Mountain Town News: On 100th birthday, questions about the role of parks (column)
September 17, 2016
JACKSON, Wyo. – Even as the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service is celebrated from New York to California, there are questions about whether we need to rethink the role of national parks.
For the actual birthdate in late August, some 6,000 people showed up at Gardiner, Montana, the north gate to Yellowstone National Park. Among them, reports the Jackson Hole News&Guide, were several governors and the singers John Prine, Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell.
In Jackson Hole, Brad Mead recalled when Grand Teton National Park was created. Local ranchers, were very unhappy about the loss of grazing privileges at the base of the mountain chain, and they rode their horses in great anger to the national monument that had been declared by presidential order under the Antiquities Act.
"There was widespread animosity in Jackson Hole about what was seen as Franklin D. Roosevelt's high-handed approach to conservation," Mead writes in the News&Guide. "Fundamentally, (the ranchers) were well-intended — but wrong. If FDR was high-handed, the outcome forgives him."
In time, the cowboys accepted the federal designation.
"They saw private land gradually transition from agriculture to residential developments and wondered what the valley might look like if the park didn't exist. They watched local businesses struggle, then survive, then thrive with the commerce a national park brings. And they changed their minds," wrote Mead.
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One of those ranchers opposed to the park creation was his grandfather, Clifford Hansen, who later became governor of Wyoming, then a U.S. senator. Mead says his grandfather later in life freely admitted he was "dead wrong" about the park. "My guess is that most of those who rode with him that day eventually felt the same way," adds Mead.
But do we need to rethink the national parks? That question was pondered by Davis Gessner in a 7,000-word essay published in the summer issue of The American Scholar. He describes hiking up Yosemite's Half Dome with the crowds, "jostling and body-checking as if fighting my way onto a New York subway."
Yellowstone's wildlife traffic jams are fundamentally no different. "Driving through the park, I was reminded not of other times in wild nature but of the van Gogh exhibit I saw in New York, standing four deep in a mob of people, craning my neck in an attempt to glimpse something beautiful. The metaphor can be carried further, much further, because that is exactly what Yellowstone felt like to me that day: a museum. A museum that held works of beauty from long ago, curated for the curious and the many."
A group dubbed the ecomodernists think that parks have lost their purpose, he reports. "Yes, they are a good place to take selfies, but, really, what else?"
In Kentucky, Gessner had a conversation with Wendell Berry, the philosopher, writer and farmer. "Land use. I think the people who confront it are the relevant people today," Berry told him. "And the specialists — the preservationists and the literary specialists — are becoming less relevant."
The thinking here is that in a world that will soon hold nine billion people, we need new solutions, new alternatives. The idea "that we can simply put huge swaths of land aside is naive, and even when we do it, it has quickly become apparent that the land, far from being wild, must be managed. This becomes more pressing in the age of climate change, when habitats are shifting and leaving certain species stranded."
Gessner finally takes readers to Banff National Park. It's included in the idea of interconnected ecosystems called the Yellowstone to Yukon Initiative. To help provide the interconnectivity for wildlife, the Trans-Canada highway between Banff and Lake Louise is braided with wildlife overpasses, to allow animals freer movement. From Lake Louise you can also find more wildlife bridges over Highway 93 all the way to the outskirts of Phoenix.
Crowding is not really the issue, Gessner concludes. You can avoid the crowds by getting just a short distance away from the main attractions. The problem, he says, is that we're still not thinking big enough.
"My dream on this 100th anniversary is that if parks can grow and change, then on the 200th anniversary we can look back and think, yes, parks were America's best idea, and then we had a better one. We connected the islands of parks with ribbons of migration, with corridors of wildness."
Grizzlies keeping track of visitors
BANFF, Alberta – You may not see them, but grizzly bears are keeping track of you, according to a study conducted in the Kananaskis Country south of Banff. This is where the movie "The Revenant" was filmed.
The study by Cheryl Hojnowski, a Ph.D. student at University of California, Berkeley, found that bears seem to avoid people to reduce risks of a negative encounter.
"Maybe those adjustments that bears are making are part of the reason that they can survive and share this landscape with people," she told the Rocky Mountain Outlook.
"I think there's a philosophical question we can ask… are we creating the grizzly of the future in the frontcountry? Because if you're a bear in the frontcountry, then success for you probably depends on adjusting your behavior around people, being aware of people and being a bit wary of people."
The Outlook explains that Hojnowski's research accepts as a basic premise that the grizzlies she studied need to be in the frontcountry for a significant period of time in order to get berries and other food. Frontcountry here is defined as being within 500 meters (about a third of a mile) of a road, trail, campground or other human-use area.
A previous study found that adult grizzlies needed 69 percent of their home range secure from people to survive and reproduce. But some bears in Hojnowski's study seemed to do OK with less isolation.
"They've survived, they've showed up year after year, they're very tolerant, they're not aggressive to people, and they're even raising cubs," she said.
She found that the bears appeared to modify their behavior on trails in response to variations in human use over the course of the week. On roads, they might change their behavior based on the number of vehicles over the course of a day.
"It does speak to the fact that bears are employing some strategies in order to avoid people, and those strategies are nuanced," she told the Outlook.
Based on thousands of locations downloaded from GPS collars, Hojnowski found bears tended to spend more time by roads at night when there were fewer vehicles, but keep away during days, when more cars went by.
Record visitor numbers to Glacier and Jasper
JASPER, Alberta – National parks on both sides of the border have been seeing record numbers of visitors this year.
In Glacier National Park, located in Montana, visitation in August was up 27 percent compared to last year. It was the fourth consecutive monthly record, beginning in May.
In Jasper, the number of visitors was the highest in a decade, and the majority of hotels had a nightly occupancy of 85 to 100 percent.
Anniversaries are part of it. It's the 100th anniversary this year for parks in the United States and next year it will be the 100th for Parks Canada.
Cheap gas is also part of the story. Low oil prices have depressed the economy of Alberta and that of Canada altogether. As a result, right now it's very cheap to go to Canada for a vacation if you're an American. And for Canadians, it's cheaper to see the scenic wonder of home before high-tailing it south of the border.
The Jasper Fitzhugh says that all these visitors impose costs on the namesake town of 5,000 that is the central hub for activity in the park. It calls for provincial authorities to allow "financial tools," such as some, which resort municipalities have enjoyed since 2007 and most Colorado mountain towns for far, far longer. The "financial tool" enjoyed by Colorado ski towns is the sales tax that Breckenridge, Durango and other local jurisdictions commonly assess as a portion of total sales on lodging and goods.
First step in mine cleanup may have been hardest
SILVERTON, Colo. – In August 2015, a dam at the portal to a mine high in the San Juan Mountains, near the Silverton Ski Area, was mistakenly breached. A flood of orange water surging down through Silverton and into the Animas River, continuing on through Durango, gave the region what might be called an orange eye.
Today, there has been a silver lining to that orange flood, says a local official. The Gold King Mine and other mines above Silverton on Friday were designated as a Superfund site.
The Durango Herald reports that the mineral-rich project area includes 35 mines, seven tunnels, four tailings ponds and two study areas. The cleanup supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency is expected to take a decade or two.
Before they assented to the Superfund designation, local elected officials in Silverton toured EPA-supervised cleanups in the Colorado communities of Creede, Leadville, Minturn and Idaho Springs. They had long feared the stigma of Superfund designation.
'Don't worry about any stigma,' local officials told them. Get the mine problems fixed. Dean Brookie, a city councilor in Durango, believes the cleanup will increase tourism and the economy of the region.
"It's a long haul, but in this case, the first step might have been the most difficult one," said Bill Garner, the Silverton town manager.
Big step for resolution of Crested Butte mine
CRESTED BUTTE, Colo. – If still not a done deal, the deal that would remove the Damocles sword of molybdenum mining that has hung over Crested Butte since the 1970s is moving closer to adoption.
As explained by the Crested Butte News, the plan relies on a heavyweight mining company asking the U.S. Congress to permanently withdraw mining claims from nearby Mt. Emmons, known affectionately by locals at the Red Lady.
The mining company, FreePortMcMoran, operates two molybdenum mines in Colorado, at Henderson and Climax. FreePort bought a mining company that owned the mineral rights to 9,000 acres last winter but made it clear it had no intention of mining the mountain. It hopes to get out from under the cost paying for mining claims assessments.
. It would, however, still be required to pay for treatment of water from a long-abandoned mine called Keystone.
The other part of the deal is that Crested Butte would pay $2 million to the subsidiary of FreePortMcMoran that owns the mining rights. The town council will ask voters to approve the bond issue this fall? And if they don't approve? The town council could draw on future revenues form the town's real estate transfer tax, but existing town services likely would have to be pared back.
The News reports broad acclaim from community groups that were organized around opposition to the mining. Sue Navy, who had been around since the 1970s to oppose the mining plans, said: This has been a long time in coming. I know it's not over until it's over, but this looks great."
Town Planner Michael Yerman said the whole deal could be wrapped up this year—or it could drag on for several years. Much seems to matter on how quickly this goes through Congress.
In his editorial, editor Mark Reaman pondered how this resolution might affect Crested Butte. Like many a small town, it can be very friendly, but occasionally quarrelsome.
"To take the communal mind shift from a community fighting for its spiritual mountain against global mining interests to a community walking hand-in-hand with an international mining company to focus on mine-related remediation and improved water quality is huge."
He further wondered "will we go from jumping into immediate fighting stance on almost anything to cooperation in all aspects of community? Will the loss of a mining threat put the place into resort hyper-drive?"
"This is exciting stuff," he concluded.
How Rico can make a bit of money off its hot water
RICO, Colo. – You can, if you're in the mood, pull off the highway at Rico and ease your self into a comfortably warm pool of water along the Dolores River. This one-time mining town about a half-hour south of Telluride is one of Colorado's best geothermal hot spots.
But harnessing that warmth to make money is a difficult proposition, as the
Colorado School of Mines concluded. The water has few toxic elements and the temperatures range from 93 to 111 degrees.
The Cortez Journal reports the School of Mines team examined three development options. Most viable is a simple soaking tub or pool capable of holding 15 or 20 people. It could break even after 10 years if the hot springs charged the Colorado average of $17 per admission and got 38 customers paying customers daily throughout the year.
A greenhouse to grow lettuce in the chill days of December? A tougher proposition. A facility could generate 50,000 heads of lettuce per year. But even at $5 per head, there would be an annual loss of $70,778, because of the costs associated with developing the hot water.
Heating of buildings is worse yet. Hot water could save the owner of a 10,722-square-foot building $4,000 annually. But up-front costs would take 182.5 years to pay down.
Like at Crested Butte, a large body of so-so molybdenum ore is found near Rico. However, nothing much about the prospects of that mining prospect have been reported lately.
The frontier of battery storage and microgrids in our electrical system
Cost-effective energy storage by batteries or other devices has been described as the holy grail of the transition to renewables. On Tuesday evening in Denver, a company manager explained why.
Mat Elmore, managing director of Micogrid Energy, a solar firm, explained that utility-scale solar projects can deliver power at 2.9 cents per kilowatt hour. That's well below the cost of electricity generated from coal-fired power plants or natural gas-burning power plants. There's just one difference: the fossil fuels can be burned at night and when it's cloudy.
"Once you get storage on line things begin to change," he said at the forum sponsored by the Alliance for Sustainable Colorado.
In his remarks at the forum about grid stability and resilience in Colorado, Elmore predicted a relatively rapid development of energy storage. "Battery storage and energy storage as a whole is where PV (photovoltaic solar) was eight years ago. Very expensive," he said.
"A lot of the people didn't see the solar trend coming. When I was selling solar, it was five times more expensive than it is today."
In a March 2016 report, GreenTech Media predicted a 60 percent growth in energy storage from 2016 to 2020. But Elmore cautioned that figuring out where storage makes sense involves many factors. He drew attention to a chart prepared by the Rocky Mountain Institute.
"For customers, it doesn't make sense in the vast majority of cases to invest in storage yet," he said. "It's exciting, but it's also kind of bewildering, because you have to think of all these things," he added.
Utilities tend to be cautious, some say to the extreme. "As engineers, we're risk averse," noted Steve Johnson, of the Western Area Power Authority, which delivers power to utilities from dams on the Colorado River controlled from a headquarters in Montrose, Colo. "And we have a bunch of risk-averse regulators who don't want something like this on their resume," he said, referring to a system breakdown.
Xcel Energy is starting out small with two projects in Denver. The company, working in a partnership with Panasonic and the City of Denver, will be focusing on improving the interoperability of renewables with the electrical grid at a new campus along the commuter-rail to DIA. Battery storage is part of that microgrid.
The Panasonic microgrid will include a 1.3-megawatt alternating current canopy solar installation and a 1 megawatt-2 megawatt hour lithium battery storage system. As explained by Microgrid Knowledge, the batteries will serve the grid and provide back-up power for the building. Cost of the microgrid is estimated at $10.3 million, with the utility picking up $6.7 million of the cost and Panasonic the balance.
"Over time, there could be a business model, where we use the battery part of the time to manage some grid issues, like voltage issues, with solar to reduce some of the intermittency," explained Beth Chacon, director of grid storage & emerging technology for Xcel. "But we can also use the battery for energy arbitrage, storing power when it's cheap and then discharging it when it's worth more."
A whole range of interoperability issues will be researched at the Panasonic campus, she said.
Another Xcel project will be in the Stapleton residential neighborhood, where nearly 20 percent of all homes have solar. "The rule of thumb is that at about 30 percent, you will start to see some issues. "We want to see how batteries can help with some issues," she said.
Xcel's investment at that project has been reported to be $4 million.
Faster than many, Xcel has embraced renewables. In 2005 Xcel got 56 percent of its electricity from coal in its eight-state region. Just 3 percent of power came from wind, Chacon said. Last year, a 17 percent of power was generated by wind, while the share of coal-produced electricity had shrunk to 43 percent.
In 2003, when Xcel was first looking at renewables, it was inconceivable that the utility could get 20 percent of its electricity from renewables. "We would have thought it couldn't be done," she said.
Now, Xcel in Colorado is on track to easily meet its next target of 30 percent renewables ahead of the 2020 deadline. Beginning in 2009, the company also set out to test emerging technologies through a Innovative Clean Technology program. In 2012, the company and partners tested a 25-kilowatt battery system connected to a simulated four-home neighborhood, where all the houses have rooftop solar panels.
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