Monday, March 30, 2015
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Land Use & Development

Welcome to Shingle Mountain, Colorado

So where does one hide a pile of old roofing shingles that can cover a football field and towers some 30 feet in height? If you are Denver-based Shingles 4 Recycling, you don’t have to hide such a mountain––not when you can place it in the north Denver, working-class neighborhood of Elyria. Now, the recycling of used roof shingles is generally a good thing, and needs to be encouraged in Denver and elsewhere. Old shingles can be ground-up and substituted for crude oil components in the manufacturing of new asphalt products. And if properly managed, shingle recycling presents very few, if any, environmental concerns. But when such recycling is not properly managed, you get a situation like Shingle Mountain. What we see here is, for local community members, quite an eyesore. But it is also a potential fire hazard and an environmental hazard. According to a joint EPA-industry report, old asphalt shingles (particularly those manufactured before 1990) can contain both asbestos and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), many of which are considered to be hazardous. Read More »

On the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, Be Advised: Don’t Drink the Water

Since moving to her home more than 20 years ago, Laveta Killsnight has never drunk her tap water. “My water’s plum orange,” she says. Killsnight, a diabetes technician with long, graying hair and a wide grin, lives in Muddy Cluster, a small town on the Northern Cheyenne Indian reservation in southeastern Montana. The reservation, home to about 4,800 people, is dotted with small housing clusters separated by dozens of miles of rolling plains and curving two-lane highway. Hard water is a problem in much of this territory, but it's a particular problem on the reservation, which often lacks the equipment and funding to put in better water systems. The tribe’s administration operates on less than $2 million a year, and the money is spread thinly among housing, health and education services. The Northern Cheyenne tribe is known nationally for its environmentalism and pristine landscape. But for a tribe that fought for and succeeding in getting Class 1 air status—the same air quality standards as a national park—what they don’t always have is good water. Read More »

Off the Grid in Montana, Part 4: A Change in the Seasons

The single track road leading up to the pink-stucco one-story is turning to mud, and water trickles from the berm behind the home all the way down to the creek at the end of the neighborhood. Although the mountains adjacent to his house are still frozen under near-record snowpacks, it's already predicted the rivers will flow higher than average this April and May. Spring is coming, and Tom knows that means he's going to be very busy. “March comes, so now I've got essentially two months to get stuff done in the house before I head out to work,” Tom says. He works seasonally in the wilderness around Western Montana, doing inventory on entire swaths of land for companies interested in logging and other natural resources. It's been his lifestyle for more than 20 years, leaving for months in the summer to come home to a frozen landscape and, sometimes, a near freezing family, to continue work on the Earthship. Read More »

Boom and Bust: Reshaping Development Patterns in Teton Valley

When the market turned in 2008, Teton Valley was quickly rendered the poster child for ill-conceived development dreams in resort towns. Today, this community of approximately 8,800 residents has 7,791 vacant lots. Local analysts say that, even if building rates returned to what they were in 2007, it would take a minimum of 77 years to exhaust the supply. “Any time your ratio of vacant subdivision lots to the number of people in your county is close to one, that’s a bad thing,” says Randy Carpenter, North American Program Director for the international land planning organization the Sonoran Institute. In addition, development in Teton Valley has not managed to pay its way. Questions about the maintenance of roads and bridges needed for accessing remote developments along with the increasing demand placed on schools, emergency medical and safety services and public parks and pathways were never asked or answered. Even with the additional revenue garnered by property taxes on those additional 7,791 lots once they are built, the county would still come up $17.4 million dollars short for what it would take to cover country operations, infrastructure and capital investments to service those lots. Read More »

Off the Grid in Montana, Part 3: Growing Up in the Earthship

Holly Leonard returned to the U.S. last year from Kenya, where she had been doing nonprofit work with adoption agencies. As she relocated to Denver to work at Hope's Promise headquarters, her roommate called her with some bad news: She had found an apartment, but they'd have to share a bathroom. “I just laughed at her. I grew up sharing a bathroom that is a hallway with my entire family,” Holly says. Although there is nothing special about the two-bedroom Denver apartment where Holly, 25, lives now, she says it's the most luxurious place she's ever had: It has a flush-toilet, electric heat and a TV. From the camper van where she spent the first years of her life, to the off-the-grid Earthship her family built in the hills above Florence, Montana, to the crammed dorm rooms of the University of Montana, luxuries have been defined as heat, personal space and doors. Holly will be the first to tell you she's not the Earthship type. Read More »

Off the Grid in Montana, Part 2: Building the Earthship

Two days after a late January snowstorm, Tom Leonard is in the Earthship on top of the hill in Florence, Montana, preparing beans he harvested from his garden earlier in the season. He soaks them in a crockpot. There's hardly a cloud in the sky. It's just above freezing. While his wife Tara is at work for the afternoon, Tom says he wants to use the time to realign his solar panels. There's one large frame with 10 panels on the berm behind his house and another with six more powerful panels on his roof. Although the solar panels are actually one of the more easily maintained aspects of the Earthship, Tom says that most people are turned away from alternative housing projects like this one because of the necessity of solar power. The upfront cost of the panels and installation can add up to $30,000 or more. And no matter if a house is on the grid or not, it will require pricier, energy efficient appliances if any of the electricity is to come from solar power. Read More »

Off the Grid in Montana, Part 1: Winter in the Earthship

It's a warm weekday in the middle of January in the Sapphire Mountains south of Missoula, Montana. The ground is slushy and an inversion hangs just below the peaks of the Bitterroot Mountains across the valley from Tom Leonard's home. He'd like to be cross-country skiing, snowshoeing or hiking the hills that surround his home, which sits outside the town of Florence, but the warm weather doesn't fool him. He's spent enough winters up here to know that, even in June, it can drop below freezing around these peaks, and his stockpile of wood is looking a little thin. There's still a long way to go before the end of the winter. He chucks a log into its home under a canopy that extends from an exterior wall. “That'll get us through until at least March,” he says. He packs up his chainsaw, houses his ax and eyes the solar panels on the hillside. It's getting late in the season and the sun is changing position, but he decides he’ll change the angle on the 16 panels next week. Read More »

The Land Trust Alternative: For Wyoming’s Endangered Ranchers, It’s a Future

In north central Wyoming, seven miles east of the Big Horn National Forest, Catherine Kusel and her brother Fred, two siblings well into retirement age, still run cattle on land purchased by their father in 1920. Their land has an undisturbed beauty typical of Wyoming. It is the dry, high desert steppe of open sage and grass juxtaposed with the rising forms of the Big Horn Mountains at its edge. The Kusel Ranch is an ideal place to raise a small herd of cattle, ideal, too, for people craving the aesthetic of the open west or for the second-home buyer wanting a private getaway. That's why, since last summer, Catherine and Fred Kusel’s newest neighbor is not another rancher, but a new subdivision. Statistics presented by the Wyoming Stock Growers Association indicate that by the middle of this century, an additional 48 million people are expected to live in the West. This population boom will put 26 million acres of open space at risk of residential and commercial development. Expected to have the third-highest growth rate, Wyoming will feel much of this coming change. Read More »

The Fight Between Montana and Wyoming for the Yellowstone River Likely Headed to Supreme Court

Montana alleges the use of sprinkler irrigation can result in an increase in the consumption of water, even if no more acres are actually being irrigated, “because increases in efficiency often result in reduced return flows on which downstream farmers historically relied,” said Montana Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Anders in an e-mail. “We believe that characterizing sprinkler irrigation as an ‘efficiency gain’ to the overall system is a misnomer.” When the compact was first signed, flood irrigation was the most common method in both states. Basically, farmers would flood their fields and what didn’t go into the ground slowly made its way back to the stream. “When you dump a bunch of water on a field you have to put more water on there than you really want to,” explained Peter Michael, Wyoming Senior Assistant Attorney General. This excess water is what’s commonly referred to as return flows. Farmers who’ve abandoned flooding in favor of the sprinkler irrigation systems, although not diverting any additional water to their crops, are, in a way, using more of it. The plants are watered more directly and take in more through their roots, reducing return flows. This is the basis of Montana’s complaint. Read More »