Tuesday, November 25, 2008

One last touch of the river

Today the air thickened and the sky paled with the welcomed sensual early symptoms of an approaching winter storm. And I feel all the better for winter's imminent arrival because I got in a last blast of river season over the weekend.

It was a cool blast, for sure. When the sun was out -- or was shining on the same side of the canyon I was paddling -- it felt like we were really in the desert outback of Utah's San Juan River. But when the sun's low near-solstice slant was sliced by the canyon rim or, more so, when it made its early-evening descent behind the sandstone landscape, the cold grabbed hold and was held at bay only by the thickest polyester shields and the primeval radiant warmth and security of a driftwood fire.

Colors, too, were subdued, robbed of the life of summer -- but offering up a purer, deeper sense of raw bone against the bottomless blue of the November sky. And at night? The stars were ridiculous.

We were too, probably, seven guys away rom work and family and the general demands of the daily business's busyness. But we sucked up every glorious minute of it -- three days of paddling and guitar playing and bocci throwing and beer drinking and talking and sleeping out for two glorious and treasured bonus nights alongside the river.

Remembering yet again why we live here. And love it here. And fight for here.

And now we turn our eyes toward that slow-building proto-river we call the Snowpack ...

Click on the slideshow below for mo' and biggah pics.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Selling public lands to pay off the national debt? Some think so ...

Ed Quillen, writing on High Country News' Goat Blog, says that the idea of selling public lands to help pay off the nation's bloating national debt -- now at more than $10.5 trillion -- is, like chronic heartburn, bubbling up again.

Quillen cites in particular a blog post on Marginal Revolution, in which economist Tyler Cowen argues:

The Federal Government owns more than half of Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Idaho and Alaska and it owns nearly half of California, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming … It is time for a sale. Selling even some western land could raise hundreds of billions of dollars — perhaps trillions of dollars — for the Federal government at a time when the funds are badly needed and no one want to raise taxes. At the same time, a sale of western land would improve the efficiency of land allocation.

Does a sale of western lands mean reducing national parkland? No, first much of the land isn’t parkland. Second, I propose a deal. The government should sell some of its most valuable land in the west and use some of the proceeds to buy low-price land in the Great Plains.

The western Great Plains are emptying of people. Some 322 of the 443 Plains counties have lost population since 1930 and a majority have lost population since 1990.

Now is the time for the Federal government to sell high-priced land in the West, use some of the proceeds to deal with current problems and use some of the proceeds to buy low-priced land in the Plains creating the world’s largest nature park, The Buffalo Commons.
The idea of whoring -- um, liquidating -- public land comes around whenever the Treasury seems in need of a quick and easy infusion of class. And there is some historical precedent for this, Quillen writes. "The only time in American history that the federal government was totally out of debt came on Jan. 1, 1835, during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, and it was land sales that provided much of the federal income that made this possible."

In another interesting instance, Quillen explains why Texas has so little public land:

Texas has very little federal land. That's a result of the Compromise of 1850. Recall that Texas was an independent republic from 1836 to 1844, and ran up some bills. It also claimed half of New Mexico and a strip that extended north through Colorado into Wyoming. In the Compromise, Texas agreed to its current boundaries. In return, the federal government agreed to pay off the old republic's debts, and the public lands inside the Lone Star State were turned over to the state government instead of being retained by the federal government. Texas managed to get someone else to pay off its "national debt," and got title to its public lands -- that's a better deal than we're likely to see if the federal government starts offering land for sale.

And in recent years, there have been similar, very serious (regardless of how preposterous) proposals. For example: The Forest Service planning to sell some 300,000 acres of public land to pay for a federal program; Sen. Richard Pombo’s proposal to sell some national parks to help pay off the national debt; and the Cato Institute, the highly influential free-market think tank, arguing in favor of selling the Grand Canyon to the Disney Corporation.

The reason this can happen today, Quillen argues, is that most people don't understand what public lands are or are for. And one of the reasons for that is that so much of the nation's federal public lands are in the West.

States with highest percentage of state area that is federal land:

  1. Nevada 84.5%
  2. Alaska 69.1%
  3. Utah 57.4%
  4. Oregon 53.1%
  5. Idaho 50.2%
  6. Arizona 48.1%
  7. California 45.3%
  8. Wyoming 42.3%
  9. New Mexico 41.8%
  10. Colorado 36.6%
While most of the states with the least federal public lands are in the East:
  1. Connecticut 0.4%
  2. Rhode Island 0.4%
  3. Iowa 0.8%
  4. New York 0.8%
  5. Maine 1.1%
  6. Kansas 1.2%
  7. Nebraska 1.4%
  8. Alabama 1.6%
  9. Ohio 1.7%
  10. Illinois 1.8%
(Stats from Strangemaps)

This, in my mind, is one of the greatest challenges to the long-term protection of our public lands: Not just fighting the legal and legislative battles, but also giving people -- everyone -- the whys to go along with the whats and hows. We need a re-engagement with the idea of The Commons, and a re-enchantment with the future generations that those Commons are held in common for.

We need to put the public back in our public lands!

More to come on this ...

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Jim Stiles and Canyon Country Zephyr both enter new terrain

The new issue of Inside Outside Southwest features a lively profile of Jim Stiles, the rabble-rousing eco-muckraker, and his publication, The Canyon Country Zephyr.

Stiles has been the editor, publisher, columnist, illustrator, ad sales guy, delivery man, etc. for the Zephyr since he founded the monthly magazine in Moab in 1988. Since then, the Zephyr has been both bull horn and bull whip in Stiles' one-man-front in the battle for the Southwest and its beloved deserts and canyonlands.

As a career iconoclast, though, Stiles has managed to torque not only eco-bad guys (whether in business, government, or 36-foot, diesel-powered, rear-duellied RVs). The article, by Jen Jackson, explores how Stiles has in recent years also drawn the ire of big environmental groups, including SUWA, the Sierra Club, and the Wilderness Society, for his unabashed attacks on "Big Environmentalism."

Mostly, though, the article focuses on two big adventures: Stiles' getting married, having a kid, and moving from the American Southwest to southwestern Australia; and the Zephyr's move from a print publication to a web-based publication (somewhat ironic for a magazine whose tagline is "Clinging hopelessly to the past") beginning with the March 2009 issue.

Regardless of his relocation and new forum, Stiles has no intention of pulling back from personal jihad against defilers of the earth:

"If you read the very first issue of the paper, I said my goal was to make the Zephyr a forum for different opinions," Stiles says in the article. "I sought out people who had a different philosophy about land issues and politics so we'd have an interesting conversation. And that's what I've always tried to do, and that's what I'll continue to do."

"When we come online, it's going to start covering a lot more issues than just the Southwest United States," he explains. "I'll be living in the southwest of Australia, and it has a lot of similar problems that we have here. My dream is to put out a publication that covers the southwest parts of two different continents at the same time, in the same issue."

Check out the article here

It's worth noting, as well, that the Zephyr isn't alone in seeking a new route across the badlands of quality regional Western publishing. Mountain Gazette has recently been resold -- the second time in as many years -- and, even though a new issue recently hit the stands, its direction remains uncertain. (Its website hasn't been updated since August.)

Even Inside Outside itself, which recently celebrated its 10th anniversary, is moving to a format that will include both a small but more frequent (going from bi-monthly to monthly) print version, and a more dynamic and lengthy on-line companion version. The first monthly issue will be released in January 2009, and the new online Inside Outside Southwest is expected to debut in February.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A look at the after-effects of oil and gas development

High Country News has an excellent feature in its current issue, looking at answers to the title question, "Who'll clean up when the party's over?"

The article, written by April Reese, looks at the mixed -- and rare -- success of well-site reclamation, and the BLM's stepped up efforts to improve its poor record so far, following the passage of the 2005 National Energy Policy Act, which aimed to increase reclamation projects for energy development. Presently, the BLM estimates that less than 15 percent of the West's more than 15,000 gas well have been reclaimed.

The article takes a close look at the San Juan Basin, where the BLM oversees some 30,000 wells. The Basin is expected to see another 10,000 wells drilled in the next two decades.

Reese writes:

Even as the BLM struggles to clean up the past, it is racing headlong into the future. Currently, the BLM manages approximately 80,000 active wells on public lands in the West -- about 30,000 in the San Juan alone. In the next 15 to 20 years, the agency expects to permit an additional 126,000 wells, 10,000 of them in the San Juan Basin. The Wilderness Society estimates that more than a million acres will be graded, drilled or otherwise disturbed by new oil and gas development over the next two decades. When all of these wells run dry -- the average well has a lifespan of 30 years -- federal managers will have a truly massive reclamation job on their hands.
Read the entire article here.

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