Hot times usher in early Northwest wildfire season

This web exclusive appeared July 10, 2015 on

Portland, Oregon, has been hot lately. The kind of past-95 degrees hot that glues your clothes to your skin, with multi-day “Excessive Heat Warnings” following on each other’s heels. Several Northwestern communities broke all time heat records late last month and temperatures across the region hovered 10 to 15 degrees above average. A weather map was so garish with red, pink and yellow that one TV meteorologist compared it to a Grateful Dead T-shirt.

So when the long Fourth of July weekend rolled around, some friends and I sought relief in a basin of cold blue lakes high in Washington’s central Cascades. The heat’s signature was everywhere along the Columbia River as we set out on Thursday evening. The grassy hills stepping back from the Gorge’s basalt cliffs were scorched nearly white. As we came around a bend in Highway 97, we saw that they were scorched black as well, where the bright fingers of a grassfire picked their way up through a forest of wind turbines. It took an hour to detour around the blaze. When we finally turned back onto northbound 97, we broke through an endless line of stopped cars and semis awaiting clearance to head south — their headlights stretching across the darkness like a line of flame themselves.

The Junction Fire — which had consumed 2,100 acres by Friday — was one of 1,425 fires that have started in Oregon and Washington so far this season, about double the average for this time of year, says John Saltenberger, fire weather program manager at the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center. “We’re already seeing fire index values (based on heat, humidity, wind and precipitation) you’d typically see in late August.” More…

The sage grouse two-step: Massive federal sage grouse conservation plans strike a delicate balance.

This piece appeared in the June 22, 2015 print edition of High Country News:

Northern spotted owls are white-and-brown tree dwellers with sprays of feathers between their eyes. Greater sage grouse are football-sized ground-strutters, whose males flaunt yellow chest sacs during mating season. The owls nest in drippy old-growth Northwest forests; the sage grouse, beneath the dry, silvery fronds of their namesake shrub. When spotted owls were blamed for shutting down the Northwest’s timber industry in the ’80s and ’90s, bumper stickers appeared with slogans like “I love spotted owls … fried.” And though people actually eat sage grouse, their notoriously bitter taste has perhaps kept them off the tongue-in-cheek menu.

The two birds couldn’t be more different, but they’re often compared because their declines catalyzed massive, controversial federal interventions. A few years after the owl was listed under the Endangered Species Act, the Clinton administration hammered out the nation’s first-ever landscape-scale attempt to manage for ecosystem health. Crafted in a mere 90 days under intense pressure to end years-long wars over logging’s environmental toll, the Northwest Forest Plan sought to balance the industry with habitat protections across 24 million federal acres. But timber harvests proved much lower than promised, leaving local communities reeling and making the spotted owl a magnet for ESA bashers.

Critics will have an even better target if the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the grouse this year: The bird shares its vast range with powerful industries like oil and gas. To avoid a listing, in late May Interior Secretary Sally Jewell unveiled 14 plans that protect 66 million acres of grouse habitat on Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service lands across 10 states. Unlike the Northwest Forest Plan, though, the sage grouse process has been collaborative from the get-go. The resulting strategy walks a political tightrope, building on states’ existing efforts to conserve the bird, while imposing the consistent, range-wide safeguards needed to convince Fish and Wildlife that additional protections are unnecessary.

“We’re trying to put together something that works for the bird and provides flexibility for sustainable economic development,” says Jim Lyons, Interior’s deputy assistant secretary for lands and minerals, who has helped coordinate the planning since 2013 and did the same for the Northwest Forest Plan. But if things skew too far in either direction, the whole endeavor may collapse. More…

Utah vastly overstating future water shortages

This web exclusive appeared May 7, 2015, on

Utah’s Division of Water Resources has painted a bleak picture for the state’s hydrological future. Even if water use is cut through conservation, officials project that demand will outstrip available supplies by 2040, as the population nearly doubles to 6 million people by 2060. A whopping $33 billion in upgrades, maintenance of existing water systems and development of new supplies will be needed to make up the shortfall.

Set against a backdrop of a few difficult drought years, reservoirs dropping and some communities overpumping aquifers, the scenario can seem a pretty compelling argument for two massive and controversial water projects that the state wants to build: A 6-foot-diameter, 140-mile-long pipeline that would allow Utah to draw its remaining share of Colorado River water from Lake Powell and pump it to Kane and Washington Counties; and a new dam on the Bear River system, which feeds into the Great Salt Lake, that would supply 220,000 acre-feet of water to surrounding communities.

Trouble is, that scenario may be flat wrong, or at the very least overstated. More…

For rural Oregonians, protections from herbicides come up short

This web exclusive appeared on April 28, 2015:

In October of 2013, a helicopter sprayed a cocktail of herbicides over four clearcuts in a valley north of Gold Beach, Oregon, a coastal community at the mouth of the Rogue River. Logging companies rely on the practice to keep weeds and shrubs from outcompeting tree seedlings. The chemicals, though – including 2,4-D, an ingredient in Agent Orange – spread beyond their intended targets. As Rebecca Clarren reported in a cover story for High Country News last November, 35 nearby residents fell ill on the same day, reporting diarrhea, rashes, nosebleeds, bleeding lungs, and sickened animals.

Complaints about pesticide drift are nothing new in Oregon communities abutting private timber lands, where the spraying occurs; the state’s rules governing the practice are the weakest on the West Coast. But the high profile Gold Beach incident added urgency to rural residents’ and environmentalists’ calls for reform. More…

Scientists document mega Oregon-Nevada pronghorn migration

This web-exclusive appeared on April 14, 2015:

A helicopter hovered low over a flat, sagebrush expanse as a pronghorn gracefully bounded across the dusty earth ahead. A crewmember aimed a cannon-like device and fired a net. The pronghorn snagged beneath it and the copter landed, disgorging a handful of people who raced to untangle it. The researchers gently fitted the creature with a blindfold, then a lightweight GPS collar. They took blood to scan for disease and hair for genetic testing. In less than 10 minutes, the doe was free again – North America’s fastest land mammal flying across the high desert on her narrow legs. More…

An outsider’s guide to insider Portland: Dispatch from a dryland alien in the rainy Northwest.

This story appeared in the April 13, 2015 issue of High Country News:

IMG_9835Ever since pilot Kenneth Arnold reported saucer-shaped objects flying near Mount Rainier in 1947, spawning the term “flying saucer,” the Northwest has drawn extraterrestrial tourists. Last year, Oregon led the nation in per capita UFO sightings, many of them in Portland. But the typical alien sojourn appears to be a mere flyby, sans a single visit to a vegan strip club. Perhaps, like tattoo-less Midwestern tourists in ill-fitting pants, they feel out of place here.

As a recent transplant from rural Colorado, I can relate. What we aliens need, I figure, is an outsiders’ guide to insider Portland. So, on a rainy Saturday, I don a silver onesie and homemade alien mask, and set out by bike to concoct one. More…

Land-based foods won’t float polar bears through ice declines

This web exclusive appeared on April 1, 2015:

The polar bear is the most carnivorous and gigantic of the ursids. No grizzly documented in Yellowstone has weighed more than 900 pounds. The largest male polar bears? In excess of 1,700 pounds. No wonder United States Geological Survey wildlife biologist Karyn Rode describes collecting samples and measurements from tranquilized polar bears as “surreal.” And yet, it wasn’t the bears per se that most captured her imagination when she arrived on the southern Beaufort Sea by helicopter in 2007 for her first field season. It was the fact that they manage to eke out their existence on such a vast, featureless white expanse of ice, floating on the ocean. “I was like: ‘Seriously, you live here? How do you figure it out?’ ” she recalls now. “It’s just phenomenal.” More…

Governor Kitzhaber’s fall from grace

This piece originally appeared in the Mar. 16, 2015 issue of High Country News:

In February, on an especially strange Friday the 13th, Oregon Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber announced his resignation. Over the past several months, Willamette Week, The Oregonian and other media outlets had revealed that clean energy consultant Cylvia Hayes — Kitzhaber’s fiancée and energy policy advisor — may have violated ethics and public corruption laws by using her access to Kitzhaber’s office for personal financial gain, possibly with his knowledge and participation. Since 2011, Hayes had reportedly landed at least $213,000 in consulting contracts with groups working to advance the same causes on which she advised him.

“I have become a liability to the very institutions and policies to which I have dedicated my career,” Kitzhaber conceded in a quavering voice. The state House speaker and Senate president, both fellow Democrats, had joined The Oregonian in calling for him to step down. Kitzhaber finally did so but remained defiant, denying wrongdoing and aiming a barb at his accusers and former allies, charging that he had been “tried, convicted and sentenced by the media with no due process.” More…

Glass half full?

This editor’s note, for the feature “Unite and conquer,” appeared in the Mar. 2, 2015 issue of High Country News:

On Jan. 1, I joined 15 friends on a raft trip down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. That morning, our boats were covered in snow; the canyon’s red cliffs, capped with white, looked like giant slabs of frosted carrot cake. The ranger said locals had never seen the place so wintry.

So we were delighted to return to Colorado — thousands of feet higher, where the river’s Rocky Mountain headwaters lie — and find no sign of winter. “Mountain biking in a tank top. Suck it, New England,” one of our trip leaders crowed from Durango on Facebook as a blizzard battered the East Coast.

But as the endless warm days slushed snow into mud and turned mud into hardpan, a growing alarm replaced our lizard-like impulse to bask. Between Jan. 25 and Feb. 8, 174 Colorado communities met or broke high temperature records. A few on the state’s eastern plains even neared or surpassed 80 degrees Fahrenheit. More…

Fish and Wildlife whistleblower retaliation case raises questions

This web exclusive appeared on March 8, 2015:

Gary Mowad enjoyed a 25-year career at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mostly, that was in law enforcement, working as a special agent posted in places like Colorado and Alaska, and later, as deputy chief in DC. At the end, he served for a couple years as the agency’s top administrator and head biologist in Texas. Nearly everyone who worked with him seemed to hold him in high regard. And yet, by February, 2013, he appears to have essentially been forced into retirement by his superiors for reporting what he construed to be scientific misconduct and political interference with an endangered species listing. The whistleblower retaliation case, which the government settled last fall, raises alarming questions about Fish and Wildlife’s handling of such complaints, as well as how much politics influence the agency’s science. More…