The Pacific Exchange - Road to my PhD

Tag Archives

2 Articles

Outdoor recreation = conservation???

by Carina W 0 Comments
Outdoor recreation = conservation???

Former CEO of REI to head up the Department of the Interior

Do I even know who the head of the Australian Department of the Environment is? I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that don’t think I do. So, I probably should but I wouldn’t expect many of my friends to know, nor would I expect BMA (Canberra free press) to have an article about a new appointee. The Missoula Independent this week has a one-page opinion piece about Obama’s new woman at the top of DOI. I just don’t think that departmental heads make that kind of street press in Australia. Maybe in the ‘Public Servant’ the section of the Canberra Times that my parents and in-laws read but not the local street press that advertises hair salons to hipsters.

One thing I’ve noticed around here is the high level of awareness about the ins and outs of land management in the local community. Probably a reflection of the section of the community I’ve encountered but it is also a product of how ever-present land management issues are here in the West. You just don’t get such a high percentage of the population engaged in land management in a capital city.

Anyway, back Sally Jewell, the new head of Department of Interior. DOI is ‘the Department of Everything Else’, including most of the land management departments. It is charge of energy policy, regulating energy development on federal lands, permanent preservation of federal land, endangered species, mining and mineral exploration.

Jewell isn’t the first woman, so while the fact that she is a she is interesting, the most interesting thing about Sally Jewell is her background. This job usual goes to a political actor from somewhere in the West, this time Obama has backed a woman with a business background. Described by the president of the Natural Resources Defence Council as having the “mind of an engineer, heart of environmentalist and the know-how of a businesswoman.” Jewell started as engineer with Mobil, then worked in financial management before becoming the CEO of REI. Under Jewell’s leadership REI has grown to be one of the largest and most successful of the emerging green businesses in the US.

Jewell’s background in energy and outdoor recreation speaks volumes to the current focus dominating the management of public land: preservation for the enjoyment of all or exploitation for their finite mineral resources. With those on the mining side hoping that her roots in petroleum engineering will favour their endeavours and the outdoor rec crowd seeing her through a similar ‘eye of the beholder’ lens: “this time the pick is one of us.”

While you could read into Obama’s mentioning of climate change in the recent state of the union and inauguration to hope that maybe something will be done, with a continued focus on expanding energy production I’m not holding my breath.

What I find interesting about the media reporting of Jewell’s credentials is that her experience in green business makes her a conservationist. She is a self-proclaimed supporter of environmental sustainability as long as it is economically viable. Whether Obama means to do this or not, the discussion sparked around Jewell is pointing towards the reframing of environmentalism not having to cost jobs. Jewell herself apparently introduced Obama at a conference on ‘America’s Great Outdoors’ (an Obama initiative that draws explicit links between conservation and recreation) pointing to the number of jobs that the outdoor industry provides.

It just bothers me a little that conservation is now equated with climate change policy, business and outdoor recreation. This narrow frame misses so much, but then maybe this is what it takes to

‘engage the mainstream’

I don’t normally bother with the ‘is green growth an oxymoron’ debates – ofcourse it is, but do we have any other choice? Just look at how successful the Limits to Growth crowd were… The debate is boring, maybe we need to be a little more realistic and get on with working within the current political climate? I guess maybe a company like REI is doing that. It is America’s 27th largest co-op, it supports local conservation initiatives and has made progress towards reducing their footprint. But still… it is a big company that sells stuff. Our continually accumulation of stuff is part of the problem.

So we maybe we can’t have it all? We are going to have to compromise on the hardline agenda. But environmentalists have traditionally been bad at compromise.

With her history in both camps and leadership of a co-operative maybe Sally Jewell is exactly the person to guide DOI through this new era of collaborative conservation. Or maybe she is going to be viewed by both sides as a sell out. I don’t envy her, but I look forward to seeing what comes of her leadership.

Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

by Carina W 0 Comments
Ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions

Welcome to Grand County, Colorado. The mountain playground and giant water reservoir for Front Rangers (the sprawling metropolis of Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs). Home to Winter Park Ski Resort, Rocky Mountain National Park, three lakes, six designated wilderness areas and just over 14 thousand people. It is also happens to be the headwaters of the Colorado River. Historian Robert C. Black called this place the ‘island in the rockies’ because the only way in is over a major mountain pass.

I’m not entirely sure what I did right to land this case study. But here I am, trying to understand how the communities in this valley experience and respond to landscape change.

The eastern border of the county is the Continental Divide and to the west, the main highway passes through Byers Canyon – that cuts of the ‘New West’ from the ‘Old West’: recreation, amenity migrants and retirees from ranching, mining and forestry. There are four major towns here, Winter Park/Fraser, a reasonably typical ski resort/mountain town, Granby, the service town, Grand Lake, gateway to Rocky Mountain National Park, and Kremmling, an old ranching/forestry town which kind of still feels like the Old West. The village of Tabernash is my new temporary home. It has a post office, a flower shop, Snooty Coyote Liquor, an upmarket restaurant and an eclectic set of old buildings, log cabins and second homes.

The permanent population of Tabernash is small – around 400 people – although you wouldn’t know that from the number of houses around. I’ve heard a range of different figures but between 60-70% of the houses in the county are second homes. Winter Park takes the cake, with only 17% of the houses having permanent occupants.

Grand County is the’’high amenity’ recreation and tourism case study in our project. It is a large county, covering some 1,869 square miles, however we’re focused on the eastern side, where tourism – ski and snowmobilie tourism in winter and hiking, biking and off-road vehicle trails, fishing, rafting and golf in summer – dominates the economy. Like many other counties in the West, around 70% of Grand County is in public land – Forest Service, Bureau  of Land Management and National Park. And, like much of the West, these public lands that previously supported extractive industries – mining, ranching and forestry – are now playgrounds for the county’s tourist economy. These features make Grand a ‘archetypal case study’ – sharing many similarities with other recreation communities in the Interior West.

But there are two other factors that brought us to Grand. Beetles and Water.

First, the beetles. About ten years ago, Grand County was the ‘epicentre’ of a mountain pine beetle epidemic. The beetle is a native to this landscape, so while there have been beetle outbreaks in the past, many say that climate change and the drought have made this most recent outbreak worse. The beetles lay their eggs under the bark of the tree and in this process inject the tree with a blue fungus to protect the eggs. Problem is, the fungus also kills the trees. Their numbers use to be controlled by strings of really cold days/weeks that they could not survive – and if there is one thing I’ve learnt from Grand County residents – those cold spells are less and less common. Without this natural population control, the population boomed and has killed millions of acres of trees across the Northern Rockies from Colorado up to British Columbia.

Insect infestations fall into the category of complex problems that cannot be addressed by individuals alone. Collaborations like the Colorado Bark Beetle Cooperative emerged to bring together land management agencies, local governments, the ski resorts, chambers of commerce together across Northern Colorado to address the problem. Landscape change transcends the boundaries of public and private land, conservation or production. We might care if it is a national park or a national forest, the beetles don’t know the difference. Whether it is beetles, fires, floods or droughts, managing the landscapes of the future will require this kind of collective effort so we’re interested in finding out whether or not the beetle outbreak built some capacity in the local communities to deal any future challenges they face.

Nobody questions the fact that water shortages are the challenge of the future for Colorado.

The water that flows through the Fraser and Colorado rivers are the life of this county. Every tourist activity here is tied to that water, ranching can not exist without it, and neither can the Front Range. Land and water rights are  separated in Colorado water, enabling forward thinking towns from the plains to buy up the water rights to what was then an isolated mountain community with a very low population. Following three major diversion projects, first of which was put in in 1904, there has been a 73% reduction in the average annual flows through the basin. 73% and a proposal has just gone through to up that to 82%.

Unsurprisingly, the people of Grand County are not very happy.

Like the beetles, a cross-jurisdictional collaboration has emerged to negotiate a path through the difficult issues of managing water between the communities living on the east and western slope of the continental divide. The Colorado River Cooperative Agreement is too complex for the bottom of an already long post so I’ll leave it for now. The critical point for the story is that there is very little the West slope communities can do about the water diversions so the communities on both sides of the divide are going to have to learn to share Colorado’s water resources. And if the models, predictions and droughts over the past 10 years are anything to go by, there will be less and less to go around.

So, it is because of the ski resorts, insect infestations and water diversions that I ended up in one of the most beautiful counties in Colorado.