BLM moves away from landmark Northwest Forest Plan

This piece appeared in the July 26, 2016 print edition of High Country News.

Crunching across a brushy, logged-over slope near Corvallis, Oregon, Reed Wilson points his trekking pole at an ancient Douglas fir in a neighboring patch of forest. The tree is more than an armspan in diameter, its toes decorated with saprophytic orchids and millipedes.

One of 117 behemoths among these otherwise young stands, this tree and 38 others also wear necklaces of pink tape. Tree-climbing citizen surveyors left them to mark the presence of red tree vole nests, explains Wilson, a gray-haired local jeweler and activist. The tiny rodents devour conifer needles and use the hair-like resin ducts to build pillowy abodes in the trees’ branches. Most vole business takes place high in the canopy — interlaced limbs offering access to other trees, food, mates and new homes. The vole is also favored prey for the threatened northern spotted owl, and its population here in the low-slung northern Coast Range is a candidate for endangered species protection.

The federal government set aside this area as part of a 10-million-acre network of reserves in western Oregon, Washington and Northern California, largely to protect species like spotted owls and voles whose old-growth habitat was being destroyed by logging. In 2009, though, the Bureau of Land Management proposed a commercial project to thin younger trees here, ostensibly to restore more diverse forest structure. And though the Benton Forest Coalition, to which Wilson belongs, and two other environmental groups forced the agency to leave intact forest around most of the vole trees, several stand alone amid logging slash, their tiny tenants marooned and more vulnerable to predation. “This was native forest,” regenerating from a 1931 wildfire, Wilson says. “It hadn’t been logged before.” More…

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Meet the group that’s turning artists into nature’s advocates

This piece appeared in the print edition of High Country News June 27, 2016.

Hard rain has driven the small crew down from their camp at an alpine lake to a roadside national forest picnic area. The spot’s pleasant, even under a late-May storm: Oregon’s Clackamas and Collawash rivers meet here, and conifers and the fluorescent whorls of horsetails overhang the clear green water. Amy Harwood — all in black with an Army-drab beanie and a long braid over one shoulder — crouches by a metal fire pit, knifing kindling from a wedge of wood. Four others, all artists, stand around her. Despite sweaters and jackets, everyone looks chilled.

“Are there rippling muscles in there yet?” asks Harwood’s partner, Ryan Pierce, pointing at my notebook. The flames falter in the wet ash. Harwood blows them back to life as Pierce narrates my hypothetical story: “ ‘It seemed like fire sprouted from their fingers … or from their rippling muscles,’ ” he says gravely. “ ‘Julie made a bird call and we were suddenly surrounded by finches.'”

It makes for an unusual staff meeting, but then this is an unusual group. Signal Fire, which Pierce and Harwood co-founded, runs public-lands-based backcountry trips and residencies for artists and art students. More…

Oregon oil train explosion fuels growing opposition movement

This web exclusive appeared online at hcn.org on June 8, 2016.

Tucked against the steep forests and cliffs of the Columbia River Gorge on Oregon’s northern border, the town of Mosier is a modest collection of wooden homes and narrow streets that climb through oaks and droop-topped Douglas fir. From Mosier’s heart, the vast Columbia itself is invisible beyond a screen of trees, Interstate 84, and an increasingly crowded set of railroad tracks. It’s surprisingly quiet here on a sweltering Sunday in June. Though the population is just shy of 450, “town’s usually very busy,” resident Sandra Parksion tells me from a camp chair in the shade, where she sits beside her adult grandson, Adrian Stranz. “There are a lot of bicyclists. Hikers. Joggers. You name it. (Now) you don’t see anybody wandering around. You don’t hear kids hollering and playing.”

There’s also no wind this weekend, a notable absence in the Gorge, where the bluster often clocks in around 25 to 35 miles per hour. And that, some residents and local officials speculate, may be the only reason why Mosier’s still standing.

Around noon the previous Friday, part of a Union Pacific train carrying 96 tanker cars of highly volatile Bakken crude oil derailed just below Mosier’s I-84 exit overpass, 16 cars folding together in a great clanking din. Four exploded into a blaze that shot flames up to 50 feet in the air and smeared the sky with greasy, black smoke that was visible for miles. More…

West Coast cities sue Monsanto to pay for chemical cleanup

This piece appeared in the print edition of High Country News May 16, 2016.

Portland, Oregon’s Willamette is no wilderness river. But on a spring day, downstream of downtown, wildness peeks through. Thick forest rises beyond a tank farm on the west bank. A sea lion thrashes to the surface, wrestling a salmon. And as Travis Williams, executive director of the nonprofit Willamette Riverkeeper, steers our canoe under a train bridge — dodging debris tossed by jackhammering workers — ospreys wing into view.

The 10-mile reach, known as Portland Harbor, became a Superfund Site in 2000. Over the last century, ships were built and decommissioned here, chemicals and pesticides manufactured, petroleum spilled, and sewage and slaughterhouse waste allowed to flow. Pollution has decreased, but toxic chemicals linger in sediments. Resident fish like bass and carp are so contaminated that riverside signs warn people against eating them, though some do. And osprey can’t read warnings, so they accumulate chemicals, which can thin eggshells and harm chicks.

Among the worst are polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Used in electrical transformers, coolants, caulk, paints and other products, these probable carcinogens were banned in 1979 for their toxicity, persistence and the ease with which they escaped into the environment. Even so, they continued entering waterways through storm drains here and elsewhere.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s remediation plan for Portland Harbor’s PCBs and other pollutants, expected in May, will cost between $790 million and $2.5 billion. The city of Portland, one of 150 “potentially responsible parties” on the hook for a percentage, has already spent $62 million on studies and reports. So on March 16, the city council decided to join six other West Coast cities in suing agribusiness giant Monsanto to recoup some past and future cleanup costs. San Diego filed in 2015, and San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, Spokane and Seattle followed. More…

Klamath will be the biggest dam removal project in history

This story appeared on NationalGeographic.com on April 11, 2016.

Glen Canyon Dam began its life with an explosion. Congress authorized the dam’s construction on this day in 1956, and about seven months later, then-president Dwight D. Eisenhower pressed a telegraph key in the Oval Office, sending the signal to blast a string of dynamite wedged in the side of a sinuous canyon. Boulders sprayed through the air at Arizona’s northern border, and workers began drilling a tunnel to temporarily redirect the flow of the Colorado River while they built the base of the dam.

Monstrous Lake Powell filled in behind the 710-foot dam, drowning Glen Canyon’s otherworldly red-rock amphitheaters and slot canyons under its silty depths.

These days, when dams in the U.S. make news, it’s often concrete getting blasted, not bedrock. And last week, the biggest dam-removal project in history got a crucial endorsement.

Federal officials, the states of Oregon and California, and the utility PacifiCorp signed a pair of agreements opening the way for removal of a whopping four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River, which flows from Oregon through Northern California. More…

 

New map shows rise in human-caused earthquake risk

This piece appeared on nationalgeographic.com on March 28, 2016:

Most people associate Oklahoma with weather-related disasters: tornado outbreaks, massive wildfiresLawrence of Arabia-style dust stormstumbleweed maelstroms. But thanks to oil and gas wastewater injected deep into the ground, parts of the state can now also claim the dubious distinction of being among the most likely places in the United States to experience a damaging earthquake in 2016.

On Monday, the U.S. Geological Survey unveiled an earthquake hazard forecast for the central and eastern parts of the country that for the first time includes human-caused quakes, referred to in technical parlance as “induced seismicity.” The report suggests that seven million people in parts of Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Arkansas face increased risks from human-induced earthquakes in the next year.

The risks appear most widespread and significant in north-central Oklahoma and a tiny sliver of southern Kansas, where a large area has a 5 to 12 percent chance per year of an earthquake that can cause buildings to crack and, in rare cases, collapse. That’s comparable to risks in parts of more seismically famous California, USGS scientists said at a press conference on Monday. More…

What a dead blue whale can teach us about the ocean — and ourselves

This article appeared on Smithsonianmag.com Nov. 18, 2015:

Standing on the blustery beach, Bruce Mate wears a camo slicker, green bibs, a tidy white beard and a somber expression. While Mate’s getup suggests a typical day in the field for a marine mammalogist, the box of latex gloves and bottle of chainsaw lubricating oil under his arm hint at this morning’s unusual task.

The behemoth corpse stranded here the previous Monday, November 2. As far as Mate knows, it’s the first recorded case of a blue whale washing up on the Oregon coast. The creatures are rare; perhaps 2,500 ply the eastern north Pacific, making up between 10 and 25 percent of the global population.

Because blue whales range over vast distances, they tend to sink far from shore when they die, seeding and sustaining a diverse ecosystem of creatures on the seafloor. For a carcass to drift within reach of human experts is the scientific equivalent of that bonanza, known as whale fall. A day after the stranding, Mate, who directs OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute in Newport, and OSU stranding coordinator Jim Rice were on scene with a mission: Extract the giant skeleton for public display. More…