January 13, 2006

Prince(ss) of Tides

Since last Friday, I’m proud to announce, the venerable Cascadian news website Tidepool has been a project of NEW. Yep, we’ve completed a friendly takeover!

Since 1997, Tidepool has been highlighting the most significant news that’s shaping Cascadia. Every morning, Tidepool’s editors scan dozens of news sites and assemble the stories that will actually matter in Cascadia a few years hence—the slow news (pdf). It’s an essential service, and it’s one that thousands of Cascadians use every day.

Tidepool was seeking a new home, and its service is a natural complement for this blog and NEW’s other analyses of key trends in Cascadia. So both organizations are excited about the transfer. We think it’ll lead to big improvements all the way around—in the news digest, in the blog, and in our website.

Tidepool has long been a community asset—something kept healthy through the active support of its thousands of readers. This new phase in Tidepool’s development won’t change that fact; to the contrary, NEW will soon introduce more ways to participate in Tidepool’s evolution. If you’re not already a member of that community, please join by signing up for a free subscription.

For more information on NEW’s ownership—really, stewardship—of Tidepool, read this letter to its subscribers.

And meet the new NEW editor of Tidepool: Princess of Tides Kristin Kolb-Angelbeck.

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January 11, 2006

What Washington Conservation Can Learn From Idaho

Palouse_falls Consider the similarities. Both Idaho and Washington are this year graced with budget surpluses: $214 million in Idaho and a whopping $1.4 billion in Washington. (Even in per capita terms, Washington's surplus is roughly 50 percent larger than Idaho's.) Both Idaho and Washington are also graced with stunning natural features and a populace that purports to love the outdoors. But both are also cursed by a crumbling infrastructure of woefully underfunded state parks.

Enter Idaho's republican governor, Dirk Kempthorne, who wants to spend $34 million on upgrading and expanding Idaho's park system. Maybe Kempthorne is selfish--he's known to camp frequently in the summer. Or maybe he's just a wise investor--officials calculate a big return on the investment, according to the Idaho Statesman:

The economic benefits of spending about $34 million on construction and improvements of state parks would bring $52.5 million to the state's economy through goods, services, leisure and hospitality and other types of sales, according to state figures.

And what's Washington proposing to do with its park system? That's where the similarities end. Washington's proposing, well, pretty much nothing.

One republican legislator from Chehalis wants to use the money to abolish park entrance fees, though that would leave the parks in the same fiscal predicament they're in now. Otherwise, as far as I know, no one's made a peep about spending some of the windfall on Washington's parks.

In national terms, Washington's state parks are almost laughably underfunded. When it comes to park funding, the Evergreen State is something like Mississippi of the economy. That's a real tragedy in a place that boasts little visited coastlines, lakes, forests, mountains, deserts, canyons, and rivers that would be emblems of state pride in other parts of the country.

And state parks are a public good that protect ecosystems even while they help thousands of people experience nature's bounty. As it turns out, they're a pretty good investment too.

If you're still skeptical, consider the following facts from the Washington State Parks website:

  • The backlog of major maintenance needed in Washington State Parks is now estimated at $40 million. Capital facilities needs are estimated at $300 million over 10 years.
  • Washington spends only 82 cents per park visitor compared to the national average of $2.82 per visitor.
  • The State Parks system is currently expected to generate 37 percent of its own funding, compared to 20 percent a decade ago.
  • State spending on parks as a portion of the total state budget has declined in the last decade. It is less than one quarter of one percent of the state budget. Yet, parks contribute more than $1.1 billion to the state's economy.

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January 05, 2006

Do Poverty Numbers Lie?

Poverty rates are higher in Mississippi than in Massachusetts. But it's easier to make ends meet in the deep south, where the staples of existence generally cost less. So which place really has worse poverty?

Among the more annoying problems with US poverty rates--and the problems are legion--is that comparisons between states can be spurious because the rates do not account for differences in the cost of living. So in an attempt to straighten things out, I did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation today to find out where poverty hits the hardest. (Assuming that median household income is a decent proxy for the cost of living, I adjusted state poverty rates by incomes. This has been done before, in lots of more complicated ways, but I wanted to figure out something specific.)

As it turns out, the worst states are still the worst--Mississippi, Washington, DC, and Texas have the highest rates of poverty by either accounting. Same for the best--New Hampshire, Minnesota, and the northeast states are the best in the nation using either method. But in the Pacific Northwest, things get interesting--and Washington is the biggest loser.

By official statistics Washington's and Oregon's poverty rates are fair to middlin' (their average 2002, 2003, and 2004 rate was 11.7) and the two states are tied for the 27th lowest rate in the US. But when you adjust for income levels, Oregon's poverty gets a teensy bit better, climbing to 24th place, while Washington drops like a rock into 37th place--slightly worse than the national average and tied with economic powerhouses like Kentucky.

California takes a page from Washington's playbook and plummets from 36th place to 48th--behind Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana. Idaho and Montana, meanwhile, both rise substantially in the rankings as their poverty rates are balanced out by their lower costs of living (at least as it's reflected by median income).

Now obviously, there's at least one big flaw with my little made-up methodology. By adjusting poverty by income, I'm essentially favoring states for having low incomes. Still, income is something of a proxy for the cost of living. Moreover, some of the worst effects of poverty--crime, violence, poor health, etc--may actually be the effects of income inequality in disguise. So my poverty adjustment tells us which states are most severely amplifying poverty through income inequality (cough, cough, Washington and California).

It's telling, I think, that most states' rankings don't change terribly much with my adjustment. But a few states with average poverty rates and higher incomes may have some real--and hidden--economic problems to sort out. Because problems of equity often manifest themselves in other ways, the federal numbers may not tell us even half the story about how we're really doing.

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Babies Not Having Babies

Some more good, or at least interesting, news for 2004:  teen birth rates in Cascadia hit an all-time low. There were just under 27 live births per 1,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19, according to final data for the year.  That's probably not just the lowest rate in recent history, but the lowest since humans first inhabited this place.

Teenpreg19702004 (Just to be clear: we spend a lot of our time comparing trends in BC, Washington, Oregon, and Idaho -- the main political jurisdictions whose rivers flow through the temperate rainforests on the Pacific Northwest coast.  For short, we call the region "Cascadia."  End of public service announcement.)

Teen births throughout the region have fallen by about 57 percent since 1970.  But they've fallen unevenly, as the chart shows.  In the Northwest states, teen pregnancy rates are about half of what they were in 1970.  In British Columbia, however, teen pregnancies fell by an astonishing four-fifths over the same period.  Or, said differently -- teen birthrates in BC and the Northwest states used to be quite comparable.  Now, the teen birthrate is more than three times as high in the Northwest US as in BC.

As with many social and environmental trends, BC more and more looks like, well, it's in a different country than Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.  Gasoline consumption, sprawl, health, teen births -- on these measures and many others, BC substantially outperforms the Northwest states; and on many of them BC's lead just keeps getting bigger.  I'm not sure what this means; perhaps nothing. But it may also be a sign that the politics and cultures of these neighbors are gradually diverging.

Regardless, given the similarities in climate, language, and history between the two halves of Cascadia, the differences between BC and the US Northwest demonstrate--fairly convincingly it seems to me--that minor differences in policy and outlook can gradually add up to huge differences in outcomes.

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December 29, 2005

Make Room!

The good ship Cascadia has another 227,000 passengers.

The US Census Bureau has issued population estimates for the states, which allow us to give an updated Cascadian population tally. As of July 1, 2005, the region – counting British Columbia, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington – had 15.6 million people. (Adding western Montana, southeast Alaska, and northwestern California pushes that figure up by another million or so, but running the county-by-county figures takes more time than I’ve got at the moment.)

The (four main jurisdictions of the) region added 227,000 inhabitants over the preceding 12 months. That's about the number that live in greater Olympia, Washinton. And it's a 1.5 percent increase, the largest since 1997.

Total_pop_1

The resurgence stemmed from rising domestic migration into the region. Natural increase (births minus deaths) remained stable at around 70,000 per year, as did international migration at around 50,000 per year. (International migration is hard to tally reliably at present. As the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey comes online, we’ll be able to track it better.)

The extra 227,000 Cascadians, especially the adult migrants, bring new resource consumption, pollution, and traffic as they arrive. But just to be unpredictable today, let me point out that they also bring new talents, productivity, and resources with them.

One dimension of in-migration that’s little noted is the way that growing populations allow more-rapid transformation of metropolitan areas. Cities that don’t have growing populations do not have many opportunities to build complete, compact communities, filling in their urban form. And compact communities can actually reduce resource consumption among their residents. It’s conceivable, in fact, that adding population--if it goes into the right kinds of smart-growth neighborhoods--might lead to such large per-person reductions in resource consumption that the aggregate total remains unchanged or even diminishes.

So migration brings big challenges (about which there’s more here) but it also brings opportunities.

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December 28, 2005

Population Puzzler: Unwanted Pregnancies and Abortion Trends

Last week, the National Center for Health Statistics issued the results of a survey revealing that the share of American births that resulted from unwanted pregnancies increased from 9 percent in 1995 to 14 percent in 2002. (Seattle Times reports here.)

That’s bad news. It’s also puzzling.

It’s bad news because babies conceived by accident, when mothers do not want to have a child (or another child), tend to have what social scientists call “adverse outcomes,” as discussed here. They’re more likely to have bad prenatal care, die in infancy, fare poorly in school, and suffer violence at the hands of their caregivers.

It’s puzzling because so many reproductive trends have improved since 1995. Pregnancy rates overall have fallen, as shown in this chart for Oregon . . .

Preg_or_1
. . . especially among teens, as shown in these charts for Oregon . . . 

Or_teen

. . . and Washington.

Wa_teen

Birth rates overall have fallen. Access to emergency contraceptives has expanded dramatically, as has insurance coverage for prescription contraceptives.

All of these positive trends would make you expect that the share of births that result from unwanted pregnancies has also declined. But the opposite has happened, at least in the United States overall.

The trend is less contradictory within Cascadia. Washington has the best data on unwanted births over time, and they show hardly any change—or hardly any change that’s greater than the margin of error. At best, there's been a tiny decrease in unwanted births.

Wa_unwanted

Still, you’d expect that drops in pregnancies and births would lead to equally dramatic declines in unwanted pregnancies. You’d think, in fact, that improving pregnancy prevention would show itself first and foremost in a declining share of pregnancies that are unwanted. Instead, everything is shrinking dramatically except the “unwanted” percentage!

What’s going on here?

I don’t know.

The Alan Guttmacher Institute (AGI) in New York is reportedly in the midst of an analysis of this puzzler, and I hope they’ll figure it out. In the meantime, let me underline my ignorance by explaining why the obvious answers are probably wrong or, at least, inadequate.

Pro-choice advocates argue that the survey results are a sure sign of deteriorating access to abortion services, which is plausible. In Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, the number of abortion providers is lower now than it was two decades ago. In 1981, there were more than 160 abortion providers in these states; by 2001, there were fewer than 100, according to AGI.

And the next chart, comparing the share of pregnancies ending in abortion (excluding miscarriages) in British Columbia and Washington, lends further plausibility to the theory. In British Columbia, where abortion providers have not decreased in number to the same degree, abortion has grown as a share of all pregnancies. In Washington, it's shrunk.

Abortions

Harassment and intimidation from extremists explains some of the drop in abortion providers, but economic consolidation has also contributed. Abortion services have become a specialized medical subdiscipline, concentrated in the hands of fewer providers who are, in general, very good at what they do. First-trimester surgical abortion, therefore, may now be safer and less expensive, in inflation-adjusted terms, than ever before. Convenient, nearby access to safe abortion services does not extend to small-town residents in the inland parts of Cascadia, but most women who want an abortion can get one, by traveling to a city--the same place they have to go for many other surgical procedures.

Anti-abortion advocates have a different exlanation for the rise in unwanted births. They suggest that Americans are demonstrating, in the words of an official at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a “pro-life shift.” American women may be exercising their freedom to choose by electing to have fewer abortions. This explanation also has some plausibility. Abortion rates are lower in more-conservative states such as Idaho than in more-liberal states such as Oregon and Washington. Maybe a cultural change is making the whole country more like Idaho. (And maybe the Washington-BC divergence in the chart above is explained not by changing access to abortion but by changing social values.)

Maybe, but I'm dubious. For one thing, British Columbia has the same anti-abortion movements, the same media influences, and the same medical technology (such as ultrasounds that make fetuses seem like babies sooner) as Washington. But abortion trends have diverged.

For another, if the United States were experiencing such a shift, the recent survey should have found not only that “unwanted” pregnancies but also that “mistimed” pregnancies were being carried to term more often. In fact, if a “pro-life shift” were the cause, one would expect a more dramatic increase in the share of births that resulted from merely mistimed (or “too soon”) pregnancies, rather than from pregnancies that were truly never wanted at all. Women who found themselves pregnant a few years before they intended to be (and were swayed by anti-abortion arguments) would almost certainly be the first to forgo abortions, not the smaller number of women who found themselves pregnant despite their wish never to have a child (again). Wouldn’t the easy cases by “shifted” before the hard ones?

The Center found no such shift.

Between the Center’s 1995 survey (careful, enormous pdf) and its 2002 survey (careful, even larger pdf), in subset after subset of American women (young, old, married, cohabiting, Hispanic, white, first-time mothers, third-time mothers, etc.), there’s a marked increased in the share of births that women report as having resulted from unwanted pregnancies. There’s no comparable change for births that result from the far-more-numerous mistimed pregnancies.

(Oh--and just to muddy the waters futher--the same reasoning also counters the suggestion that a paucity of abortion providers explains the rise in unwanted births. If barriers to getting abortions were the problem, it would presumably afflict the more-ambivalent mothers of "mistimed" births even more than it afflicted women with unwanted pregnancies.)

This unwanted-mistimed patter is so unusual that I wonder, did some wording change in the survey skew the response? (The survey report claims the wording was identical.) Did 9/11/2001 shift women’s attitude retroactively, making them less sanguine about childbearing, and less positive about their births? (Seems unlikely, given that the survey was taken many months later and that it covered a five year period.) Did the Center’s statisticians just make a mistake?

And even if there is some statistical fluke explaining this national survey, why isn’t the Washington state “unwanted” number (and it’s similarly static “mistimed” number) dropping with the pregnancy rate?

My own partly formed suspicion centers on the fewer than 10 percent of sexually active women (and their partners) who do not regularly use contraception and therefore account for about half of all mistimed and unwanted pregnancies. If everyone but them is getting better at prevention, their pregnancies may loom larger in national and state statistics. (There are flaws with this theory, too, but it’s the best I’ve got at the moment.)

Anyone else care to theorize?

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December 23, 2005

A Gift for the Reindeer Too

A federal judge has halted snowmobile grooming in the recovery area for the Selkirk caribou--the only reindeer to still visit the continental United States. [Coverage in the Olympian and the Coeur d'Alene-area Daily Bee.] The ruling is dead right: snowmobiles are one of the primary threats to the Selkirk herd, which need undisturbed winter habitat. Snowmobiles are still allowed, even under the new injunction, but the absence of groomed tracks will substantially decrease their numbers.

Given that 1) the caribou are often considered the most endangered large mammal in North America; 2) pretty much everyone agrees that snowmobiling is inimical to their survival; and 3) their designated recovery area is a small and remote parcel of mountainous northeast Washington and northern Idaho, the only question I'm left wondering is: why is any snowmobiling at all allowed in their so-called "recovery area"?

And for readers taking note, this is the third good news post here today. Must be the season...

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November 29, 2005

Up With Poverty

New state-level income and poverty data just released today by the US Census Bureau. I've just begun playing with the numbers. But before I get too immersed in the spreadsheets, here's a look at how Cascadian states have fared over the last years for which data is available.

The skinny is that incomes are up, but poverty is up too. (As far as I can tell, the income figures are not adjusted for inflation, so they may not represent real gains.) Of course, these figures are just stats-based estimates, so it's wise not to draw too many conclusions.

Nevertheless, it is telling that all 5 states mimicked the national trend: rising incomes and rising poverty.

Median household incomes

2002

2003

California

$            47,323

$        48,440

Idaho

$            38,242

$        39,859

Montana

$            34,105

$        34,449

Oregon

$            41,796

$        42,593

Washington

$            46,399

$        48,185

United States

$            42,409

$        43,318

Poverty rates

2002

2003

California

13.3

13.8

Idaho

11.7

11.8

Montana

14.0

14.2

Oregon

11.3

12.0

Washington

10.3

11.0

United States

12.1

12.5

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November 15, 2005

All Eyes Turn To . . . Yakima

In February of this year, in Cascadia Scorecard 2005, we argued for an innovation in state utility rules called “decoupling.” The idea has since made impressive strides; and the next great advance may come in, of all places, Yakima, Washington. (More on that in a moment.)

In a nutshell, decoupling is a way to allow electric and gas utilities to prosper by helping their customers to save money. Utilities are not like other companies. Their profits are dictated by state utility regulators, based on complicated formulas. Since profits rise with sales, investments in improving efficiency can drain away profits. By decoupling sales from earnings, however, utility regulators can write Cascadia’s long-term energy efficiency into utilities’ bottom lines and turn utilities--precisely the organizations that have the requisite know-how and capital-- into vanguards of clean energy.

For example, when Puget Sound Power and Light (now Puget Sound Energy) operated under a decoupling rule from 1991 to 1996, it turned itself from a laggard to a leader in energy efficiency. In its first decoupled year, the company’s efficiency programs saved almost as much electricity as they had saved during the three previous years combined. In its second year, it boosted savings another 60 percent and single-handedly accounted for 40 percent of all electricity savings in the Northwest states—outdoing even the regionwide federal Bonneville Power Administration, at half the cost.

(You can read more of the case for decoupling in Cascadia Scorecard 2005 (pdf, Page 56) and in this post from last November.)

Clearly, the potential benefits of decoupling revenues from sales, and thereby aligning the interests of consumers with the interests of producers, are enormous. There may not be any reform in energy  policy that matters as much while being equally unknown.

What’s the latest on decoupling? Recently, I asked Ralph Cavanagh, co-director of the energy program at Natural Resources Defense Council in San Francisco (and perhaps the world’s leading expert on decoupling). He gave an encouraging rundown.

For starters, the state of California has completely decoupled rates for all its investor-owned utilities (that is, private as opposed to government-owned utilities) for both natural gas and electricity. This sweeping victory, finalized early this year, led to the launch on September 22 of what Ralph says he believes to be the most aggressive program in the history of the utility industry to help customers save energy, lower their bills, and reduce pollution emissions.

Since 2002, Oregon’s gas utility NW Natural has operated under decoupled rates on a trial basis. After a formal evaluation of the program’s effects, the Oregon Public Utility Commission simplified NW Natural’s decoupled rates in August and approved them for the next four years.

Idaho Power is preparing to bring a decoupling proposal before the Idaho Public Utilities Commission and may submit it by the end of this year.

Later this month, the Washington Utility and Transportation Commission (WUTC) will consider a proposal to decouple rates for Portland-based PacifiCorp’s Washington service area, which includes and surrounds Yakima. Decoupling would make a huge difference to PacifiCorp’s behavior. Ralph argues, in testimony prepared to support the proposal, “a reasonably aggressive five-year energy efficiency investment program in its Washington service territory would automatically inflict almost $21 million in losses on PacifiCorp’s shareholders, regardless of the cost-effectiveness of the electricity savings.” Without decoupling, PacifiCorp, like most utilities, has been halfhearted about efficiency, even if it is legally obligated to encourage it.

WUTC will hold hearings on decoupling PacifiCorp’s rates in Yakima on Thursday, December 1, at 6:00 pm, in hearing room B33 in the Yakima County Courthouse. If you live in the area and have PacifiCorp as your power company, please consider attending and speaking in favor of the NRDC proposal. Public voices can be influential at such hearings, because so few citizens take an interest and speak. (Let me know if you’re interested in speaking and we’ll provide you with background information.)

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November 10, 2005

Public lands: Mine, All Mine

Mine In an ominous new development, Congress may soon authorize private "patents" of public land, a wildly outdated and abused provision of an 1872 mining law. The patents are functionally equivalent to fee-simple purchases of the land, which raises the distinct possibility that private individuals and corporations could stake mining claims--and then buy the land--in national forests, wilderness areas, and even national parks.

Mining, as it is currently practiced, is so ecologically disastrous that there are too many examples of environmental degradation to mention here. But the new Congressional legislation would actually worsen matters. Not only would it make it easy for mining corporations to snatch up public land at bargain-basement prices--and never pay royalties on their profits--but there's nothing preventing the buyer from dropping plans to mine and then re-selling the land as real estate. If mining doesn't pencil out, there's always the possibility of ski areas, amusement parks, condos...

At risk are roughly 20 million acres of public lands. Already, nearly 900 patents have been staked inside national parks and that number is almost certain to rise under the new legislation. It's hard to imagine a worse deal for the American public, not to mention our ever more fragile natural heritage that public lands safeguard.

Read the coverage in the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Times.

UPDATE 11/14/05: Excellent coverage of this issue in today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

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