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

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

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

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

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

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

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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