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By Land or Sky, Rural Western Communities Seek an Elusive Good: Broadband Internet Access

Felicity Barringer
Jun 26 2020

Two decades into the 21st Century, broadband internet access still falls short of reaching tens of millions of Americans – especially in hilly and remote parts of the rural West. But local initiatives and creative uses of technology are slowly helping close the divide.

The Curlew school district in internet-challenged northeastern Washington used a school bus to pick up and deliver assignments

File Server With students quarantined at home from Covid-19, the Curlew school district in internet-challenged northeastern Washington used a school bus to pick up and deliver assignments.   Curlew School District

By Felicity Barringer

Curlew School in the timber-country hills of far northeastern Washington closed its doors in March to keep students and staff safe from the COVID-19 virus. Since then, the system’s lone school bus has driven by student homes, dropping off days’ worth of school lunches and packets of reading and assignments, and picking up completed work.

Why no Zoom learning? No digital courseware? Curlew has too many students without broadband internet access at home; it is unavailable or unaffordable. After Curlew’s teachers, like April Barreca, the science teacher for middle and high-school students, called students at home and found many disconnected, they knew online classes were a non-starter.

Curlew is a town in northeast Washington’s Ferry County.

Curlew is a town in northeast Washington’s Ferry County.

Barreca tried to stay in touch by telephone. “I just gave them my phone number,” she said. “Some do ask me questions on Facebook messenger.” But even though educational links from around the internet were not something she could offer, “the real deficit is harder to pinpoint,” she said. “It’s less about access to information and more about access to me.” Students work hard “if they feel the teacher is supporting them,” she said, but “if they feel like their teacher has abandoned them,” their incentive fizzles. “I feel like I’m out of touch with some kids,” she said.

Internet connections are necessary, but not alone sufficient for online learning. “Remote education is not working,” said John Glenewinkel, superintendent of Curlew Schools. “For the kids, it’s an incredible paradigm shift.… And two-thirds or more of my kids don’t have reliable internet access.” Often their families can’t afford it.  More than half the 172 students enrolled in Curlew Schools qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches. “You are creating a situation of inequity,” he said.

Ninth graders from the Curlew School this past winter.

Ninth graders from the Curlew School this past winter.   April Barreca

Internet Access Peters Out Beyond Rural Western Town Centers

Two decades into the 21st century, stark stories about life without adequate internet access are common around the rural West. While connectivity reaches many rural centers — like Republic, the county seat in Ferry County — it evaporates within a few miles. Major carriers like AT&T, Verizon and Frontier (now in bankruptcy, with Ziply buying its Northwest territory) support customers in town centers. Left to fill the gaps are rural telecoms, small internet service providers and local cable TV companies. No reliable statistics quantify how many are unserved.

April Barreca’s father, Joe, is a former computer programmer. He started a mapping business at home producing maps showing 911 service territories. His slow internet connection only allowed him to send and receive e-mail, “but I needed aerial photos, which were huge; I’d have to go to town to download them, and town is 20 miles away.”

Betty Buckley is executive director of the Washington Independent Telecommunications Association, which represents 18 small telephone companies in 21 locations in other parts of northeast Washington in areas with less than 20 people per square mile. “By and large our members have fewer than 5,000 customers,” she said. Buckley lives on the northern side of the Colville Indian reservation. She is convinced “I’m going to be the last person served in the state of Washington.”

She boils everything down to a simple question: “Are we going to serve everyone or not?” There are two tiers necessary to establish fiber internet connections: a “middle-mile” build that gets a trunk line to a centrally-located rural hub, allowing other providers to build “last-mile” connections to homes. When homes are scattered over wide areas, creating the last link can be daunting. “The last two percent of those unserved are going to be stunningly expensive,” Buckley said.

Getting a fiber-optic line to her house, Buckley estimates, “is a $1.6 million build.” She and her nine nearest neighbors are marooned on a digital desert island. “There is nothing, with the possible exception of low-earth-orbit satellites, that’s going to help a situation like ours.”

Even though Washington has 238 internet providers — and a newly created state broadband office to focus on improving state systems, the online magazine Broadband Now reports that 103,000 residents have no access to wired internet. Another 338,000 residents can’t get a wired connection with the now-standard 25 megabits-per-second download speeds and three mps upload speeds.

An Increasingly Essential Service in the 21st Century

“If you don’t have connectivity you don’t have a future of work and you don’t have a future of learning.” said Gary A. Bolles, a co-founder of the U.S. Broadband Coalition. At a May webinar of the advocacy group California Forward, Martha Guzman Aceves, a member of California’s Public Utility Commission, agreed. “Now more than ever we have the realization across our society that broadband is a basic utility,” she said. “It’s an essential service.”

Nationwide, the Federal Communications Commission reports that 21 million Americans lack broadband access. But it acknowledges the figure is a significant undercount; there are no reliable statistics on the number unserved. Until last year, companies getting FCC grants, like AT&T, CenturyLink and Frontier, could report an entire census block as fully served if a single customer had broadband access (census blocks vary in size from less than an acre to multiple square miles). As for internet-deficient Ferry County? FCC maps show the entire county has access to broadband, which doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground.

In reality, about 40 million people in the country “can’t get 25/3 at any price,” said Chris Mitchell, a broadband expert at Minnesota’s Institute for Local Self-Reliance, citing preferred minimum speeds for downloads and uploads. “Right now, the federal government is in the odd situation in which it doesn’t know where broadband is – or isn’t,” the FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel agreed. In an April Brookings Institution webinar, she said, “The maps … describing where broadband is and is not in this country radically overstate service. If we don’t fix those maps, we’re not going to be able to manage this problem.”

The web of obstacles to rural broadband is being untangled in some areas, like parts of Utah and a collection of small Indian reservations in southern California where broadband access has steadily increased. Bolles, now chair for Singularity University’s Future of Work program, said, a “rural county needs a technology sherpa — somebody who can step up to help navigate this…. You’re trying to reach a lot of places. But plains present different problems than hilly country.” Indeed, in hilly Ferry County, the process is still at an early stage.

Defining “Broadband” Internet Access

As technology has advanced and the demand has grown for video streams for teleconferencing, telemedicine, and binge-watching, the Federal Communications Commission has steadily raised the threshold for what it defines as “high-speed” broadband internet service. Since 2019, 25 megabits per second download and 4 megabits up has been the FCC’s target. Most delivery technologies have kept pace, with fiber and cable-based broadband pushing into 1,000 mpbs territory; so, too is the much-hyped mobile wireless technology called “5G.” But the highest speed services are poorly distributed and generally concentrated in affluent communities and big-city downtown business districts.

Graphic: Defining “Broadband” Internet Access

Graphic: Defining “Broadband” Internet Access. Click to enlarge.

After Decades of Federal Investment, Persistent “Digital Desert Islands” Stifle Economic Growth

Across the West, millions of people in rural areas and on Native reservations are in Betty Buckley’s situation – digital desert islands – despite tens of billions of dollars in federal grants and loans dating back to the 1990s. Rural broadband grants were part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, primarily through the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service and the FCC. That agency has supplemented its earlier grants with a $20.4 billion fund which will be auctioned off to providers to expand rural service.

Lack of broadband has an economic cost. From 2010 to 2018, it contributed to a quarter of the population and job loss in rural America, calculates Steve Ross. Ross was formerly an associate professor of practice at Columbia University's School of Journalism, focused on data journalism; he now is editor at large of the trade magazine Broadband Communities.

Will Rinehart, a research fellow at Utah State University, isn’t so sure. He questions whether rural residents simply lack access, or whether they lack real interest. “Economic development happens pretty quickly after electrification,” he said, “and not as quickly after broadband development.” His 2017 article for American Action Forum noted, “Availability and adoption are two completely different concepts. For people to benefit from the internet, they need to use it.”

Access is required first. The obstacles facing would-be service providers are threefold: legal, technical and financial. Broadband Now reports that laws in 22 states throttle municipalities seeking to use public resources — like bonding authority — to build broadband. That way, incumbent providers, often large corporations, are protected from a new kind of competition. As Martha Guzman Aceves said, “Providers provide service where it makes economic sense…. The market drives where they invest.” The low number of potential rural subscribers seem a less lucrative option, so providers prefer to put infrastructure in densely populated areas.

As Local Services Find Footing, Should the FCC Reduce Reliance On Big Carriers?

“We haven’t really tried to solve the problem in the sense of actually focusing first on what is the best way to connect rural America,” Chris Mitchell said. “Most FCC programs have been about what the big phone companies want to do, not focused on what is best for communities.” James Baller, a lawyer who heads the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, believes, “Local communities are perfectly capable and best situated to understand their own needs and wise about how to achieve them. They should not be restrained from doing so.”

For years, a publicly supported Utah broadband consortium’s financial problems were held up as a cautionary example supporting state prohibitions. Now the company’s success has turned that argument on its head. Despite state prohibitions on publicly-financed retail broadband, this consortium, a wholesale provider called the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency (or UTOPIA), was permitted to work with support from willing municipalities to run last-mile fiber to 110,000 households in 11 cities like Orem, a small city that is a technology hub.

The system was controversial – vigorously opposed by the Utah Taxpayers Association - and its problematic rollout apparently left partner municipalities with large debts and inadequate revenue to cover them. About seven years ago, new management turned things around financially. Private companies now use UTOPIA connections to reach customers in these towns; they pay for this service. UTOPIA showed it could earn enough revenue to eventually let municipalities pay off the debt from the original fiber installation.

“Even though the network operates in a state where local communities face barriers to local authority, the need for better connectivity has driven the success of the open access network,” the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported.

“The nice thing is we’ve got 30 companies benefiting from open-access infrastructure,” Roger Timmerman, UTOPIA’s chief executive, told a June webinar of the online magazine Broadband Breakfast. “We get revenue from all of those.” He added that last-mile service “is where it’s at for us... There’s a lot of fiber in cities that doesn’t reach end users. Until you do the last-mile construction, you aren’t meeting the needs of communities.”

Amid Obstacles, Local Broadband Initiatives Take Hold

According to the website Broadband Now, laws in 22 U.S. states prevent municipalities from using public resources to build retail broadband service. Despite the use of legal obstacles ranging from: barring public options if a minimum level of private service exists; prohibiting direct sale to consumers; population caps; and laws barring bond issues to raise funds; they tally over 300 municipal networks providing service nationwide.

Map: Amid Obstacles, Local Broadband Initiatives Take Hold


Decades-Old Rural Cooperatives Are Picking Up Some of the Slack

The debate over allowing publicly supported networks continues in states like Washington. But another management structure, focused on companies established about a century ago to provide rural electric and telephone service, has proven its effectiveness from North Dakota to Colorado. The 1936 Rural Electrification Act provided loans to support homegrown local cooperatives that put up wires and charged residents affordable amounts. Some have successfully moved into the broadband world.

A March Western Governors Association webinar focused on rural electrical cooperatives’ success. Brian O’Hare, senior director of regulatory issues at the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, said his members are well-placed to solve technical and financial issues: “they are more interested in making sure their community is served than getting a return on their investment as quickly as possible.”

Seth Arndorfer, chief executive of the Dakota Carrier Network, a web of 15 independent rural telephone cooperatives, told this webinar that in 1996, his companies combined their existing infrastructure; now 40,000 miles of fiber serves 164,000 subscribers around the state. After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of North Dakota “we’ve noticed a 30 percent utilization jump,” he said.

He added, “Our business model is to leverage the investment [the coops] made” — some $1.3 billion for fiber connections. “DCN then leases that local loop, the last mile, from our owner company, and we bring it back and put it on our fiber backbone…”

Rural cooperatives bring broadband to southwestern Colorado too. The San Luis Valley Rural Electric Cooperative serves a high-altitude area around the headwaters of the Rio Grande. Focusing on efforts to install fiber connections to individual homes — including remote trout clubs found 10,500 feet high in the Rocky Mountains — its internet company, Ciello serves 3,400 people. Any existing gaps are filled with wireless equipment, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance reported.

Further west, the Delta Montrose Electric Association’s members got impatient and, around 2015, “the community came out in force and pushed us into thinking how we could become an internet service provider,” Kent Blackwell, DMEA’s chief technical officer, told the webinar. The cooperative’s investments have led to hundreds of miles of fiber connections; it has 7,435 broadband subscribers. But it needs economic help to finish: the state contributed $6.5 million, helping pay for 275 miles of fiber to 2,700 homes. “We’ve been able to level the playing field for small towns like Montrose or Delta, Colorado, allowing them an economic foothold on a parity with an urban market,” Blackwell said.

Better (and Cheaper) Wireless Options Emerging for Hard-to-Reach Communities

A microwave transmission tower for the Tribal Digital Village project, south of Temecula in Southern California’s Riverside County.

A microwave transmission tower for the Tribal Digital Village project, south of Temecula in Southern California’s Riverside County.   TDVNet

While fiber to individual homes is the surest way to ensure good high-speed service, there are places, like Betty Buckley’s house in north Ferry County, which are physically and economically out of reach. But some wireless options are not dramatically inferior.

“Each community will be different,” said Edyael Casaperalta, founder of Casperalta Law, a Denver firm representing indigenous peoples and nonprofits in telecommunications matters. “A huge component to be able to connect a rural area is who is pushing for it. … You need to have a company willing to invest, local officials not erecting barriers to investment, and technology” that works.

Matthew Rantanen is a sherpa for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen’s Association, a group of 20 federally recognized tribes in southern California including the Cahuilla Band of Mission Indians, the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians and the Campo Band of Kumeyaay. Rantanen was a web designer at an online greeting-card company, bluemountain.com, before the tribes made him their director of technology.

In 2002, he and his team got a subsidy of about $1 million from the FCC’s E-Rate program supporting schools and libraries. Then he piggybacked on a network design from U.C. San Diego called a High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network (HPWREN). Their first attempt to connect tribal homes, using a wireless technology called mesh networking, failed. So they moved to a hub-and-spoke model for microwave transmissions, setting up 23 towers that send signals directly to about 400 homes — 18 percent of the 2,200 within reach. The base $35 monthly cost to tie into the Tribal Digital Village is still out of reach for many; the tribal unemployment rate averages 55 percent.

Some local hurdles were unique. Rantanen found out the hard way that cows like to scratch their backs: scratching toppled some towers. A staff of five maintains the towers — which means knowing how to get there over dirt roads in 115-degree heat, pour cement, climb towers, and fix the solar panels that power the system.

With internet available, Native students have more access to education. In 2001, before Rantanen started his work, 26 tribal students graduated from local high schools. Last year, with more access to sites like Khan Academy, 147 graduated.

In Hilly Western Towns, Topography Poses a Particular Challenge

The town of Curlew sits in a valley in Washington’s northeastern Ferry County, about 8 miles south of the Canadian border.

Passed over no more? The town of Curlew sits in a valley in Washington’s northeastern Ferry County, about 8 miles south of the Canadian border. Residents in the town center can get relatively slow wired service via copper-wire DSL service, or faster wireless options like microwave broadband served by TV Association of Republic, a coop that operates the tower from which these images were taken. But service is sparse in the surrounding areas; a new TV white space-driven project may help bring faster speeds to the wider area.   TV Association of Republic

Ferry County’s terrain has parallel issues of distance and angular topography, daunting obstacles to fiber installation. But two other wireless options are on the horizon. Literally on the horizon, in the case of one: a chain of satellites in low earth orbit, close enough that, ideally, there won’t be significant lag time, or latency, between the transmission of a signal and its arrival at a receiver. This satellite solution, known in the broadband world as “LEO’s,” is being created by, among others, Elon Musk’s company SpaceX. It has put 422 satellites into orbit about 200 miles above the earth’s surface — as compared to the 22,000-mile distance of conventional telecommunications satellites.

Can low-orbiting satellites effectively get broadband to that last two percent? Greg Rosston, a senior fellow and the director of Stanford University’s Public Policy program, said, “If Elon Musk’s stuff works, then we should be able to do it. But I don’t know if it’s going to work.” A recent FCC report highlighted doubts that the latency problems of low-earth-orbit options like Musk’s Starlink could be overcome.

One wireless technology contemplated for Ferry County uses signals closer to earth. It’s called “TV white space,” a reference to part of the wireless spectrum awarded to television broadcasters decades ago which is now mostly unused. The original idea, as the federal government parceled out this spectrum, was that the airwaves used by one station should be buffered by unused spectrum between broadcasters. But many of the over-the-air stations left channels unused as they moved to internet streaming, digital broadcasting, or closed up shop.

Backed By Microsoft, TV White Space Pilot Launches in Ferry County

One sherpa in Ferry County is Trevor Lane, an associate professor of economic and community development at Washington State University and its extension director in Ferry County. Lane is working with a Broadband Action Team formed by the state government to solve the physical and economic obstacles to broadband in Ferry County. He is a big advocate of using TV white space.

Trevor Lane, right, extension director in Ferry County for Washington State University, with a Curlew student.

Trevor Lane, right, extension director in Ferry County for Washington State University, with a Curlew student. April Barreca

A former Navy mechanic, Lane saw TV white space used for internet services in poor countries overseas. “TV white space is phenomenal at shooting through trees and mountains,” he said. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, whose company has worked to expand rural broadband through its Airband Initiative, agrees. “We expect that TV white spaces and other fixed wireless technologies will ultimately provide the best approach to reach approximately 80 percent of the underserved rural population,” Smith wrote in his 2019 book, “Tools and Weapons: The Promise and the Peril of the Digital Age.”

Smith’s worry is having enough spectrum available. “First, we need regulatory certainty to ensure the necessary TV white spaces spectrum remains available. While some of the TV band has been auctioned off and licensed to mobile carriers,” he wrote, “it’s important to ensure that two usable channels remain available to the public for TV white spaces in every market, with more available in rural areas.”

Lane is cobbling together a system in Ferry County. Last year he took Microsoft’s Smith into the remote hills and demonstrated how his jury-rigged system allowed Smith, deep in a mountain forest, to talk wirelessly to people in the county seat of Republic. Microsoft is helping support the build-out of the system; in March the FCC proposed to change its rules governing TV white space to facilitate its use for rural broadband.

Lane is encouraged by pilot projects connecting officers of the Ferry County sheriff’s office, but he believes that the solution for Ferry County will be “a marriage of fiber and wireless technologies.” One essential is laying “middle-mile” fiber in accessible areas — at a cost of more than $20 million — and then shooting out the signals from that fiber using TV white space. An industry executive put the cost of  connections at $3,500 for a tower transmitter and $500 to $600 for the receiver antenna and radio; Lane’s equipment has a similar cost but gives access to a cluster of houses.  

“A lot of these have to be hybrid solutions,” Chad Rupe, administrator of the Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service, told the Western Governors webinar. “We realize in the end we can’t get everyone fiber. Some places are going to have to have satellite technology. But it’s got to link into a tower and a fiber backbone to get the internet information where it needs to go.”

Who pays? In many places it remains unclear what roles federal, state and local governments, companies like Microsoft, smaller internet service providers, ngos, and customers will play. What would they get for their investment? It would allow Joe Barreca to run his mapping company without hoofing it 20 miles to town. It would allow April Barreca to reach her students directly and link them to science websites. It might keep Ferry County’s young people from moving out as soon as they can.

“One of the things that makes us a nation is our ability to communicate with one another. It is the role of the federal government to create that and subsidize that” said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the nonprofit digital advocacy group Public Knowledge. “We have done this for every advance in communication.” Although, he added,  “it takes us a while to recognize when something goes from a luxury to a necessity and the private sector is not going to provide it everywhere.”

He concluded, “We talk about internet access. We don’t talk about electric access, or telephone access, or water access…. When you learn to use the internet, you become a participant in the community. That’s different from any other utility.”

 

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Edited by Geoff McGhee.

 

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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

Articles Worth Reading: November 9, 2020

Gray Wolves To Be Removed From Endangered Species List. While federal wildlife officials hail the move as a success story, showing the wolves’ recovery, some contend that protections should remain in place until the wolf populations are more stable. Others remain hopeful that turning over control to state and tribal governments would better encourage the species’ recovery. The move will have most impact in states in the Mountain West where wolf numbers haven’t rebounded. Boise State Public Radio NPR

U.S., Mexico Sign Rio Grande Water Agreement to settle dispute over Mexico falling short of its treaty obligations to deliver the U.S. water from the Rio Grande and its tributaries. Mexico, which fell behind on its water deliveries for a second consecutive cycle, agreed to transfer to the U.S. ownership of water in two border reservoirs. The agreement will nearly deplete Mexico’s water storage in those reservoirs, potentially harming those who depend on the water, including farmers. If it does not rain, and the reservoirs are not replenished, the U.S. has agreed to provide “humanitarian support” in the form of supplemental water to Mexico. Circle Of Blue

Arizona’s Biggest Utility to Inject Aid Into Indigenous Communities losing or about to lose coal jobs. Arizona Public Service, which has committed itself to providing carbon-free electricity, proposes offering $144 million in aid to three coal-country and tribal communities. For decades, these communities produced the fuel that powered engines pushing Colorado River water uphill, with development and population growth transforming the areas around Phoenix and Tucson. The company will eventually close all its coal-fired plants. The Navajo Generating station closed last year; the Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington is scheduled to close by 2031. Arizona Republic

Nevada Voters Seal Renewable Energy Goals in their State Constitution, approving a ballot question to constitutionally mandate that at least 50% of Nevada’s energy comes from renewable sources by 2030. While Nevada’s state legislature passed a bill mandating the same quota in 2019, the ballot question seals the goal in the constitution, preventing subsequent administrations from overturning the target. Vox The New York Times

Dakota Access Pipeline Fate Uncertain After Court Hearing with federal judges appearing to lean in favor of requiring additional environmental review before approval. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia is expected to rule in the next four to five months.The judges focused on whether the Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental review was adequate, or a closer look is required. A court ruling against the Army Corps of Engineers could make it easier for pipeline opponents — including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and other Indigenous communities — to halt the pipeline’s progress during an expanded review. Bloomberg

Dealing With Deadbeat Dams Is a Focus for utilities and other companies around the West. The Public Policy Information Center presents a Q & A with an expert at the Cetner of Watershed Sciences at the university of California Davis, looking at what will be done with the aging dams that represent most of the 100,000 dams in the US Army Corps of Engineers’ dam database. PPIC

Newsom to Appoint New Chair of Caliofrnia’s World-Leading Air Board. The California Air Resources Board is the state’s leading policy-making body on climate change and air pollution; its current head, Mary Nichols, is ending her term. The next chair must ensure the state meets its climate targets, including cutting air pollution in Los Angeles and ending sales of new internal-combustion cars. The chair must also win its legal case against federal efforts to end the state’s right to regulate vehicular greenhouse gas emissions. Environmental justice groups seek a chair who will focus on conventional air pollution, believing that policies to further cap-and-trade carbon reduction efforts allow companies to continue polluting. Politico

Department of Homeland Security to Spend Millions on Five Miles of Border Wall in Arizona. The DHS is working to build a wall in Guadalupe Canyon, home to the Chiricahua Apache, in an effort to fulfil President Trump’s campaign promises. Experts contend that the construction will likely have little impact on undocumented immigration into the U.S. The construction could damage a key habitat corridor between northern Mexico and Southwestern U.S. that is frequented by ocelots, black bears and jaguars. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: November 2, 2020

The Weed Invasion of Desert Landscapes Means They Now Burn as never before. The loss of a million Joshua trees in California’s Eastern Mojave Desert this summer foreshadows fire-driven replacement of landcover throughout the West. The invasive, flammable bromes are now the plants that are invading coastal closed-canopy forests. A close-up look at why the how the face of the land is changing, inviting the fires of the future. The Nation

Arizona Regulators Want to Eliminate Carbon-Based Electricity by 2050. The new regulations require that by 2035, half of electric utilities’ power should come renewable energy like solar and wind in 2035. Fifteen years later, utilities must fulfill customer demand either by offering nuclear-power energy, renewables, or energy-efficiency measures such as subsidizing low-watt lightbulbs or attic insulation for customers. The impact on customer bills remains unclear. Arizona Republic

A Bankruptcy Court Rules Exide May Leave California Taxpayers With the Cleanup Bill for its shuttered battery recycling plant near Vernon. The soil around the abandoned plant is riddled with lead, a powerful neurotoxin. Community groups have opposed the lack of regulation and contamination from the company for years. The bankruptcy filing, approved by a judge, means Exide has no responsibility for eliminating the waste that threatens the health of the surrounding communities and their largely Latinx, working-class population. Los Angeles Times

Who Determines the Fate of 3.1 Million Acre-Feet of Colorado River Water? California’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Imperial Irrigation District in Imperial County has ownership rights, blocking a challenge by a large local farming operation that had sought to pre-empt the irrigation district’s right to distribute and market the water. But during years of litigation, the farmer, Michael Abatti, succeeded in getting the irrigation district to abandon its plan for how cuts to water allocations would be made in drought years. The Desert Sun

Legume-Based Pulse Crops See a New Demand during the COVID-19 pandemic. This resurgence in demand for pulse crops; such as lentils, dry peas, chickpeas, and beans coincides with a revival of regenerative agriculture as well as increased interests in healthy plant-based diets. Pulse crops are central to regenerative agriculture, as they work to return lost nutrients, like nitrogen, to the soil. Continued increases in stewarding and consumption of pulse crops could have highly beneficial effects on public health. KTVQ/Montana Ag Nework

Articles Worth Reading: October 27, 2020

Snow Hits Colorado’s Cameron Peak, East Troublesome Fires Sunday, bringing critical relief. The Colorado wildfires — some of the largest in the state’s history — have forced evacuations and turned deadly in some areas. As of Sunday, the Cameron Peak fire has burned over 200,000 acres, with the East Troublesome fire following close behind, burning about 192,000 acres. The snow is expected to dampen the fires, giving firefighters a critical chance to bring the blazes under control. Denver Post Washington Post

Trump Reverses His Decision to Reject Wildfire Relief for California, approving a package of wildfire disaster relief hours after the administration said the state should not receive the aid. The aid will be used for remediation for six wildfires that have burned nearly 2 million acres. It will also add to the 68 fire-related aid packages for California that Trump has approved. His change of heart came after Gov. Gavin Newsom and Rep. Kevin McCarthy urged the president to provide the aid. The New York Times

Watchdogs Push New Mexico to Limit Use of U.S. Nuclear Waste Dump, as the federal government looks to extend and expand operations at the country’s only underground nuclear waste repository. The Energy Department’s application for renewing its permit for 10 years proposes abandoning the original 2024 date, when it had agreed to to close and decommission the 20-year-old dump, where tons of waste has been stored in salt caverns. Opponents say the state has failed to hold the Department of Energy accountable for cleaning up the contamination and dealing with radioactive waste. Associated Press

Trump Administration Adds 1,275 Miles to the National Trail System. The administration announced the creation of 30 new national recreational trails in 25 states, including new trails in California, Colorado, Washington, Utah, Oregon, Nevada and Arizona. Organizations like the American Hiking Society and PeopleForBikes praised the Department of the Interior for the expansion. The trail designations advance the Trump administration’s goal of increasing public access to outdoor recreation, according to a Department of the Interior press release. National Park Service

Public Lands Decisions Across West Questioned after ruling on status of acting federal agency chief William Perry Pendley. A federal judge determined Pendley had served unlawfully for 14 months as the head of the Bureau of Land Management. Sixty environmental organizations in Colorado and across the West argue that Pendley’s decisions, which include a plan to allow drilling on public lands across six counties in Colorado, should not stand. The state of Montana has called for the courts to throw out Pendley’s decisions. Denver Post

Alaska Seeks to Block Federal Approval of an Emergency Hunt for A Native Village, despite a dire food shortage. The lawsuit against the Federal Subsistence Board came after it approved an emergency out-of-season hunt for the Organized Village of Kake at the start of the pandemic. If the state prevails, rural communities and federally recognized tribes will be prohibited from requesting emergency hunts. High Country News

Articles Worth Reading: October 20, 2020

Revitalizing Indigenous Stewardship with Cultural Burning on the central California coast, the Amah Matsun Land Trust seeks to effectively manage fire-prone lands using the stewardship of Indigenous groups. In the Quiroste Valley, the Native Stewardship Corps (NSC) are working in uplands above the meadow and riparian valley that contain dense stands of Douglas fir and coyote brush with little to no understory. These stands have encroached upon the open coastal prairie grassland. Due to the dense canopy cover, little sunlight reaches the forest floor, thus allowing little to no presence of grasses and forbs. This reduces biodiversity, and threatens the coastal prairie, which was once much more widespread. Cultural burning could help restore the grasslands. The land trust plans a Zoom conference to discuss traditional Native American land management. Amahmutsun Land Trust

Environmental Activists and Hoover Dam Operators Are Joining Forces, as hydro-electric industry groups and environmental activists have publicly committed to collaborate to minimize the environmental harm of existing hydro-electric dams. This union of warring factions from industry and the environmental movement is an instance in a fledgling but growing trend of large-scale industries, joining non-profit organizations and institutions to explicitly address the best ways to counter the threat of runaway climate collapse. The New York Times

Washington State Firm to Abandon Coal, Which May Keep Coal Pollution Going in Montana. Puget Sound Energy’s plan to sell for $1 its stake in Montana’s Colstrip Generating Station needs approval by agencies in both states. If it gets them, it can meet Washington State rules to abandon coal-burning resources by 2025. Montana’s NorthWestern Energy, which wants to keep one unit of the plant going until 2042, would have more say in its future. E&E News

A Push for Statehood For the Navajo Nation comes as congressional Democrats raising the possibility of making the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico into states, voices from the Southwest are reviving the idea of a state, perhaps called Dinétah, to give the region a more powerful voice in national affairs, and increase federal payments. Indian Country Today

Reaching Beyond El Niño Observations, Scientists Examine Distant Ocean Conditions as a key think to predict Western droughts, particularly those affecting the Colorado River, two years in advance. Researchers looked at the most extreme drought years in the past 120 years and found they almost always followed a distinct pattern of unusual warm spells in the tropical reaches of the Atlantic Ocean. up to four years in advance, followed by warming in the northern Pacific two year later. Science

Pursuing Endangered Salmon, California Sea Lions Range Deeper into the Columbia River. NOAA fisheries and researchers at the University of Washington published a study in the Journal of Applied Ecology detailing increased predation of salmon by sea lions. The Columbia River is home to the Chinook Salmon Run, an extremely important ecological niche for the movement of nitrogen throughout the watersheds of the West coast. California sea lions, facing hunger in their more coastal native habitats, have in recent years begun traveling farther and farther upstream to hunt salmon. These hunting migrations are most prevalent before they depart for southern California breeding grounds. Devdiscourse

As Consensus Favoring Prescribed Burns Increases, Rates of Controlled Fires Still Fall in Washington State. Like many states in the West facing challenging fire seasons, Washington has been slow to financially invest in the requirements for effective controlled burning. Crosscut

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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