Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Energy I

I had no idea just how timely my ride would prove to be.  I received my July-August issue of Audubon today.  The “Incite” column is about the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline.  It’s a pipeline that would carry a toxic blend of crude and diluting chemicals from the Tar Sands of Alberta to refineries in Texas, along the way following a route similar to what I just rode.
In addition to cutting through the open grasslands of southwest South Dakota, the fragile and irreplaceable Sand Hills, and possibly in or near the Flint Hills, the pipeline would be laid within the Ogallala Aquifer.  The Ogallala Aquifer is an underground body of water found beneath eight states in the Great Plains.  In an earlier post I mentioned that Phelps County, NE was one of the most heavily irrigated counties in the country.  Care to guess what the water source for those center-pivots is?  The Ogallala Aquifer.  The Ogallala Aquifer also provides much of the water that makes the Sand Hills the unique wetland system it is.  Oh yeah - it also provides drinking water for much of that region.  I could go on, but I don’t think I need to.
What I will do is ask why they want to build that pipeline.  Because they need to get all that oil refined and distributed to cars, planes, etc around the world.  The same reason there are oil wells being drilled across western North Dakota.  To feed our need.  OUR need.  I have two internal combustion vehicles in my garage – my car and the bike I rode on my trip.  Each one requires a petroleum product.  Multiple petroleum products, actually.   
About a year ago, a wind farm was proposed to be built in the small farming community a few miles south of my home.  I went to several meetings to see what my neighbors thought.  The vocal response from the community was clearly against putting turbines in their backyards and farm fields.  As I was walking my dogs early one morning at about that time, I looked up and noticed the smoke column from the coal-fired power plant less than 10 miles to the north.  I wondered what might be raining down on us whenever the wind blew from the north.  Would people prefer that to noise and flicker from turbines?  It occurred to me at that moment that the problem was not wind turbines.
The problem is energy.  The problem is our demand for energy.  As long as we continue to demand more and more energy and oil, they’ll continue to build wind farms and pipelines.  How do we change that?  By reducing our consumption.  By making conscious decisions.  By acting deliberately. 


Monday, June 27, 2011

Prairie retrospective

I’m back home sitting at my desk.  Laundry is mostly done and the yard has been mowed.  Time to try to put it all into some perspective. 
Let’s go back to the beginning.  The motivation for the trip, at its most basic, was to see grasslands and grassland birds with the realization that both are in serious declines.  I had the good fortune to see wide open landscapes that seem to have retained most of the functional parts.  The Flint Hills and the Sand Hills are still functional grasslands. 
What quickly changed was that the birds became less of the focus.  The big picture of healthy ecosystems replaced the birds.  I’m still a devout birder, but we can’t allow ourselves to become focused on any one species or taxa.  No bird lives independently of its environment, any more than a fish or human does.  And I think that’s an even more important topic of discussion – the relationship of people to the environment.  Our interest in the environment is also an interest in our survival.  That sounds dramatic, more so than I want to be, but it’s true.  What happens to animals will happen to people.  We all swim in the same pond.
Had you driven through western North Dakota 5 years ago, you might have assumed it would stay wide open.  What reason would you have to think otherwise?  Today you should come to a different conclusion.  The change has been rapid and significant.  The trip could not have played out to tell the tale any better.  I saw what is and what needs to remain, and I saw why we need to make every effort now to protect what we have.  The folks in Kansas have initiated the Flint Hills Legacy Conservation Area as a way to protect one of the last remaining pieces of the tallgrass prairie.  We can’t wait until they’re threatened to begin to act.  We have to be proactive not reactive.  The bad guys move a lot faster than we do; if the firewalls aren’t in place before they get started we have very little hope.
I sometimes think that as conservation professionals we’re little more than environmental janitors.  So much of what we’re doing is cleaning up others’ messes.  The secondary intent of the trip was to increase awareness of the loss of grasslands and grassland birds.  For once I want to prevent the mess.  Wherever possible, I want to keep what we have rather than try to recreate what was.  We have folks doing some amazing things to put some pieces back in place and I applaud their efforts.  There are a lot of messes yet to be addressed.  But there are also places where we have things worth protecting.  I don’t know if I can say if I was successful.  I may have just been preaching to the choir.
I think this wraps up the posts from my prairie pilgrimage.  I will continue to post material to this blog.  As I said previously, my areas of interest include grasslands and grassland birds, shade coffee, energy, and ecotourism, so I’ll extensively on them.  Whether you continue to follow this blog, I hope you’ll choose to act deliberately. 
Don’t just do; choose.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Northern North Dakota

Oil industry in ND.  It’s an onslaught. 
The ride north from Medora was worse than expected.  The amount of oil development was way beyond what I was prepared for.  It’s not bad around the Minot area where my friend Tighe lives, but the western part of the state was overrun.  The presence of the industry is everywhere.  Pump jacks, storage tanks, pipelines, trucks, people, new roads, and damage to the old roads…  Now I can see why there were no rooms available.  I’ve never driven US 85 or ND 23 before, but the proportion of vehicles that were obviously oil industry vehicles was huge.  I don’t think it would unreasonable to say that 1/3 to ½ of all the vehicles on the roads outside of cities and towns were oil industry related, although the towns were clearly overrun, too.  It’s awful. 
While the focus of this trip has been ecological, I find myself thinking as much or more about the inevitable impact on the local communities, too.  Minot is large enough that they can probably absorb the oil impact and even benefit – mostly.  I’m convinced a way of life will be lost in small towns over a large area.  The presence of the oil industry will overwhelm everything:

The number of people will increase – significantly and rapidly (it already has and will continue) and those people have money.  Land prices will skyrocket and taxes will skyrocket with them; will people be priced out of their homes?  How closely will the crime rate follow?    
Where once everyone knew each other, now there will be transient people.  Will they belong to the community or participate in it?  How much of the money they earn will stay in the community?
Enrollment in schools will increase; will infrastructure and staff keep pace?
There will be an increase in construction, but the demand will likely wane when the initial flush of activity ceases; what will happen to those buildings? 
With the increase in people and industry will come an increase in traffic (already noted), traffic from bigger vehicles which damage the roads (already noted) and make once quiet country roads dangerous.  Will it be safe for school buses or kids learning to drive?

The boom will be temporary, but the impacts will endure.  You can’t go backwards.  The change is permanent.  I’m not so naïve to assume things won’t or shouldn’t change, but the motive of the change and speed with which the change occurs is not planned and can’t be fully prepared for.   
The word sustainability comes to mind.  I hesitate to use it as it is almost becoming cliché, but it gets at the heart of what I’m questioning.  What I see happening is not sustainable in almost any way, certainly not ecologically.  And I saw no attempt to even suggest any effort to be sustainable.  They’re extracting what they can as fast as they can.  And without apology.  I’m starting to wonder why we bother with a written language – we certainly don’t seem to take the time to read the lessons of our history.

Monday, June 20, 2011

North from Rapid City

Trying to guess the weather is always risky.  I tried to avoid storms yesterday, but the weather was pretty good.  Left this morning and got soaked.  It seems like a natural question is why I’m making the trip on the bike rather than driving and not worrying so much about the weather.  There are several reasons, but the bottom line is connecting to the land and the environment.  I’m pretty new to riding, but realized shortly after I started the need to be as aware of my surroundings as possible.  In the public outreach segment of conservation, it’s commonly recognized that the American public is suffering from an environmental deficit.  We’re becoming more and more detached from the natural world.  When I ride I feel much more a part of the land through which I’m riding.  (I wear full gear, so maybe I should say I feel less detached.)  I like feeling cooler air in the low spots and being pushed by the wind at the crest of a hill.  Even more so, I like needing to know what to prepare for.  I don’t want to be able to be oblivious to my surroundings.  I think we’ve spent too much time in air-conditioned houses and vehicles.  I think it’s become easy to think we don’t need to worry about what happens outside.  I think that’s a dangerous place to be.  I don’t want to be there.  And to avoid sounding righteous, I’ll readily admit that I just plain enjoy riding, too.  It feels good. 
The ride north through western South Dakota put me back into open country.  As wide open as anything I’ve seen yet.  I was starting to smile even though I still had squishy pants.
Just south of the North Dakota state line I noticed what looked like oil wells.  I had intended to spend the night in Bowman, ND, but the motels were full.  I kept going and found the same situation when I arrived as far north as Belfield, ND.  When I asked why the motels were all full, they said because of the oil fields.  I firmly believe that energy policy dictates environmental quality.  The expansive prairies I’ve seen over the last 10 days or so could probably be mistaken for “big enough” and “safe.”  There is no such thing as safe.  

I just talked to my friend Tighe who lives in the Minot area.  It sounds like the flooding has very real potential to get worse.  I’ll probably have to adjust my schedule.  Again. 

Weather Delay in South Dakota

At work we call it “Adaptive Management.”  Right now I call it “adaptive travel.”  As I rolled out of Badlands NP and into Rapid City, SD yesterday afternoon the forecast called for severe thunderstorms with potential for high winds and large hail in this area for Sunday (today).  My plan calls for me to head north through western South Dakota along US HWY 85 into North Dakota.  North of Rapid City is Belle Fourche and then…almost nothing.  I didn’t want to get caught in a hail storm in western South Dakota with nowhere to seek cover, so I decided to stay in Rapid City until Monday.  I know that was the responsible or safe decision, but it’s sunny outside my window right now, so it doesn’t necessarily feel right.  The good news is that I just enjoyed a couple pints from the Firehouse Brewing Co., so I guess it’s not all bad.
I visited the Journey Museum here in Rapid City this morning to learn a little about the history of the area.  I wish I had a profound observation after my visit, but all I can do is shake my head.  The history of Rapid City and our presence in the Black Hills is the history of our interactions with Native Americans and our approach to our natural resources.  In fact, our interactions with the Sioux define our interactions with the Native Americans.  Do we appear to have learned anything?  No. 
Rapid City is pretty cool.  The brewery is housed in an old fire station and it’s called, appropriately enough, the Firehouse Brewing Co.  They have a collection of fire department patches including the District of Columbia.  My next younger brother is a DC fireman, so I was proud to see it them represented.  I had a couple good meals while in town, too, which has been welcome as the cuisine of the small towns of the Great Plains is not what I would call inspired.
I hope to get back on the road tomorrow.  The forecast still holds rain, but hopefully, no lightning.  I’m going to shoot for Belle Fourche and reassess the situation when I get there.  The forecast looks good again starting Tuesday.  I might be able to make it to my friend Tighe’s place in North Dakota if I get two good days.  I’ll be passing national grasslands and Theodore Roosevelt NP on the way and I’d like to take the time to have a look.

I saw this thunderhead north of Rapid City on Saturday - it reinforced my commitment to monitor the weather forecast.

The intersection of the prairie and the sky at Badlands NP.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Out of the Sand Hills and into South Dakota

Yesterday was probably my most completely grassland day yet.  Farther east I was never far from agriculture.  In fact, Phelps County Nebraska is one of, if not the, most irrigated counties in the country.  It very much reminded me of the intensive agriculture I’m used to in the Midwest.  In reality, I think it’s much worse because they have fewer trees and less topography to deal with.
I started my day in the Sand Hills and moved into the open country of southwestern South Dakota.  As much as I liked the Flint Hills and the Sand Hills, I might like this even better.  It’s just as open, but it’s a little more rugged.  More than once I looked toward the horizon and wondered how many western movies had been filmed there.  What I don’t know is how intact the grasslands are.  I didn’t see any public land where I could roam around.   A million acre putting green would be wide open, but it sure wouldn’t support much native wildlife.
One of my motivations for making this trip was to see the prairie (healthy, functional prairie) while it still exists.  That logic suggests I think it we may lose the prairie.  That’s exactly what I think.  We’ve already lost over 95% of the original tallgrass prairie.  And it continues to be lost to agriculture, energy development, and simple neglect.  Mixed and shortgrass prairies have survived better because they lack the deep, rich organic soils created by the tallgrass prairie.  However, pivot irrigation and nitrogen fertilizers have rendered many acres fruitful that were once considered unsuitable for agriculture; with the price of a bushel of corn, we can’t consider those ecosystems safe. 
The problem is that to too many Americans the prairie is an invisible landscape.
Who is responsible to make it visible?  Anyone who recognizes the problem and sees the need to protect the prairie.  For one, me.  My trip and this blog is one step in my effort.  On a larger scale, I believe conservation organizations, public and private, governmental and NGO, need to make it a collective priority.  Unfortunately, even agencies within the government sometimes have goals and projects that conflicting. 
 This morning I passed a unit of the Nebraska National Forest which just happens to lie within the Sand Hills.  If that sounds odd to you – good; it should.  That unit of the Nebraska National Forest is not a natural forest.  It was planted.  On the prairie.  There are two places in this country where tallgrass prairie exists on a truly landscape scale – the Flint Hills and the Sand Hills.  And in the Sand Hills there are trees planted and managed by an agency of our government.  It kind of annoys me that Arbor Day was started in Nebraska, but I can understand folks wanting to have some trees around their homes.  I’m way beyond annoyed that not only did our government plant a forest on the prairie, but we continue to support it.  Is it filling a need more vital than preserving our most endangered ecosystem? 
I wish I could say that’s an isolated example of a government agency with policy that “challenges” the preservation and conservation of our grasslands.  Our agricultural and energy policy continue to provide incentives to convert untilled land to row crops, which I find to be especially confounding since those acres yet to be tilled are in many cases those areas less conducive to farming while we also have policy designed to remove land from tillage where it is unsuitable.  In some cases we continue to encourage use of exotic plants that have the potential to become invasive in our prairies.  Current energy policy and funding support an increase in acres of land in corn and the use of non-native species as energy feedstocks.   The problem is certainly not restricted to governmental policy, but I don’t think it unreasonable to expect the government to assume a unified leadership position rather than continuing to create conflicting incentives. 
The bottom line is that we just don’t recognize grasslands as ecosystems, let alone as needing protection.  We know rainforests are endangered even though they’re thousands of miles away.  Grasslands are invisible ecosystems.  What will it take to bring national attention to the loss of our own native landscape?  A good start would be to bring national attention to our grasslands.  

Sand Hills at Valentine NWR

I never miss a chance to check out a snake!  A beautiful bullsnake.

From Hwy 44 west of White River, SD

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Platte River to the Sand Hills

A day of not what I expected. I was expecting to head west fairly early, but woke up to wind, rain, and lightning. I was expecting to get a short tour of the Rainwater Basin WMD this morning. By the time the weather eased and I headed out, it was already mid-morning. The dirt road from the pavement to the Rainwater offices was damp and soft. The three miles on that road was the scariest ride I’ve had on my bike yet and I didn’t even meet Brice (and his twin brother Brad) until about 11:00. I got a pretty thorough tour of the Basin and by the time I got back on the bike to head out it was almost three o’clock. And I still didn’t have a plan. The good news is that the weather was great and the road was dry. I got as far as Broken Bow and when I saw the Arrow Hotel and the City Café I decided I’d gone far enough. A good place to sleep with good food in one spot – I’m good. And now there are thunderstorm warnings and watches, so the unexpected/unplanned might be the good answer.

My experience on the squishy dirt road also gave me a different perspective on the Sand Hills. The Sand Hills are exactly that – hills of sand covered with native prairie. My bike is a dual sport bike, but my tires are not suitable for much but hard-packed roads. Sand would be trouble even if it was dry and there’s rain in the forecast. That’s not the kind of adventure I want to jump into. As my Uncle Jack used to say “Discretion being the better part of valor…” I‘m going to have to be selective. I’m going to aim for Valentine NWR. My sources tell me most of the other sites I was considering would require pretty good treks down unpaved or barely paved roads. Valentine should have at least one good road to get me off the highway and into the prairie.

The road to Rainwater Basin WMD (on the way out!)

Heading out into the open space of the Sand Hills

In front of the Arrow Hotel in Broken Bow, NE