#Colorado throws wolves to the vote — @HighCountryNews

From The High Country News (Ethan Linck) [March 1, 2020]:

The last wolf resident in Colorado in the 20th century died in 1945 at the edge of the San Juan Mountains, where a high green country falls into dark timber near the headwaters of the Rio Grande. It was caught by its leg in the ragged jaws of a steel trap, set by federal authorities following reports that it had killed 10 sheep.

If the wolf was mourned, it wasn’t mourned by many. Contemporary newspaper articles reflected widespread support for ridding the West of wolves. “Wolves are like people in that they must have their choice morsel of meat,” wrote Colorado’s The Steamboat Pilot in an April 1935 story on the retirement of William Caywood, a government contract hunter with over 2,000 wolf skulls to his credit. “(Some would eat) nothing but the choice parts of an animal unless they were very hungry. Wolves are killers from the time they are a year old.”

Seventy-five years later, public perception has changed, and otherwise clear-eyed Westerners regularly wax poetic over Canis lupus. “Colorado will not truly be wild until we can hear the call of the wolf,” opined one writer in a recent editorial for Colorado Politics. “That mournful sound rekindles primordial memories of our ancestors, and to most of us, brings a state of calmness that nothing else can approach.”

Wolves, it turns out, may be a part of the world we want to live in after all.

This about-face is more than conjecture. According to a recent poll of 900 demographically representative likely voters, two-thirds supported “restoring wolves in Colorado,” echoing similar polls over the past 25 years. Yet state wildlife officials have been reluctant to comply, wary of the toxic politics surrounding reintroduction in the Northern Rockies.

In response, activists seized an unprecedented strategy. A coalition of nonprofit groups in Colorado, led by the recently formed Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, spent 2019 tirelessly gathering support to pose the question to voters directly through a 2020 ballot initiative. They succeeded, delivering more than 200,000 signatures to the Colorado secretary of State. Initiative 107 was officially ratified in January and will be voted on this November. (Meanwhile, neither politicians nor wolves have stayed still. In January, a state senator introduced a controversial bill to regain legislative control of the issue; in the same week, Colorado Parks and Wildlife confirmed that a pack of at least six wolves was now resident in northwest Colorado, though it’s far from clear they represent the start of a comeback. For the moment, the future of wolves here still likely rests on the initiative.)

A new transplant to Colorado from the Pacific Northwest, I learned about the campaign from a canvasser outside Whole Foods in north Boulder on a sunny June day last year. In a parking lot filled with Teslas and Subarus, the tattooed volunteer stood opposite a wall-sized advertisement for the store, featuring the smiling faces of ranchers and farmers on the Western Slope.

It was a scene that would have done little to assuage fears that urban liberal voters were forcing reintroduction on rural residents. The canvasser caught my eye as I left the store. “Can I talk to you about reintroducing wolves to Colorado?” he asked, waving a pamphlet. I demurred and walked back to my bike. But the initiative and its backers — happy to use scientific justifications for their cause, paired curiously with populist rhetoric about its overwhelming public support — lingered in my head.

Darlene Kobobel. Photo credit: Colorado Wolf and Wildlife Center

The initiative fascinated me, beyond its potential to transform the landscape of my adopted home. As an academic biologist, I tended to think science should be both privileged in debate and somehow above the fray. But my own environmental ethic operated on an independent track — drawing on the scientific literature when it supported my opinions, and claiming it was beside the point when it didn’t. The Rocky Mountain Wolf Project reminded me uncomfortably of this contradiction.

If voters decide to reintroduce wolves to an increasingly crowded state from which they were effectively absent for over 70 years, Colorado’s ecosystems and rural communities may change rapidly, in unexpected ways. Yet unlike nearly all other major wildlife management decisions, the choice would rest not with a handful of experts, but with the public.

The case poses a thorny set of questions. What will happen if wolves return to Colorado? When, if ever, can science tell us what to do? And, in the face of empirical uncertainty, could direct democracy be the best solution?

I wondered: If I knew my own research could dramatically affect ecosystems and livelihoods, would I want it to play more of a role in public life — or less?

CONSERVATIONISTS OFTEN HESITATE to frame arguments in moral terms, leaning on the perceived authority of empiricism to buttress their positions. At the same time, many conservation debates are complicated by the collision of disparate worldviews, where evidence is almost beside the point. Large carnivores — intensively studied and politically controversial — fall squarely in the center of this push-and-pull between data and belief.

In 1995, federal biologists released eight gray wolves from Alberta, Canada, in Yellowstone National Park, seeding a population that eventually grew to as many 109 wolves in 11 packs. With the wolves came the unique opportunity to test the theory that their influence on elk numbers and behavior reduced grazing pressure on riparian vegetation, with consequences for the very structure of rivers themselves.

Preliminary data suggested that this process — known as a trophic cascade — was indeed in effect. Elk numbers were down, grazing patterns were different, tree growth was up, and at least some river channels appeared to recover. A tidy encapsulation of the idea that nature had balance, it had broad appeal: In a viral YouTube video from 2014, British environmentalist George Monbiot breathlessly described these changes over soaring New Age synthesizers and stock footage of an elysian-seeming Yellowstone, calling it “one of the most exciting scientific findings of the past half century.”

Yet ecology is rarely simple, and as the mythology surrounding the return of wolves grew, so, too, did skepticism in the literature. Over the past 15 years, a cascade of papers has called into question most of the findings taken for granted in the popular account of Yellowstone’s transformation. Elk browsing might not be reduced in areas with wolves; streams and riparian communities had not returned to their original state; maybe beavers were more fundamentally important to these processes than wolves were. In sum, a 2014 review paper suggested that there are no “simple, precise, or definitive answers” to the question of whether wolves caused a trophic cascade in the park; another evocatively concluded that “(the wolf) is neither saint nor sinner except to those who want to make it so.”

Yellowstone represented a single experiment — one possible outcome among many. In a different corner of the West with more people, or different habitats, or more or fewer elk — in Colorado, for example — would wolves have had the same effect? Last June, a paper in the journal Biological Conservation attempted to answer this question indirectly by aggregating data on species reintroductions and introductions around the world and asking whether their removal or addition caused a reversion to historic conditions. Unsurprisingly, the answer was “it depends”: Restoring predators has unpredictable, complex consequences.

That paper’s lead author, Jesse Alston, was a graduate student in the Department of Zoology at the University of Wyoming. I met him on a bright fall day in Laramie, at a coffee shop in a strip mall on the east side of town. Driving up from Boulder the same morning, I marveled at the abrupt transition in landscape at the border between Colorado and Wyoming: In the span of only a few miles north of Fort Collins, the sprawl of the Front Range fades away, and the High Plains begin rolling up into a sepia-colored saucer from the flatter, hotter agricultural land of eastern Larimer County.

Alston spoke quietly and slowly, in the cautious manner of someone who anticipated a long future working with wildlife and wildlife-related controversies. Though he thought the evidence favored trophic cascades in Yellowstone, he was circumspect about predicting whether wolf reintroduction in Colorado would have the same effect. “(It) really hinges on the idea of there not being adequate predation currently. And there are a lot of hunters in Colorado.” But hunters are a minority of trail users, he added, and recreation of all kinds can influence elk behavior much the way fear of wolves does.

Jesse Alston. Photo credit: jmalston.com

I asked him to elaborate on the role of science in justifying carnivore restoration and whether he thought it might backfire. He paused, thinking, then said: “I think the people who would be most turned off if you don’t see large-scale ecosystem effects are the people who are least inclined to listen to science anyway, so I don’t see that being that big of a deal. But I do think that — as scientists, particularly as good scientists — that we should be sure that our ideas are buttressed by empirical findings.”

Of course, there are empirical findings, and then there are the caveats that always accompany them — the reasons we can’t say for sure what will happen when wolves return. “I think really where the science-policy nexus is most problematic has been when there’s misunderstanding of uncertainty,” Alston continued. “I think it’s good to advocate for causes that we believe in, but we should be pretty straightforward about discussing the uncertainty that comes along with that.”

IF WOLVES ARE NOT an ecological magic bullet, it is not readily apparent in the literature of the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project, which nonetheless aims to “disseminate science-based information” as part of its mission. On its website, a blog post suggests that since wolf reintroduction to Yellowstone, “the ecosystem has balanced.” This isn’t wrong, necessarily. But it isn’t correct, either, and the simplification belied a willingness to use science as a political battering ram. I was on board with the group’s mission as a voter, a Coloradan. As a scientist, though, it made me uneasy.

Though the Rocky Mountain Wolf Action Fund is itself young — founded at the end of 2018 — its roots go back nearly to the release of wolves in Yellowstone, through its Boulder-based predecessor, Sinapu. In 2008, Sinapu — whose name was taken from the Ute word for wolves — was folded into Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians, which also sought to restore large carnivore populations to the Southern Rockies. On an October evening at a brewery in South Boulder, I asked Rob Edward — founder and president of the board of the wolf fund, longtime Sinapu employee and the public face of wolf reintroduction in Colorado for decades — why the group had chosen to emphasize what might be described as the spiritual resonance of the effects of carnivore reintroduction on ecosystems and landscapes.

Edward was eloquent but blunt, a middle-aged man who dressed in a way that suggested he was as comfortable in the rural parts of the state as in Boulder. His wife, Anne Edward, also a longtime wolf advocate, joined us; she was quieter, with gray hair and eyes that lit up whenever wolves were mentioned. They had chosen their language based on polling data, Rob Edward said. “They use that term — ‘restoring the balance of nature.’ Now, is it an oversimplification of a tremendously complicated system? Absolutely. Do I care? Not really.” At the same time, he said, the connection to research and its perceived authority was important. “The public as a whole places a tremendous amount of stock in scientists.”

While it was clear the couple would support reintroduction even if they were the only two people on earth in favor of it, they nonetheless viewed public opinion as validating. A ballot initiative was a necessary last resort, a way to force the state and its slow-moving wildlife officials to comply with the will of the people of Colorado. “We’re not excluding experts, we’re simply telling them, get it done!” Rob Edward said, pounding the table in a gesture that passed unnoticed against the backdrop of his general animation. “Figure it out! Don’t keep machinating about it for another five decades. Get it done!”

As I listened to him, I again found myself deeply conflicted at the prospect of the ballot initiative, and at putting major wildlife management decisions up to a simple vote. On the one hand, I appreciated that it was a creative solution to an intractable political problem, on behalf of a natural system divorced from the political ebb and flow of Denver. On the other, it seemed to set a dangerous precedent. As the history of our complicated relationship with wolves shows, popular opinion can be capricious. Was it really right to pose complex questions — questions at the limit of expert understanding — to a largely naive public?

Laws that translate science to policy can give a voice to a nonhuman world that cannot advocate for itself. Yet in our society, democracy is haunted by the question of whose voices matter. Edward was clear that polling showed clear majorities of Coloradans support wolf reintroduction across the state, including groups that you might expect to oppose it: Rural residents on the Western Slope, hunters and Republicans all support it by a substantial majority. But Colorado is changing, becoming less white, and he was unable to refer me to data broken down along racial and ethnic lines — particularly among historically disadvantaged groups that remain underrepresented at the ballot box.

Nor have the views of Indigenous people — who have the longest history of cultural connection to wolves, and whose lands in Colorado will likely be among the first impacted by a rebounding wolf population — been highlighted in the debate. I was unable to reach wildlife officials with the Southern Ute Tribe by press time, but they are clearly watching the issue closely. In a statement on the initiative, the tribe clarified that it does not have an official position on wolf reintroduction and is “simply evaluating whether (to) support, oppose, or remain neutral on the subject.”

Carbondale, Colorado-based muralist Valerie Rose works on one of four murals she’s done for the Rocky Mountain Wolf Project since early 2018. This one is at Green Spaces in Denver. Photo credit: Cheney Gardner

SCIENCE IS VERY GOOD at addressing the how, but often fails when confronted with the should — the biggest questions, which veer into the realm of values. There is no experiment we can conduct to say whether we should proceed with wolf introduction, no data that can tell us if it is the right thing to do. It comes down to how evidence is filtered through our worldview: whether we think of humans as a part of nature or separate from it, and whether we think changes in grazing habits and water channels — and the presence of wolves themselves — add up to a fundamental good worth fighting for.

But, like conservationists, scientists often shy away from such moral judgments, and for valid reasons: the fear of being perceived as not impartial, thereby undercutting the authority of their research; a sense of obligation to the politically diverse taxpayers who fund their work; an acute awareness of the limitations of their data, statistics and the scientific method itself. In the public sphere, however, this feigned objectivity can have the negative consequence of suggesting there are scientific solutions to philosophical questions.

That wolf reintroduction advocates lean on science rather than those weightier themes is understandable. Yet arguing that having wolves in Colorado is an intrinsic good — because they represent what we want Colorado to become, not because they will have a net benefit on aspen growth or stream hydrology — would be more honest, and might win people over in unexpected ways.

Back at the brewery in suburban Boulder, Rob Edward vacillated between polished language justifying reintroduction in scientific terms and moments of raw emotion: “They have wolves on the Gaza Strip. They have wolves in Italy. They have wolves in Northern-freaking-California. Why can’t we have wolves here?”

IF THE BALLOT INITIATIVE passes this November, a three-year planning process begins, followed by what Anne Edward described as “paws on the ground” — the release of the first few wolves — in 2023, almost certainly in the San Juan Mountains. Advocates anticipate that this process will be difficult, and they are prepared for a fight.

A successful reintroduction would be a remarkable accomplishment, given the fraught history of wolves in Colorado, as well as a landmark event in the gradual return of large carnivores to the 21st century West. It would also be a remarkable reflection of the blurring lines between science, belief and politics in the 21st century. As political gridlock becomes a feature of daily life, and environmental degradation — the cancerous rot of the Anthropocene — metastasizes, the impulse to circumvent collapsing institutions in response to crises is likely to become more common. In these circumstances, what role should scientists and science play? How much should uncertainty prevent action, and how much should empiricism determine our value system?

There are no easy answers here. If the basic question of whether or not to reintroduce wolves to Colorado is largely beyond the purview of science, then perhaps putting it to a vote is the most responsible option. The messiness of democracy can be terrifying. Still, there may not be a better way. After all, the language of values has been a part of the modern conservation movement since its birth — the Endangered Species Act of 1973, for example, states that endangered species provide “esthetic, ecological, educational, historical, recreational, and scientific value to the Nation.”

Toward the end of my conversation with the Edwards, thinking of their many years of advocacy and of the curious arc of history, I asked them what it was like to see an end in sight. “Do you allow yourselves to get a little carried with the fantasy of it?” I asked. “Things are in your favor — have you started imagining ‘paws on the ground’?”

Both were quiet for a moment, and the noise of the bar washed over us. “I’ve been working on this for 25 years,” Rob said, his voice breaking into a sob as Anne reached out and gripped his arm. “I certainly do.”

Ethan Linck has previously written about recreation and conservation for High Country News, and about science and nature for Los Angeles Review of Books, Undark and Slate. He is a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow at the University of New Mexico, where he studies evolution and genetics in birds. Email High Country News at editor@hcn.org.

The moral and technological quandary of aviation emissions — The Mountain Town News #ActOnClimate #KeepItInTheGround

A CRJ jet waits for takeoff in 2012 from Bozeman, Mont. Air travel has improved from 34 passenger miles per gallon in 1991 to 56 passenger miles today. Photo/ Allen Best

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Fly or drive? The answer is, it depends

In early December a friend from Denver and I both traveled to Las Vegas for a conference. I flew, he drove. We both worry about greenhouse gases accumulating in the atmosphere and the strong evidence now emerging of climate disruption. Which of us should have more carbon guilt?

Flying shame, the phrase translated from its native Swedish, has come into vogue, at least in some circles. We zoom around the continent, sometimes across great oceans, because we can, and because it’s wonderful compressing great distances with so little effort, so quickly immersing ourselves in new geographies and cultures, and because, as was the case of my friend and I, we thought our work required it.

Quick and easy movement has a cost, though.

If emissions from airplanes were a country, they would rank somewhere between Japan and Germany. That means about 1.5% of global emissions (carbon dioxide equivalent) as of 2012, according to the World GHG Emissions Flow Chart 2014. Other sources, slicing the greenhouse gas pie differently, put it at 2.4%. Residential buildings (11.2%), cars and trucks (10.6%) or even livestock and manure (6.5%) produce more.

Scientists, however, suspect impacts may actually be double or more those at ground level because of the chemical interactions of emissions at high altitudes. Uncertainty remains about how contrails produced by airplanes may force radiative heating.

Emissions have been growing. “‘Worse Than Anyone Expected’: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions,” the New York Times reported in October. Growth in air travel, it explained, has dramatically outpaced gains in efficiency.

High-income countries and upper-middle income countries have been responsible for 90% of emissions. The U.S. alone is responsible for 24% of emissions. Less-developed countries that contain half the world’s population accounted for only 10% of all passenger transport-related aviation CO2.

In the U.S., 12% of the population take 66% of flights.

“Although huge homes and hulking SUVs are familiar symbols of emissions excess, frequent flyers are among the people with the very biggest carbon footprints,” says Robert Henson in “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change.”

Just 6% of the world’s population has ever flown.

The International Air Transport Association projects that global air travel will reach 8.2 billion annual passenger trips by 2040, up from 1.8 billion in 2000. A large part of that story will be China, India and other countries as they produce larger middle classes able to afford air travel. Aircraft might account for 25% of the global carbon budget by 2050 as emissions from other sectors phase out combustion of fossil fuels, according to a 2019 report from United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization projects.

Success of ski and other resorts during the last 60 years has been tethered tightly to wings of airplanes. Ease of flight has been so important in attracting customers that many ski resorts have offered subsidies to airlines or at least income guarantees.

This poses a conundrum. Snow sliders more than most embrace environmental values, not least the joys of snow. Greenhouse gases pose a direct and almost immediate threat to snow. How can we harm that which we treasure? What is our responsibility?

Technology solutions remain distant. Climatic disruptions look more imminent.

A plane flying across the Sawatch Range in Colorado in the approximate location of Monarch Pass in February 2017 showed the string of 14,000-foot peaks commonly called the Collegiate Peaks to the north. Photo/Allen Best

The climate emergency

Weather warms and cools naturally, with “very strong inter-annual and decadal variability,” as a 2019 report by the International Panel on Climate Change noted. But clear human fingerprints have become evident.

NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported in January that 2019 was second hottest on record, trailing only 2016. The past five years each rank among the five hottest since record-keeping began. And 19 of the hottest 20 years have occurred during the past two decades.

Human fingerprints have also been detected in weather extremes. Consider the wildfires in Australia that in just a few days in early January covered areas the size of Switzerland. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman notes, “climate change makes the kinds of extreme weather events we’ve been seeing much more likely.”

If winter can still bring tremendous dumps of snow, the edges have begun fraying discernibly, most notably during spring. But even mid-winter can have eerie warm spells. Vail and Aspen both had significant January rainstorms several years ago. Other resorts, including Whistler, lower in elevation and near the Pacific Ocean, have always had rain, but now expect to see rain become more common and occur higher up the slopes.

Scientists have stipulated we must keep warming within 2 degrees Celsius or risk serious threat of destabilization. Better would be 1.5 degrees. Temperatures have already climbed about 1 degree globally, less in some places but more in others. Even if emissions were to stop tomorrow, the heat to be produced from existing atmospheric pollutants will likely increase temperatures another 0.5-degree globally.

Why the fuss about 1 or 2 degrees Celsius? A little change can have outsized impact. Consider that it took just drops of 1 or 2 degrees to plunge the Earth into the Little Ice Age, permitting Queen Elizabeth to routinely play ice games during the 16th century on a frozen Thames River. But then there were the big Ice Ages, when glaciers marched southward across North America. The last glacial advance put parts of Canada under ice of up to 4 kilometers and extended southward across Wisconsin and other border states. It was accompanied by a 5-degree average drop.

Change may be neither uniform nor linear. The IPCC’s 2019 special report noted that the American South has warmed very little. But Alaska and western Canada among other places with higher elevations and northerly latitudes that have had increases of 5 degrees Celsius (9 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1950s. The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin in December told about cemeteries in coastal towns of Alaska being submerged by water as the earth melts.

Worries about feedback loops

Scientists fret about feedback loops. For example, there’s the albedo effect. White reflects sunlight, but dark materials absorb it. This has been demonstrated in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. There, storms have delivered dust from the drying and disturbed deserts of the American Southwest on the snowfields above Telluride, Silverton, and other mountain towns. The dark-colored dust causes the snow to melt more rapidly. Now consider what happens as glaciers recede and Arctic sea ice is replaced by dark-colored sea water.

Worrisome to many has been the accelerating retreat of the Greenland ice sheet. A 2019 article in Nature, a scientific journal, reports that the massive ice sheet could be doomed at 1.5 degrees, which could happen as soon as 2030.

Methane released as the polar permafrost warms would be another feedback loop. This greenhouse gas disappears from the atmosphere for less than a decade while carbon dioxide lingers for hundreds and even thousands of years. It has powerful heat-trapping properties during that short time, though, 86 times as effective than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. Henson, in “Climate Change,” cites the IPCC report of 2014 in concluding that methane releases from a warming Arctic are not expected to become a major issue for some time, “although the longer-term risks are sobering indeed.”

To stay within that margin we must quickly and dramatically cut back emissions. Instead, we’re accelerating like a driver heading into a tight curve.

During the Industrial Revolution, as factories in England billowed with coal fires, concentrations of carbon dioxide, the most common greenhouse gas, stood at 280 parts per million. When climate scientist James Hansen famously testified before the Senate committee in 1988, they had reached 350 ppm. This year they can be expected to near 420 ppm. Human-caused emissions have more than doubled in only three decades. Unless we have drastic changes, babies being born this year can expect, when entering college or trade school, to have global concentrations of 450 ppm.

In 2003, when I began studying climate change reports, scientists were warning about greater risks of climate destabilizing at 450 ppm. Since then I’ve observed that scientists, for the most part, have tended toward conservatism. The reality has had faster feet.

Private jets crowded the perimeters of the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport in the summer of 2010. Mountain resorts have been highly reliant upon air travel for delivery of customers. Photo/Allen Best

Perhaps the Swedes were unnerved by their fires above the Arctic Circle. In 2015, Olympic biathlon gold medalist Bjørn Ferry committed to stop flying. Some Swedish celebrities have followed suit. To avoid flying, the adolescent climate activist Greta Thunberg last summer sailed to the United States to call for urgent action. She has a following, as was acknowledged by Time Magazine with its Person of the Year designation, displacing a churlish Donald Trump. It’s fair to assume that some snow riders, with their devotion to environmental action, follow the sometimes dour but always precocious Swedish lass.

Most carbon-efficient travel

What’s the least carbon-tainted mode of travel to a mountain resort? Bicycle, obviously, although catching a bus will do you well, too. It’s a bit cumbersome, definitely more time-consuming, but you can take a bus from Chicago, for example to Glenwood Springs, then catch a RFTA bus to Aspen or Snowmass. The state-sponsored Bustang from Denver to Glenwood Springs has won raves. But again, don’t be in a hurry.

Few people ride the rails to go skiing. At Colorado’s Winter Park, for example, rails emerge from a tunnel under the Continental Divide within a few dozen yards of ski slopes, but Amtrak delivers just 10,152 travelers to the nearby depot in Fraser annually. A ski train from Denver adds 20,000 passengers annually for day trips.

Amtrak delivers passengers to Fraser, within four miles of the slopes of Winter Park Resort. Photo/Winter Park Resort

We fly, because we’re in a hurry. Air travel has become more efficient in jet fuel. By the metric of passenger travel achieved on a gallon of jet fuel, air travel has improved from 34 passenger miles per gallon in 1991 to 56 passenger miles today.

Not all air travel is equal, though. You can bet that Air Force One, the jet used to ferry U.S. presidents around the globe, with its executive desk and sleeping quarters, has a higher carbon footprint than somebody flying scrunched between other passengers, barely able to breath. And first-class commercial travel has three times the carbon footprint of economy.

How far you fly also matters. Shorter flights have a greater carbon intensity per mile than long-haul flights. A quarter of the fuel on a single trip can be burned in getting from the ground to 30,000 feet. That makes short-hop flights, say between Denver and Aspen, the most energy intensive.

This rule only applies so far, though. The fuel itself for very long-haul flights requires energy for transport, because of its weight. WorldWatch Institute estimates that the most fuel-efficient distance for airlines is 2,600 miles, a little longer than the trip from New York to Los Angeles. But those added miles still produce more fuel consumption and hence emissions. Shorter, if less efficient, is still less.

What does this mean in practice? The carbon-tracker website maintained by the International Civil Aviation Organization allows you to calculate your carbon dioxide emissions. For example, an economy round-trip flight between New York City’s JFK Airport and Denver produces 946 pounds (of carbon per passenger. That’s the equivalent of 59 bowling balls. Talk about carry-on baggage. A longer distance produces a fatter footprint as does flying premium instead of economy: 3,934 pounds. OK, you wanted to know: 246 bowling balls.

Can you really offset your travel?

What makes environmental sense—and economic sense for ski areas—is that when customers fly, they linger. A study of Rocky Mountain resorts by Colorado-based RRC that was commissioned by the National Ski Areas Association found 40% of out-of-state customers who flew stayed six days or longer. Of international travelers, 80% stayed six days or longer. The difference was particularly evident among those who stayed between 10 and 22 nights at the resorts.

“As would be expected, international visitors tend to have the longest stays, followed by out-of-state visitors (and then) in-state visitors,” says RRC’s David Becher.

Driving, in some situations, could be worse than flying. It depends upon the vehicle and the number of occupants. Driving solo from Chicago to Denver in a SUV, for example, will be more carbon intensive than flying economy. But number of occupants, distance, and plushness of the jet make this less than straightforward. The best guide to travel comparisons I found was assembled by the Union of Concerned Scientists. (See chart).

For the water conference in Las Vegas, my friend from Denver rented a medium-sized electric hybrid that gets 40 mpg and drove alone. I flew first to Reno then Las Vegas. A woman sat next to me, her hair dreaded fashionably and dyed blond at the ends, her perfume so powerful I nearly gasped as we flew over the slopes of Park City. My return to Denver was direct.

Who should have less carbon guilt? My research on the carbon-tracker website suggests I was responsible for 240 pounds (109.1 kg) of carbon emissions compared to 334 pounds (151.5 kg) for my friend in his rented hybrid car. Had my friend and I gone together by car, we would have had much lower carbon footprints. But we didn’t know of each other’s plans. Plus, the day he had set out from Denver by car, I had been in Florida in the interest of familial piety. It gets complicated.

My friend does buy carbon offsets when traveling, whether by car or by plane. Such offsets have become more common. Air travelers flying in and out of two mountain resort communities are now participating in an offset program called Good Traveler. Good Traveler was initiated in 2016 by the San Diego International Airport, which chose the Basalt-based Rocky Mountain Institute to manage it. It now has 17 U.S. airports. Including major hubs in San Francisco and New York City. The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport joined the Good Traveler program in 2020.

Flying roundtrip between New York’s La Guardia Airport will nick you $8. Money collected in New York goes to improve marine efficiency in the harbor there. This and other qualifying offsets must demonstrate actions that can be verified and measured. Would this action have occurred or been avoided had the money not been invested?

In Wyoming, the Jackson Hole Airport also offers offset money. That money goes to ensure that the native prairie at the May Ranch in southeastern Colorado remains unplowed, continuing to sequester carbon. Telluride’s Pinhead Climate Institute has also purchased offsets for all its festival-goers at Telluride Bluegrass, with that money also going to the prairie preservation.

If offsets allow us to feel better about our travel, some analysts have been skeptical. We need actual reductions of emissions, not just offsets, they say.

Airport workers load boxes of tropical fish for a flight from Reno to Las Vegas in December 2019. In our era, even fish can fly. Photo/Allen Best

Burning biofuels, instead of fossil fuels, would theoretically reduce emissions. But they have been unable to achieve scale. In 2018, just 2 million liters of alternative jet fuel were produced, compared to the 360 billion liters of jet fuel consumed that year. (Note the “m” and the “b.”) Too, some suspect that lifecycle carbon costs of biofuels make them little better than conventional fossil fuels.

Electric planes?

Electrification of planes has produced excitement of late. All-electric planes began use in 2019 at a Denver-area airport for training of pilots. In December, a Vancouver company attracted international attention when it conducted a 10-minute demonstration flight of a 17-passenger seaplane retrofitted to operate on batteries. Harbour Air hopes to begin commercial operations within two years after safety of the e-planes has been proven. It plans an eventual fleet of 40 e-planes for short hops along the Pacific Coast in the Seattle-Vancouver area.

Ampaire, another company has made slower-moving, short-range and smaller aircraft such as are used to shuttle passengers among the Hawaiian Islands its goal. Peter Savagian, the company’s senior vice president of engineering, told an audience in Aspen during November that such short-haul flights were responsible for one-third of global air emissions. NASA awarded Ampaire and another company, IKHANA, contracts to pioneer hybrid diesel/electric configurations for the 19-passenger Twin Otter.

Advances in battery storage will be needed for longer distances. Battery storage has improved. A Tesla 3 battery has 10 times as much energy density as that used in the EV 1, an early electric vehicle that went into production in 1996 when Savagian was with General Motors. Energy from batteries has been increasing 8% annually.

But much, much more will be needed. Even the newest batteries hold just 2% that of liquid fuel, Wired magazine explained in a 2017 story. In other words, 1,000 pounds of jet fuel yields about 14 times more energy than a 1,000-pound battery.

In his talk at an Aspen Institute symposium titled “The Future of Aviation in a Carbon Constrained World,” Savagian counseled patience.

“It will be decades before the largest aircraft are likely to be fully electrified,” he said. But when that happens, both airlines and consumers will benefit, he added. His company projects savings of 90% from electrified airplanes and maintenance costs cut 50%. Those savings, in turn, will allow airlines to cut fares by 15%, producing 40% more volume.

Use other components

Speaking at the same event, Aspen-area resident Amory Lovins—a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute—maintained that airplane manufacturers could use carbon-fiber composite materials to make airplanes three to five times more energy efficient. “Many components made of metal today should not be,” Lovins said. He cited a simple $20 coffee pot. Replaced by a higher-tech model with energy consumption it saves weight and hence fuel. “You take a pound out of a typical airplane and it’s worth around $2,000 in net-present value in fuel costs.”

Lovins has credentials. In 1976, amid the Arab oil embargoes, he wrote a landmark essay published in Foreign Affairs magazines that talked about climate change, renewable energy and energy efficiency. Both businesses and governments responded to his vision sluggishly. Time has mostly proven him correct.

Price signals are needed to spur airlines to more rapid adoption of fuel-saving technology.

“Without a clear market signal, vendors and investors will largely stay on the sidelines,” Lovins said. He deplored incrementalism that squanders fuel, efficiency and precious time.

“The climate crisis will not wait,” he insisted. “Business as usual won’t work.”

Some think we’re in such a climatic pickle that we need to explore high-risk geo-engineering strategies.

For example, can temperature rise of accumulated greenhouse gases be counteracted by reflecting more sunlight away from the Earth’s surface with giant mirrors in space? Another idea calls for spraying aerosols into the stratosphere, which is about 10 kilometers above the Earth’s surface, simulating the effect of volcanic eruptions. A volcano eruption in the Philippines in 1991 cooled global temperature by 0.6 degrees Celsius for about two years.

Direct air capture is another idea, part of a broader set of solutions called negative emissions technology. This idea seeks to withdraw carbon dioxide or other greenhouse pollutants from the atmosphere. This is already being done in British Columbia by a company called Carbon Engineering. The company was founded in 2009 by David Keith, then a professor at the University of Calgary (and now at Harvard University). Keith, with backing from Bill Gates and Murray Edwards, a financier of oil/tar sands extradition in Alberta (and co-owner of the Calgary Flames), succeeded in removing CO2 from the atmosphere in 2015 and converting it into fuel in 2017 at the prototype between Vancouver and Whistler. Now, with backing from oil producers Chevron, Occidental and BHP, he’s trying to accomplish this at scale.

A Southwest Airlines jet flies into Denver International Airport in 2019. Southwest planned expansion of its traffic in and out of DIA. Photo/Allen Best

But Keith, in a 2013 book called “A Case for Climate Engineering,” warned against seeing geo-engineering as the solution to climate change. “Our gadget-obsessed culture is all too easily drawn to a shiny new tech fix,” he said. Best, he said, would be to avoid creating emissions.

In Colorado, upgrades are planned for the Aspen/Pitkin County Airport. The Pitkin County commissioners early identified “carbon emission reduction” as a core community value that needs to be applied to the new facility. It will not, however, produce any fewer emissions of the flights.

In aviation, as in so much else, it’s easier to create the problem than solutions.

A case in point is Denver International Airport, the fifth busiest airport in the United States and a hub for many connecting flights to Aspen and other ski towns. The airport plans to add 39 new gates to accommodate growing traffic. Nowhere in the stories announcing the expanding airlines was mention of the carbon footprint.

This story was published in the Feb. 11 issue of Big Pivots. It was also published in various iterations in Ski Area Management magazine, Pique Newsmagazine of Whistler, B.C., and the Aspen Times Weekly.

Photo gallery: “The Ayes of March” — Greg Hobbs

The Ayes Of March

“Hearts are not had as a gift but hearts are earned . . .”

W.B. Yeats, A Prayer For My Daughter

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Greg Hobbs 3/15-18/2020

#Drought news: No change in depiction for #Colorado

Click here to go to the US Drought Monitor website. Here’s an excerpt:

This Week’s Drought Summary

The U.S. Drought Monitor week ending March 17 saw another round of winter storms, bringing above normal precipitation to parts of the northern High Plains, Southwest, southern plains, and Tennessee Valley. Many areas recorded totals that exceeded 200% of normal over the seven-day period, leading to improvements to areas of abnormal dryness and drought in areas where the excess moisture erased deficits and improved soil moisture and streamflow. Once again, precipitation over the Northwest and Gulf Coast states was below normal with most areas having received less than 50% of their normal amount over the last 30 days. The lack of precipitation, combined with warmer than normal temperatures, led to expansions in pockets of abnormal dryness and drought…

High Plains

The map’s drought depiction is unchanged this week in the High Plains. A winter storm during March 13-14 brought snow to the west and central parts of the region and rain to locations in the south and east. The Black Hills saw the highest totals, reporting from 6 to 12 inches of snow while portions of western and central South Dakota and Nebraska reported several inches of accumulation. Dry conditions continue to persist in the drought and abnormally dry areas in eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and southwest Nebraska where less than 0.50 inches of precipitation (about 50% of normal or less) has fallen so far this month. As we transition to normally wetter conditions in the spring, hopefully this area will begin to see relief from the deficits that have built over the last six to 12 months…


February’s dry spell over California finally broke as a late winter storm brought heavy showers to southern California and over 2 feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada. In southern California, the excess rainfall improved soil moisture and streamflow levels leading to reductions in areas designated as D0 (abnormally dry) or D1 (moderate drought). Despite the rain and snow, the maps depiction remained unchanged for the majority of the northern two-thirds of the state. Water year-to-date precipitation is more than 12 inches below normal (50% of normal or less) in the Sierras and the north coastal and north central regions. Soil moisture and streamflow values remain low and satellite based indicators of vegetation health continue to show stress across the Central Valley. Extreme northern California and southern Oregon missed out on the heavy precipitation further deteriorating drought conditions and leading to the expansion of D1 and introduction of D2 (severe drought). The Oregon state drought coordination team noted increasing water supply concerns in this region as many locations show record low streamflow values, declines in groundwater, and low reservoirs. Other changes in Oregon include minor improvements D1 areas in the west-central and eastern parts of the state where heavy precipitation fell. Having missed out on last week’s precipitation, Nevada and Utah both saw and expansion of D0 in the north. Further south, rainfall of 1 to 3 inches helped erase precipitation deficits, replenish soil moisture, and improve streamflow in southern Nevada, southwest Utah, and northwest Arizona resulting in reductions in D0, D1, and D2. Drought depictions in Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, and New Mexico were left status quo…


Last week, a band of heavy rainfall fell across the northern half of the region, extending from West Texas to western Tennessee with amounts ranging from 1 to more than 4 inches (equivalent to more than 300% of normal in some locations). In southwest Oklahoma and northeast Texas, the excess moisture erased short-term precipitation deficits and recharged streamflow leading to reductions in D0 (abnormal dryness) and D1 (moderate drought). Additionally, the “S” was removed from the “SL” drought designation to indicate that drought and dry conditions are now only present at timescales longer than six months. With over an inch of rain falling after the close of the Drought Monitor week (Tuesday, 8:00 AM EDT) and more expected on the way, additional reductions may take place on next week’s map. Other areas seeing improvements include West Texas with reductions to D0 and D1. Unfortunately, the rain missed the parts of south Texas that need it most and conditions continued to deteriorate, resulting in expansions to ongoing areas of abnormal dryness and drought and the introduction of D4 (exceptional drought). Supporting data include rainfall deficits of 2 to 8 inches (25 to 50% of normal) over the last six months combined with mean temperatures consistently ranking in the top 10 warmest over the same time interval. The combination of dry weather and high temperatures has dried out soils and stressed vegetation with USDA reporting only 28% of topsoil as adequate for crops in the southeast and 3% in the southwest. Other areas seeing deterioration this week include southwest Louisiana and southeast Mississippi with expansions in D0…

Looking Ahead

The National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center forecast for the remainder of the week shows a winter storm developing east of the Rockies and tracking northeast across portions of the north and central Plains into the Upper Midwest. This storm is expected to bring heavy snow to the southern and central Rockies with a swath of light to moderate snow extending from Nebraska northeast into Minnesota and Wisconsin. A cold front associated with the storm system is forecast to trigger showers and thunderstorms from the southern plains into the Mississippi, Ohio, and Tennessee valleys. Temperature are expected to be below normal by 10 to 20 degrees across California into the Central Great Basin and Southwest. Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast states and Ohio and Tennessee valleys can expect temperatures 3 to 6 degrees above normal. The Central Plains should see large temperature swings as the system passes through. Moving into next week, the Climate Prediction Center six to 10 day outlook (valid March 22-26) favors below normal temperatures for much of the western half of the CONUS, especially near the West Coast, near normal temperatures east of the Mississippi, near normal temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast, and above normal temperatures for states along the Gulf and Southeast Coasts. The precipitation outlook favors an active storm track and above normal amounts for nearly the entire CONUS. Probabilities are highest for California, parts of the Great Basin, and the Tennessee and Ohio valleys.

US Drought Monitor one week change map ending March 17, 2020.

How Colorado’s water conversation has shifted in the 21st century — The Mountain Town News

Xeriscape landscape

From The Mountain Town News (Allen Best):

Water providers have shifted their focus

The Colorado Water Conservation Board, the primary water-policy agency for the state, met last week in Westminster, and afterward I had dinner with a friend. The friend, who has long worked in the environmental advocacy space, spoke of some matter before the board, and added this: “Twenty years ago this conversation never would have happened.”

Water politics in Colorado have undergone a Big Pivot. As the century turned, environmental issues had made inroads into the conversation, but water development remained a dominant theme. Then came the drought of 2002, which more or less changed everything. So has the growing realization of how the changing climate will impact the already over-extended resources of the Colorado River.

Instead of a deep, deep bucket, to be returned to again and again, the Colorado River has become more or less an empty bucket.

Jeff Tejral. Photo via The Mountain Town News

Those realizations were evident in a panel discussion at the Colorado Water Congress about water conservation and efficiency. Jeff Tejral, representing Denver Water, spoke to the “changes over the last 20 years” that have caused Denver Water and other water utilities to embrace new water-saving technology and altered choices about outdoor water use.

Denver Water literally invented the word xeriscaping. That was before the big, big drought or the understandings of climate change as a big, big deal. Twenty years ago, the Colorado Water Congress would never have hosted panels on climate change. This year it had several.

Tejral pointed to the growth in Denver, the skyscrapers now omnipresent in yet another boom cycle, one that has lifted the city’s population over 700,000 and which will likely soon move the metropolitan area’s population above 3 million. That growth argues for continued attention to water efficiency and conservation, as Denver—a key provider for many of its suburbs—has limited opportunities for development of new supplies. “The other part of it is climate change,” he said. “That means water change.”

Denver Water has partnered with a company called Greyter Water Systems on a pilot project involving 40 homes at Stapleton likely to begin in June or July. It involves new plumbing but also water reuse, not for potable purposes but for non-potable purposes. John Bell, a co-founder of the company, who was also on the panel, explained that his company’s technology allows water to be treated within the house and put to appropriate uses there at minimal cost.

“It makes no sense to flush a toilet with perfectly good drinking water, and now with Greyter, you don’t have to,” he said.

For decades Denver has had a reuse program. Sewage water treated to high standards is applied to golf courses and other landscaping purposes. Because of the requirements for separate pipes—always purple, to indicate the water is not good for drinking—its use is somewhat limited.

A proposal has been moving though the Colorado Department of Public Health rule-making process for several years now that would expand use of greywater and set requirements for direct potable reuse. The pilot project at Stapleton would appear to be part of that slow-moving process.

Greyter Water Systems, meanwhile, has been forging partnerships with homebuilders, the U.S. Department of Defense, and others in several small projects.

“It seems like 40 homes in Colorado is a small step,” said Tejral, “but a lot of learning will come out of that, which will open the door for the next 400, and then the next 4,000.”

Colorado transmountain diversions via the State Engineer’s office

There are limits to this, however, as water cannot be recycled unless it’s imported into a basin. Water users downstream depend upon releases of water from upstream. Water in the South Platte River Basin is estimated to have 6 or 7 uses before it gets to Nebraska.

In the Eagle River Valley, the streams gush with runoff from the Gore and Sawatch ranges, but there can be pinches during years of drought. That area, said Linn Brooks, who directs the Eagle River Water and Sanitation Districts, has a population of between 35,000 and 60,000 between Vail and Wolcott, “depending where we are during our tourist year.”

Water efficiency programs can make a big difference in what flows in the local creeks and rivers. Brooks pointed to 2018, a year of exceptionally low snowfall. New technologies and policies that put tools into the hands of customers reduced water use 30% during a one-month pinch, resulting in 8 cubic feet per second more water flowing in local creeks and rivers. During that time, Gore Creek was running 16 cfs through Vail. It flows into the Eagle River, which was running 25 cfs. “So saving 8 cfs was really significant,” she said.

Many of Eagle Valley’s efficiency programs focus on outdoor water use. That is because the water delivery for summer outdoor use drives the most capacity investment and delivery expenses. “Really, that is the most expensive water that we provide,” Brooks said.

Tap fees and monthly billings have been adjusted to reflect those costs. One concept embraced by Eagle River Water and Sanitation is called water budgeting. “Our hope is that water budgeting will continue to increase the downward trend of water use per customer that we’ve had for the last 20 years for at least another 10 years,” she said.

Linn Brooks. Photo via The Mountain Town News

Eagle River also has tried to incentivize good design. The district negotiates with real estate developers based on the water treatment capacity their projects will require. “That is a way to get them to build more water-efficient projects, especially on the outdoors side,” explained Brooks. “When we execute these agreements, we put water limits on them. If they go over that, we charge them more for their tap fee. That can be a pretty big cost. We don’t like to do that, but we have found that in those few cases where new developments go over their water limits, we have gone back to them and said, we might have to reassess the water tap fees, but what we really want you to do is stay within your water budget.” That tactic, she added, has usually worked.

In this concept of water budgeting, she said, “I don’t think we have even begun to scrape the surface of the potential.”

Outdoor water use has also been a focal point of efforts by Northern Colorado Water Conservancy District, the agency created to deliver water to customers from the trans-mountain diversion at Grand Lake. Municipalities from Broomfield and Boulder north to Fort Collins and Greeley, even Fort Morgan, get water from the diversion.

Frank Kinder was recently hired away from Colorado Springs Utilities to become the full-time water efficiency point person for Northern. Part of the agency’s effort is to introduce the idea that wall to wall turf need not be installed for a pleasing landscape. Instead, Northern pushes the idea of hybrid landscapes and also introduces alternatives for tricky areas that are hard to irrigate. The ultimate goal falls under the heading of “smiles per gallon.” Some of the district’s thinking can be seen in the xeriscaping displays at Northern’s office complex in Berthoud.

Kevin Reidy, who directs water conservation efforts for the Colorado Water Conservation Board, said the Colorado Water Plan posited a goal of reducing water use by 400,000 acre-feet. Don’t get caught up in that precise number, he advised. “It’s really about trying to figure out a more stable water future for our cities,” he said.

Readers might well be confused by an agency named “water conservation” having an employee with the title of “water conservation specialist.” The story here seems to be that the word conservation has changed over time. In 1937, when the agency was created, water conservation to most people meant creating dams and other infrastructure to prevent the water from flowing downhill. Now, conservation means doing as much or more with less.

On why Eagle River Water takes aim at outdoor use

The amount of water used outdoors is generally twice that used for indoor purposes, and only about 15% to 40% of water used outdoors makes its way back to local waterways.

None of this water is returned to local streams through a wastewater plant. Most of the water is consumed by plant needs or evaporation; what is leftover percolates through the ground and may eventually make its way to a local stream.

— From the Eagle River Water website

This was originally published in the Feb. 18, 2020, issue of Big Pivots.