from one administration to the next, but this cut in protected areas is one of the biggest on record. The amount of habitat protected in the Obama administration was more than 9 million acres; the Trump administration in its final days cut that by more than 3 million acres. E&E News

Rural Coloradans Seek to Contain Light Pollution. NASA photos of Colorado from space show a widening urban white-out reaching into rural areas. The dark-sky zones that southwestern Colorado leaders are proposing in areas like the San Luis Valley would, all combined, cover more than 3,800 square miles — the largest official area protected from artificial light on the planet. Denver Post

Wildlife Take Stock of Photographers Taking Stock of Wildlife. “Animals interrupting wildlife photographers,” a thread by the Catalan journalist Joaquim Campa. Twitter

Articles Worth Reading: December 7, 2020

New Data Shows Lethal Damage to Coho Salmon Is From Tire Residue, as researchers double-down on the findings about tires’ environmental damage. One chemical, 6PPD-quinone, interacts with ozone and becomes highly toxic to Puget Sound salmon, taking out 40 to 80 percent of returning salmon before the spawn. The problem extends from Washington state, where scientists have been studying the issue, to California; tires are the largest source of microplastics in San Francisco Bay. The Seattle Times Los Angeles Times

With Legal Barriers Gone, More Westerners Are Harvesting Rain to supplement the disappearing water in the Colorado River and the Ogallala Aquifer. Rainwater harvesting—a cheap, low-barrier, low-energy method—may provide one piece of the long-term solution to water shortages in a region where climate change is intensifying droughts. Today, rainwater capture is legal in every state, though many have restrictions. A few, like Colorado, didn’t legalize it until 2016 and still restrict the total amount harvested. The Counter

A Navajo-Majority County Commission in Utah Calls for Restoring the Bears’ Ears Monument to its original size. The Trump Administration dramatically reduced the monument from 1.35 million acres to two separate areas totaling 200,000 acres. The San Juan County Commission voted 2-to-1 to make the request, with its two Navajo members in the majority. Associated Press

In the Wake of Fierce Fires, A Sudden Burst of Logging in Colorado. State foresters are overseeing wholesale mechanized tree-cutting, as tractors dig holes up to 140 acres in size are appearing among the lodgepole pines. A hot national wood-products market snaps up the lumber created in Colorado, which has never traditionally been a logging state. Across western Colorado, insect attacks on old and drought-enfeebled trees over the past decade have left 5 million acres of skeletal trees in a region climate change has made susceptible to wildfire. This year, 700,000 acres burned. Denver Post

As Insurers Blanch at Newly Calculated Wildfire Losses — $24 Billion in the U.S. in 2018, they continue to flee fire prone areas. In California alone in 20219, insurers pulled coverage from more than 230,000 homes — about 31 percent more than the year before. California regulators want to keep private insurers from fleeing the state, but know that climate change is changing everyone’s risk calculation. Bloomberg

Articles Worth Reading: November 30, 2020

Permit for Alaska’s Pebble Mine Permit Denied, Again. After flirting with the notion of approving a project that both state and federal agencies warned would cause permanent harm the Koktuli River watershed, the Trump administration backed off. It denied a key permit for a massive gold and copper mine. Mine developers plan an appeal, but their project faces opposition from the incoming administration. Donald Trump Jr., Fox News’s Tucker Carlson, and prominent Republicans joined conservationists, commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives in the effort to block the mine. Washington Post Anchorage Daily News

It’s Not Just Car Tailpipes, It’s Car Tires that pollute the waters of San Francisco Bay. The San Francisco Estuary Institute has measured runoff after cars gather for big events, particularly events held during rainstorms. It estimates half of some 7.2 trillion synthetic particles washing into the bay each year come from tires – which now consist of both rubber and plastic polymers. The institute’s work broadens the focus of environmental damage from cars. Hakai

Federal Plans to Raise Shasta Dam were unveiled by the Bureau of Reclamation. Supporters, particularly those in the agricultural industry centered in California’s Central Valley, strongly support increasing the dam’s storage capacity by 200 billion gallons, or 634,000 acre-feet. The latest press release from the Bureau of Reclamation discusses the findings of its most recent environmental impact statement. Agnet West California Aggie

Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission Speeding Closures of Coal-Fired Power Plants to meet the state goal of slashing emissions in half by 2030. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, from 2011 to the middle of this year, some 95 gigawatts of coal capacity was taken offline another 25 GW is slated to shut down by 2025. Utility Dive

How Much Lithium Under the Salton Sea Can Be Retrieved? The huge lake in the southeastern California desert may sit atop a rich deposit of minerals just waiting to be developed. The hot water trapped beneath the basin's floor contains one of the world’s biggest deposits of lithium. This mineral, which now comes mostly from China, Australia and South America, has growing importance as automakers shift to electric cars powered by lithium-ion batteries. Bloomberg H2O Radio

To Fight Against Climate Change, the Swinomish Use Traditional Knowledge to recover the salmon central to the Indigenous group’s diet and traditions. In recent years, though, the tribe’s harvest, diminished by vanishing habitat and warming waters fueled by climate change, hasn’t been sufficient to feed the hundreds of people who come to pay homage to their ancestors and the fish that sustained them. Their ambitious climate strategy involves not only rebuilding oyster reefs, but, for salmon, restoring tidelands and ancient channels, planting trees along streambeds to cool warming waters and working with farmers to push back setbacks from streams. Some 50 other Native tribes are following the Swinomish lead. Washington Post

In a Tribute to Ansel Adams, a magazine produces a photo essay following in his path. Maptia

Articles Worth Reading: November 24, 2020

Breakthrough Deal Revives Plan for Largest U.S. Dam Demolition along the Oregon-California border. An agreement between the governors of Oregon and California paves the way for the demolition of four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, creating the foundation for salmon restoration that would aid tribes in the area. The deal must now be approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, with California officials optimistic that dam removal could start by 2023.

Associated Press San Francisco Chronicle

Federal Subsidies Accelerate the Draining of the Ogallala Aquifer. For decades, farmers have overdrawn the groundwater from the nation’s largest aquifer, which covers parts of eight states. New research shows that state and federal policies encourage the depletion, which now threatens drinking water supplies. Federal subsidies increased 65% in 2020, partly in payments to cover the pain of losses from trade wars. The subsidies put farmers on a treadmill, creating a vicious cycle of overproduction that requires intensive use of water. The Counter

New Mexico Ranchers Face Historic Drought, forcing some ranchers to sell their animals as there will not be enough grass to support the animals through the winter. The state is facing patches of extreme and exceptional drought, compounded by several summers of record heat and little rainfall. The pandemic is exacerbating the impact of the drought by hurting meat-packing plants and closing restaurants. Albuquerque Journal

Researchers Still Don’t Know Why So Many Birds Died This Fall. Thousands of bird deaths have been recorded across the western U.S. and Mexico. Researchers say the mass die-offs are unusual, finding piles of dead birds in one spot. It is unclear whether these incidents across the country are related or not, and scientists have posited causes ranging from extreme weather events and wildfire smoke to drought. Sierra Club Salt Lake Tribune

Placer County, Calif. Is America’s Riskiest Place for Wildfires. Computer modeling conducted by analytics firm Climate Check shows 17 counties, mostly clustered in the West, face the country’s greatest wildfire risk. Experts say development and population growth in remote areas and on the edge of cities, creating increased growth in the wildland urban interface, is responsible for much of the increased risk. E&E News

Congress Seeks Answers on Alaskan Mine Project. Democrats in the House of Representatives have launched an investigation into the Pebble Mine project, seeking to determine whether the developers misrepresented its plans to Alaskan Natives and the government. House leaders raised concerns that the developers privately planned a much larger and longer project while downplaying the mine to the public. If completed, Pebble Mine would be one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. The New York Times

Articles Worth Reading: November 17, 2020

Hoping to Lock In Drilling Rights on Alaska’s Pristine Coastal Plain, the outgoing Trump administration is asking oil and gas firms to select the places they hope to drill in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The idea is to ensure a lease sale in the wilderness area of nearly 1.6 million acres can occur before the inauguration of a longtime opponent, President-Elect Joe Biden. Washington Post

Federal Judge Says Interior Department Ignored Climate Concerns in granting new Wyoming oil and gas leases. The judge blocked the move and called on federal regulators to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and conduct its environmental analysis and consider possible negative effects on the climate, before drilling on 282 lease parcels on 300,000 acres of federal land could be occur. Casper Star-Tribune

Canadian Environmental Groups Working With Shell Canada and Others to create a national carbon-offset system. The program is something that the government announced last year but has no built-in deadlines to follow. Shell is one of several oil companies pushing the federal government to create a national greenhouse gas offset program. Carbon offsets allow companies and individuals to invest in environmental projects in order to balance out their own greenhouse gas emissions. CBC

The Lights of Growing Communities Attract Deer. Deer Attract Cougars. Research shows that as light pollution grows, it mimics deer’s preferred dusk and dawn grazing times. But there are still enough dark spots for predators to hide and hunt, according to both satellite data and GPS data from 117 cougars and 486 mule deer in the southwest. Salt Lake Tribune

The Head of California’s Clean Air Agency Could Lead EPA under President-Elect Joe Biden. Mary Nichols has kept California focused on efforts to control greenhouse gases. But at the Air Resources Board, disquieting news surfaced about allegations of persistent slighting of Black employee in the agency, which is opening a discussion of the charges with all employees. Bloomberg News Sacramento Bee

Black Cowboys Reclaim Their History in the West Though historians estimate that as many as one-fourth of the cowboys in the late 1800s were Black, many of them have been erased from the history of the “Wild West.” But this history is remembered by men who gather at a ranch in South Phoenix owned by a retired Black trucker from Indiana. High Country 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

Apr 22 2021 | Center News, Happenings
With a guest talk by BLC director Bruce Cain, the Bay Planning Coalition convened regional experts to discuss Bay Area reset opportunities for the economy and infrastructure
Apr 15 2021 | Center News, Happenings, Research Notes
After partnering to conduct research on policing alternatives last summer, the Lane Center and neighboring cities will conduct follow-up meetings on April 30 to discuss progress, challenges and new research.
Apr 12 2021 | ... & the West Blog, ... & the Best | Stories Recommended by the ‘... & the West’ Blog
Deb Haaland visits Bears Ears; scientists study what makes wildfire smoke toxic; the fight to save old-growth forests in British Columbia; the first urban wildlife refuge in the Southwest; grasshoppers and an opera in Glacier National Park; and other recent news from the West.