Sunday, December 31, 2017

Top Ten Environmental Predictions for 2018

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In another end of the year On the Brink tradition, here are my top environmental predictions for 2018. Do you have any others? If so, add them to the comments on the blog. My crystal ball tells me that the year ahead will be an important one and that the environment will take a major role in national and world discourse.

1. Greater environmental activism. Given my top environmental news stories of 2017 which showed that it was a very bad year for U.S. environmental policy, I predict greater environmental activism in 2018 which will be expressed through protests, support for environmental groups, and the voting box.

2. Green segregation. While the U.S. government has moved away from environmental protection policies, many states and local governments have not. As a result, some places will continue to have very strong environmental protection and some places will not. The result of this will be that the very people who support the current administration will be the ones who are largely impacted by the decline in environmental protection.

3. Other nations gain competitive advantages in green technology. Many other parts of the world are moving much faster on green technology than the U.S. at the present moment. While we had a considerable advantage for a while, we are losing ground fast due to the pullback in support for alternative energy at the federal level.

4. Expanded electric car infrastructure funded by states, local governments, and the private sector. While the U.S. has its head in the sand on alternative energy, car manufacturers are moving rapidly to add plug in technology to cars. Expect to see much greater plug in infrastructure advance in some areas.

5.  More reckoning on nuclear energy. We have many old nuclear power plants and we store a tremendous amount of nuclear waste at those sites. Many will be closing in the next several years. Expect to see pressure ramped up to deal with nuclear waste and the costs of sunsetting old power plants.

6. More pipleline protests. There are a number of pipeline projects underway around the world. Expect to see more protests in the coming year as construction advances.

7. Indigenous rights and the environment. 2017 was not a good year for indigenous rights and the environment. From the approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline project to the shrinking of national monuments that were created to protect indigenous religious sites, Native Americans had some major losses this year. Expect to see significant push back in the coming year.

8. Water crises. Many areas of the world are running out of water. Expect 2018 to be the year that we see some significant impacts in places like Yemen.

9. More evidence of climate change; greater isolation of climate change deniers. The evidence for climate change keeps piling up. Expect to see more evidence emerge in 2018 as climate change deniers start to feel the heat.

10. Green aviation technology advances. Airline manufacturers are working hard to green flying. Expect to see more green technology advance that will make flying less impactful on the environment.

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I have to say that I didn't do that well with last year's predictions. Check them out here. Will I do any better this year? Stay tuned! Thank you for visiting this site in 2017 and I look forward to interacting with you in 2018. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Top Environmental News Story of 2017

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Each year On the Brink lists the top environmental news stories of the year. However this year, there is only one story that makes the list: the destruction of U.S. federal environmental policy. Certainly there are other interesting stories out there (for example this one from Africa where the Africa Development Bank is moving rapidly to promote green energy across the continent), but the abrogation of many important environmental rules/policies by the current presidential administration is really the top new story of the year. Here are but ten examples of the destruction of policy:

1. Withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord and general climate change denial as many climate-related natural disasters happened.








9. Attack on the Endangered Species Act including the delisting of the grizzly bear (there are only 700 of them).


I could have added many more stories from a number of agencies, but I think these 10 stories provide a clear example of the significance of the shift away from environmental protection. The impact of these rollbacks will be felt in the coming years and I am certain that there will be improvements in the future as the pendulum swings back. It is also worth noting that many of these actions are deeply unpopular and will have a near-term political price. 

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Most Popular On the Brink Posts of 2017

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A big thanks to all the readers of On the Brink over the last year. Readership of the blog continues to grow and I really appreciate all of you for visiting and sharing posts. Below is a list of the top three blog posts of 2017. There were some surprises in the mix. One never knows which posts will get the attention of the Internet.

By far the most popular post of the year was The Inevitability of Donuts and Green Energy and Why Coal Is Like Mariah and Renewables are like Bruno. This post brought together a bit of autobiography with some commentary on public policy. It is interesting to reflect on how this post still reads since it was written early in the year. I still believe its message is accurate. Renewables are as exciting and of the moment as Bruno Mars.

A short piece, China Outpaces the World in Global Renewable Energy Investments, came in as the second most popular piece of the year. There is a real concern that the U.S. is losing the technological edge on innovation in renewables.

The third most popular piece was Blacksmiths and Artisanal Coal. It highlighted that coal was a dead industry and that attempts to prop it up will fail like attempts to prop up old technologies have failed in the past.

It is interesting that the three most popular posts all had something to do with energy. Two of the three had a bit of autobiographical information.

Of course, my series on the National Monuments remain popular as does my series on circumnavigating Long Island.

I look forward to more posts in the year ahead!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Castle Mountains National Monument

Today I continue my series on all 129 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will highlight open access images all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured monument is Castle Mountains National Monument in California. This is not one of the monuments that is under review for delisting as per executive order by the president. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog. This is one of the newest national monuments and was just designated by President Obama in 2016.

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Previous On the Brink posts in the National Monument Series:

Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Agua Fria National Monument
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Aniakchak National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Basin and Range National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Booker T. Washington National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
California Coastal National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Saturday, December 2, 2017

New Tax Bill Bad for the Environment

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As reported in many places, the new tax bill has all kinds of bad things in it for higher education (including increasing taxes on graduate students 400%), but it also opens up drilling on the Arctic Wildlife Refuge.

The weird thing about this one is that this was put in the bill specifically to get the vote of Senator Murkowski of Alaska. It was essentially the only way that they could get her vote on the tax bill.

In other news, the EPA just reversed policy and is now allowing hard rock miners (those that mine for things like gold, silver, copper, etc.) to essentially walk away from their mines without environmental remediation.

It was not a good week for the environment or the long-term public health of the nation.

Friday, November 17, 2017

210,000 Gallons of Oil Spill at Keystone Pipeline in South Dakota

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News broke yesterday that 210,000 gallons of crude oil spilled in rural South Dakota along the Keystone Pipeline. The company was aware of the spill, but didn't notify authorities for hours, thereby delaying a rapid response to address the problem. This delay reminds me of a similar problem in a mine waste spill after a sinkhole formed in Florida under radioactive mine waste. If companies do not report problems in a timely fashion, it makes it difficult to have trust in their environmental efforts.

The geology where the spill happened is problematic. The surface consists of deep unconsolidated glacial sediments that serve as a local aquifer. Glacial sediments can be highly variable in grain size and thus in permeability and porosity. Yet there is no doubt in my mind that the spill will contaminate the surficial aquifer in the area. However, the seriousness of the problem will depend upon the particular characteristics of the site where the spill happened.

Of course, the spill brings into question the wisdom of the permitting of the Keystone XL Pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation's source of drinking water (note that the spill happened on the Keystone Pipeline which is different from the Keystone XL Pipeline). For more background on this issue, you can read my series about the Keystone Pipeline and the Standing Rock Sioux here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

The Keurig in a Coal Mine

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Last night I had a dream that the U.S. launched a drone strike on the Miss World Pageant. I know it is an odd dream, but private organizations seem to be in the crosshairs of governments and other organizations--and in my dreams. From Wikileaks to Facebook, organizations face greater scrutiny due to their role in society.

One group, Keurig Green Mountain, came under attack recently and folks across the country are destroying their coffee machines due to an advertising decision. I don’t want to comment on the politics of the situation, but instead would like to focus on the fact that the destruction of the machines may be good for the environment. According to this article in the New York Times, the number of pods used in the machine each year would circle the earth 10 times. There are certainly green options available for the Keurig, but most people do not use them because they are slightly more expensive. Thus, I hope that everyone who broke his or her machine returns to a more environmentally friendly French press, percolator, or drip.

At the same moment, the coal industry is representing the U.S. at the United Nation’s Bonn Climate Summit this week. The Guardian reports that Michael Bloomberg called coal’s presence as like “promoting tobacco at a cancer summit.” I have written quite a bit in this space that coal is yesterday’s energy source. It isn’t going entirely away, but energy technology has moved on to more efficient and cheaper energy sources. The federal government’s support of coal is particularly tragic for the coal states where miners hope for a renaissance that is unlikely to arrive. The region should be finding new forms of economic development.

Private organizations have always had a prominent place in American society. However, many are questioning their current role in influencing government. Perhaps we are at a Keurig in a coal mine moment when we begin to deemphasize what is good for organizations but instead focus on what is good for Americans. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

EPA Bans Experts from Expert Panels

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The New York Times published an article yesterday by Lisa Friedman that details how the EPA is banning some of the science experts they fund from serving on expert panels. It is a move widely seen as stacking industry advisors on the environmental panels that oversee EPA policy.

The move is a strange one, but not wholly unexpected during these strange times.

Here is why it is so odd:  Imagine that you are the EPA and you want to understand how mercury is cycled in the environment. You put out a request for proposals to the scientific community for someone to do a detailed multi-year study on where mercury ends up getting stored in the environment. You receive dozens of proposals and develop a peer-review process by which the proposals are evaluated by experts in the field. Eventually, you select a three of the best proposals to conduct the study. One of the teams does amazing work, identifies mercury cycling and storage, and provides clear evidence for their conclusions. They publish their work in peer-reviewed journals and receive accolades from the scientific community. You would think that that team should be represented on a panel deciding mercury policy.

Not any longer. Instead, industry experts will be empaneled.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Hofstra University Ghost Tour Plus Lecture on an Early Long Island Witch Trial

Mr. Hofstra
Happy Halloween! Today, Hofstra University will have its first ever Ghost Tour which will take place on campus at 6:15pm. Along with the tour, there will be apple cider and apple cider donuts. Participants will meet various Hofstra dignitaries who died on campus and learn about some notable murders that happened nearby before the university formed in the 1935. I will be playing Mr. Hofstra who died in Hofstra Hall in 1932. If you are in the area, I hope to see you there!

Just prior to the tour, there will be a lecture at 4:30 by Tara Rider about Goody Garlick who was tried for witchcraft on Long Island. The trial took place three decades before the Salem Witch Trials. The lecture should prove to be informative about the early history of Long Island.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Edward Abbey Quiz

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It is time again for an On the Brink Quiz! Today's quiz focuses on the noted writer and philosopher, Edward Abbey. Links to previous quizzes follow the questions. The answers are in the comments section.

1. Edward Abbey's most famous novel focuses on a group of people trying to destroy the systems that cause environmental damage. Name the book.

2. In what state was Abbey born?

3. Although he was born far from the American West, he spent much of his adult life there and made it a focus of his writing. What brought him to the west to live?

4. Abbey had a love/hate relationship with the U.S. Government. For example, he was drafted into the military, hated it, and was discharged as a private. However, he worked for the government some summers. What did he do?

5. One of his most important pieces of non-fiction is Desert Solitaire. It focuses on landscapes of one state. Name the state.

6. Abbey wrote often about man's intrusions into the west and how damaging they were. His ire frequently focused on one dam. It is mentioned in many of his writings. Name the dam.

7. Although he didn't found the group, he is often associated with an important controversial environmental anarchist organization. Name it.

8. Abbey had many relationships with women and had five children. How many times was he married?

9. Abbey tried to be provocative and controversial in his writing. He felt that environmentalists were too passive in their approach. Throughout his life, he was a provocateur. Some believe that his radicalism derived from his upbringing by his parents who were rather liberal. What did his parents do for a living?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Climate Change Costing Taxpayers Billions

An article by Michael Biesecker in The Chicago Tribune notes that climate change is costing taxpayers billions according to the Government Accountability Office. The office expects that the taxpayer burden will grow.

The taxpayer responsibility to pay for climate change is caused by crop loss, floods, hurricanes, fires, and a variety of other problems. While the EPA has been busy scrubbing climate change from its Website, and while it has prohibited U.S. government scientists from speaking about climate change, the public is not banned from paying for the costs of climate change that the government is busy denying. The burden for the costs of bad decisions by industry are being transferred to the public at large as the U.S. abandons a very modest attempt at developing climate change policy.

I am writing this from the Geological Society of America annual meeting where there have been many presentations by top-notch researchers on the clear evidence of climate change on our planet. The disconnect between the scientific community and the U.S. government is creating a rift that will have many long-term consequences.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Castle Clinton National Monument

Today I continue my series on all 129 U.S. National Monuments. This is in follow up to my series that featured open access photos of all of the U.S. National Parks. In the coming years, I will highlight open access images all of the U.S. National Monuments in alphabetical order.

Today's featured monument is Castle Clinton National Monument in New York City. This is not one of the monuments that is under review for delisting as per executive order by the president. Following the photos is a list of U.S. National Monuments previously featured on this blog.

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Previous On the Brink posts in the National Monument Series:

Admiralty Island National Monument
African Burial Ground National Monument
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument
Agua Fria National Monument
Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument
Aniakchak National Monument
Aztec Ruins National Monument
Bandelier National Monument
Basin and Range National Monument
Bears Ears National Monument
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument
Booker T. Washington National Monument
Browns Canyon National Monument
Buck Island Reef National Monument
Cabrillo National Monument
California Coastal National Monument
Canyon de Chelly National Monument

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability: Case Studies and Practical Solutions

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Posting in this space and in social media has been a little light as of late. I was working on a publication deadline for a book project and I was spending most of my free time in bringing the project to conclusion with my friend and colleague, Sandra Garren.

The project is called the Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability:  Case Studies and Practical Solutions. It is a 260,000 word document that includes dozens of chapters by authors from all over the world that focus on real-world examples of sustainability successes. Putting together such a big book is a significant undertaking and I couldn't have had a better partner on the project than Sandra. The book will be out in 2018.

As many of my readers know, I have been using The Artist's Way as a productivity tool for years and this blog is a big part of my process. For those of you unfamiliar with The Artist's Way, it uses a number of techniques to enhance writing output, including the use of something called morning pages that are written prior to starting formal writing. This blog has served the purpose of being one part of my morning pages practice. Over the last several months, as the book's deadline loomed, I had to set aside most of  my early morning writing time to focus entirely on editorial work. Now that the book is at the publishers expect to see the blog posts increase a bit more. I have two other books I am finishing, but they are smaller projects and will be part of my normal writing process. Expect to hear more about those books in this space in the future.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Appropriating the Small Home

The tiny home movement was not just discovered by hipsters.
Mobile home parks have been around for decades.
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The New York Times has a cringe-worthy article by Lisa Prevost in today's edition about the difficulty owners of small homes have in finding a place to park their structure. It is worth a read. I have largely rolled my eyes at the small house movement over the last several years as it was uncomfortably embraced by the sustainability movement. While I applaud the intent, the movement is so embedded in class-based sustainability that it is difficult for me to take it seriously.

Why?

The small house movement has always been present. Just ask poor people. 

The small house movement is appropriating the idea of small homes from the poor by turning them into something for the elite. Small home owners demand access to space in places that were not developed for small homes. They want to take the small homes out of mobile home courts and apartment buildings where there is abundant infrastructure for small homes and put them into places that were never designed for them.

Many people live in studio apartments, another form of
small home. However, they are not appropriating space and
live in buildings with appropriate infrastructure.
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There are an estimated 20 million Americans who live in mobile homes and millions more that live in small apartments. Yet we somehow focus on the middle and upper class as they try to forge new lives in small homes in articles like today's Times piece or in the HGTV show Tiny Luxury. Many of these structures come from unique design shoppes. To quote the article, "....[a student] starts graduate school at the University of Vermont in January, and hopes to move from her Bronx apartment to the Burlington area in a 340-square-foot tiny house being built by Craft & Sprout." Craft and Sprout is a small home builder in Connecticut.

Also, tiny home owners tend to focus on moving to the country where there are loose environmental and zoning rules. They lead to an odd form of suburbanization which is normally anathema to sustainability advocates. 

In my mind, those truly interested in sustainable living would move to studio apartments or mobile home parks where there is an efficiency of space and infrastructure. While the tiny home movement is cute, it is elitist and marginally sustainable. Many people have to live in tiny homes. By making them a luxury item, we appropriate the very spaces of the poor.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

The Logic of Renewable Energy in the Caribbean

The Caribbean sun isn't just good for sunbathing.  Click for photo credit.
The Washington Post published an interesting article this week by Chris Mooney about the push for the development of renewable energy in the Caribbean--especially given the challenges that we have seen after Hurricanes hit extremely vulnerable islands. Local solar and wind projects can weather some strong storms while traditional electrical systems built around fragile grids can be out for months.

I remember after Sandy hit the New York area, many areas were without power for weeks. Solar generators were extremely useful to help people get access to energy.  They provided opportunities to charge cell phones and other portable devices. Now that solar technology has improved, it is relatively easy to develop home-based solar generators as well as some large-scale generators for vulnerable institutions such as hospitals, water plants, and nursing homes.

This is not the first time that the Caribbean had to rebuild after a disaster. This time, I hope that communities rebuilt with sustainability and local resilience front and center in their plans.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Turning Sewage Into Money

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Nature has a great article about the growing trend in developing nations to turn sewage treatment into a profit generating enterprise. Check it out here. The piece highlights how private companies are building infrastructure to collect human waste in order to resell it for fuel and fertilizer. Local governments do not have the funds to build expensive sewage treatment plants like those in the United States and the private enterprises provide one of the few options for environmental protection.

Prior to our technological age, human waste was often treated as a resource and thus taken out of the waste stream. Ancient Romans sold their urine to tanners and clothes washers (who transformed the urine into a more antiseptic ammonia). Solid waste was regularly used as a fertilizer in most cultures. Clearly the move to turn waste into a resource is nothing new.

What is different is what we have done with sewage in our technological age. We have treated sewage as something that is unclean that needs to be processed and released in nature to be transformed into something else. We don't treat it as a resource, we treat it as a waste for processing. We put scientists in charge at treatment plants to manage it and release personal responsibility to local governments for the handling of it. While some advanced sewage treatment plants try to turn waste into a resource, most do not. 

The examples highlighted in the Nature article show us that we can find new ways, or return to old ways, of turning waste into a resource.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Look for Sinkholes to Form After Hurricane Irma

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When heavy rains occur in Florida, it is not unusual for sinkholes to form. Given that Hurricane Irma is expected to bring several inches of rain over west central Florida in a relatively short time period, there will be significant added weight on top of the ground that could cause sinkhole formation. In addition, the rapid movement of water into the subsurface can induce sinkholes to form.

I know that this is not the news that is needed as Irma heads toward the sinkhole prone region of the state but it is worth keeping vigilant as the storm passes.

It is worth noting that there is a tremendous amount of funding available to study hazards like hurricanes, earthquakes, and tsunamis. However, there is scant funding available to study sinkholes even though they cause millions of dollars of damage every year.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Sinkholes of Doom--A Lecture Wednesday October 4th at Hofstra University

Click for photo credit. The image is of a sinkhole in Guatemala.
I will be giving a lecture called Sinkholes of Doom at Hofstra University on Wednesday, October 4th in the Monroe Lecture Hall on the campus of Hofstra University on Long Island. If you are in the area, I hope you can come. The lecture is part of the Science Night Live Lecture Series.

The lecture will focus on why so many sinkholes have formed all over the world as of late. It will review the geologic setting of sinkholes, why sinkholes form, and the dangers of sinkhole collapse. It will also review some fascinating sinkholes from around the world that impacted Mayan, Roman, and Spanish culture as well as those that pose risk in our modern era. The talk will also include a review of what we can do to avoid falling into the voids under us.

I promise that the Monroe Lecture Hall is not at risk of collapse and that the lecture will be sinkhole-free, except for the lecture part. For more information see here.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Hurricane Harvey Questions

A rescue during Hurricane Harvey. Click for photo credit.
A friend of mine sent me an interesting piece from Scientific American on the science of Hurricane Harvey. As everyone knows by now, the storm is proving to be one of the most significant natural disasters in the history of the country.

Each hurricane is different, but Harvey is rather unusual in recent history. What makes it so unique is its extreme rainfall and subsequent flooding. The damage was not from a major storm surge like we saw with Superstorm Sandy in my region or from wind as was the case in Hurricane Andrew. Instead, it was from days and days of rain in the Houston area. There was no where for the rain to go.

There are two interesting questions that I found particularly interesting in the Scientific American article: Why did the storm stay in place so long? and Why was there so much rain?

It turns out that the storm stayed in place due to distinct high pressure systems that kept the low pressure hurricane from moving. As to why there was so much rain, there are many reasons, two which I will highlight. First, the Gulf of Mexico was unusually warm. Certainly climate change plays a part here, but the Gulf here can get rather warm naturally without the addition of anthropogenic oceanic warming. Second, due to all the flooding across southeast Texas, there was a plentiful supply of water that could reenter the atmosphere as evaporation occurred. The flooding essentially created an extension of the ocean which normally feeds hurricanes their moisture.

Many people have asked me if climate change was responsible for the storm. That is a simple question with a complex answer. Climate and individual weather phenomena like hurricanes are complex and have multiple inputs. Certainly warmer temperatures in air and oceans add more energy to earth systems. But there is no direct line where one can say global climate change is responsible for Hurricane Harvey. Yet it would also be incorrect to say that global climate change did not influence the storm. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

National Monuments May Shrink

This rock art is in Bears Ears National Monument, one of the sites that is
likely going to shrink so that it can be used for economic purposes by private
organizations and individuals. The main reason that many of the monuments
that are under review for shrinking were created in the first place was to
preserve Native American cultural resources. A horrible amount of looting
of grave goods and other materials has occurred in many of the areas that will
soon be up for leasing for private use. To many in the region, the shrinking
of the monuments is a significant environmental justice issue and part
of a pattern of racial discrimination. Click for photo credit. 
Last week there were a number of reports that several national monuments that were under review by the present administration were going to shrink in size. According to Reuters, this "...cheered energy, mining, ranching and timber advocates..."

I think what some in the public get wrong about the national monuments is that they think that they are created from private land. This is not the case. They are created from public land typically under management by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

The BLM leases some of the land that it manages to private organizations and individuals including those involved with ranching, energy, mining, and timber production. When the BLM land becomes a national monument, the leases end and land is typically converted into solely public use, often under management by a different agency. Those who have been against the creation of the national monuments are angry because they can no longer rent public land at a cheap cost for their own economic gain.

To see my latest posts on the national monuments, click here.

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As an aside, posting on this blog has been a little light lately because I am trying to finish off a large book project. More on that project another time. Also, I tend to get relatively light blog traffic in late summer as everyone is enjoying summer and the out of doors.