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Dispatches : Nature

The Mother of All Anti-Fracking Tools

In Mora County, New Mexico, a patchwork of prairie, foothills, and high peaks on the east flank of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, unemployment stands at 16 percent, county workers operate out of leaky temporary buildings, and the population density is so low—just two people per square mile—that the tiny community and its largest town, 300-person Wagon Mound, are still classified as frontier by state health officials.

In short, Mora isn’t the kind of place that comes to mind for a national showdown on fracking. But in April 2013, county commissioners took center stage in the fight by passing the Community Water Rights and Local Self-Governance Ordinance, which declared it illegal for companies to extract hydrocarbons anywhere in the county, making Mora the first in the U.S. to ban oil and gas drilling outright, on public and private land.

Not surprisingly, lawsuits soon followed. The county was sued in federal district court in Albuquerque late last year by the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico (IPANM) and three local property owners. In January, a second suit was filed by Shell Western, a subsidiary of Royal Dutch Shell, the world’s sixth-largest oil company.

The likely outcome? Busy lawyers. But the suits could also set a nationwide precedent by settling an interesting argument: Does a community’s right to self-governance trump the rights of corporations? The county ordinance’s basic aim is to protect the water supply in a parched region of a drought-stricken state, but it also contains a bill of rights for the environment, which argues that natural ecosystems “possess inalienable and fundamental rights to exist.”

The lawsuit by Royal Dutch Shell claims that Mora County’s rule denies the company its constitutional rights, chief among them corporate personhood, which states that a business has the same rights as an individual. (The controversial Citizens United Supreme Court ruling cemented corporations’ constitutional right to free speech.)

“This ordinance denies our property interest by declaring to criminalize virtually any activity undertaken by a corporation relating to oil and gas exploration and production,” says Curtis Smith, a spokesman for Shell.

Some environmentalists say that’s the whole point and are eager to test it. The ordinance was drafted with help from the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, a Pennsylvania nonprofit. CELDF cofounder Thomas Linzey acknowledges that provisions in the document contradict existing laws, but he relishes the chance to defend the self-governance statute before a judge. As the case goes into litigation, tiny Mora County, which doesn’t even have a stoplight, could help usher in a series of similar laws, and CELDF is working hard to ensure that this happens. It’s a fight Big Green groups have failed to take up, says Linzey, so it’s being waged at the grassroots level.

“Environmental folks don’t seem to give a shit,” he says. “They complain that the existing laws, which are stacked against us, are the only tools we have. We say maybe you should invent some new tools, because you’re not protecting anything.”

Banning oil and gas extraction under the purview of local government isn’t new. In 2010, Pittsburgh became the first city to ban fracking, which uses high-pressure water and chemicals to release oil and gas from subterranean shale deposits. Since then, more than 400 municipalities have instituted similar resolutions. The bans have mostly come in the form of zoning changes that keep the industry outside city limits.

But gas companies don’t drill in cities; they drill in the areas around them. That’s what makes Mora County’s ordinance unique. It bans energy extraction from a huge undeveloped area, nearly 1.2 million acres of rolling prairie, piñon and ponderosa forests, and 13,000-foot peaks.

“The oil and gas industry felt like it could contain these sorts of initiatives on a city-by-city scale,” says Eric Jantz, a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is defending Mora County in the suit brought by IPANM. “But once you start getting into countywide prohibitions, that’s something the oil and gas industry has bigger concerns about.”

John Olivas, the Mora County commission chairman who helped pass the ordinance, says county commissioners voted for the sweeping legislation because regulations and zoning rules—typical anti-fracking tools—are simple loopholes that the industry would one day march through. “If the price is right for these corporations,” he says, “they’re coming.”

Karin Foster, the executive director of IPANM, counters that Mora County has been commandeered by a rogue environmental group. “This community-rights ordinance appeals to uneducated people in small communities that feel like they need to fight the man,” Foster says. “I don’t think the people leading them have their interests in mind.”

Some locals agree. Mora County is 80 percent Hispanic, and many residents are suspicious of Anglo groups coming in with an agenda, be it industrial or environmental. “That’s a real missionary attitude, to come into a place and say, ‘We’re going to protect you,’ ” says Sofia Martinez, an environmental -justice activist from Wagon Mound. Martinez opposes fracking, but she wishes that the county had taken a regulatory approach, one that didn’t expose it to potentially lengthy and expensive lawsuits. (Though the county has pro bono representation, by CELDF, among others, it may have to pay damages if it loses.)

Mora County’s case is likely to take years to resolve. Any ruling will almost assuredly be appealed, moving the case to the Tenth Circuit Court in Denver. But for now, Mora has become a cause célèbre, with other counties—like San Miguel, in New Mexico, and Johnson, in Illinois—considering similar bans. Cities and counties are now even working on community ordinances outlawing things like factory farms and GMO crops.

“We’ve all heard about Mora County,” says Sandra Steingraber, one of the nation’s most outspoken anti-fracking activists and author of Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis. Steingraber has been watching the fight all the way from upstate New York, where she’s battling at the township level. “The science is certainly on our side, and it points to the need for a nationwide ban,” Steingraber says. “Now we’ll see if the law ends up on our side.”

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How the Clintons are Stopping Traffic

It’s no secret that Africa’s elephants are in danger. Widespread poaching, fueled by demand for ivory in China and ineffective regulation, have led to alarming population losses, from 1.2 million in 1980 to only 500,000 this year. Today, approximately 96 African elephants are killed by poachers every 24 hours. Last September, the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI)—a project of the Clinton Foundation—launched an $80 million effort to bring together foreign governments and NGOs to help protect the seven-ton mammals, in part by capitalizing on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s diplomatic experience. Millie Kerr sat down with Chelsea Clinton, the 34-year-old vice chairwoman of the family foundation, to check in on the early progress.

OUTSIDE: How did this issue hit your radar?
Clinton: In 2012, we realized that we’d been unaware of the crisis—similar to what it had been in the 1980s—and we were both sheepish about that, because we think we’re pretty plugged-in people. When my mom was secretary of state, one of the things that drew her attention to this was the fact that the Lord’s Resistance Army and Joseph Kony, the Al-Shabaab and the janjaweed in West Africa, Al Qaeda in North Africa, and many of the rebel and terrorist groups in Central Africa are trafficking not only in guns and humans, but in ivory.

And that prompted the initiative?
When my mom left the government, we knew this was one of the areas we wanted to work on together. She had relationships with many of the leaders who impact the demand or trafficking. We thought that, through CGI, we could bring together those people—governments, NGOs on the ground, foundations that can help fund the work—to really make a coherent, coordinated effort. For the first time in recent history, it became clear what the governments, NGOs, and academic partners were committing to in order to stop the killing, traffic, and demand.

Have you seen any progress?
There’s been tremendous progress, especially on the demand side, though we certainly don’t deserve credit for much of it. In China, influential CEOs pledged to no longer give ivory as gifts, and [former NBA star] Yao Ming has been a tremendous champion in his work with WildAid, which has run a number of campaigns in China that seem to be making a difference. Most of the ivory in the world is sold in China and Vietnam, though also here in the United States. We worked with the president’s task force on wildlife trafficking, and we’re thrilled with the policy that emerged from that, which is to ban all commercial imports of African ivory into this country. I think that’s an important step—not only in helping stop the demand, but also for our moral authority. 

You were in Tanzania, Rwanda, and Zambia last year. Did you see 
an impact on the ground?
I saw an SMS platform that lets local villagers report poachers. That’s been successful—not necessarily in stopping the poaching, but in limiting and deterring it. They used to find multiple carcasses of elephants that had been poached by the same group. Now, with this early-alert system, the rangers are able to deploy. They may not be able to save that first elephant, but they can save the second or third.

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Are Apples A Health Risk?

Your fruit isn’t so fresh. Take the apple. That one on your desk has likely been sitting in storage for months (tasty). So, to keep it looking fresh, it’s been treated with diphenylamine (DPA), a pesticide that doesn’t kill insects or fungal growths, but is designed to prevent fruit from developing brown or black patches.

This past March, the European Union issued what seemed, to many unaware of its proactive stance, like a very surprising statement. It would ban the importation of all apples containing the chemical, costing U.S apple growers $20 million in annual export sales. If Europe’s so worried, why aren’t we?

Introduced in 1962, DPA has been evaluated for safety several times, and subsequently deemed “unlikely to present a public health concern” by the World Health Organization. It does, however, have the potential to break down into carcinogenic nitrosamine after sitting on shelved apples for months post-harvest, according to a report by the Environmental Working Group. (Since the 1970s, the government has regulated products to prevent human exposure to nitrosamines.)

In a study by the pesticide’s manufacturers, researchers found three unknown chemicals on apples treated with DPA, but couldn’t determine whether any were nitrosamines. This unanswered question drove the European Commission to first ban DPA use on fruit grown within its own 28 member nations—and now to outlaw the import of any apples and pears containing more than 0.1 parts per million of DPA.

“Nobody has been able to identify any real risk from DPA, but Europe is trying to be on the prudent side,” says pesticide expert Carl Winter, a food toxicologist at the University of California–Davis. The Environmental Protection Agency, on the other hand, green-lights DPA residue of up to ten parts per million—a hundred times the new European standard.

But while Europe changed its stance, the Codex Committee on Pesticide Residues, and international regulatory group, hasn’t altered its regulations either, also setting them at ten parts per million. 

Both the EPA and Codex—depending on who you ask—have consistently set careful standards for the safety of chemicals. And what we end up eating often contains much lower concentrations than the standards allow. A 2011 study by Winter’s team found that our typical exposure to DPA is 208 times lower than the established acceptable level.

Of course, there’s a catch: the EPA can license a chemical that hasn’t met all the requirements—such as those for comprehensive disease-testing—on the condition that the manufacturer follows up on its data after approval. But two separate studies from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Government Accountability Office found that the EPA uses this conditional registration process more often than necessary, and doesn’t always review the follow-up data, which means pesticides have been approved without confirming that they pose no real risk.

And there are factors that the EPA overlooks. It doesn’t require testing against many of the more subtle and sensitive diseases, like hormone disruption and learning disabilities (many of which have been linked to pesticide exposure). It doesn’t account for exposure to multiple pesticides at once (such as in air and water). And it often doesn’t change regulations to reflect new studies——until that ten-year review date comes up, says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the NRDC.

To ever call pesticides safe is likely a misnomer. “Pesticides are literally designed to kill organisms,” Sass points out. “What the EPA regulates is safety when used according to the label, not safety against all human diseases and effects.”

Unfortunately for consumers, while there’s a handful of studies suggesting that pesticide exposure can increase the risk of birth defects, respiratory illnesses, and cancer, there are far fewer studies analyzing the effect of merely eating chemical-covered produce.

A 2011 British meta-analysis did find that organic produce has slightly more vitamins and antioxidants than chemical-covered versions (though some studies have shown otherwise), and a 2013 study in PLoS ONE revealed that fruit flies live longer when fed extracts from organic, rather than conventional, produce. But, explains Sass, exposure levels are too low, and people too diverse, for us to really test the health effects of eating organic fruit and vegetables alone.

Back to the big question: should the U.S. follow in the EU’s footsteps? Possibly. Many Americans—including the EWG—believe Europe’s decision should prompt the EPA to revisit the pesticide’s safety. But, as Winter explains, since all growers outside Europe follow the international standard of ten parts per million, doing so would have a huge impact on international trade.

Regardless of the U.S.’s actions, do keep eating those apples. “The health benefits of consuming fruits and vegetables far outweigh any potential risks from these chemicals,” says Ruth MacDonald, a registered dietitian who chairs the Food Science and Human Nutrition department at Iowa State University. If you have the financial means and the drive to buy organic, go for it—but don’t stop eating apples just because they have pesticides on them.

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The Road Less Sprinted: The Rise of Fastest Known Time

A growing number of trail runners are finding a new way to test themselves, and it doesn’t involve race fees, bibs, or finish line chutes.

Instead, they’re enlisting their own stopwatch, navigational prowess, and determination to set trail Fastest Known Times, or FKTs. They pick a route, decide whether they’ll receive any outside help in the form of food or aid along the way, and try to cover the distance as fast as possible.

“FKTs allow for a lot more individual creativity than official races,” said ultrarunner Anton Krupicka.

In recent years, the FKT phenomenon has become increasingly visible. A web site—Fastest Known Time—now exists dedicated to record keeping, enabling runners to look up existing records and post their own. The site has several hundred threads dedicated to FKT attempts.

“I think there has been an increased interest in FKTs,” said Peter Bakwin, who runs the Fastest Known Time site. “There are a lot of really cool areas that will never have races on them. Wherever you live, you can find a route.” 

Some of the recent attention to FKTs emerged because elite trail runners have tackled major efforts. Whereas elites used to prioritize races over FKTs, Bakwin said, some are now making speed attempts the centerpiece of their season, due to both personal preference and growing support from the companies that back them. 

Kilian Jornet, a Spanish mountaineer and ultrarunner who many consider the best in the sport, has built his career around setting speed records on mountain routes. 

Sponsors, in turn, have followed suit in embracing FKT efforts. The North Face sponsored Hal Koerner and Mike Wolfe when they set a speed record on the John Muir Trail last year. Rob Krar, who set the record last year on the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim route, believes his effort on the iconic route—along with a couple of top race performances—helped land him a sponsorship with The North Face.

Public awareness of trail speed attempts has increased as sponsors produce videos and blogs highlighting FKT records. Jornet’s sponsor, Salomon, helps create online videos about his efforts, leading to global recognition of Jornet’s pursuits. New Balance sent a film crew to Colorado last summer to track Anton Krupicka’s attempt to set a speed record on a route up and over a series of 14,000-foot peaks. And Patagonia made web video of the record-setting-run Krissy Moehl and Luke Nelson set on the Trans-Zion trail. Moehl, who also set the women’s speed record on Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail last year with Darcy Africa, said Patagonia prefers that she attempt FKTs and trail adventures rather than just stick to traditional races.

“Patagonia likes the storyline that goes along with it,” Moehl said.

Both elite and amateur runners who attempt FKTs say they’re drawn to the grassroots element of the endeavor. Rather than traipsing through the woods with hundreds of other race competitors, they’re on their own in nature. For trail running enthusiasts, that’s often what drew them to the sport in the first place.

“For me, it’s returning to the roots of why I love mountain running,” Wolfe said. “The joy and freedom of moving through the mountains in a minimalist style.” 

FKTs also enable runners to tackle routes in which races will never take place. Permits will likely never be issued for races in wilderness areas or National Parks, such as the Grand Canyon’s Rim to Rim to Rim trail, or Mount Rainier’s Wonderland Trail. 

With speed efforts, runners can pick their run day based on personal health, fitness, weather, or convenience, and not have to worry about a designated race day. FKTs also provide a compelling challenge for athletes who want their adventure to include navigation and strategic planning

“Races are an adventure, but one where you can blow up and get a car ride back home,” said Matt Hart, who set the Zion Traverse record in 2010 and tries to go after a new FKT each year. “There is more adventure, more risk in trying for a FKT. You have to estimate your abilities and go for it.”

But even the most ardent supporters of FKTs acknowledge that there can be downsides. Some runners simply prefer the support and comfort of directional race flagging and aid stations, and don’t want to navigate a wilderness area on their own. Krar said that some athletes might end up in trouble because they chose a route above their ability level.

Criticism also can arise if too many runners are attempting to cover a trail as fast as possible on their own terms. Bakwin and Krar noted problems with large volumes of runners in the Grand Canyon trails in recent years. The runners can overwhelm toilet facilities at the bottom of the canyon and sometimes blow past mule trains and walkers. Of course, very few of these runners are actually attempting FKTs, but observers can easily lump solo or two-person competitive runners into the category as huge groups of runners.

“I’ve heard a lot of reports of runners not obeying common courtesy because they’re on the clock,” Bakwin said. 

For these runners, time—and making records of it—means everything. The history of FKTs likely dates way back, but long-term record keeping is tough to uncover. That’s why Bakwin started the Fastest Known Time web site roughly 10 years ago. He and friend Buzz Burrell made sure to dub the records on the site Fastest Known Times, as there can always be existing speed records that no one knows about. The site encourages runners to use GPS, photos, and other methods to verify their times.

“If you want to go out there with no GPS track and no witnesses, that’s great, but then don’t publicize it and ask sponsors for support,” Burrell said. “If you’re going to publicize yourself, then document yourself. It’s a package deal.”

In addition to keeping records, Bakwin wants the site to tell stories of both trail triumphs and failures. He’s more interested in someone’s trail experience than the end time result.

“I wanted to have a place those stories could be saved,” Bakwin said. 

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