Today in New West news: Rocky Mountain National Park sup. speaks about challenges facing national parks, Montana plants wheat while Wyoming considers hemp, and Utah court preserves federal protections for state prairie dogs.
In a recent interview with the Coloradoan, Rocky Mountain National Park superintendent Darla Sidles speaks about her long history with the National Park Service and the various challenges it and other parks face as visitation mounts and infrastructure lags. Indeed, Sidles cites overcrowding as a pressing concern for her and her staff. From the Coloradoan:
Q: What are park leaders doing to deal with overcrowding?
A: This past summer we started implementing some short-term restrictions at Bear Lake and at Alpine Visitor Center and Wild Basin. When all these parking lots filled up, we would turn people around right (at the entrances) and say, “Hey, come back later and there’ll be parking.” That actually did help, because people knew what to expect. The farther you drive, the more frustrating it is when you realize you can’t park.
We have to figure out a long-term strategy working with the communities, Grand Lake and Estes Park and Lyons, to say, how can we work better together to give visitors better information up front so they know not to come on Saturday between 10 and 4. If you want to come, you have to come early, or during the week or at a different time of year. We also know it’s not just a matter of, “Hey, let’s load up more shuttles.” That is not the answer.
Zion (National Park in Utah) is a good example of that. They put more shuttles in and they had like 6 minute headway between shuttles, and they’ve got more than hour-long waits for people to get on those shuttles. We’ll keep putting short-term visitor restrictions at these three busy spots this summer.
There’s a bunch of parks out there looking at ways to manage visitation. Anything from reservation systems for busy areas — Zion is looking at a bunch of alternatives, including potential permit systems for the Narrows and Angel’s Landing. Grand Teton (National Park) has Moose Wilson Road, and they’re looking at a queueing system, where they allow in a certain number of cars. One car in, one car out. That will probably be in our toolbox of things to propose. But we have to get input from our communities and the public. We have to present them with some options and ask them what they’d recommend, so it’s not a quick process. We’re hoping to do something for the long-term probably starting in the next fiscal year, which is October. It’ll probably take a couple of years.
Q: Do you think visitation will continue to increase? January and February 2017 visitation was actually down from the two previous years.
A: We don’t even know if the visitor increases will continue. They have, obviously, for the past few years. Some people thought that was because of the park service centennial and Rocky’s centennial. But you all know the Front Range population growth is exploding, and they’re coming here.
Sidles also addressed steep cuts proposed to the Department of the Interior under President Trump’s desired budget, saying “I try to tell my staff, that’s the proposed budget. That does not mean that’s our budget.” In conclusion, Sidles discussed the importance of research in determining management of the park and dangers the park faces from climate change.
Looking north, according to the Billings Gazette, as other states shy away from wheat, Montana’s embracing it. It’s a startling move, in part, because wheat is at its lowest acreage (46.1 million) in the U.S. since 1919—when the U.S. Department of Agriculture started keeping records. Why the drop? Cause prices have been on a two-year slide. So why is Montana sticking with wheat? From the Gazette:
“You look at these numbers and it’s pretty significant that Montana is still a wheat state, which makes us pretty unique,” said Lola Raska, of the Montana Grain Growers Association.
If Montana farmers follow through, the state will have 5.19 million wheat acres this year. Prices for spring wheat are slowly rising.
Beer companies are cutting back on malt barley contracts and consequently acres in Montana are expected to be down 300,000 to the lowest number since 1953, or 690,000 acres.
“It’s a big chunk, but consider that Coors and Anheuser cut down on their barley contracts significantly,” said Eric Sommer, statistician for the USDA National Agricultural Statistics field office in Helena. “Everyone was up in arms with the contracts being down so much, but the companies were saying ‘If you don’t have a contract, we don’t want the barley.’ ”
Meanwhile, down in Wyoming, according to the Wyoming Business Report, farmers across the state are waiting to get in on the hemp market after the Legislature approved a bill earlier in March. Though hemp, a cannabis cousin, is still considered a Schedule 1 controlled substance, farmers can grow it under the supervision of a college or agricultural department, since hemp has far less THC than marijuana—0.3 percent compared to 15-30 percent. Wyoming joins some 30 states that have approved industrial hemp farming. Though, according to Cheyenne farmer Ron Rabou, it’ll be a few years before Wyoming hemp is officially good to go—barring any sudden rescinding of the law. From the WBR:
The bill will allow farmers to plant, grow and sell industrial hemp for experimentation and research, all under the close direction of the Wyoming Department of Agriculture.
The Legislature approved the bill near the close of the session in early March. It became law without the signature of Gov. Matt Mead.
“Hemp has so much potential because of the products that can be created from it,” Rabou said.
“Hemp can be used in many products, including plastics, textiles, construction materials, insulation, car panels, fiberboard and diesel fuel,” Rabou said.
Several states have started hemp farming programs since 2014, when a federal law allowed states to produce hemp under the direction of a college or agricultural department. Thirty states have passed bills about industrial hemp.
The Wyoming bill authorizes the Department of Agriculture to develop pilot programs with farmers to help produce the hemp plant so that the ag department can do research. Farmers would have to get a license first from the Department of Agriculture. They would also have to pass a criminal history background check.
The bill was scheduled to take effect in July, but the Legislature agreed to delay it until July 2018. Rabou doubts anything will occur until 2019.
That’s because before the program starts, the Department of Agriculture must buy equipment to test hemp and make sure it doesn’t contain THC levels higher than 0.3 percent, Derek Grant said, the agriculture department’s public information officer.
The machine will cost between $300,000 and $400,000, which is money the department doesn’t have now, Grant said. The department also has to train someone to do the testing.
Finally, down in Utah, according to the Salt Lake Tribune, a federal appeals court has (in essence) reinstated protections for Utah prairie dogs. The decision comes after activists convinced U.S. District Judge Dee Benson that the protections imperiled private property rights; further, Benson ruled that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s prohibitions on prairie dog hunting was not authorized under the Constitution’s Commerce Clause. A three-judge panel, however, overruled Benson, saying the USFWS’ policy is a “cornerstone” of the Endangered Species Act and affects interstate commerce. From the Tribune:
“Congress had a rational basis to believe that regulation of the take of the Utah prairie dog on nonfederal land is an essential part of the ESA’s broader regulatory scheme, which, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce,” wrote Judge Jerome Holmes.
The Republican appointee noted that since 68 percent of species on the endangered list exist entirely within a single state’s borders, denying protections on this basis would “severely undercut the ESA’s conservation purposes.”
The range of the Utah prairie dog is limited to southwestern Utah, where 70 percent of its occupied range is on nonfederal land. These animals’ burrows damage air strips, agricultural equipment, golf courses and cemeteries, so they are considered a pest. But those burrows also provide ecological services by aerating soil, and prairie dogs are a food source for raptors.
Federal rules limit where prairie dogs can be killed to agricultural fields, property within a half-mile of conservation land and “areas where Utah prairie dogs create serious human safety hazards or disturb the sanctity of significant human cultural or burial sites.” The rules also limit the number of animals killed and the methods used to kill them.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Property Owners, a Utah landowner group whose name riffs on that of a controversial animal-rights group, sued the federal government, alleging they “have been prevented from building homes, starting small businesses and, in the case of the local government, from protecting recreational facilities, a municipal airport and the local cemetery from the Utah prairie dog’s maleffects.”
Groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity, however, celebrated the ruling. Indeed, endangered species director Noah Greenwald told the Tribune that his organization hopes the ruling “puts these preposterous arguments to bed.”