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Dispatches : Nature

Accidental Activists

In his one-room cabin in the hills of southern Humboldt County, Utpara Deva is giving a slideshow on his computer. A former photographer, Deva moved to this rural area in 1996 to get away from the hustle of city life in San Francisco. He peers over his reading glasses, scanning through the photos from last summer. These aren’t like the epic black-and-white landscapes he once printed as an assistant for Ansel Adams. The subject here is more urgent.

“This is in late July, and the creek is still running,” he says. “So pay attention to what it looks like.” The photo shows the glistening surface of nearby Mattole Canyon Creek, filled with thousands of tiny steelhead. Some are the size of sardines; others are bigger, up to eight inches long.

“Uh-oh,” he says, clicking to the next photo. In it, a one-inch black PVC pipe snakes out of a gas-powered water pump and into the creek. Increasingly, Deva says, marijuana farms are diverting water in the summer to irrigate their crops, wrecking habitats and killing the fish. The creek pictured here feeds into the Mattole River, home to some of California’s last steelhead and cohos.

“Fish and Wildlife had a tip about the pump for more than a month—it makes you crazy,” he says. To try and save the fish from the rapidly shrinking creek, he and several neighbors began scooping up steelhead in five-gallon buckets and carrying them to the river below. Over time, the creek turned to pools, then eventually dried up completely. Deva and his neighbors were able to save a few hundred fish out of the thousands that wound up either being eaten by raccoons and kingfishers or starving to death.

For years, the water used by thousands of marijuana farms has been creating a problem for California’s endangered cohos and threatened steelhead. Now, with the worst drought in the state’s history, pot farms are poised to push these species over the edge. During the summer of 2013, two dozen fish-bearing streams in the area dried up. There were reports of people stealing water from fire hydrants and filling up water trucks right out of the rivers. In July, at the peak of summer, 10,000 gallons of water were stolen from a school cistern in the small town of Weott, just off Highway 101. Any hope for California’s salmon and steelhead was quickly disappearing—and, suddenly, residents, marine biologists, and marijuana growers found their worlds colliding. 

Highway 101 winds north from Deva’s cabin, past California’s untouched Lost Coast, through ancient redwood groves until, 70 miles later, it reaches Eureka. Here, the Department of Fish and Wildlife’s local office is filled with hunting licenses, tide table books, and fishing guides.

Scott Bauer, an environmental scientist with the agency, is at his desk. Forty-one years old, he has close-cropped hair and a graying goatee. Nearby are two clear plastic containers the size of 35mm film canisters. Inside both are a few tiny cohos and steelhead in formaldehyde, bent in half like pickled vegetables in a too-small jar. He found them at a stream where water diversions were so bad the fish starved to death in the warm, stagnant pools. Bauer’s work focuses on salmon recovery projects—but, these days, his nickname is “the marijuana man,” a title that makes him wince. Pot farms have been exploding here in recent years, and marijuana issues now take up nearly all his time.

{%{"quote":"It’s impossible to know how much water is drawn from streams for marijuana farms. But with farms increasing at unprecedented rates, many residents believe marijuana is the biggest factor threatening Humboldt’s watersheds."}%}

“I knew people grew dope, but it wasn’t talked about,” Bauer says, recalling when he started with Fish and Wildlife in 2005. A few years later, while flying over Humboldt in a small plane, he saw the countless greenhouses and gardens carved into the mountainsides. The scale of growing sank in, he says. Since then, the farms have only gotten bigger. According to the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office, there are approximately 4,100 outdoor marijuana farms in the county. And these are the obvious ones, the ones visible from above. The undetectable indoor operations remain uncounted.

“It’s like that moment when you look at one of those computer pictures, crossing your eyes—and suddenly everything shows up,” Bauer says. “You start looking around, and that’s all you see.”

In the summertime, he gets frequent calls from landowners about the streams on their property drying up. He works with legislators in Sacramento about the issue, and he accompanies the Humboldt County Drug Task Force on private-land busts. Because it’s his job to make people keep water in the streams, he says he’s not welcome in many of the small communities where marijuana farming is a way of life—the same places he needs to have the most impact.

“You can’t have fish without water,” he says.

The Department of Fish and Wildlife is spending $12 million annually on fish-habitat restoration in Northern California, and that money is disappearing as quickly as the state’s water. But if these creeks dry up for three or four years in a row, it will all be for nothing. There will be no generations of fish to return; the runs will be dead.

Simultaneously, Humboldt County is ground zero for marijuana farming, California’s biggest cash crop, but not because of good soil or the right amount of rain. The real reasons that make Humboldt so good for growing pot, according to Deva, are bad roads, rugged terrain, and a poor county with underfunded law enforcement. “Humboldt County was made for black-market growing,” he says.

In 2010, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy estimated that as much as 79 percent of the nation’s marijuana comes from California; that number includes both illegal operations and licensed medical ones. The handful of game wardens and sheriffs in Humboldt County currently busts less than one percent of the illegal growing operations in the hills. With legalization likely in the next few years and little threat of arrest, marijuana farmers have been scaling up while the price is still high, putting more and more pressure on rural watersheds.

Bauer witnessed what happened at Mattole Canyon Creek, near Deva’s cabin. The grower who was eventually arrested had 877 small plants. This, Deva says, is on the smaller side for many farms. But there were numerous other growers upstream, all taking water from the same place. As Mattole Canyon Creek was drained into puddles, juvenile steelhead were sucked into the uncovered pipe as it carried water into the woods.

“We don’t care what you’re growing,” Bauer says, “We could give a hoot. We care about the critters in the streams.”

It’s impossible to know exactly how much water is being drawn from streams for marijuana farms because, by its very nature, the industry is unregulated. Estimates for how much a plant consumes in a day vary from three to six gallons, depending on size, how they’re grown, and whether you ask Fish and Wildlife or a grower. But with farms increasing at unprecedented rates in past years, many residents believe marijuana is the biggest factor threatening Humboldt’s watersheds. If Fish and Wildlife’s estimates are accurate, there are 30,000 marijuana plants in each of four Humboldt and neighboring Mendocino watersheds known for their prolific number of grows. Multiply that by the high end of the watering scale—six gallons a day—and, as noted by Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat, that’s “altogether more than 160 Olympic-size swimming pools over the average 150-day growing cycle for outdoor plants.”

According to data from the National Weather Service, during the past three years, Humboldt had basically average rainfall. But residents say that, even during those years, the creeks started drying up, which suggests that California’s drought is not the main factor.

{%{"quote":"This isn’t a cannabis issue, it’s an issue that’s being exacerbated by cannabis."}%}

“It’s as if everybody around here lived in spotted owl habitat, or marbled murrelet habitat,” says Dana Stolzman, executive director of Southern Humboldt’s Salmonid Restoration Federation. She explains that the availability of salmon at the local grocery store makes it hard for people to accept that they’re endangered in places like this. “Everybody here lives in endangered coho habitat.”

Unlike most people, the majority of rural residents in southern Humboldt County get their water from springs—groundwater that wells up and flows to the surface; the same water that combines to form the area’s streams. Except in a few small towns, there’s no city water system. Wells are rare because they can draw unwanted permitting attention. So whether they’re doing laundry or growing a thousand marijuana plants, both the original homesteaders and the new “pot miner” generation, which came largely to grow marijuana, are fully responsible for obtaining their own water.

The fact that growers aren’t the only ones using the water is something Kristin Nevedal is quick to point out. “This isn’t a cannabis issue, it’s an issue that’s being exacerbated by cannabis,” she says, using the plant’s scientific name. Nevedal is the executive director of the Emerald Growers Association, a policy group that advocates for marijuana legalization and medical use. And she has a point. No matter what people are using water for, there are more residents here than there used to be. Marijuana farmers, she says, are easy targets. Some families in Humboldt are now in their third generation of pot growing. For many, it’s a stable income in a beautiful setting. For some, it’s the only way they know to make a living. The question has become one of whether growers are willing to put the survival of steelhead and cohos before their own livelihood.

Leaving his cabin, Deva climbs into his truck, puts it in four-wheel drive, and heads down a rutted-dirt road. At the crest of a hill, he comes to a stop. There, in a clearing of madrones, is a silver silo. Its walls and roof are of corrugated steel, and it stands about 35 feet wide. The cone-shaped top is open, to collect rainwater.

“This is basically a model grow site,” Deva says. The structure is a 47,000-gallon rain-harvesting tank. One of his neighbors, a grower, is in the process of building it. From there, he scrambles down the hillside, and through a carpet of oak leaves, to another curiosity: what look like two giant, sand-colored water beds. They’re military surplus, he says, explaining that they would have been used for storing liquids like jet fuel in Afghanistan. But here, they hold 20,000 gallons of water each, pumped in during the winter, when streams are usually running high. Deva explains that this growing operation, which gets a hundred percent of its water from rain during wet winters, has “zero impact on the fish.”

He continues down the hill to a meadow that overlooks the sweeping mountains of the King Range. Before him are three long, raised garden beds that together contain about a hundred marijuana plants. The buds were recently harvested, so all that’s left are yellowing, four-foot-high stalks. This operation produces about 50 pounds of marijuana, which, Deva says, translate to around $60,000 a year. But environmentally minded growers like these ones, who make every effort to minimize their footprint in this fragile ecosystem by using water storage, installing elaborate drip systems, and taking water only during the winter, remain under the radar due to fears of getting caught out by the law.

In the watersheds of southern Humboldt County, where unregulated agriculture and, now, drought are threatening a species on their way to extinction, the future is hard to predict. It won’t take much for the coho to go the way of California’s grizzly bear, a relic of the past, and the steelhead aren’t far behind. According to Fish and Wildlife’s Scott Bauer, three cohos were counted in the Mattole River last year. “That is essentially extirpated—extinct,” he says, going on to speculate that, if every resident and grower started storing water, it might be enough to save these watersheds and their fish.

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Is Consumerism The Climate's Enemy?

Recently, the National Climate Assessment revealed myriad ways climate change is already altering our daily lives. And more recently, a NASA study revealed that a significant chunk of the Antarctic is in "irreversible retreat" and that the resulting sea-level rise during this century will force the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to revise upward its already daunting prediction of one to three feet. What do we do? Once we pick our jaws off the floor, most of us have little choice but to continue on with our day. Oh, and of course drive less, buy organic, and eschew plastic bags. If that hardly seems like it's enough, you're right. It's not.

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In his new book, The Big Pivot: Radically Practical Strategies for a Hotter, Scarcer, and More Open World, Andrew Winston—author of the 2009 bestseller Green to Gold, and an expert on green business strategy—argues that environmental changes are forcing companies that make our cars, our food, our plastic bags, and everything else we choose to buy or not buy, to sink or swim. Consumers play a major role in their fates.

We talked to Winston about what consumers really care about, how environmentalism is like the gay rights movement, and whether it's okay for clothier Patagonia to cash in on its good intensions. 

OUTSIDE: You write in your book about how our increasingly connected world is forcing businesses to be "radically" transparent about the types of ingredients and manufacturing processes they use. Yet, when I go shopping I see a lot of overworked, harried people who seem to want to fill their carts and get on with their day.
WINSTON: We've had 44 years of Earth Day, and the percentage of people who really changed what they buy, how they live, in a way that is really deeply based on the environment is very low. That said, studies show things are changing. One study found that 40 percent of consumers will buy better, lower-footprint products when given the choice.

For years people did not buy energy-efficient light bulbs because they cost more upfront. But, over the years, as Walmart, Home Depot, and others started really pushing compact florescent bulbs, people started buying them. Now they're selling LED blubs. They also cost more upfront, but over time people started to understand the larger picture: that if they use this more expensive bulb over a number of years it's actually not more expensive (thanks to energy savings).

Still, we have not seen a giant movement in American consumers. I think, to be kind, it's because we are busy and we can't know everything about every purchase we make. For some categories we pay attention, personal care products and food—things we put on our bodies and in our bodies. There is more attention paid to those products than, say, asking where the wood in our bookcase came from.

So, what are the roles for consumers, versus government and business, in righting the ship?
To deal with something as serious as climate change and to address resource scarcity, all three (consumers, government, and business) need to shift the way we live. Consider a region dealing with drought: everyone has to act and sometimes you hear about people reporting on their neighbors who wash their cars (in violation of water restrictions). You have to have a sense of the common good.

Unfortunately, I think we're in the midst of a pretty big pendulum swing away from common good, thanks to political partisanship and Libertarian every-man-for-himself ideology. I get that, but as much as you want to say every man is an island, it's just not true. You have to think about how you affect other people. I don’t think that's so radical. 

These pivot points in society happen seemingly fast. Look at the gay rights movement. That happened seemingly very quickly in this country, but it was actually after decades of work. There is always a lead-up for many years and then some things (like discriminating based on sexual preference) become socially unacceptable. For another example, look at what happened with Clippers owner Don Sterling (and his remarks about African Americans). I think there is going to be a time when it's unacceptable to be a profligate user of natural resources or to be unaware of your impact or to habitually waste a lot of food. There will be increasing peer pressure not to do those things.

But I don’t rely on consumers to lead the charge. I think business and government need to work together to change the way we make energy, how we make products. That said, it would be a heck of a lot easier to get business and government to change if people made more noise and showed a clear preference in the things that they bought. Retailers care, but not as much as they would if consumers were walking in and clearly picking the greener stuff.

Patagonia, through its Worn Wear program and Eileen Fisher, through its Green Eileen stores, are buying clothes back from consumers and then reselling them. That really starts to subvert the retail paradigm. But in the end, consumers who sell their clothes back to those retailers get store credit… with which they have no choice but to buy more stuff. So at the end of the day, can retailers—even if they're super green standouts like Eileen Fisher and Patagonia—actually not be about consumerism?
It's a profound question. I think a company can grow and sell more stuff if it is taking (market) share—if it is selling more at the expense of other companies that are making less sustainable stuff.

So if the Patagonias of the world are selling something that lasts longer, that is made of recycled content, can be recycled, and so on, you want them to grow. Yet the total pie of resource use has to be in control.

Another way to look at this is through the work of Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart and the Cradle to Cradle movement. If things can be made in such a way that they can be cycled, almost endlessly, while using renewable energy, then consumption is less and less the problem. If a company, by its existence, makes things better, then you want more of them. It's a [positive] abundance thing, rather than saying, 'Oh, population is a problem, every new person and every new product is a problem.' But obviously we're still a long, long way from that.

It is a fair question to ask can public companies lead this charge? By their nature they need to keep shoveling growth and that is a problem. The math does not work to grow forever. But I think a (private) company like Patagonia, they are a $600 million company. They could still grow a lot and be selling more and more stuff, because theirs' are better products that last longer (than their competition). That is not different than the way businesses have always worked. The best ones survive and the worst don't.

We're going to be 9 billion people (by 2050), we're going to need things—but clearly they need to be made differently. The power that we use to make them needs to be renewable. We need fundamental changes. 

In the book I use the example of Kingfisher, a European home-improvement store, which has a goal of being net positive—they want to help people build homes that generate more energy than they use. Let's say you built a home and all the materials were recycled and/or local, and then home made more energy than it needed so that over time I actually netted out the energy it took to make. Don't you want more of those homes?

Climate is a big problem. Resources are a big problem. There isn’t an easy answer. People should take a hard look at their consumption habits, absolutely, but we still need things. No one is going to do well by telling everyone to just sit in a dark cave. But if, through our choices, things get better, then consumption isn't necessarily the problem.

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Public-Land Protests and Their Big-Energy Puppet Masters

What is it about a well-armed, ragtag militia confronting—and threatening—government officials (and ready to use the women-folk as "human shields") that gets everyone so fired up?

On Saturday, we'll get to witness more of these shenanigans, or something like it, this time at Recapture Canyon in southeast Utah. That's where Phil Lyman, the commissioner of San Juan County, is organizing a rally of ATV riders who are spitting mad that the Bureau of Land Management has restricted use of motorized all-terrain vehicles (citing damage to the landscape and vandalism of archeological sites).

The protestors plan to throttle into the 11-mile-long canyon, which is clearly posted with "no motorized vehicle" signs. No word yet on whether they will also be flexing their second amendment rights. The BLM, FBI, and San Juan County Sheriff's office have said they will "stand down," but BLM-Utah stated that they would "seek all appropriate criminal and civil penalties." The canyon contains ancient Anasazi ruins and other notable archaeological features. It was closed to motorized use in 2007 after ATV users built an illegal 7-mile-long trail in the canyon.

Whatever kind of showdown ensues, in the end it may not be the gun-toting anti-federalists that present the largest threat to the best use of public lands in the West. Often these groups are small factions of conservatives either wittingly or unwittingly doing the dirty work of some much bigger, more powerful players. Based on a recent Center for American Progress (CAP) report, oil and gas companies may be pulling the strings behind these localized, and more sensationalized, confrontations—a la the recent Cliven Bundy debacle in Nevada.

Staging protests, stirring anti-government sentiment, and pushing for access into protected wildland serve the larger interests of the extractive-resource industry by challenging the control that the Federal government has on public lands—whether that happens in Recapture Canyon or in a lobbyist's watering hole on K Street.

The CAP report details shows how oil and gas companies are leveraging three groups in particular—Safari Club International (SFI), Congressional Sportsmen's Foundation (CSF), and the National Rifle Association (NRA)—to attain "an increasingly active and vocal role in advancing energy industry priorities, even when those positions are in apparent conflict with the interests of hunters and anglers who are their rank-and-file members."

{%{"quote":"Whatever kind of showdown ensues, in the end it may not be the gun-toting anti-federalists that present the largest threat to the best use of public lands in the West. "}%}

The oil and gas industry's lobbying efforts went into high gear at the start of Obama's first term and have totaled nearly $900 million since 2008, compared to around $400 million from 2002 to 2007, according to Center for Responsible Politics. The CAP report asserts that sportsmen's clubs are among the industry's targets because financial support buys access to political operatives, and even members of Congress, who have ties to the sportsmen and gun rights community. That, in turn, allows the industry to push, through these clubs, for oil and gas interests in public land and wildlife policy—even when those positions are not in line with sportsmen's general stance, which (on paper, at least) focuses on conservation and open lands access.

A hunting and fishing industry representative says report explains a lot. "The NRA and the Safari Club are taking positions that are not in the best interests of sportsmen," says the individual, who asked to remain anonymous. "People were wondering why and thought it was because they were taking dollars from fossil fuel industry, but there was never a smoking gun. This report provides that."

The report calls out three specific areas where the energy industry is seeking influence: the government's upcoming final decision (due next year) on whether to list the greater sage grouse and lesser prairie chicken—which would likely limit oil and gas exploration permits; decisions on roadless areas which could hamper or open opportunities to backcountry energy development; and issues relating to closing public access to roads or hunting grounds. 

Since 2010, according to the report, 28 energy companies have contributed to the NRA and the CSF. Shell Oil has given at least $100,000 to CSF and its various lobbying efforts, while ExxonMobil, the American Natural Gas Alliance and the American Petroleum Institute have each given at least $50,000, according to the report. Nearly a third of the NRA's corporate support comes from the energy industry. While Safari Club International does not disclose donors, oil and gas firms were among the major donors to the group's political action committee.

Perhaps the pressure that energy developers are putting on Washington to keep public lands management friendly to their interests is working, because public lands advocates I spoke with for this story say the Obama Administration has done nothing to balance extractive pressures on BLM lands with conservation efforts. "There's a reason the BLM is often called the 'Bureau of Livestock & Mining'. The folks in DC are going to need to step up and show better leadership," says Ken Rait, director of the Western Lands Initiative at The Pew Charitable Trusts (which were founded by an oil family, as it happens). 

Public Land Standoffs Vs. Public Land Payoffs

The energy industry wants loser regulation over oil and gas development on public lands, while the anti-federalist individuals who plan to defy ATV restrictions in Recapture Canyon this weekend seem more concerned with access to what they consider their own (and no one else's) backyards. Still, another standoff could serve to stoke the image of a BLM that lacks authority over the public wildlands, which advances the interests of both groups.

Outside of the Beltway, and inside the sagebrush, it seems as though other acts of civil disobedience will occur around public land issues in the coming weeks and months. The Salt Lake Tribune reports that suction dredge miners plan to "occupy" the Idaho's Salmon River and mine it without permits in defiance of Environmental Protection Agency's rules. It's clear that there is a faction of Westerns, and perhaps their ranks are growing, that believe they are living under a tyrannical government that is trying to chip away at our freedoms.

I have a different point of view, and the specter of violence at these rallies is abhorrent. That said, at least the anti-federalists hold up signs and speak plainly (if not always coherently) about their beliefs. That is more palatable than energy companies and well-heeled individuals paying off groups that are supposed to represent the interests of sportsmen and conservationists but instead act as conduits between oil and gas companies and members of Congress.

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