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The Rocky Road to Wolf Recovery

These apex predators returned to the North Cascades 10 years ago. Are we giving them a fair chance?

Winter is not my favorite season. I lived in Vermont for too many years to get excited about snow, and I don’t like having to brace myself to walk out the front door. But today was different. Today I was on a scientific mission – more of a pilgrimage, really – and the impressive tracks at my feet trumped the raw, westerly breeze biting at my face. Each symmetrical print showed four toes and pronounced claws, like that of a coyote, only much bigger. Maybe a dog out for a walk? I wondered. No, the gait was too steady, the trail too straight. Besides, these paws would put a German shepherd to shame. I smiled at my husband, Robert Long, whose satisfied grin transcended his curiosity as a biologist. We were both relieved the Teanaway wolves had survived their first year.

photo of a wolf track, human hand for comparisonPhoto by Robert LongA wolf track in the snow. This paw would put a German shepherd to shame.

When we relocated to central Washington in 2007, the dry, dusty terrain challenged my sensibilities as a native New Englander. Our new hometown was surrounded by windblown hills that seemed hostile and barren – an inhospitable moonscape of sagebrush and grass. This was the Pacific Northwest, for heaven’s sake; where were the rhododendrons, the drippy mosses, the giant Douglas firs?

Then I discovered Teanaway country, a surprisingly fertile place on the eastern flanks of the Cascade Range. The region’s namesake, the Teanaway River, is a tributary of the Yakima, which in turn flows into the Columbia – the largest river on the continent draining into the Pacific Ocean. Clear as a desert sky and cold enough even in June to make my bones ache during stream crossings, the salmon-supporting waters of the Teanaway are spawned by snowmelt from the adjacent high peaks.

Although the Teanaway valley floor is peppered with homesteads, the abutting forests and alpine meadows are tantalizingly wild. To the north lies a vast stretch of national forest and other public lands crowned by North Cascades National Park. To the south, more national forest – broken by clearcuts and Interstate 90 – and Mount Rainier National Park. All told, the North Cascades Ecosystem, which runs from I-90 to British Columbia, covers an area larger than Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite National Parks combined. Other than the northern Rockies, nowhere else in the contiguous US offers so much room for …more

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Who Owns Water? The US Landowners Putting Barbed Wire Across Rivers

New Mexico is a battleground in the fight over once public waterways

As Scott Carpenter and a few friends paddled down the Pecos river in New Mexico last May, taking advantage of spring run-off, the lead boater yelled out and made a swirling hand motion over his head in the universal signal to pull over to shore. The paddlers eddied out in time to avoid running straight through three strings of barbed wire obstructing the river.

Swinging in the wind, the sign hanging from the fence read “PRIVATE PROPERTY: No Trespassing”.

kayaker trying to get past barbed wire fence across riverPhoto courtesy of Scott CarpenterA paddler navigates through barbed wire across the Rio Chama in New Mexico in 2015.

One member of their party waded into the swift water to lift the wire with a paddle for the others to float under. As they continued downstream, Carpenter, a recreational boater from Albuquerque, looked over his shoulder a see a figure standing outside the big ranch house up the hill. He offered a wave, but received nothing in return.

It’s a scene playing out with increasing frequency in New Mexico, where a recent bid to legally privatize streams has public users like Carpenter more than a little alarmed, not least for the precedent it might set beyond the borders of this western state.

While the fight over US public lands has reached a fever pitch unlike anything seen in recent decades, and the Trump interior department seeks to lease out vast areas to private interests for mining and drilling, the fate of public waterways has largely flown under the radar. Now New Mexico has become a battleground for that very issue, with the state government, landowners, and outfitters on one side of the fight and anglers, boaters, recreationalists and heritage users on the other. At the heart of the argument: who owns the water that has long been considered the lifeblood of the arid west.

Water use rights and access vary by region across the country, though the water itself has always been a public resource for people to fish, paddle, wade and float in. Private landowners have long taken unsanctioned steps to keep the public out of waterways, as in the recent case of an Arizona man convicted of shooting at kayakers boating down a river that runs through his land.

But in the last hours of 2015, efforts to bar public access received official sanction, when New Mexico’s state government quickly and quietly passed a bill that implies …more

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Awe May Be a Forest’s Least Known Gift

The perception of the interconnections among things is what inspires this powerful emotion, say researchers

In 1836, in his essay Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson described the powerful effect that being in woods had on him: “Standing on the bare ground, my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or parcel of God.”

banyan tree in aforest in MauiPhoto by Nicolas Grevet The natural world — with its domineering mountains, colossal trees and tall waterfalls — is one of the main sources of awe.

What Emerson felt was awe. It’s a sensation I have experienced often in forests. I felt it first when I was a young boy at the feet of the biggest tree in the world. I felt it next as a young man, when I walked in a tropical rainforest for the first time, in Sri Lanka. Here's how I described it in my book Gods, Wasps and Stranglers.

“All these things seemed insignificant in the presence of the forest itself. It hugged all it contained in a humid, humming gloom. The trees towered over us, viscerally alive yet so alien to our animal ways. Their breath sweetened the air we inhaled. It is hard to explain, but I could feel the concentration of life around me, as if its great density there had somehow reached into me physically. What struck me was the neutrality of that force. There was no malice or love there, just existence.”

Awe is that feeling of being in the presence of something immense and mind-blowing. The natural world — with its domineering mountains, colossal trees and tall waterfalls — is one of its main sources. In 2003, psychologists Dacher Keltner and Jonathan Haidt wrote that “nature-produced awe involves a diminished self, the giving way of previous conceptual distinctions (e.g., between master and servant) and the sensed presence of a higher power. Natural objects that are vast in relation to the self … are more likely to produce awe.”

I asked Keltner what it might be about forests — as opposed to, say, single very large trees — that inspires feelings of awe. “I think it's the perception of collectivity in forests,” he said, “where the eye doesn't focus on one object but on interconnections amongst many.” That chimes with my experience. When you walk in a tropical forest, the sheer abundance …more

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Ryan Zinke to Look into Unpopular Montana Land Exchange Proposal

The 5,000-acre proposal by Texas oil barons was twice rejected under Obama

The US interior secretary, Ryan Zinke, has promised to look into a Montana land exchange proposal from Texas oil and gas billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks that was twice rejected under the Obama administration, the Guardian can reveal.

upper missouri big breaks national monumentPhoto by Bob Wick/Bureau of Land ManagementTexas oil and gas billionaires Dan and Farris Wilks offered the BLM territory in and around the Upper Missouri River Breaks National Monument (pictured above) in exchange for federal land within their N Bar Ranch in eastern-central Montana.

The Wilkses and their lobbyist met Zinke, a Montana native, last September.

Zinke said he’ll look into the Wilkses’ proposal but was noncommittal,” said the brothers’ representative, Darryl James, a Montana-based lobbyist who attended the meeting.

Local conservationists and hunters are opposed to the deal, wary of a takeover of protected lands by wealthy out-of-state landowners.

Since 2014, the Wilkses have set their sights on an approximately 5,000-acre enclave of federal land within their N Bar Ranch in eastern-central Montana.

In exchange they offered the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) territory in and around the Upper Missouri River Breaks national monument.

The BLM, under pressure from local opposition, twice rejected the proposal during the Obama era – most recently in January 2016, when the agency cited lack of resources to fully evaluate the deal. Hunters favor the enclave, known as Durfee Hills, for its large elk herds.

But now the Wilkses, who donated heavily to Republican Senators Ted Cruz (Texas) and Steven Daines (Montana), are trying again.

Last September, Farris Wilks, his wife JoAnn, and their consultant James met Zinke. A note on Zinke’s calendar for the 14 September meeting reads “Z request”, possibly indicating that it was the interior secretary who had scheduled the meeting. The calendar does not list any interior staff, which is unusual compared with Zinke’s other meetings.

James, who said he has known Zinke from the latter’s previous stint as a state lawmaker, told the Guardian he has since met BLM staff in Billings, Montana, and has been in contact with its field office in Lewiston, which is closest to the Wilks ranch.

“We think this proposal will benefit both the Wilkses and the public, which will enjoy greater access in the Upper Missouri River Breaks,” James said. “We hope the BLM will finally recognize this.”

Zinke’s office …more

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You Can’t Frack Without Harming Public Health, New Research Shows

Study examines over 1,200 peer-reviewed research papers, government reports, news articles

The conclusion is damning. “All together, findings to date from scientific, medical, and journalistic investigations combine to demonstrate that fracking poses significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality.”

arial view of fracked landPhoto courtesy of EcoflightAn oil and gas drilling area in Wyoming. In terms of public health, children and pregnant women are among the groups most at risk from air pollution caused by fracking.

“Emerging data from a rapidly expanding body of evidence continue to reveal a plethora of recurring problems and harms that cannot be sufficiently averted through regulatory frameworks.

“There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.” So concludes a must-read 266-page report published on Tuesday by the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and the Nobel Peace Prize-winning group, Physicians for Social Responsibility.

The report examines over 1,200 peer-reviewed research articles as well as government reports and news articles. The hard-hitting report argues that: “the evidence to date indicates that fracking operations pose severe threats to health, both from water contamination and from air pollution.”

Take water pollution and the vast amounts of toxic waste-water dumped daily underground. “In the United States, more than two billion gallons of water and fracking fluids are injected daily under high pressure into the earth for the purpose of enabling oil and gas extraction via fracking or, after the fracking is finished, to flush the extracted wastewater down any of the 187,570 disposal wells across the country that accept oil and gas waste.”

All of the two billion daily gallons of fluid is “toxic, and it passes through our nation’s groundwater aquifers on its way to the deep geological strata below where it demonstrably raises the risk for earthquakes.”

Air quality does not fair better, either. “In the air around drilling and fracking operations and their attendant infrastructure, researchers have measured strikingly high levels of toxic pollutants, including the potent carcinogen benzene and the chemical precursors of ground-level ozone (smog).”

The report adds: “In some cases, concentrations of fracking-related air pollutants in communities where people live and work exceed federal safety standards. Research shows that air emissions from fracking can drift and pollute the air hundreds of miles downwind.”

I have repeatedly blogged that the science was taking time to catch up with fracking. But there is increasing evidence …more

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Mega Dams Are So Last Year

And we can’t wait for the day we can say these destructive projects are history

In February last year, the residents of the small town of Oroville in California’s Gold Country were told a 30-foot wall of water was headed their way. The men and women of the town ran through the streets in panic, and almost 200,000 people were evacuated from the area. These were not extras in a Deep Impact reboot, they were running from a structural failure in America’s tallest dam — the 770-foot-tall Oroville Dam had run into problems with both its main and emergency spillways after days of heavy rainfall and chances of massive breach seemed very likely.

As the world watched on with bated breath, the emergency spillway eased pressure, and the uncontrolled release of Oroville's reservoir didn’t occur. The residents and properties of the town were saved, and California was slapped with a near $1 billion repair bill.

Fisherman SarawakPhoto by Fiona McAlpineIn 2017, mega dams — which destroy waterways and impact communities, like the one this Sarawak fisherman belongs to, which depend on the river for sustenance — started to go out of fashion.

In a very different part of the world, in the face of similar imminent danger, the official response was a dismissal, and a shrug.

In November last year, phones started buzzing in villages downstream from Borneo’s Bengoh dam with photos of a leak in the dam’s 200-foot high wall. There is no emergency response plan in place for the area. The rumors were quickly quashed by Malaysian officials, and stories reporting the leak were swiftly erased from the web.

The sad fact is that in most parts of the world, the environmental, social, and safety concerns of mega dams have long been ignored.

At The Borneo Project, we’ve been working with communities fighting big dam projects in Sarawak for a long time. Today, as we celebrate the International Day of Action for Rivers, we are also celebrating the two-year anniversary of beating the Baram Dam project in Sarawak, which would have been the second-largest mega dam of its kind in Asia.

For decades, our allies around the world have been calling out these mega dam projects as corrupt, environmentally destructive, and socially devastating. Oroville was an important wake up call that the international media couldn’t ignore. Throughout 2017, domestically and internationally, we watched on as mega dams finally started to go out of fashion.

Mega-hydro is not clean energy, nor is it economic

The global …more

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An Endangered Fish Out of Water

A unique hatchery program is keeping the Rio Grande’s silvery minnow alive. But the long-term fate of this tiny fish is uncertain.

When irrigation was introduced to New Mexico, principally by the Spanish four centuries ago, the Rio Grande began its long decline from a wild, free-flowing river to a channeled ditch delivering water from its headwaters in the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado to the Gulf of Mexico nearly 1,900 miles away. Dam and water diversion projects built by conservation district personnel, the US Army Corp of Engineers, and the Bureau of Land Management, which manage the river, have inadvertently endangered a number of species—among them, the diminutive Rio Grande silvery minnow (Hybognathus amarus).

Rio GrandePhoto by I am New Mexico/Flickr The minnow survives only in about 5 percent of its historic range, in a 174-mile stretch of the middle Rio Grande (pictured above), often called the Albuquerque stretch, which also happens to be the most densely populated region of New Mexico.

The two-inch silvery minnow once occupied 2,400 miles of the Rio Grande and the Peco River, one of its major tributaries. Now the minnow survives only in about 5 percent of its historic range, between the Cochiti Dam in the north and the headwaters of Elephant Butte Reservoir — a 174-mile stretch of the middle Rio Grande, often called the Albuquerque stretch, which also happens to be the most densely populated region of New Mexico where more than half of its citizens live.

The silvery minnow was listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act in 1994, around the time when this stretch of the river began to regularly dry each summer when farmers diverted the water for irrigation into canals and ditches and onto alfalfa fields and pecan orchards, leaving the fish out of water. The plight of the minnow set off a legal battle between irrigators represented by the Middle Rio Grande Conservation District and environmental groups attempting to preserve habitat for the fish.

silvery MinnowPhoto by Joel Deluxe There is a growing understanding that like the proverbial canary in the coal mine,the silvery minnow
in the Rio Grande is not only a bellwether of the health of the river and its ecosystem, its fate
is also a harbinger of what people might face as as our freshwater sources become more scarce.

Nine years later, in 2003 the US Fish and Wildlife Service issued its biological opinion, which basically stated that water mangers would have to keep a small amount of water moving in the Albuquerque …more

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