Today in New West news: Ryan Zinke frontrunner for Interior Secretary post, microbes in the Berkeley Pit, BLM approves two new transmission alignments in Utah, and Wyoming sells land in Grand Teton to Park Service.
Earlier this year, we reported Congressman Ryan Zinke (R-MT) would speak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Zinke was one of the first congressman to support Donald Trump as a candidate for the presidency. Now, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Zinke has been offered the post of Interior Secretary:
Trump was also said to be considering Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers for the job. She wrote on Facebook Tuesday that it was an “honor” to be invited to meet with Trump.
The people with knowledge of the offer to Zinke insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the transition process publicly.
Zinke, who serves on House Natural Resources and Armed Services committees, describes himself as “a steadfast advocate for Montana veterans and military personnel and families.” He advocates greater use of public lands for energy production such as oil and natural gas.
Zinke has prioritized development of oil, gas and other resources on public lands and has advocated for state control of energy development on federal lands, a stance that some environmental groups say threatens national parks. Zinke has voted against efforts to designate new national parks that would diversify the National Park System.
Zinke has raised doubts about climate change as “unsettled science.” Yet he’s also said in interviews that “something’s going on” with the climate and promoted an energy strategy that includes renewable sources such as wind and solar would be prudent.
This year, Zinke ran for re-election against Democratic challenger Denise Juneau, who would have been the first Native American woman elected to Congress, had she won.
Although Zinke has attracted attention for his stances on oil/gas development on public lands, he’s also presented himself as a public lands advocate, reflecting his bona fides as a sportsman; during the House race, however, his challenger, and numerous other Democrats, alleged that he wanted to sell federal lands to private interests or transfer them to states, citing a pledge Zinke purportedly signed in 2012 calling Montana’s lands “sovereign.” Zinke denied the charge.
At any rate, per the Chronicle, Zinke ran more on national security issues, especially Benghazi, reflecting his background as a retired Navy SEAL.
If Zinke accepts the post, according to a separate Chronicle story, Governor Steve Bullock (D) will need to call a special election 85-100 days from the start of Zinke’s vacancy. Bullock could also, per state law, appoint a temporary representative from a list of three written up by the Republican state central committee.
Keeping with Montana, we previously reported that thousands of snow geese perished after landing in the Berkeley Pit, an acidic lake sitting in the remains of a former copper mine. In addition to being a federally-designated Superfund site, the Berkeley Pit is a tourist attraction, charging $2 per head to have visitors marvel at the pit’s reddish, vinegarish waters. And, according to The Atlantic, it’s also prime habitat for a host of curious microbes:
The Berkeley Pit had killed migrating geese before. “It was a shock to hear it happening again, on a much larger scale,” says Andrea Stierle, who, along with her husband Don, has been studying the Berkeley Pit for more than three decades. In 1995, over 300 migrating geese landed in the pit and died from ingesting the toxic water. The Stierles were chemists at nearby Montana Tech at the time, and they were in search of microbes living in the toxic waste water that could make antibiotics and other useful substances. That arrival of the first flock of geese changed the microbial makeup of the Berkeley Pit and likely the outcomes of Stierles’ research, too.
Andrea and Don Stierle moved to Butte in 1980 to teach at Montana Tech. They watched as the pit filled up with water and became an odd object of fascination. It is at once a Superfund site—a site so polluted it qualifies for federal cleanup money—and a tourist destination ($2 admission to the viewing stand). Eventually, the pit became the Stierles’ research site, too. It got started when another chemist picked up a stick in the pit covered in slime—algae. In other words, the lake was wasn’t just a toxic cesspool. It contained life—and that meant it could contain microbes that make useful compounds.
The Stierles look for drugs in unlikely places. In the early 1990s, they isolated taxol from the bark of Pacific yew trees, and the substance ended up becoming a successful treatment for breast cancer. Extreme environments like the Berkeley Pit are good places for look for unusual bacteria making unusual substances with unusual properties. At the time, though, not everyone thought it was a good idea. “They thought we were crazy because of the toxicity of the water,” says Andrea.
Going down to the toxic pit water required 40 hours of training. So the Stierles asked the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology to do the actual collection. They got their first big sample of pit water in 1996, just after the first flock of geese had come and died.
The Stierles ended up finding hundreds of compounds from microbes in the pit water, many of them with antiviral or anticancer properties. And there was one yeast—one that Andrea described as “thick, gooey, black organism” that was very good at a totally different task, gobbling up metals from the metal-laden pit water. It’s impossible to know for sure exactly where this yeast came from, but the Stierles learned that this water-filtering yeast had only ever been found before in one particular place: the rectums of geese. The Stierles just happened to start studying the Berkeley Pit water after the 1995 geese die-off—but the timing was likely quite fortuitous.
The massive number of dead geese this year will impact the ecology of the pit too. Their bodies, to be clinical about it, are a massive infusion of nutrients. The microbes already living there could have a feeding frenzy and get a temporary population boost. “And the geese themselves are going to carry their own fungi and bacteria,” Andrea says. But she won’t get to know for sure this time.
That’s because access to the Berkeley Pit water has become restricted in the past few years. This used to be a mine, so the sides of the pit are unstable and have gotten more so. It now causes occasional landslides.“When you have one of the landslides occur, you get a kind of wave action that goes across the lake,” says Ted Duaime, a hydrogeologist with the Montana Bureau of Mines and Geology. The bureau has collected water for scientists into the past, sending hundreds of gallons around the country and as far as Japan, Australia, and Israel. That’s on hold now, but Duaime says they’re working on ways of remotely sampling the pit water, like using a drone boat.
Andrea, who is now at the University of Montana along with Don, has enough microbes in the old samples from 1996 and a later 2003 collection to keep her and her husband quite busy in the meantime. (She was, in fact, horrified to learn that a speaker at a conference cited their work as justification for not cleaning up the pit. “I wrote them a note and thanked them for their concern for our longevity as researchers,” she says, “But we got our water samples 10 years ago.”)
Looking at energy news, residents along the Wasatch Front, as well as bright New Vegas, will soon be getting some of their electricity from Wyoming wind. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, the Bureau of Land Management had approved a pair of transmission realignments (TransWest Express and Energy Gateway South). The move comes with some controversy for conservationists, however, when they saw the realignments cut across “lands with wilderness characteristics” in northwest Colorado and the Uinta Basin. From the Tribune:
“Readily available alternative routes could have minimized or eliminated these impacts by following highways and designated utility corridors,” said Alex Daue of The Wilderness Society. “The BLM has made tremendous progress in advancing a ‘smart-from-the-start’ approach to siting wind and solar projects, but the same cannot yet be said for transmission lines.”
The group, however, sees a “silver lining” in the BLM’s call for “compensatory mitigation” to offset the projects’ impacts to habitat and wilderness-quality lands.
Both power lines would move power generated in southcentral Wyoming through northwest Colorado and across Utah. PacifiCorp is developing 416-mile Gateway South to deliver power to the new Clover substation at Mona, about 77 miles south of Salt Lake City, while the 728-mile TransWest continues on to to Las Vegas.
TransWest mostly follows U.S. Highway 40 after it enters Utah, the Gateway South right-of-way turns south through Bonanza and heads across upper Desolation Canyon area, chopping up a 7,100-acre area managed for its wilderness characteristics.
Conservationists are perplexed that the two lines aren’t co-located through Utah, a move that would confine the impacts to a single corridor and keep out of the Desolation area.
Federal officials, however, celebrated the transmission decisions, which came after years of environmental reviews exploring various alignments. The lines will move up to 4,500 megawatts of renewable power across the Mountain West and desert Southwest.
Finally, over in Wyoming, according to the Interior Department, the Cowboy State has agreed to sell a 640-acre parcel of Wyoming School Trust Land in Grand Teton National Park to the National Park Service, in order to formally incorporate that land into the national park system:
Ownership of the land was transferred to the National Park Service today and was made possible through a public-private partnership involving the Department of the Interior, Grand Teton National Park Foundation and National Park Foundation. The $46 million purchase price, half of which came through the Land and Water Conservation Fund, was split equally between the Department of the Interior and the non-federal partners.
“Today we’re celebrating the foresight and generosity of many partners who stepped forward to protect these incredible lands within Grand Teton National Park for future generations,” said Secretary Jewell. “This important area is no longer vulnerable to development, thanks to Governor Mead, the support of many donors through the National Park Foundation and the Grand Teton National Park Foundation, and the highly successful Land and Water Conservation Fund.”
The property was one of two remaining tracts of school trust lands that were granted to Wyoming by the Federal Government upon statehood in 1890, and later included within the boundaries of Grand Teton National Park when it was established by Congress in 1950.
“The Antelope Flats parcel sits within Grand Teton National Park. Its sale provides Wyoming a greater return on the land and allows the people of Wyoming and visitors from elsewhere greater opportunities to enjoy the wonders of the Park,” said Governor Mead. “I thank the donors, Secretary Jewell, the Wyoming Legislature, the Grand Teton National Park Foundation and the National Park Service for their efforts.”