News Roundup for June 14

Fires, housing, wolves, tortoises, carbon capture collapse

It’s been a busy week on the Western lands and communities front, and the Land Desk news ticker has been going on overdrive. As I’m sure will be the case for the next few months, fires and drought and all the fallout dominate the headlines.

The Pack Creek Fire near Moab continues to rage, growing to more than 5,000 acres as it makes its way from the red rock-lined valleys to the slopes of the La Sal Mountains. It’s one of a number of fires burning in Utah right now, most of which are sending their smoke eastward to Colorado. Ash is raining down on Grand Junction, even as the temperature is forecast to hit 107 F degrees this week. Ouch.

The fires, smoke, and unbearable heat comprise the backdrop for what promises to be the busiest season ever for public lands recreation in the very areas that are getting scorched. Memorial Day weekend is always a busy one for the great outdoors, but this one was a doozie: Some 34,000 people converged on Yellowstone National Park over the weekend, a 50 percent increase from 2019. A quick glance at visitation stats for the national parks for the first four months of the year—the slow season—gives us a glimpse of what to expect everywhere else.

In the Before Times one would have expected the Pack Creek Fire to seriously dampen Moab’s tourism industry for a good part of the summer. The heat settling all over the rest of Canyon Country would have also given the sandstone and sagebrush a bit of relief from humanity, as well. But now fires are burning all over and their smoke blankets most of the region. So it raises the question: Will tourists decide that recreating on public lands in the summer is no fun and go off and do other, inside, air-conditioned activities, instead?

And what of all those Zoom Boomers and the super-rich who are snatching up properties across the region and driving housing costs into the stratosphere? It’s gotta be a bit of a buzzkill to fork out a half-million (or 20 times that) for a high-country refuge only to have ash snow down on you from an apocalyptic sky, the air so thick with smoke that you can’t ride your mountain bike, and the rivers’ flow so meagre that even paddleboarding isn’t an option.

So far, however, aridification and all of its side effects have done little to dampen the real estate rush and the housing crisis continues. As expected, rental rates have shot up alongside home sale prices.

That, in turn, is making it virtually impossible for people of normal means to move to a place to work. I’ve heard numerous tales of folks who get great jobs somewhere but are unable to take them because housing is not available or is out of reach. That, in turn, is exacerbating the workforce shortage. Some businesses have been forced to pay a living wage—McDonalds in Moab reportedly is paying $18 an hour. The problem is, even that’s not really enough.

The Town of Crested Butte, Colorado, has declared a housing emergency and has purchased an inn that they’re converting into workforce housing—for six people. It’s certainly helpful, but it needs to be duplicated en masse for it to have any real effect.

And in some places, such as Gallup, New Mexico, the crisis goes much deeper, as Ed Williams reveals in this powerful story from Searchlight New Mexico. There—where housing was a serious struggle prior to the pandemic—people are getting evicted in droves because they can’t afford rent.

It’s baffling, heartbreaking, and enraging to flip from one story about people crowding into substandard housing and debating whether to eat or pay the rent—forget about health care—while at the same time not far away others are buying up second, third, and fourth homes for $40 million. And then you read this:

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In more uplifting news: The wolves are back! In Colorado, that is. Last week officials from Colorado Parks and Wildlife announced that they had observed three pups from two wolves who had migrated into the state. Wolves once roamed across the state and the rest of the Interior West, but the white settlers and livestock interests launched a wholesale slaughter on the animals. This litter of pups is confirmation that they have finally returned.

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BIG BREAKDOWN TICKER

A convoluted bid to keep a coal-fired power plant in New Mexico running past its 2022 retirement date appears to be crumbling. Enchant Energy, with the cooperation of the City of Farmington, wants to take over the San Juan Generating Station next year, install carbon capture equipment, and sell the carbon to oil producers. The plan’s feasibility—both technical and economic—has always been iffy given that the plant is not currently economical. Add $2 billion in carbon capture equipment and it looks more questionable.

Having failed to meet a number of its own benchmarks, the company has admitted that it won’t be able to have the carbon capture equipment up and running anytime soon. So, they’ll just keep running the plant and spewing carbon—and all kinds of other harmful pollutants—for years to come, while they look for billions of dollars in subsidies from the federal government.

Despite all the troubles, Farmington officials are still backing the scheme—and footing a good chunk of the legal bills for Enchant.

Read the Land Desk deep-dive in Carbon Convolution Part I and Part II.

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Way back in January we wrote about the Trump administration’s approval of a proposed highway through desert tortoise habitat in southwestern Utah. Now a coalition of environmental groups has filed a lawsuit to overturn that decision.

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That’s it for now. Catch y’all on Wednesday. And in the meantime, stay safe. Heat like this can be a killer.