The campground at Wind Cave National Park, which is just as much about wildlife-rich rolling mixed-grass prairie as it is about the cave itself, hasn't filled up in 30 years. It's a special place at the foot of the Black Hills in South Dakota, certainly one of the most peaceful places I've been. See my entire photo album from Wind Cave and the rest of our Black Hills trip here.
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Deep within the Black Elk Wilderness in Black Hills National Forest is the highest point east of the Rockies — Harney Peak. The mountain, which once served as a fire lookout over the South Dakota's most rugged terrain, is a massive rock promontory from which you can see the whole of the Black Hills.
Previously, I'd stood atop four other state high points: Wheeler Peak in New Mexico, Black Mesa in Oklahoma, Clingman's Dome in Tennessee and Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina. Next up: Panorama Point in Nebraska and, of course, Mt. Elbert in Colorado.
I didn't know this when I posted about the Pawnee Buttes on Monday, but Carrizo Oil and Gas has received a permit from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to drill several wells from a pad to be built within about a half mile of the buttes. The drilling and fracking site would be on the right side of the image above, just to the right of the easternmost (righthand) butte. To wit:
Here's an overview of all the wells around the Pawnee Buttes:
Here's the data for the Carrizo well, which you can see permitted above as the red dot inside the green circle just south of the Pawnee Buttes at the south edge of Section 22:
The North Boundary Trail doesn't have much to do with Rocky Mountain National Park's north boundary. The trail very roughly follows the northeast boundary of the park north of Estes Park and west of Glen Haven. The most important thing to know about the North Boundary area is that it's isolated, wild and very infrequently traveled compared to most of the rest of the Rocky Mountain National Park, one of the busiest national parks in the country.
And, it's quiet. No screaming kids or throngs of tourists or mountain climbers here.
Today, Jacob and a friend of ours took a short hike to West Creek Falls, one of the park's lesser-known waterfalls. The cascade is extraordinary because it's far off the beaten path — on a spur of the North Boundary Trail in the remote and incredibly wild West Creek Research Natural Area. According to Lisa Foster's Complete Hiking Guide to the park, the RNA is left about as wild as possible, serving as a baseline from which to measure human impacts in other parts of the park. (View my entire photo album for the hike here.)
The trail begins at the pastoral McGraw Ranch, a National Park Service research station north of Lumpy Ridge. For about two miles, the trail briefly leaves the park and enters the Comanche Peak Wilderness in Roosevelt National Forest, where it becomes very clear that the trail, while well-built, doesn't see a lot of hikers. Once you ascend a pass and drop down into the West Creek drainage, the trail becomes fainter especially along the 0.7-mile spur to West Creek Falls. The North Boundary Trail splits off to the right and over another ridge before re-entering the park. The West Creek Falls spur trail enters the park from the national forest about 0.2 miles below the falls.
The hike is about five miles roundtrip, and we only encountered two other people the entire time. And, like us, they were locals from Fort Collins, only about an hour away. No tourists in these parts.
"crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. ... May your rivers flow without end, meandering through ... miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning clangs across the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you — beyond that next turning of the canyon walls."
Perhaps no place is that more possible than in Mee Canyon, an obscure sandstone gorge near Grand Junction where the wash at the bottom of the canyon inserts itself about 300 feet into the canyon wall, creating a cavern the size of a 747 hangar. I've been to the Mee Canyon Alcove before, but this time I came with better camera equipment.
The Mee Canyon Alcove is said to be the deepest canyon alcove anywhere on the Colorado Plateau, and it's not easy to get to. At the heart of the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness in McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, Mee Canyon is at the bottom of a sometimes-feint trail descending from the top of Black Ridge overlooking Fruita and Grand Junction. It's a nearly unbelievable sight, one that's well worth the scramble to the bottom of the canyon.
This is what awaits you at the bottom:
I'm a bit surprised to be writing this before my 35th birthday, but it occurred to me while at a Society of Professional Journalists conference today in Denver that technology is progressing so fast that, apparently, some college students entirely lack the context of recent technological history.
During a session about blogging, a Westword writer recounted how his persistence in calling and writing the paper's editor landed him the job in 1990. Another SPJ participant, a college student looking for a job (the SPJ conference was populated nearly entirely by students, not working pros, incidentally), asked the writer if he persisted by just sending the editor multiple emails.
The writer looked across the room and said something to the effect of, "This was 1990. There was no email back then. I sent a paper letter." Other students talked about how their journalism training is in "multi-platform" communication, the most insignificant part of which pertained to a printing press.
The pace at which changing technology is changing the delivery of information and news to the masses is so quick that maybe it's easy to forget that computers didn't easily hook up to the internet just 22 years ago. (I wasn't even aware of the internet until 1995.) The idea that it may not occur to some college students today that email wasn't a something for the masses in 1990 is striking, and it reminded me of a few re-discoveries of mine last weekend, when I flew to Texas to clean out some of my old crap from my parents' garage.
Some of the things I discovered:
Funny, I attended the Society of Professional Journalists regional conference in Denver today, where one of the main topics of the day was blogging and how to drive traffic to your website. For reasons I'm still figuring out, because there doesn't seem to be a specific post or issue that's driving people to this site right now, today is this blog's host heavily-trafficked day since I started it in February, 2009.
So, whoever you are checking out Restless West Journal, thanks for stopping by.
As they say in my home state, Ya'll come back now, ya hear?
If you read tomorrow's Fort Collins Coloradoan, you'll see my story about zombie neighborhoods — 'hoods with streets, lights and utilities, but no homes. One of the zombies I stumbled upon is called Dry Creek, a surreal collection of streets and cul de sacs that once hosted more than 100 mobile homes before they were moved out a few years ago, leaving behind only the asphalt and concrete skeleton of a neighborhood. It's in the process of redevelopment, but the north end remains full of old mobile home pads and derelict basketball goals... each with great views of Longs Peak.
I decided that such a surreal scene would be the subject for the last six frames on a roll of Kodak T-Max black-and-white film I had sitting in my 35mm camera body for a year. Early last year, I felt inspired to dust off my not-so-ancient 2003 vintage Canon Elan 7 film SLR and get some use out of it, honing my photography skills a bit in the process. I don't shoot using any automatic settings on any of my cameras; all my images are shot in manual mode, so hauling out film every now and then is just good practice because you can't see the images you've shot before you fork over a wad of cash to develop it. In short, shooting film is fun, but very expensive.
With everything digital now, the economics of shooting 35mm is truly cost prohibitive, and unless you're shooting slide film or have rare access to a dark room, you're also giving up some creative control because printing equipment is extremely hard to come by. Incidentally, Jacob and I have equipment that could outfit two separate dark rooms, but I'm not crazy about converting the bathroom into a photo lab again.
Every wasted frame on a roll of film is wasted money, too, so every image must be composed and shot with utmost thought and care. Here's an approximate cost break-down: One roll of 36-exposure slide film is about $10 (Maybe $8 for Fuji Velvia 100, or $15 for Fuji Provia 400X). Development is about $14 per roll with a CD of low-res scans. High-res scans of the best shots on the roll for printing on canvas now run about $60 per scan. So, to shoot and prep an image for fine-art printing, it could cost you $84 for a single image assuming only one shot on a roll is awesome enough to hang on the wall. Ouch. Otherwise, it's about $24 per roll for the film and development, so every frame on that roll will cost you roughly 67 cents, more if you don't shoot the entire roll.
So, it took me about a year to shoot an entire roll of film. The images below are from that roll, and, frankly, toward the end I just wanted to breeze through the roll as fast as possible to make room for a photo shoot coming up requiring slide film. (You'll see those images here in early May.) These images are raw and, with one exception, unprocessed — scanned directly from the negative. For these to be properly processed and presented, I'd print them in a dark room, dodging and burning areas that need it, or at least scanned at a high resolution so I can let my photo editing software do the trick.
Two years ago, I created Restless West Photography to promote and sell my images. Today, I present to you "Landscapes" — 72 pages of my best landscape photography from the last five years. This new book features my favorite images taken in national parks and other public lands throughout the United States since 2006.
The cover features my best-known image, "Trail Ridge Sunset," photographed at Rocky Mountain National Park in 2009. Inside, you'll find images from Death Valley, Bryce Canyon, the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park and Northern Colorado's hidden gems — the Pawnee Buttes, Soapstone Prairie and much more.
I invite you to take a look at "Landscapes" on my website here.
I've wanted to publish a coffee table book of my photography for a long time, and I'm confident "Landscapes" is the first book project of many. I have several other photography projects that have nothing to do with landscapes in the works. I'll publish details here soon, but if you're looking for news about my photography, check out my Restless West Photography news blog on my website here.
Much is being said lately about the impacts of oil and gas development in Colorado, especially along the Front Range, where the Wattenberg Field sprawls north of Denver and the rush to explore the Niobrara shale for oil is moving ahead at full steam.
Perhaps there is nowhere in Colorado where energy development is more conspicuous than the Dacono and Frederick areas north of Denver in southern Weld County. Oil wells pump crude in the center of neighborhood traffic circles and pumpjacks act as grand gateways to suburban subdivisions.
Fossil fuels are produced in our Front Range communities seemingly as much as gasoline is burned in our Outbacks and XTerras. Residents in the Dacono subdivision above are as much neighbors to oil and they are neighbors to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Indian Peaks, which rise in the distance.
In an election year when access to domestic oil supplies will figure prominently in the presidential campaign, uncertainty is growing over how much life the critical Trans-Alaska Pipeline has left in it. The pipeline transports roughly 14 percent of U.S. crude oil supplies, yet energy companies are starting to suggest that the lifeline to some of the richest oil fields in the country may not be worth the expense of upkeep. Oil production in Alaska’s North Slope oil fields has declined every year since production peaked in 1988, and the consortium of energy companies that own the line say they are worried: If production slows down too much, the pipeline can become unsafe—or at least uneconomical—to run. But some watchdogs say the industry may be fudging its numbers as part of a ploy to get access to new, potentially rich oil fields. Read more: How Much Life Is Left in the Trans-Alaska Pipeline? - Popular Mechanics
I know, I've said this before, but I'm serious this time: Most of my photography is focused on places far from my doorstep, and it's time to look closer to home for great things to shoot. So, instead of promising I'm going to spend more time at the gym or read more books or whatever it is most people resolve to do at the start of a new year, I hereby resolve to focus on photographing Fort Collins.
I said I'd be doing this months ago, but the moment I said I'd find my photographic adventures close to home, I started straying far and wide, doing crazy things like taking an 8,000-mile road trip. I'm restless by nature, so staying close to home isn't easy. But I hope the results will be rewarding.
So, to begin with, check out my first 11 images from my ever-expanding image gallery of Fort Collins. And, spend some time on my website, www.restlesswest.com, because I've updated my galleries with a smorgasbord of new images for your viewing pleasure.
Check back often!
The first time I'd ever heard of hydraulic fracturing was on a reporting trip to Ted Turner's Vermejo Park Ranch in 2005. I was working for the Taos News at the time, and the big news of the day was a push by El Paso Natural Gas to drill the Valle Vidal Unit of Northern New Mexico's Carson National Forest for coalbed methane. To get an idea what coalbed methane development on the Valle Vidal would look like, I decided to check out what it looked like at Vermejo Park, whose 600,000 acres border the Valle Vidal.
Significant opposition from a large group of locals and Philmont Scout Ranch eventually scuttled El Paso's effort to drill the Valle Vidal. (Disclosure: I am a former Philmont seasonal staff member and spent much time in the Valle Vidal while on the job.) But development on Vermejo Park (and, presumably, fracking) continued, and it looked something like this:
Not bad for a coalbed methane field, I suppose. Whatever the impact, Vermejo Park in 2005 was certainly one of the most exquisitely beautiful ranches in Northern New Mexico.
Now, at the request of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, the National Park Service just concluded a study recommending that the Vermejo Park Ranch become part of the National Park System along with historical areas of the San Luis Valley to the northwest of the ranch. The study and the summary report are here. The NPS is taking public comment on the proposal until March 20, but any decision about national park status for the ranch would have to be made by Congress.
Is Vermejo Park worthy of some sort of NPS-managed national preserve or national park? I look forward to reading some possible answers to that question in the comments when they're available this spring.
You have to understand: Since my first taste of beer sometime early in college (also in Charleston), I've tried to like beer. I swear I have. My sister and I visited the tasting room at New Belgium Brewery in Fort Collins a few years ago, and each of the eight beers I tasted were so disgusting to me, so foul and repugnant that each one drew a tear from my eye. True story. We left the brewery very quickly. But living in the "Napa Valley of Beer" — that is the Colorado Front Range in general and Fort Collins in particular — the depth of beer culture here has always been difficult to ignore. Our governor became a successful businessman after starting the Wynkoop Brewery in Denver's LoDo district, and the local newspaper even has a beer beat — a reporter devoted almost entirely to the culture and business of beer (and bicycles, too — a symbol of New Belgium). Clearly, Colorado takes its suds seriously.
But some people are wine people or vodka people or tequila people, and I've always been one of those guys, looking down my pretentious nose as I pour my glass of $15 zin at those who have an almost religious devotion their local craft brewery. My membership in the brotherhood of the wine connoisseurs of the world was always an excuse to keep an arm's length from Colorado's beer culture, but as millions imbibed liquid bread at the establishments that put Fort Collins on the map as much or more so than Colorado State University, I tried hard nonetheless to love beer. Maybe I'd spent years sampling crappy beer (Bud Light Lime is brewed in Fort Collins, too, after all), but whatever it was, it didn't work.
That is, until two months ago when I visited a restaurant in Charleston, and the only affordable drink on the happy hour menu was New Belgium's Trippel. The waitress poured, I drank, and holy shit, it was delicious. Really, really good.
I think learning to like new things is a mindset. If you're convinced something is going to be unpleasant, there's a good chance it will be. But if you completely open yourself to it, resign yourself to enjoying something that you've previously despised or considered repugnant, maybe it'll be easy to learn to like it. Maybe you can't apply that to everything, but for me, it certainly applies to beer.
So, I've found some incredibly great beers out there over the last two months, mostly from Colorado. Regardless of my new appreciation of beer, one thing is clear: Just like wine (Franzia in a box, anyone?), there's plenty of bad beer out there. Corona Light? Awful. Bud Light Lime? Detestable.
But I've found a few that I really love, in order of preference (so far): New Belgium's 1554 (an "enlightened black ale"), Left Hand Brewery's Milk Stout, Great Divide Brewery's Hibernation Ale, New Belgium's Trippel, Deschute's Brewery's Black Butte Porter and Obsidian Stout and Fort Collins Brewery's Chocolate Stout.
What I love about the beer culture here is the sense of exploration that it engenders. People in Colorado aren't satisfied with just a six pack of Golden-brewed Coors; they want to sample the gazillions of microbrews and craft brews that are in such great abundance here. We dropped into the Boulder Liquor Mart the other night and were greeted by an entire isle of single bottles of craft brews from all over Colorado. It would take years to sample all of those if you drink one each night.
Which is to say, I have a lot of exploring to do.
Tonight, I'll keep the adventures in craft beer local: New Belgium's Abbey Belgian Style Ale. Half way through the bottle, it's not my favorite, but it's pretty damn good regardless.
That's better than I can say for the last glass of $20 wine I had.
U.S. Tar Sands? Canadian Company Seeks to Drill in Utah
Extracting oil sands, or tar sands, is big business in Canada. But there are a few deposits here in the Western U.S. too, and now the Canadian experts are looking to get at them.
The United States’ largest source of oil imports is not the Middle East, but rather Canada: The Athabasca oil sands underlying a huge swath of northern Alberta, containing perhaps 175 billion barrels of oil, have been a steady—and controversial—source of liquid fuel. Extracting it is a dirty business, and a recent plan to escalate development by building a pipeline through the Midwest inspired thousands of people to throng the White House. But while Canada is home to most of the world’s oil sands, the United States can claim an area rich in oil sands, too. A small Calgary-based company, U.S. Oil Sands,, wants to extract the oil from sands found in Eastern Utah.
Back in September, in a story for the Fort Collins Coloradoan, I wrote that new oil and gas development is popping up all around North Park in northern Colorado, and anglers are concerned the development could damage trout fisheries in the area. Some of that development is part of the Niobrara shale exploration boom occurring throughout eastern Colorado and Wyoming. Today, I received a call from the National Wildlife Federation, whose photo (below) puts a new perspective on how oil and gas development in North Park can have a direct effect on the rivers, streams and water quality of Jackson County, which is known for its world-class fly fishing. The NWF is concerned that the proximity of the Moore State oil well, which was being drilled in September, to the Michigan River could degrade its water quality.
Jackson, one of Colorado's most remote and rural counties, is about 80 miles west of Fort Collins and is wedged between the Medicine Bow Mountains and the Park Range, bordering Wyoming to the north. It's an area as beautiful as it is partly dependent on the oil industry for its economic prosperity.
This is the same well as seen from Highway 14 in late September:
The Niobrara shale exploration boom is making a significant economic and environmental splash throughout eastern Colorado and Wyoming. The public radio program "State of the Re:Union" broadcast a fascinating show this week about the changes southern Wyoming is undergoing as the drilling in the Niobara changes landowners' relationship to the land they own. Many of those landowners may own the surface rights to their land, but not the mineral rights, creating a "split estate" and a problem for those who don't want oil rigs on their land. They may have little control over whether and how their land is drilled. The issue is part of the third segment of the episode, which is well worth a listen.
Last week, I wrote a story (PDF) in the Fort Collins Coloradoan about Anadarko Petroleum's announcement that they plan to drill up to 2,700 new oil wells in the Niobrara and Codell formations in the Wattenberg Field northeast of Denver. Here's the gist of the story:
Anadarko announced Nov. 14 it has plans to drill between 1,200 and 2,700 horizontal oil wells into the Niobrara shale and Codell formation in the Wattenberg Field, with expectations to produce up to 1.5 billion barrels of oil.
The only other oil play of that magnitude was the Rangely Field in northwest Colorado, which began producing oil in the 1940s.
The company has access to hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Weld County and along Larimer County's eastern border. So far, Anadarko's exploration has been limited to 11 horizontal wells drilled in southwest Weld County, which have been producing between 300 and 1,100 barrels of oil per day, according to Anadarko's announcement Monday.
If Anadarko drills the number of wells it's projecting, it will make oil and gas the primary driver of industry in Northern Colorado, said Mark Snead, an energy economist and the vice president of the Denver branch of the Federal Reserve Bank.
Now, Noble Energy, one of the biggest players in developing the Niobrara in northern Weld County, is getting into the act, according to the Denver Business Journal.
Noble plans to invest $8 billion into drilling north of Denver over the next five years — in an area that's already one of the most productive oil fields in Colorado.
I'll be interested to learn how this will affect the Front Range's air and water quality.
Casper Star-Tribune reporter Jeremy Fugleberg said it just right in his column today about the oil and gas industry's attitude about "fracking," er, hydraulic fracturing.
"Fracking" to many in the industry is a dirty word, he writes.
But it’s also a dirty word to the industry and others, who cringe when opponents use the word as a battle hammer and bumper sticker slogan. Industry officials generally call it hydraulic fracturing, or abbreviate it in ways other than that horrible spelling: fracking.
The subtext of those statements is this: Other than the enviro-crazies who hate everyone, those with genuine fear that fracking hurts their water or health are ignorant.
This belief bubbled to the surface at a forum about the practice hosted by the University of Wyoming in September. Several industry representatives, including some scientists, carefully explained the technology of fracking and how it’s regulated.
But those presentations, while well-made and well-meant, miss the point: People who fear fracking aren’t asking technical questions; they’re asking if oil and gas drilling near where they live may hurt their water and their health.
I attended that forum at UW, and the story I wrote about it for the Fort Collins Coloradoan precipitated a few emails from industry employees insisting that because I and the rest of media use the term "fracking" and not "frac'ing" or simply "hydraulic fracturing," it shows that reporters are not insiders and that reporters are ignorant and spreading misinformation. My critics have been very explicit about that.
Well, as a journalist, I'm quite satisfied with not being considered an insider. To be clear, "fracking" is the term of choice for the New York Times and nearly every other news outlet cover the matter.
In my experience, much of the industry's criticism leveled at reporters about our handling of fracking in news stories often gets bogged down in semantics. If our use of the term "fracking" over the oddly-punctuated "frac'ing" shows that we're not bending to industry jargon, that's a very good thing. As Fugelberg points out, readers aren't interested in wading through the weeds of the issue, they just want to know how energy development is affecting them.
This is where we run into another complication. I think there is legitimacy to the industry's criticism that its detractors and reporters sometimes tend to conflate fracking with energy development. I attended a Sierra Club lecture on fracking in Northern Colorado over the summer, and a speaker pointed to a photo of a dense field of oil wells in Weld County, and said, "look at all that fracking."
As Scientific American pointed out (subscription required) in October, what fracking is depends on who you're talking to. Some define fracking as the entire oil and gas drilling enterprise. Industry, regulators and others define it (correctly) as the act of hydraulically fracturing shale often thousands of feet underground using water, sand (a proppant), lubricants, surfactants and other often hazardous chemicals in order to stimulate the release of oil and natural gas within in reach of the bore of a horizontal well.
So, new oil and gas development, particularly in the Niobrara shale in Colorado and the Marcellus shale of Pennsylvania and New York, may seem synonymous with fracking. Advances in hydraulic fracturing and drilling technology allowing energy companies to drill wells horizontally through a layer of shale are the only reasons Niobrara and Marcellus drilling (and fracking) are occurring.
In other words, drilling is not fracking, but drilling probably wouldn't happen if it weren't for fracking.
Call it what you want, it's the oil and gas development and all its side effects (water, air and noise pollution, climate impacts, lost wildlife habitat, the industrialization of the landscape, and so on) that people have questions about.
As journalists, it's our job to provide answers to those questions, and the more the industry and government officials say drilling and fracking are generally harmless to public health, the more compelled we'll feel to look more deeply into the issue.
Top Tier Parks (International icons of American heritage, extremely well-known): Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Glacier, Great Smoky Mountains, Denali, Sequoia, Bryce Canyon, Zion, Mt. Rainier
2nd Tier (Iconic within U.S.; slightly less cache): Crater Lake, Arches, Canyonlands, Rocky Mountain, Redwood, Death Valley, Carlsbad Caverns, Mesa Verde, Acadia, Everglades, Badlands, Olympic, Hawaii Volcanoes, Shenandoah, Kings Canyon
3rd Tier: (Less iconic, slightly more obscure): Capitol Reef, Mammoth Cave, Cuyahoga Valley, Great Sand Dunes, Wrangell-St. Elias, Lake Clark, Glacier Bay, Katmai, Haleakala, Saguaro, Petrified Forest, Joshua Tree, Channel Islands, Biscayne, Voyageurs, Big Bend, Virgin Islands, North Cascades, Lassen Volcanic
4th Tier (Very obscure, lightly visited or possibly inappropriate for "national park" designation): Congaree, Hot Springs, Isle Royale, Gates of the Arctic, Kobuk Valley, Kenai Fjords, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, National Park of American Samoa, Guadalupe Mountains, Great Basin, Dry Tortugas, Theodore Roosevelt, Wind Cave