“Hunting A New Kind Of Fugitive In The West”

Hunting A New Kind Of Fugitive In The West Video <- click on the link to the left <-

I was contacted by the Bill Lane Center For The American West at Stanford University a few years ago, and we worked together on this video piece. I provided some of the still imagery, mostly aerial photos over the natural gas fields in the Upper Green River Basin. The “fugitive” is the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) leaking into the atmosphere from gas wells, nasty, toxic stuff. The video does a good job of addressing how clean this natural gas drilling process really is. I’ve often held the opinion that we need to separate the issues associated with the fracking process and habitat fragmentation – human health and ecosystem health. Maybe it’s all rolled into one big toxic mess.

Roan Plateau Spared!

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Aerial view of the Roan Plateau surface on the wild side of the plateau, near Rifle, Colorado. Aerial support provided by LightHawk.

The Roan Plateau is such an extraordinary place, a jewel in Colorado and until now, one the most imperiled places in the West. It’s a big part of the reason that I started working in the sagebrush ecosytem when I was trying to reckon with the impact of energy development sweeping the West at the start of the fracking boom. Today, the wild side of the Roan is no longer imperiled. A compromise announced yesterday ended a protracted dispute, a triangle of energy developers, conservationists, and the Department of the Interior. For this moment, we can forget about mistakes that led to gas leases sold for development on the surface of this unique and special landscape and just celebrate the spirit of collaboration and resulting good outcome that keeps the West a little wilder. The Wilderness Society, Conservation Colorado, and others led the opposition to drilling the Roan, and many regular folks added their voices, reaching a pitch that couldn’t be ignored. It’s a great day for Colorado and the American West.

Wake Of The Flood

Big Thompson Destruction

A curve on Highway 34 in Big Thompson Canyon gives a glimpse of the devastation from the September 2013 flood.

With so much devastation in the wake of our historic 1,000 year flood event in September, there are still many closed roads, standing water, and Front Range canyons are shut off, isolating rural communities. Fortunately, I was able to fly with LightHawk pilot John Feagin on September 30 to see first hand the scale of the flood around Greeley and the lower Big Thompson Canyon west of Loveland. Two weeks later, and after the news organizations have moved on, Colorado has a very long way to go as we recover. These images support the Platte Basin Timelapse story of a river that matters far beyond our relatively small geographic area. Continue reading “Wake Of The Flood”

Earthworks Cover And The Frac Attack

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On the cover of Earthworks Journal Summer, 2013. Deb Thomas in front of Crosby 25-3, the Windsor Energy rig that blew near Clark, Wyoming in 2006.

I’m proud to have this photo of Deb Thomas on the cover of Earthworks Journal, an issue that stands for reigning in the “Frac Attack” sweeping across America. Deb and her husband Dick were living the good life on their land along Line Creek in the shadow of the mighty Absaroka Mountains until Windsor Energy drilled Crosby 25-3 on the edge of the Shoshone National Forest. I met Deb in 2011 while working on an iLCP expedition with Greater Yellowstone Coalition on their Absaroka-Beartooth Front campaign. She described months of long, sleepless nights under the rig’s bright lights, a peaceful place forty miles from Yellowstone turned into an industrial zone. Heavy trucks endlessly passed on the narrow road to service the rig. Deb documented the well progression and showed me photos of chemicals piled up in bags and barrels – chemicals that would end up in the creek. Then one day the rig blew, it lost pressure, drilling fluids and gas bubbled up like mud pots on the road surface. Cancerous chemicals flowed in Line Creek. It’s the most spectacular drilling rig failure you’ve never heard of. Today, Windsor Energy is thankfully long gone, but their chemical signature lingers. Line Creek still has chemicals running on bedrock and there are reports of sick neighbors. Deb Thomas became an advocate with Powder River Resource Council and fights for landowners across Wyoming. From a catastrophic drilling disaster we gained a conservation champion, determined to make a difference. And just one more thing, I’d suggest you read this call to reign in dirty energy written by Deb’s husband Dick Bilodeau.Thank you, Deb and Dick for your advocacy work!

The West Is Flat (so we should drill, baby, drill)

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Mule Deer On Winter Range and Gas Rig, Pinedale Anticline in Sublette County, Wyoming. The Pinedale mule deer herd has declined by 60% in a little over a decade of gas drilling. Drilling continues on critical winter (year round) range today.

There’s a shift in rhetoric from Big Energy and the drill, baby, drill crowd. Although domestic gas and oil production have increased dramatically under the Obama administration, we’re told that the gains are on private lands, due to technology advances, and all of the growth is in spite of Obama. Frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find a conservationist who thinks Obama has been a good environmental president, but this industry whining is pure bullshit. In a recent FOX News piece, industry rep. Tim Wigley cites an average 230 days to get a permit on public lands vs: 15 or 45 days in in Texas, North Dakota, or Oklahoma. Then there’s the reference to so much federal land in the West, 30-70% of Western states in fact. So what? Colorado, Wyoming and Montana have a combined 75.6 million acres of public land. Remember when Mitt Romney famously asked “what is all that public land for?” It’s for people, and wildlife, recreation, and future generations sir. What’s my point? Fox, Tim Wigley, and other industry mouthpieces use the in spite of Obama talking point with gaudy statistics of public land acreage to make us all feel bad about the paultry amount of drilling that’s happening on the commons. They would have us believe the West is flat and we should just go get the energy that’s waiting for us to take it so we can get energy independent. If you’ve traveled anywhere in the West, you know that it’s far from flat and a lot of those public lands are mountainous, some are canyons, heck there’s even rivers. So subtract those places and gateway lands next to national parks – what’s left? Sagebrush. Fossil fuels often lie beneath sagebrush. Every Western creature, except marmots, mountain goats, ptarmigan, and pika (and maybe a few more) uses the sage sometime during the year. It’s where we live, work, hunt, fish, and recreate – recreation alone pumps $1 Trillion annually into the U.S. economy. Wildlife migrate, people roam, and endangered species live right in the sage. And what about those hard to get permits? The Thompson Divide permits expired and the BLM allowed an extension that will probably be purchased by you and me at an exhorbitant fee. Leases expire all the time in places like the Thompson Divide and northern Red Desert, where conservationists are fighting for the most ecologically important areas – the Jack Morrow Hills and Adobe Town. In the Fox piece, Pete Maysmith of Conservation Colorado spoke for Western conservation and developing sustainably: “And the interesting thing is that Westerners actually get that. A bipartisan poll that came out in the region just a couple of months ago shows deep and strong support for preserving our landscapes. They are economic drivers for tourism, outdoor recreation, industry, agricultural uses, clean water, you name it.” We already have seven mega-field developments in Colorado and Wyoming (with more coming), the Greater Sage-grouse ESA listing decision is pending, and conservationists are determined to protect our Western heritage. We’re not going anywhere, some places are too wild to drill, and the world isn’t flat.

NatGeo Newswatch with LightHawk

Spotlight on the Roan Cliffs

My friends at LightHawk just published a nice “Behind The Lens Above The Ground” Waypoint article on their site and on National Geographic Newswatch. The theme is the aerial perspective is essential to telling a conservation photography story. I’ve flown a number of LightHawk missions for the Sage Spirit project and the Absaroka ILCP expedition, each for specific goals. The thing they have in common is the West is getting smaller with energy development exploding in the sagebrush ecosystem. LightHawk’s mission is to champion environmental protection through the unique perspective of flight. LightHawk is an ILCP partner and flies ILCP photographers for a wide range of conservation projects. I’m proud to work with Shannon Rochelle and their dynamic staff and fly with such a great team of volunter pilots who generously donate their airplanes, fuel, time, expertise, and enthusiasm to fly for conservation. Thanks LightHawk!

Oil Spill!

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Aerial View of the Natural Gas Plant On Parachute Creek, near the town of Parachute, Colorado. There is an oil spill just below the plant. I made this image with the support of LightHawk.

I remember flying over this massive industrial plant to photograph Two Sides Of The Roan and wondering what would happen if there was a spill. The plant is situated on Parachute Creek, which flows into the Colorado River. Rigs, plants, and compressor stations line both sides of the river in between Rifle and Parachute. A spill has happened – an estiimated 6,000 gallons of oil and 60,000 gallons of contaminated water have escaped and are leaching into the earth. From the Denver Post: “Oil company workers investigating a weeks-old spill along Parachute Creek are focused on a valve box on a pipeline carrying natural gas liquids away from the Williams Midstream gas plant, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission said Tuesday.” The good news is that it’s not in the creek yet, but we don’t know how much has discharged, where it’s traveled to, what chemicals are leaking… At a time when Colorado is debating how close to site energy development to human development, and while our governor claims that the industry has proven they can extract oil and gas safely, this catastrophe suggests a more balanced discussion.

Drilling Setbacks – Too Close?

Front Range Drilling

This drilling rig is on the edge of a development near Frederick, Colorado, in the I-25 corridor. The corridor between Denver and Fort Collins is mixed ag land and housing development, with rigs, pumpjacks, and compressor stations bumping up against housing. My map calls this the Spindle Oil Field.

I travel the I-25 corridor to Fort Collins regularly and mark the increase in energy development along the route, drilling rigs in corn and sunflower fields next to housing developments. Colorado is considering new setback regulations to regulate minimum distances between drilling pads and various types of development. Knowing what we know today about fracking (hydraulic fracturing) and the proprietary cocktail of 550 or so chemicals that get pumped into the earth to release gas and oil, what’s a comfortable distance to live in proximity to a drill pad? Is 350 feet far enough? (current housing reg.) How about 500? One of the comments in a recent Greeley Tribune article caught my eye: “We acknowledge that public interest is driving the call for increased setbacks, and we are interested in discussing the practices that can address these concerns in urban drilling,” COGA president and CEO Tisha Schuller said recently in a prepared release. “At the same time, we cannot forget the stakeholders most affected by drilling. Any setback solution must acknowledge the legal, regulatory, and technical complexity of well-siting.” Continue reading “Drilling Setbacks – Too Close?”

Save The Hoback

Here’s your chance to do something amazing with a year end contribution or Black Friday purchase. Save a piece of Greater Yellowstone and preserve it for your kids and grandkids. The Trust For Public Land has done their part by agreeing to purchase existing gas leases and retire them in perpetuity. We have a window of opportunity to raise $4.75 million before the end of the year and every tax deductible donation helps. Just visit TPL and donate today. Imagine that $150 saves an acre from drilling!

I’m proud to be working with the top conservation organizations in the West, and Trust For Public Land, Wyoming Outdoor Council, and The Wilderness Society have been in this fight since the beginning. I made the image in this ad while flying a mission with LightHawk, specifically to photograph the Wyoming Range from an aerial perspective and I’m grateful for LightHawk’s support. I’ve written about Noble Basin many times here – a remarkable wildlife migration corridor and calving site for pronghorn, mule deer, elk, and most of the Yellowstone wildlife, including grizzly bears; an animal superhighway sandwiched between the Wyoming Range and Gros Ventre Range. It’s where wildlife migrate to and through in spring and fall, when snow covers nearby Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. The purchase agreement is supported by a broad coalition of sportsmen, recreationists, Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and other politicians, and the entire conservation community working in Greater Yellowstone. Donate today and feel great about saving one of the last truly special places in the West.

Plan To Protect The Wyoming Range!

Daniel, Wyoming resident Dave Willoughby stands on the South Rim access road to Noble Basin. Dave, with the Citizens For The Wyoming Range has been a staunch advocate for protection of Noble Basin in the Wyoming Range’s Upper Hoback region of the southern Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The news couldn’t have come at a better time. I received a call from the Trust For Public Lands last week and learned of a new agreement to purchase the PXP gas leases in Noble Basin for $8.75 Million. The “what would it take?” question on the mind of everyone advocating for this special place has been answered. The leases for 136 wells to be drilled over decades in the heart of a Greater Yellowstone wildlife superhighway cost nearly $9 million and will be retired in perpetuity. You and I, and any other adventuresome soul can enjoy this place for all time. More importantly, our grandkids and great-grandkids can one day appreciate a legacy of stewardship. There’s still work to be done because TPL needs to raise half of the money to complete the purchase. If you care about Yellowstone, the West, wildlife, our Western heritage, or just have a big heart, go here and make a donation. I believe the Noble Basin/Upper Hoback is one of the most critically important places in the West and this is something we can all celebrate. Thank you to the conservation heroes at TPL!

TPL, Citizens For The Wyoming Range, The Wilderness Society, Wyoming Outdoor Council and others have been involved in this fight that’s galvanized stakeholders throughout the region since the beginning. I’ve been a Wyoming Range activist for the last couple of years and have written about the threat here, here , here, here, here, here and elsewhere.

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