Bears Ears Management Plan and other news
Plus: Map Mania, Big Breakdown Ticker, And those stupid foil balloons that wreck the power grid
I’m a bit late to this one, but it’s important: The federal government has begun preparing a management plan for Bears Ears National Monument. And you’ve got about a month more to give your input.
A national monument is established by presidential proclamation, which typically withdraws the lands from future mining claims or oil and gas leases and lays out other very broad management guidelines. But the management plan is where the rubber really meets the road as it determines how the monument is actually operated and what kind of powers managers have to protect the cultural and natural landscape.
For those who worry that a national monument designation will increase visitation and impacts, this is your chance to weigh in on how to mitigate those impacts. Criteria for when and why to close roads can be included. Rules regarding dispersed camping will be worked out, as will guidelines for “vegetation treatments,” i.e. chaining and hydro-mowing, target-shooting, grazing, guided tours, and so forth.
But Bears Ears NM, as most of you know, is unique. Not only was its creation proposed by a coalition of five sovereign tribal nations, but those nations are now involved in the monument’s management. And in August the coalition also released its own management plan.
The plan provides an excellent rundown of how and why Bears Ears National Monument came to be, it summarizes the different tribes’ connections to the landscape, and it provides a framework for how the federal agencies and tribes can co-manage the monument. It’s an insightful and informative document, and I’d urge everyone who is interested in the national monument or Southeastern Utah in general to give it a read. I’ll leave you with a passage from the plan:
“… an effective land ethic cannot be developed, much less implemented, unless and until indigenous cosmologies, traditional ecological knowledge, and rights in the natural world are recognized and taken into account. Continued human existence is threatened by climate change including the mass extinction of animals and plants (humans’ relatives that share Earth Mother) brought about by the activities of colonization.”
Big Breakdown Ticker
The coal-fired San Juan Generating Station, located north of the San Juan River between Farmington and Shiprock, New Mexico, will shut down in the next few days, as efforts by an obscure New York equity fund to keep it running have fallen apart.
But the city of Farmington is not going to let the pollution stop without a fight.
The city announced last week that it was filing a legal complaint against the plant’s majority owner, Public Service Company of New Mexico, or PNM, to keep the utility from demolishing the plant or invalidating any environmental permits and to force the utility and the plant’s other owners to transfer full ownership to Farmington. Farmington would then give a bulk of its share to Enchant Energy, which would presumably keep the plant running as is until it can afford a $1.6 billion-plus carbon capture retrofit. Farmington’s press release was headlined: “Mayor and Council Go To Mat to Save Local Jobs at SJGS.”
Enchant’s and Farmington’s proposed scheme was a long-shot when it was proposed back in 2019 and it has been troubled ever since, as Enchant has missed its own deadlines, failed to obtain permits, financing, water rights, a contract for coal, or access to transmission lines. And then there’s an upcoming state rule limiting emissions from power plants to about half of what comes out of the plant’s stacks now, which would make it impossible for the plant to keep running past the end of this year without carbon capture, anyway. To top it all off, PNM says Farmington and Enchant have failed to meet the “threshold legal and financial requirements for a valid transfer proposal.” So they are going forward with retirement and decommissioning.
The San Juan coal mine, owned by Westmoreland, ceased operations earlier this month, and most of its workers were laid off.
It appears that Farmington has gotten itself into a bit of a pickle and now has a bit more at stake than just jobs. In its 2019 agreement with Enchant, the city agreed to pay up to $4 million of Enchant’s legal tab, to be reimbursed “when the CO2 capture equipment achieves commercial operation.” In other words, if the plan doesn’t pan out the Farmington taxpayers are out four million bucks. Whoops.
Utah’s most productive coal mine hasn’t produced much lately because it’s burning. A fire broke out in the underground mine last week, forcing the evacuation of all employees and halting work. Smoke continues to billow out of the hillside; coal seam fires are notoriously difficult to extinguish.
Oh, boy, here’s another great map for water use and crops! It’s called OpenET and it’s an amazing tool, showing the evapotranspiration rate of distinct parcels. Evapotranspiration is the combination of evaporation of water from the dirt and transpiration of water from plants. It serves as a proxy for consumptive water use. With OpenET you can zoom in on a field, see what crop is grown there, and get a modeled estimate of evapotranspiration for each month of a given year. The screen shot below shows the stretch of land between Cortez and Dove Creek, Colorado, during last year’s severe drought. And you can see land irrigated by Montezuma Valley Irrigation Company’s ditches—in darker blue signifying greater ET—which, since they have senior rights, were not shut off even as their neighbors lost all or most of their water for the season. And if you compare 2021 with wet 2019, you’ll see that the ET levels were far higher for 2019 even for the same crops, simply because they had more water available for evapotranspiring.
And then there’s the Audubon Bird Migration Explorer. Holy cowbirds, Batman! This thing is beautiful and awesome and, frankly, a bit overwhelming. It includes the migratory paths of more than 450 bird species. And it’s not just some vague arrow pointing across the country. This shows the actual paths as tracked by Doppler satellite technology or GPS. It’s chock full of cool information and will drive both map geeks and bird nerds wild. Check it out, but beware: You could lose yourself in that one for hours or even days.
So it’s been weeks since California’s solar- and wind-heavy grid did NOT collapse, despite a record-breaking heat wave and drought-diminished hydropower. But folks are still going on and on about how there was almost rolling blackouts and how hard it must have been to conserve power for a few hours to avoid them. The funny thing is, these same folks willfully ignore the scores of outages that happen every day that have nothing to do with renewables on the grid or with California energy policy. Segments of the electrical grid fail all the time, usually for rather mundane reasons. Take mylar balloons, those metallic things that have proliferated in recent decades and tend to end up out in the desert, caught up on a saguaro and visible from miles away. Well, they also cause power outages. Lots of them. Southern California Edison recorded 1,103 mylar-balloon-caused outages last year, including one that took out power to 70,000 customers; PG&E counted over 600. California lawmakers just passed a bill banning the sale of foil balloons within five years. It can’t come soon enough.
Chris Clarke has a great piece in his Letters to the Desert newsletter about attempts to save the Pahrump Valley in Nevada from being scraped for industrial-scale solar development. Well worth a read.
The Economic Innovation Group released an interesting map and report last month showing how some of the driest parts of the country are also experiencing the largest population gains. It’s not as surprising as it is baffling: You’d think people would avoid moving to a place that is sweltering hot in the middle of the night and that may lose the water needed to irrigate trees and vegetation that could cool things down slightly. But, no. I guess people just like sitting in air-conditioned rooms and avoiding the outdoors all day—and night—long. Check out the report for an interactive map showing population growth and drought status.
The Land Desk has had quite a few words about the need to rid the desert of thirsty turf grass lawns. They just require way too much water to keep alive and serve little purpose. But a new study finds what anyone who has lain in a grass lawn on a warm summer’s night and gazed at the stars knows: Grass cools things down and mitigates the urban heat island effect. Ripping it out and replacing it with concrete or pea gravel just makes the heat island hotter. A solution: Replace turf grass—or the mesic landscape—with a less water-intensive “oasis” landscape with trees for shade.
And, in the vicious climatic feedback loop department: High Country News’ Kylie Mohr reports on a study that finds snow in high-elevation wildfire scars is melting 18 to 24 days earlier than average, which affects water supplies downstream. Oh dear.
We’re Reading …
… A strong piece by Adam Sowards about the dueling Yellowstone National Park Act and the General Mining Law, both passed 150 years ago, and their influence over public land and role in colonization and dispossession of Indigenous lands.
And, finally: Dave Foreman, the original Earth First!er, has died. Right-wing politicians and pundits like to rail about “radical environmentalists.” Foreman actually lived up to the term, bringing Ed Abbey’s Monkey Wrench Gang’s fiction into reality. He wrote several books, started Earth First!, and advocated for rewilding the landscape. I bought a copy of his Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching back in high school, surely landing me on various FBI watch lists for life and ruining my chances of ever fulfilling my dream to work for the CIA. But damn did I enjoy the book. R.I.P. Dave.
I appreciate the info and insight in this newsletter as always. I have to disagree that the article in Letters to the Desert is a "great piece". Siting of renewable energy (and all infrastructure projects large and small) always has pros and cons, and are always worth discussing. Land/community impacts are real and need to be mitigated. My issue is with a few things the author writes: 1. He drives on gravel/dirt roads for 3 hours for fun. This creates tailpipe emissions, puts dust in the air, and creates hazard for insects/wildlife (my understanding the main concern with desert tortoise at solar power plants is that trucks drive over and kill them, not that the solar panels impact their life). For me this part of the article shows that a person advocating for the desert is creating many of the same problems that a solar power plant would 2. Part of the Pahrump Valley being a beautiful place for now appears to be the wild horse mentioned, although wild/feral horses are actually an invasive species and many botanists blame them for threatening native wildlife and ecosystems. 3. The burn on the Tesla window recall doesn't make logical sense to me. I realize that electric vehicles need minerals such as lithium that are mined in the desert, but the window issue is irrelevant to that. Even if EVs had plastic cranks to roll up the windows, the lithium would still be mined. Most modern cars to not have plastic cranks to roll up windows. Perhaps I'm missing something. 4. The author says solar panels are "delicate". I actually believe solar panels are very robust, the panels themselves don't have any moving parts, and actually last for decades (which brings up another point that they need to be properly recycled when they do reach end of life). In the same sentence the author says that solar panels are "pricey and inevitably obsolescent". Solar panels are expensive, but relative to other forms of generating electricity they are within the zone of financial reasonableness (and have less embodied energy, pollution, and lifecycle emissions). Regarding obsolescence, one of the best things about solar panels is that they use photons to create a commodity - electricity. Electricity is not going to be obsolete anytime soon, in fact most trends point to the opposite. Sure, solar panels from 10 years ago are smaller, cost more at the time, and generate less power per square foot than a solar panel manufactured today, but the commodity (electricity) they create is still as good as ever. Thanks for reading my rant. In the end I agree that there are many bad things about large scale utility solar that need to be weighed against the benefits. I also have a strong preference for distributed generation and rooftop solar over utility solar, but we need to keep perspective that there are tradeoffs for every form of energy, and every way we humans choose to live on and impact our planet.
Slightly different area & subject, but the picture alone on this link makes painfully clear what the "ranching industry" has accomplished on Pt.Reyes National Seashore. To me, its really difficult to imagine the thought process in continuing to allow this kind of destructive pollution - I honestly dont get why removing these "ranches" is so hard, since we (taxpayers?) already bought them out how many years ago?????