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For nearly six hours last week, members of the U.S. Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee gathered to hear comments about a bill that could overhaul the EPA’s ability to regulate toxic chemicals.

Hailed by a panelist from West Virginia as “the best, perhaps last, chance to reform” the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), the new Chemical Safety Improvement Act (CSIA) is the first such proposal to have won bipartisan support since the original law passed in 1976—and thus has a chance at becoming law.

However, critics say that, as currently drafted, the CSIA could actually be detrimental to the cause of regulating toxins.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined the attorneys general from eight other states to submit a letter on July 31 to the Senate committee, raising concerns that the new bill will make it impossible for states to continue regulating chemicals themselves. They worry that existing regulations could become null and that future EPA designations might not be as strong as individual states might like, if the CSIA is passed.

For instance, Oregon currently limits the presence of certain chemicals in arts-and-crafts supplies. Similarly, Washington has banned plastic bottles and cups that contain BPA and restricts the amount of lead, cadmium and phthalates in children’s products. The states' attorneys general are concerned the CSIA would override those regulations.

Currently, the EPA regulates toxic chemicals under the TSCA, which is, by all accounts, deeply flawed. Though the law is the strongest federal piece of legislation guiding oversight of chemicals, it severely limits the EPA’s ability to test new chemicals on the market or even regulate known toxins. TSCA’s extreme limitations were highlighted in 1991, when an EPA ban on asbestos was overturned by a circuit court. The ruling maintained the EPA’s regulation on new uses of asbestos in the market, but allowed existing uses to remain unregulated.

For years, lawmakers, health advocates and watchdog groups have sought ways to give the EPA more latitude in regulating chemicals in the environment and consumer products. In 2011, the EPA made some headway against the TSCA’s provision that allowed manufacturers to keep chemical formulas private as trade secrets. In the absence of adequate federal regulations, several states have taken the oversight of toxins into their own hands.

In 1986, California determined that its citizens had a right to know about the chemical toxins in the environment around them and in products they brought into their homes. The state enacted a law, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, more commonly known as Proposition 65. The law requires companies to label products containing any of the roughly 800 toxic chemicals listed in the bill. Rather than list, many manufacturers chose to change the formulations of their products to comply with legal limits.

Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana), who co-sponsored the CSIA with the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-New Jersey) in May, recognized the states’ concern in his opening statements at the hearing. However, he indicated that those were either “misimpressions or willful distortions” of the bill. “In no way did we intent to remove the authority of any state to protect their water, air or citizens,” he said.

Still, he agreed that the wording would be clarified to “make that even more crystal clear.”

There is widespread agreement that the TSCA is desperately in need of reform, but what shape that should take, and how far reform should go, is far from settled. The proposed CSIA does, in fact, move to fix some of TSCA's major failings: giving the EPA more latitude to require testing for new chemicals, providing more public information about potential exposure, and giving the EPA broader abilities to ban chemicals that do not meet safety standards. Proponents say the new bill will shift the burden of proof from the EPA and onto industry, making it far easier for the EPA to require testing.

Still, the bill’s opponents say it does not go far enough. Among the complaints are concerns that it doesn't outline any deadlines for reforms, doesn't include specific language for protecting vulnerable populations, and would be inefficient, tying up the EPA with redundant requirements.

In closing the hearing on July 31, Chairwoman Barbara Boxer of California looked at Nancy Buermeyer of the Breast Cancer Fund and asked if the fund thought that the CSIA is better than current law. Buermeyer replied frankly, “We think, all told, this bill actually takes us a step back.”

“I can’t ignore that,” Sen. Boxer responded.

While some warn that moving too far from the current proposal could upset the bipartisan support, members of the Senate and the morning’s panelists agreed to continue working to draft suitable language.

“This means we have a lot of work to do,” Sen. Boxer said, “and I am ready to do it.”

Katie Mast is an editorial intern at High Country News, the site from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

The Albuquerque ambiance, as we rolled into town to cover a tribal energy conference, was tinted with doom.

It was 7:30 on a June evening, and the car thermometer read 99 degrees. To the north, a massive plume of smoke rose up from the newly ignited Jaroso fire, joining the plumes of the Tres Lagunas and Thompson Ridge fires that had been burning nearby for several days. Dust, kicked up by a vicious wind, shrouded the downtown buildings. The gusts tossed tiny pieces of Styrofoam, reputedly from a luxury condo project gone belly-up, like little pieces of snow.

“I’m not sure if this is a drought,” said Roger Fragua, of Jemez Pueblo and the former deputy director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, as he introduced the conference the next morning, “or our new reality.” The attendees could think of the scorching planet in the abstract for the moment, at least, as we were all ensconced in the cool, opulent Sandia Resort and Casino—the pueblo is not an energy tribe, but does OK with its own extractive industry, namely mining the pockets of gamblers.

The drought, and climate change, as both opportunity and threat, were recurring themes throughout the conference. But a much bigger menace, it seemed, was the sequester, and a general movement toward austerity on a federal level, which will deal a big blow to tribal budgets even as native populations grow. To face that threat, and to become financially independent, it was generally agreed that tribes must develop their resources, be they wind, coal, oil or sunshine.

Indian lands hold around 20 percent of the nation’s extractable fossil fuels, and 10 percent of its renewable resources. Yet only 1.3 percent of all fossil fuel production in the U.S. happens on tribal land; the figure for renewables is probably far lower. It’s clearly not because tribes don’t want to develop their resources; it’s just that they’re in an awkward position: Many lack the human capacity or capital to develop their own resources, leaving them, potentially, to be exploited by outside corporations and the feds, as has been done for decades. The bureaucratic red tape around resource development on tribal lands is especially thick, and tax incentives for renewable projects carry less weight for tribal projects because tribes aren’t taxed.

Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara tribes, wearing a straw cowboy hat and a pony tail, holds a bit of rock-star status for getting past that. His tribe’s land—situated atop the famous Bakken shale formation—has 800 oil wells with 30 rigs currently drilling, pushing it to the top of the oil-producing tribes in the nation. (He emphasizes that his tribe has strictly regulated drillers, and fines them substantially for violations.) The Navajo Nation has been an oil giant for decades, and president Ben Shelly made waves at the conference by demanding that the red tape be ripped down, threatening to leave the event if the assembled group of leaders didn’t come up with a plan to streamline the permitting process for resource development in Indian Country.

Shelly’s tribe derives a huge portion of its budget from fossil fuels, including some $48 million from oil and gas and $55 million from coal. “We are dependent upon coal,” Shelly says, and the feds created that dependency by foisting oil and coal leases on them in the first place. Now he says wants time to wean his tribe off the fuel by, yes, investing in it. He’s interested in buying the Navajo coal mine, which fuels the Four Corners Power Plant in northwest New Mexico. The purchase would help keep both the mine and plant—providing a total of 800 jobs, mostly held by Navajos—alive, and would entail building a rail line south from the mine to the main BNSF Railway line to enable the mine to sell coal to distant markets. Shelly’s also fighting to keep the Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., going, because of the revenue and jobs—critical given the 50+ percent unemployment rate—that it and the mine that supplies it provide.

Which is not to say that everyone at the conference was in a fossil fueled frenzy. A handful of gadflies were on hand to call out Shelly and his coal boosterism. Vernon Masayesva, a former Hopi Chairman and founder of the Black Mesa Trust, was there, along with Milton Bluehouse Sr., former Navajo president. Both asked tough questions about the environmental and cultural impacts of coal. Glenn Manygoats, an engineer from Flagstaff, described the activists’ plan to replace Navajo Generating Station with a combined cycle, solar and natural gas power plant, with wind and hydropower backup, using natural gas from the Southern Ute Tribe’s wells. Jemez Pueblo, over which one of New Mexico’s big fires now looms, is making a second, more-ambitious attempt to build a utility-scale solar plant after the first one flopped. It’s relying on help from the Albuquerque-based Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute and its students, including some from Jemez.

Perhaps they can use the radical turbine designed by Johann Steinlechner, who stood out in the bolo-tied, dark-suited crowd with his big black cowboy hat, a Western sort of polo shirt with a graphic of a horse herd trampling across it, and a thick Austrian accent as incongruous as the wing tips he was wearing. He retired at 40, went on a tour of casinos, “living the high life,” until a friend was killed in Iraq “for da oil,” inspiring him to delve into the wind industry. Now he’s invented a giant turbine that lies flat—from the outside, it resembles a parking garage, while the turbine looks like a giant roulette wheel—reducing bird kills and aesthetic concerns.

For the time being, though, it appears that drill rigs will outnumber wind turbines in Indian Country. T. Greg Merrion, president of Merrion Oil and Gas, seemed ready to burst from his skin with enthusiasm over the riches in the mostly untapped Mancos Shale formation that underlies a huge swath of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Arizona—and several Indian reservations. Though most of the land in question is already pocked with thousands of conventional oil and gas and coalbed methane wells, the hunt for Mancos Shale oil will require horizontal drilling and “very very large fracking jobs,” with each $5 to $10 million well requiring as much as 1 to 2 million pounds of sand and 5 to 10 million gallons of water. This is no Bakken, said Merrion, but “our future looks bright.”

As he said this, golf carts rolled by outside the wall-sized window of the room, along a path carved from the emerald green grassy hilltop. Sprinklers sprayed a glimmering stream into the smoky air all day long, in a desperate attempt to keep the desert at bay.

In one of those unscripted moments that such conferences can produce, Shelly worried that global warming and rising sea levels would force urban folk inland, and they'd seek out Indian land for their new homes. The only way to avoid such a fate, he said, would be to develop the land, and develop the economies. It's a bit far-fetched, and contradictory. But outsiders have long gone after the resources on tribal lands; it's only natural that the tribes would want to have some control over the onslaught, and to get as much from it as they can.

After all, said Monique LaChappa of the Campo Band of Mission Indians, a small tribe about a three-hour drive from the Coachella Valley, near San Diego, that has a 50 MW wind farm: “Whoever has the water and the energy, in the end, is going to win.”

Cross-posted from High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

On April 14, a Sunday, the Colorado ski resort Vail Mountain celebrated closing day in the invariable way: Skiers and boarders sported neon onesies and mullet wigs. The less modest squeezed into denim short shorts to flaunt calves and quads sculpted over a winter on the slopes. Alcohol was over-consumed and confiscated in lift lines. But even without it, the mood was buoyant: It was, unusually, a 13-inch powder day. By Wednesday, 24 more inches had fallen.

Skier spirits were still soaring the following Sunday, when Vail hosted Closing Day: The Sequel. Pleading for a third closing day via Facebook, one powder hound goaded: “I dare you to close more times than Brett Favre has retired.”

Colorado snowpacks—which supply the Colorado River, a crucial water source for millions of Westerners, including those of us here in the Coachella Valley—began April at 72 percent of their average heft. Thanks to storms and frigid temperatures, instead of starting to melt as they typically do, north and central Colorado snowpacks ballooned last month. In late April, Old Man Winter was forcing Major League Baseball cancellations in relatively temperate Denver. Boulder set a record with more than 4 feet of snow that month. By May 1, the statewide snowpack weighed in at 83 percent of average.

In the end, though, the spring storms were momentary distractions from the Southwest’s real weather story: The region’s major river basins, the Colorado and the Rio Grande, are still mired in a decade-plus-long drought. It’s often said that persistent drought is the “new normal” here thanks to global warming, but that’s something of a misnomer. Using tree rings, scientists have found that the region has experienced droughts lasting decades, and even centuries, long before humans began meddling with the climate. The aridity we’ve experienced of late isn’t any more extreme than it was then. But the heat is—and it bears a human fingerprint. The combination leads scientists to call it a “global-change-type drought,” meaning more of the same can be expected in the Southwest as extreme heat exacerbates the region’s characteristic dry spells.

Precipitation in the Rio Grande Basin is expected to decline by more than 2 percent at midcentury. It’s highly uncertain how climate change will impact the moisture that falls on the upper Colorado, if much at all. But dust-on-snow events have already caused snowmelt to happen earlier in the year, a trend that reduces overall runoff by about 5 percent, as more water is evaporated into the atmosphere from plants and soils. That’s a significant amount for overstretched water supplies, and warmer temperatures are likely to intensify the effect.

Troublingly, at the same time, water demand is on an upward trajectory.

This spring, the effects of hot, dry year upon hot, dry year are already beginning to make themselves painfully plain. That’s especially true in New Mexico. Seventy-seven percent of the state is suffering “extreme” drought, which is only a little better than “exceptional” drought—as bad as it gets, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year ago, most of the state was in drought of the “moderate” variety. Even so, more than 30 miles of the Pecos River, in southeastern New Mexico, went dry last summer. This year, Carlsbad farmers are pressing the state to shut off Roswell farmers’ groundwater wells, which they say are illegally draining the Pecos of water that belongs to them.

Drought has a way of bringing simmering conflict to full boil, and it did so concurrently on the lower Rio Grande. “The river here looks a lot like the Sahara Desert,” says Phil King, water engineer for south-central New Mexico’s Elephant Butte Irrigation District, which wets the chile and onion fields and pecan orchards around Las Cruces. Though Rio Grande Basin snowpacks were 67 percent of average in early April, runoff into Elephant Butte Reservoir through July was conservatively forecast at a pitiful 5 percent of normal, and after a decade of drought, the reservoir sits 90 percent empty. The “river” below it is a sand channel and will remain that way until June 1, when releases begin, and will dry up again in early July when they end. Farmers are surviving on groundwater, but it’s a safety net of diminishing returns. Wells are beginning to go dry or produce brackish water, and irrigators downstream in Texas have asked the Supreme Court to shut them off for the same reason Carlsbad wants Roswell’s pumps idled. The system is dangerously near a breaking point.

“It’s the most critically short year we’ve ever had in the history of the Rio Grande Project,” a series of dams and reservoirs in New Mexico and Texas, King laments. “Each successive year of short water gets worse and worse.”

That principle holds true on the Colorado River, though things aren’t nearly so dire. Since 2000, demand for water has outpaced supply. Reservoir storage has made up the difference, ensuring the states below Lake Mead—Arizona, Nevada and here in California—get their full annual supplies. (Ironically, upstream of Lake Mead and Lake Powell—where most of the water supply originates, but storage is less formidable—water-users have experienced shortages.) But the cushion the wet ’80s and ’90s provided is thinning. Lake Powell, the basin’s second largest reservoir, was 85 percent full in 2000. Today, it’s about 45 percent full. And this year, runoff in most of the Upper Basin is forecast lower than you might expect given the late boost to snowpacks, because after a dry year—in 2012, Upper Colorado snowpacks topped out below 70 percent of normal—the landscape has cottonmouth: Parched soils take a cut of the snowmelt that would otherwise fill rivers. After snowmelt, the water line of Lake Powell will likely sit below even last year’s modest peak.

“The more severe the drying with climate change, the more likely we will see shortages and perhaps empty reservoirs despite our best efforts,” said Ken Nowak in 2009, upon the release of a study he co-authored on whether smart management could mitigate the risk of water shortages on the Colorado River. It found that the risk of the Colorado’s big reservoirs emptying in the next 15 years or so was slight. Still, Nowak’s cautionary note remains as true today as it was then: “The important thing is not to get lulled into a sense of security with the near-term resiliency of the Colorado River Basin water supply. If we do, we’re in for a rude awakening.”

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

For more than a century, monopoly electric utilities have nurtured the West. They fed the mines and the mills, and now deliver the juice to our thirsty digital devices and air conditioners.

Now, it appears as if the offspring is offing its mother, as rooftop solar slowly strangles utilities.

While the green media has gleefully spread word of this apparent matricide, it was first spawned by a report right out of the utility industry itself, and then bolstered by a prominent utility executive, lending it credence. The concern from the industry is fairly straightforward: If customers produce their own energy, they won’t need to buy it from the utility, and revenues will drop. And if those consumers produce more energy than they use, they become competitors, lower the price of electricity and take another bite out of the utilities’ bottom line—until we just don’t need the utilities anymore at all.

The idea of this sort of rooftop revolution is as rousing and lovely as that of wiping out our industrialized food system, with backyard and rooftop gardens. But it’s also nearly as implausible for two reasons: scale and dependency.

If any utility should be under threat from rooftop solar, it would be the Phoenix area’s Arizona Public Service. The state is one of the best places in the world to generate solar power, and it has a strong net metering program that allows homes with distributed generation to recoup their costs and then some. APS boasts that 24,000 of its customers have taken advantage of the sun and the incentives. While that’s a hefty number, it represents only about 2 percent of the utility’s more than 1 million customers. That may put a tiny dent in APS’ $600 million-plus yearly profit, but it’s a long way from being an existential threat. Even the 150,000 solar rooftops here in California, with a max capacity of less than half of what the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station kicks out at any given moment, is a mere drop in the total energy bucket.

With the cost of solar panels continuing to drop, it is conceivable that 2 percent could become 20 percent. But that still won’t necessarily be the death knell for utilities, because distributed generation as we know it now is still desperately dependent on the grid, and the utilities that run and operate it. David Roberts, over at Grist, recently noted that “a home creating its own power basically unplugs itself from the grid. … The electricity that’s generated onsite on a solar home is used by that home or its immediate neighbors. It barely touches the utility’s transmission and distribution system.”

While Roberts’ explainer on this issue is otherwise excellent, this passage doesn’t quite cut it. Even figuratively, one could say that a home “unplugs” only during those very rare moments when it produces exactly as much power as it uses. That might happen for a few minutes during the day. For the remaining 86,000 seconds in the day, rooftop solar is very plugged in.

Solar generation typically reaches its peak around 1 p.m., right at a time when residential power use is relatively low, because air conditioners have yet to crank up too much, and the residents are at work. Power flows from house to grid, where it adds to the current that is flowing towards the “load,” or places that need it. That might be a neighbor, unless her house’s panels are also generating surplus power, in which case it could be the Walmart down the street or the factory in a neighboring town. Residential power use then swings upward as the afternoon progresses, peaking around 5 p.m., as folks get home from work, and air conditioners rev up. By this time, solar power is on the downswing, so the typical residence will use more power than rooftop solar generates. It’s payback time, when residences that generated all that surplus power in the middle of the day get it “back” from the grid (though now the juice is most likely coming from natural gas, hydropower, coal or nuclear plants). In essence, a transaction is taking place that allows the rooftop solar home to treat the grid like a big battery, storing up excess power and then releasing it when needed.

This transaction is critical for rooftop solar to make any sense (unless one is inclined to attune one’s energy use precisely to the cycle of the sun, or to put in a big enough battery bank to back up all that solar on site, but more on that later). But the transaction can’t take place without the grid. And in most parts of the West—California being the exception—the grid is run by monopoly utilities, and they’re the ones firing up the so-called peaking generators necessary to keep the power on when the sun dims and demand is at its highest. Indeed, the cost of building and running those “peakers”—which in many cases are essentially power-generating, natural gas-guzzling jet engines—are the big threat to utilities. Yet they become more and more necessary as more solar—be it rooftop or utility-scale—is put into the grid.

There are ways around this quandary. The obvious one is for all those folks with distributed generation to battery-up and literally unplug from the grid. The other is to broaden the push for distributed generation beyond rooftop solar, to small-scale hydro-power, geothermal, wind and even small natural-gas plants, so that the collective input from distributed generation can meet demand at all times of the day so as to ease the dependence on the utilities (though not necessarily the dependence on the grid … decoupling from the grid will be a lot harder than cutting the utilities loose, for a number of reasons.)

In the meantime, the utilities might want to consider the recent warnings as a wake-up call. Rather than go to battle with distributed generation—by trying to kill incentives or cut down net metering programs—they’d do well to adapt to it, even embrace it. This won’t be easy. It's a hugely complex issue, but it may be the only way out. Rooftop solar can be the utilities’ killer, or savior, depending on how the utilities handle things.

Cross-posted from High Country News. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Community Voices

Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s controversial secretary of Agriculture, was a profane man known for his hair-trigger temper and his rough handling of subordinates. So when the chief of the Forest Service stood him up for a meeting, Butz unloaded in response: “There are four branches of government,” he reportedly snarled, “the executive, legislative, judicial and the Gawd-damn U.S. Forest Service.”

Although current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack might have worded it differently, he probably appreciates the sentiment now: He recently discovered how ornery the powerful Forest Service can be.

At issue was one of Vilsack’s pet projects—an attempt to reshape the image of the entire $132 billion Agriculture Department, which oversees everything from plant and animal inspections, food safety and ending hunger to the health and productivity of national forests. Dubbed “One Brand,” this graphic facelift has engaged Agriculture Department officials overseeing the agency’s 20 departments for the past three years. One Brand’s goal has been to strip each organization of its historic symbols and insignias, replacing them with a generic logo symbolizing the mother ship—the Agriculture Department. All that would remain visually would be the individual agencies’ initials set in much smaller type centered beneath the Agriculture Department’s dominant initials.

It was appropriate that this homogenizing directive was embedded in an innocuous-sounding document called the Visual Standards Guide. It detailed the items that One Brand would cover and announced the establishment of an oversight office within the Agriculture Department—the delightfully named Brand, Events, Exhibits, and Editorial Review Division, acronym BEEERD. Its reach would be broad and deep, extending from the appearance of social-media platforms such as Facebook sites, Twitter feeds and websites, to all signage, vehicles, uniforms, letterheads and envelopes, decals and PowerPoint presentations, right down to the “Hello, My Name Is …” adhesive name tags.

The directive, however, unleashed a firestorm of protest. But the outrage did not come from within the affected agencies, for few staffers knew anything about the impending airbrushing. Instead, it was Forest Service retirees who learned—to their considerable dismay—that longtime agency logos were being phased out and replaced with “a standardized signature model to be adopted by all USDA agencies.” That meant that the Forest Service’s distinctive pine-tree shield ––worn by men and women for well more than a century––would cease to exist.

Infuriated but organized through the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, the critics bombarded the agriculture secretary’s office with phone calls, emails and letters, sending copies to the beleaguered head of BEEERD as well. Protesters also reached out to their congressional delegations, called local talk radio shows, and contacted newspapers and other media.

Their opposition took on the air of a revival meeting. They talked about the emblematic power of the logo to bind them to one another and to the land they helped steward. The evocative shield and the uniform to which it was pinned testified to their devoted public service, they said. Shedding these symbols, and the emotional attachments they held, seemed like a deliberate attack on their collective history. These defenders proved a potent collective, and so overwhelming was their opposition that it forced the Agriculture Department’s hand.

In a one-sentence release on April 4, the department granted the Forest Service an exemption to its One Brand directive. You could hear the hosannas from agency retirees and staffers a mile off.

Every other department in agriculture, however, has had to submit to the exorcizing of their respective insignias, causing blows to their staff’s morale. In British Columbia, Canada, public-land managers in the provincial forest service, learning of their American counterparts’ successful pushback, regretted that they had not had generated as forceful of a reaction when their home department obliterated their own century-old pine-tree emblem in favor of yet another bland, generic symbol.

What this Forest Service protest reveals is a deep uneasiness with the growing, corporate-style flattening of difference and identity within governmental bureaucracies. To their credit, Forest Service defenders showed an alert wariness toward lockstep representation and uniform thought.

Rebranding consultants, like the ones the Agriculture Department hired to guide its efforts, probably promoted this strategy as a positive way to harness a company’s disparate personnel. But the Department of Agriculture is not a business, and its subagencies’ varied missions and different objectives cannot be, and should not have been, unilaterally reined in.

As the dustup with the Forest Service suggests, a proud institutional history is a sustaining source of workplace identity and individual satisfaction. That’s a core value even Earl Butz might have respected.

Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He directs the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and is the author of the just-released On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest.

Published in Community Voices

When the Tea Party tide crested, a number of Western Republicans surfed it into the U.S. House of Representatives.

There was Colorado Rep. Doug Lamborn, who promotes gutting the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, saying it's "low-hanging fruit" that must be picked to shrink the federal deficit. New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce harnessed anti-government momentum to win a tight oilman-versus-oilman race. Idaho Rep. Raúl Labrador, at first a long shot, also triumphed.

In January, Pearce and Labrador were among 12 Republicans who voted against John Boehner for speaker of the House. Boehner supported a fiscal cliff deal they believed included too many tax hikes ($600 billion over 10 years), and too few spending cuts ($0).

But the cuts just came later. On March 1, after Congress and the White House failed (again) to agree on a deficit-reducing budget, across-the-board discretionary spending cuts were triggered. The so-called "sequestration" is recognized by even the most conservative of conservatives as bad policy, because the cuts are indiscriminate. Still, it is ostensibly a win for them. This time, they got spending cuts ($1.2 trillion over 10 years) without tax increases ($0). On Meet the Press, Labrador said, "Most folks in Idaho are saying that we did the right thing."

So it was surprising to hear Pearce tear into Senate Democrats for failing to increase the U.S. Forest Service's budget post-sequester, saying he was "bewildered" they would ignore wildfire threats by cutting the agency's funding. Or maybe it's not so surprising: New Mexico has recently endured historic wildfires, which are fought with federal money. Lamborn voted against the Budget Control Act in 2011, which mandated sequestration if a deficit deal wasn't reached. Though most economists agree meaningful deficit reduction won't come without slimmer military budgets, he opposed the sequester's potential trims to defense, probably because Lamborn's district is home to three military bases.

These deficit hawks' less-than-full-throated support of the budget cuts could be read as an implicit acknowledgment that though government largesse is a convenient political punching bag, many Western communities aren't that interested in giving it up.

For proof, liberal pundit David Sirota suggests looking here—California. Facing its own budget crisis in 2011, and with Republicans unwilling to support tax increases, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown deeply slashed higher education, health care, welfare, state workers' pay and the criminal-justice system. The most painful cuts could be avoided, Brown argued, if voters approved tax increases. He put a temporary tax hike on the rich to fund education before voters last fall, and it passed easily. The political lesson, Sirota says: Government is easy to hate in the abstract, but austerity is tough to stomach in practice.

That's not true everywhere. In 2010, cash-strapped Colorado Springs, Colo., asked voters to approve taxes to fund streetlights, law enforcement and park maintenance. They wouldn't, and the streets went dark; many public services were privatized; and citizens were invited to "adopt" lights and trash cans.

Whether or not privatization actually saved money in Colorado Springs, many stood by it on principle. Last spring, Councilwoman Jan Martin told This American Life about a man who adopted a streetlight for $300 and thanked her for the program. "I did remind him that for $200, if he had supported the tax initiative, we could have had not only streetlights, but parks and firemen and swimming pools and community centers," Martin said. The man replied that he would never support higher taxes.

But as the birthplace of Colorado's Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR)—a constitutional stranglehold on how much state and local governments can tax and spend—Colorado Springs is unique in its dogmatic willingness to forgo government services. Many other Coloradans have voted to circumvent TABOR, allowing cities and counties to outspend its limits for schools and roads.

Will the new federal spending cuts cause enough pain in the rural West to seed the sort of pro-tax sentiment that has emerged in California's and Colorado's austerity wakes? Probably not—at least in the short term.

It's too early to tell what the full impact of the cuts will be. But for the most part, they won't be the drastic, sudden shock that Brown's were here in California, where universities took a 25 percent budget cut, and 70 state parks were threatened with closure. These will be more gradual and cumulative, with agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Land Management spending around 5 percent less this year.

That's not to say the cuts won't cause real pain. The states' share of federal mineral royalties will be slashed—a $53 million blow to Wyoming, and $26 million loss for New Mexico between now and July. Counties are being asked to repay money already distributed under the Secure Rural Schools Act. Popular federal beneficiaries, like national parks, will suffer, too. The Park Service will hire 10 percent fewer seasonal workers this summer. And these are only the most recent cuts absorbed by agencies; federal employees have endured salary freezes and heavier workloads for a few years as vacant jobs go unfilled. Sequestration promises more of the same. Public-lands users may notice dirtier bathrooms, disheveled trails, longer lines at park entrances and shuttered campgrounds.

"Funding for national parks in today's dollars was (already) 15 percent below where it was a decade ago," says John Garder of the National Parks Conservation Association. "They have been falling through the cracks as part of a broken process that is not meaningfully addressing the deficit."

Unfortunately, the hardest-hit communities will likely be the neediest. Indian Health Services, a chronically under-funded agency that enjoyed meaningful budget bumps recently thanks to champions like Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho, wasn't exempted from the sequester like veterans' and children's health programs were—an accidental oversight. "But once it's law, you have to pass a whole new law (to change it)," explains Native American journalist Mark Trahant, who is writing a book about fiscal austerity. "In this Congress, that isn't going to happen."

Reservation school districts depend heavily on federal aid in lieu of property tax; Arizona's Window Rock Unified School District may be forced to close schools. Tribal colleges, which provide community services like buses, libraries and Native language education, may eliminate summer school, GED programs, and cut staff pay and healthcare, says Carrie Billy, who heads the doug.

Such cuts represent a breach of trust, she says. "The only tribal colleges that receive federal funds are colleges chartered by federally recognized tribes. They signed binding treaties with the federal government to fund education. They didn't just say 'when we have the money available.' And our little pot is still being cut."

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Politics

I grew up with a dozen horses on Colorado’s eastern plains. In winter, I busted hay bales to feed them, and, under a star-strewn sky, chopped holes in iced-over water tanks so the animals could drink. I’ve always believed that the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.

But not all horses are equal, and these days, I question the presence of so many so-called wild horses on our public lands.

Sure, they look great—manes flying, tails outstretched, as the herds gambol across the wide-open spaces. They look great, but unfortunately, those photogenic herds, with their voracious appetites and heavy hooves, endanger native plants, introduce invasive species, hog precious water holes that other mammals need, and continue––endlessly—to multiply. What kind of symbol is this for the American West?

Unlike mule deer, elk or mountain lions, wild horses aren’t really wild. They are feral—turned loose. Perhaps a few rare specimens represent the genetics of Moorish ponies brought over from Spain five centuries ago, but most of today’s wild horses were simply abandoned. Even today, owners continue to release domestic horses onto public lands, especially when the economy turns bad or hay prices rise.

Thanks to the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act, passed in 1971, herds on public lands are protected—as they should be. But what the law never considered was equine fertility. According to a December 2010 report by the Office of the Inspector General, the herd doubles in size every four years, and “each year, the number of wild horses and burros the Bureau of Land Management manages increases, as does the level of public interest and scrutiny.”

That is why today, one of the icons of the West that has long been enshrined in myth is being scientifically re-examined. Three decades after the law was passed, we know a lot more about ecosystem balance and the carrying capacity of animals on public lands. Factor in drought, and ecological conditions on public land are getting desperate.

The places where the animals grazed in 1971 were officially designated by Congress as herd areas. Later, in the 1980s, the Bureau of Land Management determined which of them were suitable for long-term equine management, and these lands are now herd management areas. The problem is sustainability.

The herd management areas cover 32 million acres in 10 Western states with 37,000 animals on the range, but another 30,000 head of feral horses have been shipped to “long-term holding facilities.” You and I as taxpayers foot the bill. Call it donkey welfare.

I’m an environmentalist, but also a pragmatist. We simply have too many feral horses and burros. And it’s getting worse. The horses on the range grow 20 percent by producing new live foals each year—about 7,400 animals—but only 2,500 of them will get adopted. BLM wild horse and burro specialist Jerome Fox explains, “The BLM presently has more than 10,000 excess wild horses on the range, and new foals in 2013 will add 7,400 more. Our current level of adoptions does not begin to address our excess wild horse problem.”

So, by default, we now practice equine birth control. Volunteers shoot mares with contraceptive darts that after a few years lose their potency. Then it’s time to pull the trigger again. For wild-horse lovers, that strategy far exceeds the bruising benefits of helicopter roundups, now called “gathers” by the BLM, which can run animals into dense oak brush or box canyons, and can produce panic and fatigue in horses as they are crowded into corrals. The Office of the Inspector General admits, “The risk that horses or burros will be injured or killed is an unavoidable consequence of gathering. Injuries and broken bones can and do result from the effort to herd, capture, and transport the animals.”

After the gathers, it’s off to not-always-pleasant pastures in Kansas, Oklahoma or South Dakota at a total taxpayer cost for the horse and burro program of $66 million annually and climbing.

It’s time to stop and smell the sagebrush. We need laws that allow federal agencies to sell or auction feral horses and burros to be re-cycled into food products.

Horses inspire devotion. I understand; I’ve placed my head against their warm flanks after currying them down. I love their smell and their soft lips, and the way they blow on an apple before they eat it. I’ve enjoyed the comfort of sitting a saddle knowing that a good horse will find its way home no matter how dark the trail.

I also believe you can have too much of a good thing, and we have too many feral horses on public land.

Andrew Gulliford is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo.

Published in Community Voices

We take so many of the West’s open spaces for granted—the private ranches and agricultural lands that provide invaluable resources for us all, from clean air and water, wildlife habitat and crop-pollination, to scenic vistas, hunting opportunities and so much more.

But landowners are rarely compensated for the far-reaching benefits they provide, and they face intense pressure to sell out their land for development.

Yet, finally, some landowners are starting to get reimbursed for what they’ve freely provided for decades. “With scarcity comes value,” says Story Clark, author ofA Field Guide to Conservation Finance. “A lot of work is going into figuring out the cost of natural capital, (defined loosely as intact ecosystems), and what will be lost if we lose it. On the reverse side, we need to be able to pay for it to keep it.”

So far, in most cases, the money to restore habitat or keep landscapes in a natural state has come from the government or from donations made by conservation-minded individuals and organizations. But as Clark sees it, this “system, fueled almost entirely by philanthropy … will never get ahead of the bulldozers.”

She urges landowners to look in a new direction, by turning their gaze to the world of for-profit financing, using the expertise of bankers, lawyers, accountants and financiers to protect their land. Such tools can connect people who benefit from conservation—such as city-dwellers who want to drink clean water from their taps—with those who provide those benefits, including the ranchers who steward riparian areas.

Usually, when people think about paying to conserve a valuable quality that lies on someone else’s private land, they think in terms of conservation easements, where philanthropists and the government give landowners money or tax breaks in exchange for development rights to their land. Market-based conservation finance seeks ways to transfer money from the people who enjoy conservation benefits to those who actually provide the benefits.

Clark offers a couple of examples: Salt Lake City residents pay a dollar extra on their water bills each month to protect watersheds in the mountains above the city, saving money that would otherwise be spent transporting and cleaning water. Or a developer who paves over wetlands buys mitigation bank credits from a landowner who protects that type of wetland on private property.

“There are so many ways you can think about monetizing values on a piece of land,” Clark says. “I have found hundreds.”

That’s why Clark was invited to appear at the upcoming Forum on Conservation Finance on April 2, in Casper, Wyo.

“We’re looking for ways to connect to market-based, long-term, sustainable funding for landowners and communities involved in conservation,” says Andrea Erickson Quiroz, Wyoming state director for The Nature Conservancy, a sponsor of the forum. “We want people to say, ‘Hmmm, maybe this is something we could try.’”

Says Clark: “This is really exciting stuff. This is world-changing. If we can monetize natural capital, we won’t lose it. We’re already seeing it happen.”

Emilene Ostlind is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is communications coordinator at the University of Wyoming Ruckelshaus Institute/Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, one of the sponsors of the upcoming conference.

Published in Community Voices

Perhaps drilling rigs should be allowed in cities, towns and even into our own metaphorical backyards. It would be good for the environment. Maybe not your personal environment, but more broadly for our environment.

Community planners for decades have urged mixed-use development, in which we combine work, play and shopping in closer physical proximity. Lately, we’ve expanded the idea to food. Some people have always supplemented their pantry with backyard gardens, and now we have the concept more formally called “urban agriculture,” a phrase that embraces in-town farms.

Growing your own victuals feels good and connects you more directly with the weather and changing climate. Soil fertility becomes something personal, and creepy-crawly things become a delight or demons, depending upon their role in your personal ecosystem.

Energy, however, remains an abstraction—and many people would like to keep it that way. Fort Collins, Colo., has banned fracking, which amounts to a ban on drilling, as few wells are drilled these days without fracking. In fairness to those municipalities, legitimate concerns remain about the technology’s impacts on water and air quality.

Yet the bigger picture is that we all use natural gas. Milk doesn't originate in a carton, nor water in a faucet. With natural gas, it’s even worse. We never actually see, smell or taste the gas, only the heat it produces or, in the case of electricity, the light it provides or the cool air it produces via air conditioners. That’s a huge disconnect. Bridging that gap would be useful.

Consider the debate in Carbondale, Colo. Locals have high regard for a nearby area called Thompson Divide, where they graze their cattle, go mountain-biking, and hunt wildlife. I can’t vouch for it personally, but I take them on their word that it’s a special place.

Carbondale, however, wasn’t named after somebody named Bill Carbon. Coal was mined intermittently in the Thompson Divide area for a century, and drillers have poked around there previously—and perhaps not delicately so. Now comes the question of whether the federal government will issue extensions for drilling in the basin.

The Aspen Times, reporting on a recent meeting attended by 300 people, said the current quandary was best summarized by a local student. While everyone who uses natural gas must, at some level, support energy extraction, she said, some places should be off-limits. And Thompson Divide is one of them.

OK, fair enough. But then came another local resident who warned of the “wolf at the door” that had already devoured half of his county with drilling. And, reports the Times, he got a resounding “no” when he asked the crowd if it was worth “poisoning the Earth” to extract more natural gas to feed the country’s addiction to fossil fuels.

It turns out that one protector of the last, best places commutes to the West Coast, where he oversees the manufacturing and retailing of a well-known line of outdoor clothing. That requires a 2,000-mile commute—a carbon footprint the size of Poland.

In reading about the Carbondale meeting, I was reminded of the 2006 South Park episode called “Smug Alert,” in which the local residents buy “Pious” cars, which makes them feel smug. Then clouds of “smug” originating from Hollywood, San Francisco and South Park threaten to converge over the Rocky Mountains in an apocalypse of self-righteousness.

It’s easy to be smug about drilling for natural gas. Legitimate questions from citizens haven’t fully been answered by industry and state regulators, and it’s not clear that standards and oversight have been strengthened enough to protect the environment. If this is indeed going to be the giant bridge fuel to deliver us into a renewable future, it needs some work.

But how can we say no, no, no to drilling, when our actions say yes, yes, yes to the demand that drives the drilling—especially in an air-conditioning-dependent place like the Coachella Valley? Carbondale and Pitkin County don’t want drilling at Thompson Divide? Fair enough. Like Fort Collins, they’re ahead of the curve in energy-efficiency programs. But to say absolutely no to drilling? They’d need to say no to energy use, too. Mandating passive-home construction that tamps down energy use to almost nothing would be one major step.

Right now, we all have grime on our hands from drilling. But for some people, the grime seems to be invisible. Maybe a drilling rig down the street would at least remind us of the part we all play in this dirty business.

Allen Best is a contributor Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in the Denver area and publishes Mountain Town News, an online newsmagazine.

Published in Community Voices

Since 1872, mining interests have made billions of dollars by removing and selling valuable minerals from our public lands without having to pay a cent to the American taxpayer. This is one of the biggest budget loopholes of the modern economy, and it needs to change—especially now—as Congress tries to address the deficit and balance budgets.

Blame this bizarre omission of royalties on the 1872 Mining Law, which encouraged Westward expansion by allowing prospectors to stake claims on public lands and freely remove “hardrock” minerals like gold, silver, copper and uranium. This saloon-era handout—established more than 140 years ago—continues unchanged to this day. Mining companies still receive these precious metals and minerals for free.

Today, some of the world’s biggest companies make a mint by mining our metals, selling them to the highest bidder, keeping all the profits and often sticking taxpayers with a costly cleanup bill. We’re left with a legacy of abandoned and contaminated mines on public lands that leak into streams and aquifers—lands that should be managed for the benefit of the American people.

Even as these giveaways continue, funding for national parks and other public facilities keep getting tighter. Employees’ hours are being reduced; cleanup crews are scarce; and trails are going untended and falling into ruin. Even a small royalty could rejuvenate our public-lands system, help clean up abandoned mines and mine waste, and put people back to work. Why should companies get a free ride while the national budget is slashed and parks close for lack of funds? With prices for gold, silver and other minerals at near-record highs, requiring companies to pay a royalty for public resources is simply good policy.

In 2011, we requested a Government Accountability Office investigation of this issue. The results, published this past November, were striking: The GAO found that we have no estimate at all of the value of the hardrock resources extracted from federal property. Not only are we giving public resources away for free; we don’t even know what’s being taken or the value of what we’re giving away.

According to a 2012 Bureau of Land Management report, in California alone, there are 20,200 mining claims, 215,000 ounces of gold, and 35,000 ounces of silver produced annually on BLM land.

The Department of the Interior, using estimates and partial information, put a ballpark figure of $6.4 billion on the value of hardrock minerals extracted from federal land in 2011. If taxpayers received an 8 percent royalty on $6.4 billion, that would mean more than $500 million a year we could put back into managing our public lands and reducing our national debt.

For decades, Congress has tried to rally sufficient support for hardrock mining law reform. Disputes about what royalty rate to charge, how to calculate company profits, and what benefits would go to local mining communities have managed to stall decades of reform efforts. While full reform has not been successful so far, progress has been made.

In the 1990s, both the House and Senate implemented a moratorium on the patenting of federal land for hardrock mineral development. As recently as 2008, the House passed a measure that would have protected special landscapes and charged a royalty of up to 8 percent. As co-sponsors of this legislation, we were frustrated to see the bill die in the Senate.

Now more than ever, the case for reform is clear, and we appreciate the support we’ve received from President Obama’s administration. As our nation works to address the deficit in the months ahead, we can no longer allow federal giveaways of our natural resources to continue without any compensation to the taxpayers who own those resources. The president proposed hardrock mining reform measures in each of his past two budgets, and we hope to see this repeated in his fiscal year 2014 request due this month.

But the only way mining reform will happen is if the public becomes aware of its importance. Nothing in Congress happens in a vacuum. That’s why we’re highlighting this issue now, before budget negotiations get too intense.

In 1872, Congress made national expansion the country’s top priority, and we spent the next century growing westward. That phase of American history ended a long time ago, but our mining law never caught up to the realities of today. It is long overdue for Congress and the administration to act––to finally demand, and get, a fair price for the public’s hardrock minerals.

The writers are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. Arizona Democratic Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulations; Democratic Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico sits on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.

Published in Community Voices

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