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arapaho national forest 2012
arapaho national forest 2012

New West Daily Roundup for Aug. 22, 2016

Today in New West news: tensions high between homeless living in national forests and nearby towns, the parasite that killed thousands of Yellowstone whitefish, and Routt County Treasurer rejects tax payment from Peabody Energy.

According to the New York Times, forests in the Rocky Mountain West and Southwest have, in recent years, become refuges for displaced, homeless persons. Arapaho National Forest, for instance, just west of Denver, is home to people like Gerald Babbitt, who lives with his wife in a “pop-up trailer on cinder blocks,” using a bucket for a toilet and venturing out to nearby towns only for water. The Babbitt are just one example of the informal community drawing notice in national forests across the West.

And while homeless camping on national forestland is not new, their visibility is undoubtedly new—especially in the resentment some town dwellers and recreational enthusiasts feel. From the Times:

To millions of adventurers and campers, America’s national forests are a boundless backyard for hiking trips, rafting, hunting and mountain biking. But for thousands of homeless people and hard-up wanderers, they have become a retreat of last resort.

Forest law enforcement officers say they are seeing more dislocated people living off the land, often driven there by drug and alcohol addiction, mental health problems, lost jobs or scarce housing in costly mountain towns. And as officers deal with more emergency calls, drug overdoses, illegal fires and trash piles deep in the woods, tensions are boiling in places like Nederland that lie on the fringes of the United States’ forests and loosely patrolled public lands.

“The anger is palpable,” said Hansen Wendlandt, the pastor at the Nederland Community Presbyterian Church.

Some residents have begun taking photographs of hitchhikers or videotaping confrontations with homeless people camping in the woods and posting them online, including on a private Facebook page created recently called Peak to Peak Forest Watch. Some say the campers have cursed at them for driving past without picking them up, or yelled at them while they were cycling or hiking. They say they no longer feel comfortable in some parts of the woods.

But as a homeless man named Julian, 30, hiked down from the hills and into Nederland one rainy afternoon, guitar and knapsack slung on his back, he said a passing driver yelled at him to get out of town. He said he, too, felt uncomfortable and was heading toward Estes Park, Colo., then on to Oregon. He did not give his last name because he said he did not want friends and family reading that he was homeless.

Mr. Wendlandt serves lunch and hands out socks to needy campers every Thursday. But he has stopped provisioning people with blankets and sleeping bags, worried that what seemed like compassion could be exacerbating a problem.

U.S. Forest Service rangers say tensions have been exacerbated by years and years of bad fire seasons, with many conflagrations starting from unattended campfires and even a discarded cigarette. Residents want the Forest Service to “crack down” on campers and police the land more effectively; the Service counters that they have neither the funding nor the people to patrol effectively. Indeed, only one officer is assigned to Boulder County, which includes the Nederland and the Roosevelt and Arapaho National Forests.

In the meantime, social scientists are scrambling to understand why tensions between homeless people on public lands and recreationalists/adjacent residents are on the rise.

Meanwhile, up in Montana, we reported last week that Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks had closed a 183-mile stretch of the Yellowstone River after whitefish started turning up dead by the thousands. The closure prohibits all recreational activity on and along the river, including fishing and rafting. And according to the Billings Gazette, the closure could last for months as biologists explore why the outbreak occurred:

The closures will remain until the waterways improve and fish stop dying, according to officials from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks. The ban includes all fishing, rafting and other river activities.

Officials are now worried the fish kill could have a lasting impact on the Yellowstone’s reputation as a world-class trout fishery that draws visitors from around the world.

The closures extend to hundreds of miles of waterways that feed into the Yellowstone, including the Boulder, Shields and Stillwater rivers.

No dead fish were found inside Yellowstone National Park, where a celebration of the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary is set for this week and no closures were planned there.

The parasite causes fish to contract a fatal kidney disease and die. FWP spokeswoman Andrea Jones said the disease can have a mortality rate as high as 90 percent. Other places that have had similar outbreaks include Washington state, Oregon, Idaho, Canada and Europe.

In response to the closure announcement, the Atlantic ran a piece explaining the parasite that cause so many fish to die all at once:

The press statement and all the subsequent news reports referred to the organism behind the fishes’ woes as a “microscopic parasite.” A few select outlets actually named the thing—Tetracapsuloides bryosalmonae. But none of them realized how extraordinary it really is.

It is part of a group called the myxozoans. They spend most of their lives as microscopic spores that are made of just a few cells. Despite their appearances, these creatures are animals. And although they are obscure, you have definitely heard of their closest relatives—jellyfish, corals, and sea anemones. Yellowstone River is now closed because more than half a billion years ago, a jellyfish-like animal started transforming into a parasite.

There are over 2,000 species of myxozoans (pronounced “MIX-oh-zoh-uns”), and all of them are microscopic parasites. Myxobolus cerebralis is a typical member, and the most well-studied one. It infects rainbow trout and other freshwater fish, causing an illness called whirling disease. The parasite attacks the spinal cartilage of young fish, leading to skeletal deformities and nerve damage. The youngsters often chase their tails or swim in corkscrews—hence the disease’s name. Unable to feed or escape from predators, up to 90 percent of them die.

The dead fish release large numbers of tiny seed-shaped spores, each comprising just six cells. These can stay dormant in the environment for decades. They reactivate once they are swallowed by the right host—the sludge worm, an aquatic relative of the more familiar earthworm. Once inside the worm’s gut, the spores deploy two small but sophisticated structures called polar capsules, which are like coiled harpoons. They launch outwards, attaching the spores to the worm’s gut and allowing them to burrow inwards.

As they multiply, they produce a different kind of spore, which looks like a jack or the head of a grappling hook. The worms poop these into the water, where they latch onto the skin of passing trout. Using those same polar capsules, the jack-shaped spores inject the fish with infectious amoeba-like cells that crawl through their bodies. When the cells reach spinal cartilage, they start reproducing, causing the symptoms of whirling disease. Eventually, they produce more of the seed-shaped spores, which leave the fish to start the whole complicated life cycle anew.

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Professor Paulyn Cartwright of the University of Kansas told the Atlantic that understanding the Yellowstone parasite’s evolutionary origins will undoubtedly help officials understand how they function—which will help Montana FWP officials tackle the problem at hand.

Finally, keeping with Colorado news, according to the Denver Post, Routt County Treasurer Brita Horn has rejected $1.7 million in overdue property taxes from Peabody Energy, a coal giant that declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Horn rejected the money on the grounds that the amount did not include over $91,000 owed in interest and fees. Further, Horn told the Post she rejected the offer in retribution for money taken “out of her own pocket for a public relations effort assuring taxpayers the company would get no special treatment.” From the Post:

Peabody, which filed for bankruptcy in April, sent two checks totaling $1,798,507.38 — a figure that did not include more than $91,000 in interest and fees. In a letter that arrived with the checks, Peabody suggested that the county could pursue additional charges through an amended claim in bankruptcy court.

A frustrated Horn, saying she could not accept less than the amount owed, mailed the checks back to Peabody on Thursday afternoon. Then, through a private public relations firm, she issued a news release explaining her action and the reasons behind it.

“For a county treasurer to cut deals for some taxpayers — while making others pay their full amounts — would be unfair and would erode public trust,” she said in the news release. “By law, if my office can’t offer a tax break to a single mom who worries about feeding her children, I’m not going to offer one to a multi-national corporation that just asked the bankruptcy court to pay its executives $12 million in bonuses.”

She was further frustrated on Friday by news that Peabody had now proposed setting aside more than $16 million for its executive bonuses.

Asked about her unusual public relations move, Horn explained that Routt County doesn’t have a public information officer to handle such matters. She said she felt strongly enough about the importance of keeping county taxpayers abreast of the situation to spend her own money for communications help.

“All the other elected officials and all the other people want to know what’s going on,” Horn said. “I just wanted to make sure everybody knew that we’re treating them the same. I can’t move that needle for (Peabody), and they shouldn’t be asking for it.”

Horn also voiced her concerns about Peabody in a letter to the editor published in Steamboat Pilot & Today.

Peabody responded with a prepared statement, saying the company had sent a $1.8 million property tax check, adding they have “done everything we can to pay these taxes for the benefit of the community based on what the court has allowed.”

Peabody isn’t the only company Horn has rejected check from, based on missing interest and fees. This year alone, Horn told the Post, she’s rejected 287 checks that didn’t include interest and fees.

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