Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Grassroots land planning in western Colorado.

Mark Waltermire squints in the winter sunlight, craning his neck to take in the view from his vegetable farm in Hotchkiss, Colo. He jabs his finger toward a mesa: “There,” he says. “And up in there.” Palm to the sky, he makes a sweeping gesture, encompassing the flat-bottomed valley, the staggered mesas; the patchwork of ranches and farms, houses and towns, public and private land, all dead grass and mud after a midwinter thaw.

Waltermire is showing me a handful of the 30,000 acres that the Bureau of Land Management planned to auction off to oil and gas companies here in western Colorado’s North Fork Valley in 2012. He represents the Valley Organic Growers Association in a larger group that opposed the leases and has thus far been successful in convincing the BLM to defer drilling permits. Not only that, but for the first time in recent history, the BLM has voluntarily agreed to consider a proposal written by residents of a small, rural community as a viable alternative to a regional resource management plan.

Like many of Colorado’s public land offices, the Uncompahgre BLM – which oversees 3.1 million acres of western Colorado, including those surrounding the North Fork towns of Paonia, Hotchkiss and Crawford – hasn’t rewritten its resource management plan in decades. Resource plans guide all aspects of land and mineral management, and updating them is expensive and time-consuming, says state BLM spokesman Steven Hall. For a while, the attitude was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But as Colorado’s energy boom took hold over the last decade, drawing more oil and gas companies to public lands, it became clear that policies written in the 1980s were ill-equipped to govern today’s landscape of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. New technologies have brought drilling to places that land planners of yore never anticipated.

Over the last six years, Colorado has been on “an ambitious planning spree”; 70 percent of it’s 8.3 million acres of BLM lands have been or are in the process of having their resource management plans rewritten, Hall says. “It’s been a tremendous workload for the BLM, and for advocacy groups that follow these (issues).”

The changes rarely come easily. ...

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A Paonia, Colo., orchard. Farms, orchards and vineyards have diversified the local economy in recent decades.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

fun with photoshop.

In which I download a free version of PhotoShop and play around with some old photos: 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

I went to the desert.

I went to the desert because it had been too long since I'd slept in the cold air, under the stars. I went because I had nowhere else to go. I went because for the first time in a long while, I was alone.

Jesse left for Peru the day before, to be gone for six weeks. I don't mind these long absences, I tell myself. They sweeten the time we spend together, and give me the space I crave – the space to sit in my pajamas long into a Sunday morning, writing and puttering, or to walk outdoors at my own pace, learning the stories of the land.

And so I sit on a sun-warmed slab of sandstone on the far western edge of Colorado, where Utah's red rock canyons have seeped across the border. North, the Grand Valley is a tabletop wound through by the Colorado River; south, the mesas and cracked canyons of this country spread out like an intricate taproot, a living network of veins and capillaries. I sit at the nexus of five canyons, at the center of a wobbly star pressed into the earth. The sun slips lower and my pack remains where I dropped it; the thought of spending 13 hours of darkness out here is unnerving, and I hold out the possibility that maybe I'll hike back to my car.

At 4:30 p.m. on this mid-winter day, the circle of sun drops behind the canyon wall, and I put on another layer of clothing. I think of the people who wander the desert alone. I think of Jesse, who hikes under the moon until midnight. I tell myself that there's nothing to be afraid of, and yet the prospect of my thoughts stretching out across 13 hours of fireless night fills me with trepidation.

Every so often a plane passes overhead, and as I watch their tails of exhaust cross my lone slice of sky, I think of Jesse in one of them looking down on the earth and my heart nearly breaks.

The last stripe of light hugging the rim of canyon disappears. The croaking raven has flown away. The winter sunset is not a real sunset at all, just a gradual deepening of light from washed out blue to indigo to purple to black. In the darkness I read and wait for the moon to rise. The canyons are frosted and still. It's probably about 20 degrees.


In the morning, the sun turns the red rock wall behind me a burnished orange, then creeps down slowly, lighting the juniper branches and dead grasses until it's warmth finally reaches my camp. The glint of it off my cooking pot is a beautiful thing, and I am inexpressibly happy to be alive and in this place.

Last night, the moon lit up the entire canyon, and a great horned owl called again and again.

the latest blow in the fight for pebble mine.

Last summer, the excavation of some of the world’s richest mineral deposits – and the degradation of some of the world's richest salmon habitat ­– seemed well within the grasp of global mining interests. But with the release of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's long-awaited environmental assessment on Jan. 15, the development of Pebble Mine in southwest Alaska's Bristol Bay slipped just a little bit further from reach – the latest and perhaps most significant in a series of defeats for the embattled project.

The EPA assessment confirms Pebble’s potential to severely damage salmon runs, using stronger language than previous drafts (“could” has turned to “would”) and describing in detail the acidic waste that could leach into watersheds even under routine operation. The report is also turning the tide of political opinion. "Wrong mine, wrong place, too big," U.S. Sen. Mark Begich told the Anchorage Daily News after reviewing it. Begich, a Democrat, is the first member of Alaska's congressional delegation to publicly take a stand against Pebble Mine, though previous politicians have also opposed it. Former Gov. Tony Knowles called it “terrifying.”

Despite its gargantuan size – the mine itself would consume up to 94 miles of stream and 5,350 acres of wetlands, with an additional 64 streams affected by road building, the EPA found – Pebble has come to represent more than just a fight for one place or one ecosystem. Even people who have never stood on the banks of a river teeming with salmon are deeply invested in this corner of Alaska as a symbol of wildness, a vestige of the ecological and cultural riches that were once bountiful across North America. As HCN senior editor Ray Ring wrote after visiting Bristol Bay last summer, "the restoration efforts I'd reported on (in the American West) were kind of desperate, almost pathetic" in comparison: "The Lower 48 will never regain the kind of wildness that survives in Alaska."

Read the rest of my story by clicking here:

Monday, January 20, 2014

A tale of two states

What happens when you give a homeless person a subsidized apartment? The answer isn’t as straightforward as you might think. But in Utah, it’s proven a resounding success – out of 17 chronically homeless people who took part in the state’s 2005 pilot program, all were still off the streets two years later, spurring a long-term “Housing First” initiative that’s reduced Utah’s homeless population by 74 percent while saving the state millions of dollars.

Lloyd Pendleton, Director of the Utah Homeless Task Force, remembers one woman who took part in the pilot program. She’d been on and off the streets for over a decade, but after she was given a place of her own in Salt Lake City, still chose to sleep outside next to a dumpster. Eventually, she started crashing on the floor of the apartment. And after a while, she began sleeping in the bed. Today, she lives near her family, 70 years old, sober and happy.

Had she lived just across the border in Wyoming, her story might have ended very differently. Though its rate of homelessness isn’t particularly high, Wyoming falls dead last in the nation for sheltering its homeless, with only 26 percent receiving shelter, compared to 61 percent nationally. Plus, Wyoming’s homeless population has been on the rise: According to official data from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, it’s more than doubled over the last three years, though Mary Randolph of the Wyoming Rural Development Council says it’s hard to know what the exact numbers are because the state’s record-keeping has been so inconsistent.

Still, she adds, the homeless population has indeed increased: “When the economy tanked, people heard there were (oil and gas) jobs in Wyoming and flooded out here. There weren’t jobs, and weren’t homes either, so a lot of people ended up on the streets.”

It wasn’t until last year that Wyoming officials fully realized that the state’s plan for addressing homelessness lagged so far behind neighboring states’. “We weren’t getting the funding from HUD that we were eligible to get. We didn’t have an organized continuum of care like most other states, and there was (no one) overseeing homeless programs,” says Brenda Lyttle, a senior administrator in the Department of Family Services who now coordinates the state’s homeless services.

Under Lyttle’s direction, Wyoming is taking action. ....

Read the rest of the story at

Sunday, January 12, 2014

small towns struggle to save their theaters.

One snowy evening over the holidays, I sat down for a beer with screenwriter Susan Shilliday ("Legends of the Fall"), who moved from Los Angeles to rural western Massachusetts eight years ago to run a used bookstore. We were discussing how difficult it is for independent booksellers to stay in business when Susan brought up a similar challenge faced by her first love: cinema. The theater in a nearby college town had recently closed, she told me, and many others are on the brink.

I’m a diehard bookworm and not much of a movie buff, so while I’ve pined for small, independent bookstores since watching Meg Ryan’s character lose hers in 1998’s "You’ve Got Mail," I hadn’t realized that small theaters are equally endangered. According to Rolling Stone, more than 1,000 rural theaters are at risk of closing in the next few years, and hundreds more have already shut their doors. The threat isn’t so much competition from giant multiplexes (though that’s an issue, too): It’s the cost of retrofitting old facilities to meet new digital standards.

As I write this, a Hollywood revolution is quietly unfolding: 35-mm film, the iconic medium that captured Charlie Chaplin, Katharine Hepburn and Henry Fonda, is becoming obsolete. The change began in 2002, when a coalition of big studios got together to create new digital parameters for the industry. Digital films are less expensive to produce ($150 per copy compared to $1,500), and studios can save billions each year by going digital. By the mid-2000s, only a few hundred theaters worldwide were capable of playing digital films, but with the digital-only release of "Avatar" in 2009, scores converted to be able to screen the 3D hit.

For corporate multiplexes, the $40,000 to $75,000 per screen required for digitization wasn’t a problem. Yet for small theaters, the change can be catastrophic.

As of this year, Hollywood will begin releasing movies almost solely in digital format, meaning theaters that haven’t converted will be left in the dust. It’s rare that Hollywood’s actions reverberate through the rural West, but the switch to digital has given remote Western towns more reasons to worry for their future. “They’re … forcing people to convert or close,” says Amy DeLuca, program director for the 89-year-old Paradise Theater in Paonia, Colo., High Country News’ hometown. “It would be a tragic loss (for the town) if we can’t keep the theater open.” ...

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