It takes soul to love the prairie

I’ve been trying to write more about North Dakota recently (see here and here). Why? Because I’M MOVING THERE.

Yes, it’s true: starting in two weeks, I’ll be the North Dakota reporter for a brand new multimedia journalism group called Inside Energy. I’ll be based in Bismarck at Prairie Public Broadcasting, covering the Bakken oil boom and other energy-related stories in the Great Northern Plains. Other reporters in Wyoming and Colorado will be doing the same in their respective states, and all together, we’re trying to take an in-depth look at the domestic energy revolution. BAM!

In the meantime, I’ve been making phone calls and trying to get a handle on what’s happening up there. It’s pretty fascinating: as the Western part of the state is booming, other areas are continuing their long, slow decline. The emptying of the prairie and the boom are happening at the same time, in the same place. I’m excited to be in the middle of it.

Oh, and the title of this post? That’s something a North Dakotan said to me on my visit earlier this spring. Anyone can love the mountains, he said, but it takes soul to love the prairie.

I'll be seeing a lot more of you, Prairie.

I’ll be seeing a lot more of you, Prairie.

Wait…are they robbing that bank?

That was my first question when I saw men with bullet proof vests, helmets and semiautomatic weapons surrounding two banks in downtown Lander, a small town in central Wyoming. In reality, they were escorting an armored truck that was delivering millions of dollars in cash to banks around town. The cash came from the U.S. Treasury, and a few days later, thousands of Northern Arapaho from the near-by Wind River Reservation would flood into town to cash $6,000 checks. The checks were the government’s way of compensating the tribe for mismanaging its mineral resources for decades. For more on the settlement, the lawyer who saw the 37-year long battle to the finish, and the economic impact of the big influx of cash, see here.

Frosties of the Lost Sierra

Last August, my friend Katie and I took three days and ate as much soft-serve and fried food as possible while we toured the Frosties of the Lost Sierra. Frosties are both a dessert and a place to eat dessert–soft-serve, and the classic establishments in northern California that serve it up. We discovered, on our tour, that people don’t love these old-school ice cream stands for the food, but for the nostalgia they invoke.

 

The frosty in Chilcoot, CA.

The frosty in Chilcoot, CA.

 

 

Tracking the anti-vaccine movement in the West

For the past few weeks I’ve been kind of obsessed with finding out how many school children in my area are un or undervaccinated. It’s hard to find out–Colorado doesn’t require districts to disclose this information, so I’ve been calling school nurses again and again. Finally, the data has come in, and the rates are pretty high. There are some districts in rural Western Colorado where 25-30% of kids don’t have all their required vaccines. Why? Well, partially it’s because opting out is easy: all a parent has to do is check a box saying vaccines violate their personal beliefs. Now, the state of Colorado is pushing back and trying to make it harder to opt-out. They’re following the lead of other Western states like Oregon, California and Washington.

I wrote two stories on this with different angles, one for The Daily Yonder and one for High Country News. Stay tuned for a radio documentary on my local findings, coming up in the next few weeks.

A woman gets a flu shot. Courtesy Flickr user WFIU Public Radio.

A woman gets a flu shot. Courtesy Flickr user WFIU Public Radio.

Betting on coal

I have finally ended my nearly year-long quest to find out how California’s changing coal economy is affecting the lives of coal dependent communities around the Southwest. I traveled to the Navajo Nation to write about the tribe’s recent purchase of a coal mine, something that never would have happened had California kept buying coal power from the plant the mine supplied. Owning the Navajo Mine (as it is confusingly named) is a huge deal, as I’ve written here previously. The tribe has never owned a piece of the energy infrastructure on the reservation, or gotten a fair cut of the resources beneath its ground. Now it has that opportunity, but many tribal members oppose the deal because it perpetuates their dependence on coal and its damaging ways. Read it here and decide for yourself what you think!

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Crisis biology

Amphibians are dying at record rates around the world, due, in part, to a nasty fungal disease we’ve helped spread. And another fungus is killing millions of bats in eastern North America. It all seems pretty hopeless…but there’s a group of scientists who aren’t discouraged. Instead, they’re trying to use anti-fungal bacteria (some of which naturally occurs on the skin of frogs, toads and bats) to help them fight the disease. It’s really creative, fascinating and important work — but it’s also really difficult. I wrote about it in my latest story for High Country News.

Endandered boreal toads mating. They're threatened by the chytrid fungus. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Endandered boreal toads mating. They’re threatened by the chytrid fungus. Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.

Bringing broadband to rural areas

I didn’t have to look far to find examples of rural people inconvenienced by slow, spotty Internet. Practically everyone I know in my small, Western Colorado town (population less than 1,500) has a story. There’s the guy who can’t stream Netflix and hasn’t watched a movie in two years. The guy who can’t upload the educational videos he produces, so Fed Exes them to a server in Pennsylvania where technicians there upload them to the web. Video calls on Skype are grainy and cut out. Internet packages are pricey and there’s no competition. And so on.

But how much does the constant complaining about the Internet actually affect the local economy? And, conversely, how much does having fast, cheap, reliable Internet boost rural economic growth? At first I assumed it must help a lot. But the more I looked into it, the murkier it seemed. Internet-spurred economic development, it turns out, is really hard to measure. My latest story for High Country News.

Farms outside Paonia, Colorado. Courtesy Alan Levine via Flickr.

Farms outside Paonia, Colorado. Courtesy Alan Levine via Flickr.