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Adventure : Politics

Prosecuting an Owl-Kicking Paraglider

Many paragliders get into the sport because they want to experience the childlike bliss of flight. But in early April, a video surfaced on YouTube that showed a paramotorist, or "powered paraglider," taking to the air with less than sublime results. (A paramotor is a standard paraglider set-up, but the pilot also carries a motor and propeller.) Although it's since been removed from YouTube, a Facebook upload shows the pilot continuously chasing an owl for nearly seven minutes, and on multiple occasions appearing to kick the owl through the air.

The video is shot from the pilot's helmet-mounted camera (and shows one other paramotorist nearby). The pilot has been identified by many in the paragliding community as Dell Schanze, a 43-year-old paramotor instructor from Salt Lake City and the owner of Flat Top Paramotors. Whoever posted the video to YouTube—presumably not Schanze—included a message identifying Schanze and saying that he should be held accountable.

The video includes a couple clips in which the noise of the motors is removed and dialogue has been overlayed, with the voice of the supposed pilot saying "Who's the predator?! I kicked an owl's butt!" The voice supposedly sounds like that of Schanze.

Furthermore, observers have noted a number of similarities between the owl-chasing pilot's gear and those that Schanze owns. They also note that it appears the pilot's hand is missing a finger – Schanze has a missing finger, as well.

After the video surfaced and a few Salt Lake City news stations aired stories about it, the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources picked up the case, shortly thereafter transferring it to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS).

Tom Tidwell, the resident agent in charge for U.S. FWS field operations in Colorado and Utah, says its investigation has positively identified the pilot from the video, but would not share his identity because the case is still open.

"The person responsible has violated at least two laws: the Migratory Bird Treaty Act and the Airborne Hunting Act," says Tidwell. "The U.S. Attorney's Office has agreed to prosecute." He says the case should be coming to a head in the coming weeks, and notes that these laws are enforced with "significant fines and up to a year in jail."

The YouTube video was taken down on April 9, with a notice saying "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by Dell Schanze." Critics of Schanze say this clearly points to his guilt.

But couldn't whoever posted the video to YouTube have also posed as Schanze when he or she requested it be taken down, in order to implicate Schanze? Tidwell says it doesn't matter, one way or the other. Nor does it matter whether the voice-over in the video is Schanze or someone else.

"The voiceover doesn’t prove anything," he says. "We found other ways to confirm who is in the craft." But, again, he would not confirm whether that person is Schanze.

Though some of his friends are fierce guardians of Schanze's reputation, he is known for a string of paragliding faux pas—what opponents call "reckless activity"—including jumping off buildings and a landmark in Oregon, that have resulted not only in legal trouble for Schanze but, they say, harm the reputations of all paragliders and paramotorists.

Jeff Goin, the founder and president of the U.S. Powered Paragliding Association and author of paramotoring guides, maintains a website called PPGTruth.com, which details the concerns he and other PPG pilots have with the World Powered Paragliding Association, a group that Schanze founded and leads. Goin claims the World Powered Paragliding Association is merely a means for Schanze to promote his company and sell his Flat Top Paramotor equipment and instruction services. Goin directly competes with Schanze (and vice versa) in that they each run paramotoring competitions and organizations. (Goin isn't the only detractor, but he is one of most visible.) Another website, Flattopparamotors.com is fully dedicated to outing Schanze for bad behavior, but its creators are anonymous.

The feud between pro- and anti-Schanze pilots also plays out in two Yahoo groups, PPGTruth (pro) and PPGTruth-Unlimited (anti). (Who knew the world of amateur paragliding was so fraught?)

Schanze did claim in a paramotoring forum post from 2011 that he chased and "caught" a hawk. He was commenting on a film showing a tandem paragliding team in Nepal in which a handler feeds a trained raptor during flight.

Schanze, who calls himself "Super Dell," has a colorful legal history and a strong dislike for media. This story from Utah TV station KLS delves into his litigious missteps, resulting in various lawsuits and an assault charge. In 2008, the Federal Aviation Administration fined Schanze for flying too close to a boat on the Great Salt Lake. Around this time he also ran for Governor of Utah. He also made unsuccessful bids for the mayor's office of Salt Lake City and Saratoga Springs, Utah.

Reached by phone, Schanze said, "It was not my video. That was a hacked video made by a competitor. I've never kicked an owl." He then added: "If you write an article implying that it was me, I will come after you."

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Films from Tribeca: Gasland Part II

In Gasland Part II, a sequel to the Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland, director Josh Fox continues his scathing indictment of fracking and its viability as a natural energy resource. As in his first film, Fox visits towns across the country to speak with communities situated in ground zeroes of gas drilling.

He finds discolored, undrinkable water (and captures plenty requisite shots of residents igniting their methane-polluted water), children with mysterious nosebleeds, families forced to decide between moving and taking a loss on their uninhabitable homes or staying put and endangering their health. 

In each case, drilling companies contend that fracking is not to blame, but Fox’s evidence is difficult to ignore—not only because it’s anecdotally significant but because the EPA actually intervenes in Pavillion, Wyoming, and concludes that fracking is a direct cause of the town’s groundwater contamination.

With every anti-fracking victory, of course, comes a host of new setbacks. If Fox’s doggedness is any indication, perhaps we’ll be seeing a Gasland Part III in another couple of years.

HBO will air Gasland Part II this summer.

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Tim DeChristopher Goes Free

Yesterday, on Earth Day, the climate activist Tim DeChristopher, who was incarcerated for 21 months for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction, was released from the federal prison system. He’d been in a halfway house in Salt Lake City since October; before that, his homes were prisons in Littleton, Colorado, and Herlong, California, where he was briefly held in isolation for, he claims, writing a letter threatening to return funds to a donor whom he suspected of outsourcing American jobs.

DeChristopher celebrated his freedom by returning to the public eye, first in a televised interview with Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman, and then in an appearance at a Salt Lake City theater that was showing a documentary about him, Bidder 70, by the Colorado filmmakers Beth and George Gage. (The film was simultaneously screened in 55 other theaters around the country.) DeChristopher’s head was freshly shaved and he looked fit, less bulky than in the months leading up to his incarceration, when I reported on his case for Outside. His energy seemed less wild, but prison had not cowed him. He told Goodman his whole ordeal was “a great learning experience,” and continued, “I think we need to take more of those risks.”

At the Salt Lake screening, which was streamed over the Web, he was surrounded by a hometown crowd of about 300, including many members of the Salt Lake City nonprofit he cofounded, Peaceful Uprising, who wore their trademark orange scarves. Watching over my computer screen, I also recognized the vibe in the room: the feeling of collective effervescence that surrounded DeChristopher in the time I spent with him leading up to his incarceration. One commenter, a man who looked to be in his sixties, said, “Mr. DeChristopher, I am humbled to stand before you.” Audience members asked DeChristopher about prison, about capitalism’s role in climate change, about the future of the environmental movement. DeChristopher gamely tackled all the queries, some of which were extremely broad.

  • On why America is slower to adopt alternative energy than other countries: “We have more rich people. We have richer companies and more money in politics than other countries.”
  • On the criminal justice system: “What I found was that the level of injustice in my case was not unusual ... When I explained everything with my case to other people in prison they were like, ‘Yeah. I know.’”
  • On federal district Judge Dee Benson, who sentenced DeChristopher: “I would love to challenge Dee Benson to a public debate about the role of the jury in our legal system.”
  • On Occupy: “The biggest social movement in my lifetime happened and I missed it.”
  • On climate change: “It’s too late to solve it. The question is what’s going to get us through.”

The wry disaffection and humor sounded familiar, and I was glad to hear it again. DeChristopher often seems like he’s privy to a great inside joke that no one else has figured out yet. He’s both infuriated and bemused. But there was something else, too, yesterday: optimism. DeChristopher said, “I feel more confident about the climate movement now than I have in a long time.” The next step, he said, was for activists to “stop waiting for people like me to tell them what the next step is ... What we need is a movement that’s a little bit out of control.” He seemed to think this was happening, referring to both the Occupy movement and the ongoing battle over the Keystone XL pipeline, which, he said, did something new: connect “the politics to the grassroots activist.”

He said he plans to continue his activism, but not as his sole pursuit. This may be out of necessity: he’s on probation for the next three years. In the fall DeChristopher is enrolling at Harvard Divinity School, where, he said, he hopes to help “figure out a concept we have a word for but rarely discuss. It’s a word called enough.”

First, though, he’s going on a well-earned vacation. “I’m going to take a river trip down Cataract Canyon,” he said, “because I’ve been a little cooped up for awhile.”

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The Colorado Tops the List of the Ten Most Endangered Rivers

The Colorado River has been in serious periil—from pollution, depletion, and mismanagement—for many decades. Now, with 36 million people and 15 percent of U.S. crops relying on its water, and with a changing climate likely to slow its flow by 30 percent by 2050, the river is at a crossroads. That's why American Rivers placed the mighty Colorado at the top of its 2013 Most Endangered Rivers list, an annual inventory of the nation's waterways released today.

"It's time to start thinking about how we can better manage this massive river system," says Molly Mugglestone, spokesperson for Protect the Flows, a coalition of small-business owners who rely on the recreation economy based on the Colorado River. "Our primary focus is to engage decision-makers on smart, 21st Century innovation that prioritize water conservation."

American Rivers creates the list each year based on a nominations process. It considers climate change, the number of communities that rely on the river, as well as whether the river's management is facing a proposed legislative action.

As with the Colorado, outdated and wasteful water management practices represent the main threat faced by the second, third, and forth rivers on the list: Michigan's Flint River, the San Saba River in Texas and Wisconsin's Little Plover River.

Mining extraction is the chief threat among the remaining rivers on the list. The Catawba River in North and South Carolina, for example, makes the list due to concerns over coal-ash pollution. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota is listed due to proposed nickel and copper mines near the South Kawishiwi River. Wastewater from a proposed coal mine near the Mulberry Fork of Alabama's Black Warrior River prompted its inclusion. The list goes on.

The legacy of damming prompted the addition of Nebraska's Niobrara River, a Wild and Scenic River. Sediment backing up in the upper reaches of Lewis and Clark Lake behind the Missouri River’s Gavins Point Dam is overwhelming the Lower Niobrara and, says American Rivers, "Threatening local communities with flooding."

Special mention was also given to California's Merced River, whose Wild and Scenic designation American Rivers is fighting to keep. Lifting the designation would allow a proposal to raise the upriver New Exchequer dam. This would cause flooding, says the group, in a portion of the river home to endangered species, setting a dangerous precedent to weaken the Wild and Scenic designation on other rivers.

Overuse is perhaps the most sinister problem. A Bureau of Reclamation study of the Colorado River Basin completed in December found that the demand for Colorado River water will exceed supply by 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. (To put that in perspective, a single household generally consumes one acre-foot over the course of a year.) The best means for righting this imbalance is to begin aggressively conserving water at an infrastructure level.

As part of a major initiative to mitigate growing water deficits across the country, the Bureau and the U.S. Geological Survey are working on a number of water conservation programs, including WaterSMART and Title XVI Water Reclamation and Reuse. Conservation groups like Protect Our Flows are hoping that exposing the supply and demand problems on the Colorado will drum up dwindling financial support for those programs. In 2011, for example, $61.4 million was allocated for WaterSMART. It dropped to just under $50 million last year, and $38.3 is being sought for 2014.

"We want to see more money put in those programs but that's probably not realistic, given budget constraints, so we're pushing to keep funding level, at least," says Mugglestone.

Urban and agricultural water consumption are key focus areas for conservations. Mugglestone says programs in which residents are given monetary incentives to get rid of their lawns, such as the one employed in Las Vegas, prove the potential for large-scale savings. "It's not one person turning the tap off," she says, "It's a policy-level change." she says. She adds that retrofitting large residential buildings with things like high efficiency toilets can also lead to significant water savings.

The sport-shops, guiding services, and mountain-town hotels that joined forces to form Protect Our Flows rely on the Colorado River to support their income. In fact, the group sized the recreational economy linked to the Colorado at $26 billion.

World champion freeskier and farmer Alison Gannett says that over-allocation could mean that water for her farm and others near Paonia, Colorado, wouldn't be available for an entire growing season. She says water regulations should be changed to reward agricultural users for conserving water. "If we do that now," she says, "Another farmer can apply to have our 'extra' water permanently, which would wipe us out in a drought season."

Oil and gas developers represent another major demand for water in the Colorado River Basin. "Those that want to drill for oil and gas should have to prove that there is sufficient water before private or public lands are leased for energy extraction," says Gannett. 

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