Friday, December 16, 2016

Fire research close to home

A very interesting study was done right here in Colorado by students from the school of Mines. They looked into the Clear Creek Watershed and how it is affected by wildfires. Specifically they focused the study on the Golden Water Treatment Plant. Within their study they used GIS software to analyze which areas are most susceptible to floods and erosion. Then they also used GIS to determine which areas out of the most susceptible would be the most prone to wildfires based on vegetation and aspect and slopes. Studies such as this one are extremely helpful and can be applied to other areas to figure out just how fires area affecting our water systems and therefore affects us directly. I think there should be more funding applied to encourage more studies like this one to be implemented. If we can gain more knowledge on areas that will be more prone to fires we can also put more effort into fire prevention in those areas and hopefully keep fires from happening altogether. Research is the way that we can gain a upper hand and figure out how to make fire work in our favor rather than against us.

My Encounter With Stephen Pyne

Throughout my research I stumbled upon a book by Stephen J. Pyne called, Fire on the Rim: A Firefighter’s Season at the Grand Canyon. This book encompasses 15 seasons of fire experience compiled into one summer. Pyne reflects on his experiences as a wildland firefighter and even occasionally challenges the Park Service that he was employed by. This book is not just some boring reiteration of wildfires that leaves you falling asleep and putting the book away never to open it again. It draws you in and keeps you turning pages, refusing to put the book down until you reach the end of the current adventure only to find the last page and that you’ve finished the book. I promise that if you read this book you will not regret the experience. Each reflection and story pulls you in to a point that you feel like you are right there on the front lines staring down the hot flames with a shovel in hand. I learned from Pyne that these treacherous events have an element of beauty to them and that element is a sense of kinship that is built through personal relationships. I have been fortunate enough to have had some wildland firefighting experiences of my own and I have found that these firefighters are more than rugged, unbathed, harsh individuals, they are kind, funny and I have no doubt that these people that I have just met would lay their lives on the line in order to help each other. So while fire is so dangerous and devastating, it also has a way of creating some very beautiful things that flourish in its absence.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Colorado's Ever Growing Fires

How is Colorado suffering from fire? As many of you know, the fires around Colorado seem to be getting bigger and bigger. For many homeowners that is a terrifying thing as the wildfires are building in intensity and claiming more and more of our beautiful state. But why is this happening? In the past we have let our fear take over and we have spent enormous amounts of money, resources and even the lives of brave individuals to save homes. In these frantic efforts to protect the things we hold dear to our hearts, we have created more of a problem. Through fire suppression we have stopped a natural occurrence that historically would thin the understory and clear the dead fallen debris and ground litter. These natural occurrences even acted as pest control. The bark beetle that we are unfortunately becoming all too familiar with here, feeds on trees, however, they rely on the canopies of trees touching so they can pass from tree to tree. When fires were more common, they acted as nature’s logger and maintained separation between the trees and kept diseases and insects from spreading so rapidly and vastly. Currently to help prevent fires there are measures like removing the beetle killed trees and replanting saplings in hopes of rebuilding the forest before a fire can completely wipe out the massive dead areas. This seems counterintuitive due to the fact that I mentioned that one of the issues is that we are stopping fires however, simply allowing them to claim entire forests isn’t the best way to go about it either.

How Does Something So Big Cause Such a Small Change That Alters Everything?

As afore mentioned fires have the ability to quite easily create chaos by even making the slightest changes. An interesting paper I discovered evaluated phosphorous levels in the soil. They discovered in their study that fires significantly increase phosphorous within the soils. It turns out that phosphorous is a limiting compound in aquatic systems which means that it is very influential in stream ecosystems. The tricky part is that we have no way to measure these tiny amounts of phosphorous in streams yet the slightest increase can cause complete ecosystem changes. There are studies that have proven that minimal increases in phosphorous cause algal blooms. It was previously believed that these blooms were spreading through boats and fisherman’s gear. Later it was found that phosphorous is the culprit for these ecosystem devastating blooms. Algal blooms are extremely hard to control especially since we don’t have any tools that can measure the compound that is causing them. The study found that within the loose dead soil and ash, phosphorous is increasing after fires and is then either blown or washed off into streams. They also studied how restoration efforts can help prevent this layer of ashy soil from escaping and wreaking havoc. Overall they found that mixing the soil and then planting seeds as soon as possible is the most effective way to help mitigate this if it is done soon enough before heavy rains and strong winds carry the new soil away.

Fire Ecology and Water Systems

Fire and water are two things that completely oppose each other and we never think to connect them within an ecosystem. However, in reality these two things have more in common than we tend to imagine possible. I have challenged myself to look into this relationship through an independent study course. Through this course I have begun to explore the interconnectedness of aquatic systems and the surrounding environment. Many of my sources suggest that this relationship is bound by one crucial thing, soil. Soil acts as a funnel, transporting things from the landscape into streams, lakes and other bodies of water. Soil can work as a filter and clean out impurities before they are able to pollute streams, and they can also work as a form of transportation and channel those harmful entities downhill straight into the steams. Generally, forests and valleys work to support their streams and they work well in harmony together until of course, an event occurs like a wildfire. Fires have a way of destroying and throwing off the balance of an entire ecosystem. This balance is so delicate that sometimes it doesn’t take much to throw it off and create chaos. Some results happen from something that cannot even be detected by humans because the concentrations are so minute that we have no way to measure them, yet they can change an entire form of life. While fires have been used since the beginning of mankind to sustain life, they are an uncontrollable force of nature that claims much in its path.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Prep Work: The Key to Future Campaign Success

It has been a quiet few weeks of mostly prep work for the Mountain Pact. There are still a lot of unknowns when it comes to how the new administration will address the climate and other environmental issues such as energy development and public land protections. To be ready for upcoming campaigns the Mountain Pact has taken this time to research the results of local elections across the Intermountain West.

The Mountain Pact works directly with mountain towns on environmental issues, so it is imperative that we remain up to date on the governing bodies in those mountain towns. Over the last week, I have spent time researching local election results. This includes identifying any  newly elected mayors or city council members

Along with this I will begin to update key contacts for the towns that we have worked closely with on campaigns in the past. This will make outreach a smoother process in the future. Another key piece of this prep work will be to update the populations and number of visitors to each town. This provides concrete numbers to use in campaign letters when citing the number of people that may be affected by certain policy actions.
Although it has been quiet in terms of campaign work it has been interesting and informative to be working on these preparatory measures. It is not always concrete forward campaign action. But when it is, successful action comes from proper preparation. Also, while doing this research I have been able to gather a better understanding of the huge importance of local governments. Being actively involved in local government is an important way to make an impact in the political system.
I have also continued to manage the social media pages during this time. This has been an enjoyable learning opportunity. On the Mountain Pact’s social media pages we post climate change articles from a variety of sources. Searching through many articles to choose which ones to post has been a great way for me to be up to date and informed on climate change topics.
The end of November news highlights included the passing of the Outdoor REC Act in both the House and Senate chambers. This bipartisan bill  is now on the way to President Obama’s desk to be signed into law. This will require the secretaries of Commerce, Agriculture, and Interior to work with the Bureau of Economic Analysis to examine the economic impact of the outdoor recreation industry on the GDP. This is a  major step forward for the recreation and conservation industry because this industry is inextricably linked to public lands and waters making the case for investments in effective conservation and management of public lands to ensure the economic power house remains steady.   

The world of environmental policy is constantly changing. Working in this field for the first time has so far been a wonderfully eye-opening experience and I am looking forward to future actions as the current environmental policy sphere continues to unfold.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coldharbour Irrigation Mapping

Last week I went out to Coldharbour to collect necessary data, that would be utilized in part of the land management plan and future funding resources. My task was to map out an overgrown, and outdated section of irrigation ditch, that used to be supplied by the Head and Cortay head gate. This data needed to be collected mainly to give Briant accurate information that could be used to outline necessary funding in terms of receiving grant funding, and to give an accurate representation of future maintenance costs. After driving out to Coldharbour, I obtained an old and very clearly leaky pair of waders from the garage. My approach was to start with a rough satellite image I had printed off, and start a transect I had pre-planned in order to locate the first section of overgrown irrigation ditch.
The day was heating up quick, and with no wind and temperatures approaching the mid 60's, there couldn't have been a nicer November day to search for a century old irrigation ditch. The first step into the Tomichi creek reminded me of the age and abuse these old waders had taken over the years, a stream of icy water started to seem into the boots, making me move with a bit more haste. After locating the old railroad grade and orienting myself, I began my transect straight into the willows in order to find the old flood irrigation supply. I managed to find a section of irrigation that appeared to be extremely old, a section the willows had their way with for some time. After marking down the UTM's I continued to bushwhack in a direction that I believed to be the source, as there are no straight lines in nature.
As I gave one last push through a thicket of willow, I found myself nearly falling off the stream bank of the Tomichi. I had gone too far, so headed back down stream to locate the head and cortay diversion, hopefully that would lead me to the flume and head gate, where I could get a more accurate depiction of the original channel. After locating the diversion, filled with old tires, I began to bushwhack once again, and finally located a heavily over grown head gate, and remaining irrigation ditch. After running what I thought the length of the ditch was with a GPS, I now had to translate my field data to a usable interpretable map, via ArcGIS, looking forward to the struggle...

Left: Tomichi Creek, looking North West. Right: Current state of the irrigation infrastructre.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Environmental Policy Post 2016 Elections

This past week has been one of concern for many - particularly in the climate and public lands policy arena. It is hard to know where to go in the fight against climate change when the new leader of our country believes it is a hoax. The science is clear and the world’s climate is warming. This is not a time for fewer environmental regulations or a focus on fossil fuel development that contributes greenhouse gas emissions, making the target of keeping global temperatures from warming to 3.6˚F a challenge.

Although the presidential election has left many with concerns there were several encouraging newly and re-elected officials to local, state and federal positions. There were 5 women in different states that made history by being elected to public office. These inspiring women all support measures such as women’s rights and have a focus on supporting communities who have historically been marginalized.

Across western states, we saw positive election results with candidates who support climate and public lands protections. For Colorado we saw eleven out of fourteen Conservation Colorado endorsed State Senate wins, and 36 out of 38 endorsed State House of Representative wins. These folks have been endorsed by Conservation Colorado because they have shown significant dedication to environmental conservation and support of public lands.  For my neck of the woods, Gunnison House District 59 is now represented by  Rep. Barbara McLachlan. She is a huge proponent of clean energy development and supporter of public lands. Moving forward many battles can be fought at the local level, and will need to be. With these elected officials in office we in Colorado have an obligation to stand with them to keep fighting for our climate.

Catherine Cortez-Masto, mentioned above in the 5 women who made history, was elected to U.S. Senate for the state of Nevada and has been endorsed as a climate champion by The Sierra Club. The state of Washington also elected four Sierra Club endorsed U.S. House of Representative candidates and endorsed U.S. Senator Patty Murray. These government officials across the West and the nation need support as they lead our country toward regulations that protect and restore our climate.

Of utmost importance, we must urge the new administration  to not pull out of the Paris Climate agreement, and to continue taking steps to meet international and national climate goals. We must continue the progress toward renewable energies. In fact, the BLM just finalized a rule that would increase the ease of development of wind and solar on public lands. This sector of our economy is growing and this continues to  be a bipartisan issue that is good for all Americans and environments.

Climate change is upon us. As the Mountain Pact continues work in this new political era, the goal remains the same -- to build alliances and empower mountain communities to build resilience in the face of economic and environmental stresses through federal climate and conservation policy. The organization will continue to keep a close eye on issues of   climate adaptation and mitigation;  disaster funding for increased extreme weather events; and  ensuring public lands stay in public hands to name a few.

This work is more important now more than ever.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Coldharbour Institute: Stepping into the non-profit world

A few weeks into the semester I finally managed to secure an internship with Briant Wiles, who is the Director of Land Management for Coldharbour institute. Briant is currently only one of two employees at Coldharbour, and it is with much generosity that he was willing to give up some of his precious time to work with an ENVS student. So far working with Briant has led to some interesting insights into the unforeseen complications of the non-profit world, as well as working with a rather new start up that has numerous aspirations and organizational goals. Much of Coldharbour Institutes property has been placed under Natural Resources Conservation Service, (NRCS) wetland easement, and while this partnership allows for many riparian area restoration projects and improvements, it also complicates any projects or potential improvements on the property. "Coldharbour Institute promotes resilient living practices for a changing world through education, research, experimentation, partnerships, and the integration of environmental, social and economic solutions." The mission as stated above is quite broad and includes a number of projects, collaborations, and now has taken a more holistic approach to sustainable living in the Gunnison valley, including but not limited too: Renewable energy, sustainable building, localized agriculture, riparian area conservation and improvement, and education outreach. 

After working with Briant over the last few weeks, I have seen the complications that inherently come along with working with multiple organizations with multiple goals and regulations. Briant has been developing a land management plan which includes everything from managing the properties water rights, visitor management, to endangered or threaten species on or around the property. I have been working with him to develop language that will be used in future grant and funding applications for the property, detailing out a multitude of tasks and priorities that need to be undertaken. I have had the opportunity to undertake research into the world of water law and regulation, as well as collaborative non-profit work and regulations pertaining to the property. 

As I continue to work with Briant on Land management documents, I hope to further my experience in the non-profit world, as well as what processes go into funding a 501(c)(3). Understanding the stakeholders goals and aspirations for the property have always been intriguing, and I look forward to seeing what bright future is in store for Coldharbour Institute. 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Mountain Pact: Introductions and Learnings

Internships are amazing ways to learn. When I applied for the internship with the Mountain Pact my knowledge of political advocacy was incredibly limited. I knew I wanted to learn more about being involved in environmental policy and so I decided to take a chance to learn in a hands-on way. I got the internship and the learning started immediately. At first I was just playing a bit of catch up; learning about what the Mountain Pact was all about. And now the real work has begun.

Mountain communities across the American West are experiencing detrimental effects of to our environment and economies as a result of climate change: increases in catastrophic wildfire, the spread of the mountain pine beetle epidemic and reduced snow pack are just a few of the impacts compromising our landscapes and, in turn, our tourism-based economies. Currently, mountain communities are unheard and unrepresented in the national climate dialogue. The Mountain Pact offers an innovative approach to mobilize mountain towns across the American West to call for federal action on climate change adaptation (preparing of climate change impacts) and mitigation (reducing GHG emissions).  

The start of my internship involves supporting efforts around a two year campaign for reforms to how the federal government funds wildfire suppression. This campaign works to draw the attention t of lawmakers to recognize the growing stress that federal land managers in the Interior Department and Department of Agriculture are under with the increase in frequency and severity of wildfires. Federal land agencies, such as the National Forest Service, are spending more and more of their  limited budgets every year on suppression costs to fight catastrophic wildfires.  This means that funds are being pulled from other essential programs crucial to ensuring adequate forest management .

So, the Mountain Pact  has been working with national coalitions to shape and inform a long-term and comprehensive wildfire funding fix.  Part of their efforts have been collecting signatures to a sign-on letter they authored that will be sent to Congressional leadership urging them to consider these costs in the fall budget negotiations.  Fourteen towns from eight states have signed on to the letter. I helped to identify the Congressional leadership of the participating towns so a copy of the letter could be sent to their corresponding House and Senate leadership.

Participating in this work, I learned about campaign strategy and the importance of timing. This letter will be sent out twice, once at the beginning of November because Congress will be in budget negotiations; but also, it will be sent again after the administration change occurs so that the new lawmakers will also be made aware of this issue.

Another component of the campaign is media outreach. I conducted research for the organization to see what the current media coverage of the topic is and recommend how the Mountain Pact can bring the Western mountain town perspective to the national conversation. They hope for an article to be published next month, so stayed tuned.

Coming up - since it is election season - there will be a lot of work focused on informing mountain towns about what the election results and other relevant   legislation means to Western mountain towns. So far, the learning has been great and I already feel more informed about the national climate conversation and how policy changes happen. I’m looking forward to more hands-on learning!