BOISE, Idaho – A new study says Western U.S. states could follow the Southeast's lead to reduce wildfire risk.
Crystal Kolden, an associate professor of fire science at the University of Idaho, analyzed the use of prescribed burns across the country between 1998 and 2018, and found the Southeast used more than twice the amount of prescribed burns as the rest of the country.
The region also saw fewer acres burned in wildfires during that time. Kolden says the West has different vegetation, climates and population centers, but still believes the Southeast model could work here.
"The thing that makes prescribed fire work in the Southeast is how people approach the problem, and how that approach has been dealt with on the policy and the regulatory side,” says Kolden. “And that is something that we can absolutely emulate in the West."
Kolden credits much of the Southeast's success to collaboration between federal agencies, states and even private companies and landowners. She says funds in the West are being diverted from prescribed burning in order to fight intense wildfire seasons, which hurts longer-term efforts to deal with this threat.
The U.S. Forest Service is warning that more than a billion acres could burn across the U.S. this season.
The research found the Bureau of Indian Affairs was the only federal agency to substantially increase its use of prescribed fire over the 21-year study period.
Sam Scranton with the BIA says the approach has worked to mitigate the wildfire threat. He says there's 57 million burnable acres on BIA land, and nearly 10 million are at high risk.
Prescribed burns have other uses too, such as recycling nutrients to make healthier landscapes for plants and animals. Scranton also notes Native Americans have used this method for generations.
"The land source is a source of the tribes' spiritual, cultural, emotional, economic substance,” says Scranton. “So they have a great dependency upon the land, and they want to take care of it for future generations."
The University of Idaho research says the BIA devoted between 50% and 80% of its fire suppression budget to prescribed burns in the past five years, while other federal agencies' commitments never exceeded 25%.
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As smoke from Canadian wildfires blankets New York and much of the East Coast, it's causing a wide range of health effects - and not just for people.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the effects can be as minor as eye and respiratory-tract irritation, but worsening to asthma and even causing heart failure.
And humans aren't the only ones feeling the effects of smoky skies - wildlife is compromised through loss of habitat, food and water sources.
Corina Newsome, a conservation scientist with the National Wildlife Federation, noted that climate change could make this a regular occurrence.
"With there being more frequent, more intense, longer-burning wildfires - and of course natural movement of air," said Newsome, 'we can absolutely expect to see wildfire smoke occurring in places where wildfires are not actually burning, like we're seeing right now, being a more frequent experience."
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has ordered New York firefighters to help combat the Canadian blazes.
As for the Belmont Stakes this weekend, Hochul said she's taking additional measures to protect racehorses and spectators - adding that if the air quality hits 200, the race will be canceled.
Some states dealing with the smoke will need to petition the EPA for what is known as an "exceptional event." It's the term for an unusual occurrence that affects air quality and cannot be reasonably controlled using traditional methods.
Otherwise, Russell Dickerson, Ph. D - professor in the Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Science at the University of Maryland - said the EPA could possibly make states like New York and New Jersey responsible for air quality violations.
"We're going to be in trouble with the EPA, because these are violations," said Dickerson. "So, it'll go to court to decide - are they going to blame the states? Because the states have the responsibility for fixing their air-quality problem, to a large extent. And these are violations. They're going to put us over the top."
The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the impacts of escalating wildfires.
A spokesman for the Interior Department said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law can help the U.S. deal with these kinds of blazes in the future. It provides over $1.5 billion for wildland fire research to help with risk reduction.
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By Elizabeth Hewitt for Reasons to be Cheerful.
Broadcast version by Mike Moen for Minnesota News Connection reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration
Amid black-eyed Susans and purple wildflowers growing between rows of solar panels at Connexus Energy’s headquarters in Ramsey, Minnesota, Rob Davis has seen hover flies, swallows and a hummingbird moth.
“It’s just like being in a nice, natural place,” says Davis, Connexus public affairs lead. “But it’s also just a visual delight, because there’s so many things to see when you sit and wait.”
When the array was installed almost a decade ago, the initial plan was to keep gravel around the panels. Instead, the electricity co-op planted a mixture of flowering plants — becoming what Davis says was the first pollinator-friendly solar project in the US.
Now, many others are following suit.
In Minnesota and across the country, planners are increasingly eschewing turf grass and gravel for flowering meadows that support butterflies, bees, insects and other threatened wildlife.
“You have the opportunity with solar to actually benefit the surrounding land if you’re thoughtful about how you do it,” says Katie Siegner, a manager in carbon-free electricity at RMI who has researched pollinator-friendly solar.
Bees, bats, insects and birds that help to pollinate plants are responsible for a key part of the ecosystem, and are crucial for growing food. But they are struggling, due in part to climate change, habitat loss and use of pesticides and herbicides. The western bumblebee population has declined by 57% since 1998. Migratory monarch butterflies were listed as an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature last year, with the population estimated to have diminished by between 22% and 72% in the last decade. Honey bee colonies have declined by up to a third every winter in recent years, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Meanwhile, as the Biden administration has sought to scale up solar energy, panels are poised to take up more space on the landscape. Advocates focused on pollinators see potential benefits in the solar fields, compared to other types of land use.
“It provides a pretty incredible opportunity,” says Wendy Caldwell, executive director of the nonprofit Monarch Joint Venture, which aims to conserve habitat for monarch butterflies and other pollinators.
Since the monarch first was reviewed for endangered species status in the US in 2014 conservationists adopted an all-hands-on-deck approach to try to expand habitat, Caldwell says, looking to buffer zones on agricultural lands, roadsides, urban gardens and more. Solar developments have an additional benefit of not needing the pesticides and herbicides common to farming, she says.
In a study of four solar installations with flowering ground cover, which included milkweed, in Minnesota, Monarch Joint Venture found that a variety of species — including monarchs — were present.
“We know that monarchs and other pollinators are using these sites,” Caldwell says.
In the UK, researchers found “solar meadows” could boost the number of bumblebees even in nearby areas. Shade from the panels can delay the flowering of some plants, giving pollinators access to pollen later in the season. A 2021 report in Environmental Entomology concluded that native flowering species suited to the site around solar developments could support pollinators, though it underscored the importance of implementing projects carefully, having oversight and assessing how well they are growing.
At the Ramsey array, a Connexus team walks the site once a year, clearing out baby trees growing as weeds, according to Davis. Every other year, the field is mulch mowed, which breaks up the dead plant material that settles. Some projects use occasional sheep grazing for a similar effect. Aside from occasional spot reseeding, Davis says the project takes very little ongoing maintenance. Connexus now uses pollinator-friendly habitat in all of its projects. Some projects involve beekeepers, producing honey that can be sold.
Minnesota was the first state to establish a scorecard for pollinator-friendly solar projects, passing legislation in 2016. Sites use the guide to log everything from the diversity of plantings to percentage of wildflower cover.
“The movement shifted to thinking about the entire landscape instead of just a superficial fringe,” Davis says.
As of March 2022, 55 Minnesota solar sites were listed as pollinator friendly. More than a dozen other states now have similar scorecards.
Siegner, of RMI, found in her research that pollinator habitat brings other benefits to solar sites. The planted meadows sequester carbon, help recharge groundwater and reduce erosion. Improving habitat for bees and insects could also boost yields for crops that depend on pollinators at neighboring farms; a model found soy yields could be up by 6.3 percent near pollinator-friendly solar.
Siegner says incorporating pollinator habitat can win local support for solar projects — a hurdle for many solar developers. Finding dual uses, like grazing sheep or incorporating other types of agriculture, is one strategy for courting local acceptance.
Plantings for a pollinator-friendly solar project can cost more than turf or gravel, and finding a sufficient supply of native seeds can also be a challenge. But the Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund’s Solar Synergy initiative, launched in March, will soon provide solar developers with free seed mixtures suited to specific site needs that will flower from early spring through the summer. One seed mix will be low growing, featuring plants like clover, that won’t impede panels close to the ground. Another taller mixture will be suitable for buffer areas. Monarch Joint Venture is on board to monitor sites and report on how well the habitats work for pollinators. Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund will also connect project leaders with commercial beekeepers, so the arrays can be used to produce honey.
“It’s another way of delivering multiple benefits,” says Pete Berthelsen, Bee and Butterfly Habitat Fund executive director. “I really like the fact that it’s green renewable energy, and we’re putting less carbon into the atmosphere because of it. But who wouldn’t want there to be pollinator benefits associated with that project going in?”
Elizabeth Hewitt wrote this article for Reasons to be Cheerful.
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The Bureau of Land Management has auctioned off another 10,000 acres of New Mexico public lands to the oil and gas industry, despite a local rally and national letter writing campaign requesting its cancellation.
The letter, signed by 272 local and national groups, unions, businesses and institutions, failed to stop the May 25 sale and the BLM did not respond.
Miya King-Flaherty, Our Wild New Mexico organizing representative for the Rio Grande chapter of the Sierra Club, said four Western states have the highest concentration of federal oil and gas leases.
"New Mexico is ground zero," King-Flaherty asserted. "We are essentially -- I use the word 'sacrifice zone' -- but lands in New Mexico are continually being held up for lease."
King-Flaherty pointed out the BLM has another sale of leases planned for November. At the same time, the Biden administration took action last week to protect the cultural and historic resources surrounding the state's Chaco Culture National Historical Park from new oil and gas leasing and mining claims.
New Mexico is the number two oil producing state in the nation, mostly in the San Juan and Permian Basins. Last month, the American Lung Association said ozone pollution, or smog, is getting worse in the Permian, with Eddy County having some of the worst air quality in the country.
King-Flaherty argued the dominance of fossil fuels is exacerbating the warming climate, which can be traced to the state's largest wildfire ever recorded in 2022.
"If this leasing continues, we are only going to see climate disasters worsening," King-Flaherty contended. "And public health impacts worsening for vulnerable populations, and Black and brown and Indigenous populations that continue to be on the front lines."
King-Flaherty added the letter sent to the BLM pointed to recent findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, showing time is running out to avert catastrophe.
"Our window continues to narrow, and yet our government is doing the absolute opposite of what we need to do to ensure a habitable climate for all of us," King-Flaherty concluded.
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Disclosure: The Sierra Club contributes to our fund for reporting on Climate Change/Air Quality, Energy Policy, Environment, and Environmental Justice. If you would like to help support news in the public interest, click here.