April 04, 2006

Montana to Insurers: Cover The Pill

Late last week, Montana required that any insurance plan that covers prescription drugs generally may not exclude coverage for prescription contraceptives such as birth control pills. The Helena Independent Record reports.

 That’s big news because couples whose insurance covers contraceptives are more likely to choose the most effective forms (which tend to be expensive): pills, for example, rather than condoms alone. And better contraception means fewer unintended pregnancies and abortions. It also means that more children will be born wanted.

Among Cascadian states, California and Washington already require equal treatment for prescription contraceptives: California, by law; Washington, by ruling of the state Insurance Commissioner. In Montana, the action came in a binding legal opinion issued by the state’s Attorney General. Excluding contraceptives from prescription drug plans is sex discrimination, AG Mike McGrath concluded. The rule has the force of law unless it’s overturned by the legislature or a state court. The legislature is unlikely to do so: the state senate approved a bill to ensure equal coverage for contraceptives last fall, although the state house did not join them. It’s unlikely, therefore, that both houses would pass a law that reversed the AG’s ruling.

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March 09, 2006

Wolf Millennium

Wolfpack New wolf numbers released this afternoon from US Fish and Wildlife: Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming now host an estimated 1,020 wolves, a stunning 21 percent increase in just a single year. Since reintroduction in the mid-1990s, gray wolf numbers have grown at an astonishing pace, faster even than the most optimistic prognostications. Idaho continues to shelter more wolves than any other state in the West with about half the total. The rest are split almost evenly between Montana and Wyoming.

In recent months, nearly every day seems to bring new rumors of federal de-listing, an action that would leave gray wolves in a much more precarious position. Idaho officials, for example, have already stated their intent to kill wolves that are preying on elk.

The sheer absurdity of Idaho's position is almost mind-boggling. Wolves are already killed for attacking livestock--but elk, on the other hand, are the wolves' natural prey. In any case, credible biological studies actually show a negligible reduction in elk numbers that can be attributed to wolf predation. Until wolves become vegetarian, they're not likely to have many friends in state government. In the meantime, their best chance lies in establishing a large and sustainable population that can weather squalls of bad policy.

Ironically, the best ally of the wolves at the moment may be anti-wolf forces in Wyoming. State officials there have so far refused to draw up a recovery plan for wolves that doesn't allow unregulated killing outside of Yellowstone National Park (where, incidentally, the wolves draw millions of dollars in tourist revenue). Until Wyoming has a suitable recovery plan--as Idaho and Montana already do--the federal government will likely not de-list wolves. And with each year bringing double-digit population growth, gray wolves just need time to keep their numbers booming.

UPDATE 3/10/06: Article in today's New York Times that details some of the issues around de-listing, including the desire of ranchers to have unregulated wolf killing, including aerial killing.

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February 17, 2006

Accounting for Endangered Species

In the Washington Post today, an ominous headline for endangered species: "The True Cost of Protection?"

Dust off your sense of outrage, fellow taxpaying Americans, because as the article informs us, protecting endangered species cost $1.4 billion in 2004. So magnificent is that figure that the writer sneeringly suggests that king salmon are so called because recovering them cost the princely sum of $160 million in '04. By the tenor of the piece we are supposed to feel that spending $5 million on gray wolves is magnanimous, while spending $11,000 on a rare species of beetle is the height of absurdity.

What's truly outrageous is the intimation that somehow the species themselves are to blame for their costly predicament. Like lazy welfare queens, these imperiled animals should pony up. Never mind that wild Columbia River king salmon are perhaps 1 percent of historical abundance because a welter of industries were given free rein to destroy them. Clearcuts, dams, voracious fisheries, nuclear plants, pesticides... the list of culprits is long and it is to them that the $160 million bill should be assessed. The cost is not of "protection" as the writer asserts, it is instead the cost of heedlessly trampling ecosystems.

It's apropos that the headline editor added a question mark because, in truth, none of the dollar figures cited in the article actually amount to the "true cost" of protection. Like a blinkered accountant tallying only expenses but not revenues, the article utterly fails to mention any of the monetary benefits of species recovery. (And I won't even mention the inestimable non-monetary ones). Study the "costs" of protection for a moment and you'll see that the figures just don't add.

In the Yellowstone region, University of Montana economists have estimated that gray wolves have generated $23 million dollars in tourism to gateway towns. Add to that the many millions of dollars in central Idaho and the Upper Midwest, where gray wolves are also rebounding, and it turns out that wolves not only pay for themselves, they pick up the tab for those good-for-nothing salamanders, and still return a hefty dividend to taxpayers.

In Idaho, fully functioning sport salmon fisheries have been valued as high as $544 million per year. Though that estimate is disputed, it's for just one year for one of the several states where that $160 million was spent in 2004 to assist king salmon.

I could go on and on. The point is, the "true cost" of endangered species protection is much lower than the greenbacks that the US Fish & Wildlife Service lays out. It's even possible that the investment is actually a net benefit for the economy, if one bothers to factor in the revenues of wildlife-based tourism, ecosystem services, and sport (and commercial) fisheries. And that's just the dollars and cents, which is a lamentably poor way to value our natural heritage.

Even if they never do hold steady jobs and pay back what they rightfully owe us taxpayers, protecting and restoring endangered species is worth the price. When I consider the meaning of those species, their uniqueness in geography and history and their symbolism of wildness, $1.6 billion just doesn't seem like very much money to me. Especially when I remember that it's spent on species across the entire country--from Florida manatees to Northwest salmon.

Where I live, in Seattle, officials are just about to plunk down $3.5 billion in tax dollars to build a 2 mile long tunnel. Enough said.

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February 13, 2006

Pipe bombs

Another plot to cripple the Trans-Alaska Pipeline was foiled recently, reports the Philadelphia Inquirer (via Reuters). A Montana judge gets credit for apprehending the plotter, in Idaho, although Oregon and Washington are the main consumers of oil from Alaskan oil.

A year ago, we released the 2005 Cascadia Scorecard, which detailed the profound vulnerability of Cascadia's energy infrastructure (pdf), including the Trans-Alaska pipe.

The latest plot--which involved blowing up propane trucks along the pipeline, among other acts of sabotage elsewhere--doesn't seem to have been as far along as one in 1999 or one in late 2003. (Both described here (pdf), on pages 30-31.)

The larger story, of course, is that Cascadian officials have done little to secure its energy system in the past year. Pending energy security measures in Washington and Oregon may be bright spots on the horizon.

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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 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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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




$            47,323

$        48,440


$            38,242

$        39,859


$            34,105

$        34,449


$            41,796

$        42,593


$            46,399

$        48,185

United States

$            42,409

$        43,318

Poverty rates


















United States



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November 22, 2005

A River Runs Free

A spot of good news from Montana: the Bonner Dam on the Blackfoot River was removed with a minimum of problems. For the first time since at least 1884, that river of literary and cinematic fame is unfettered.

Other dam-removal projects in the Northwest are certainly more ecologically important, but there's something poetically fitting about the Blackfoot running free again. As Norman Maclean explained, "the river was cut by the world's great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time." And now it does once more.

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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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November 08, 2005

Biofuels Bonanza

Three stories around Cascadia mark the spread of biofuels: biomass for heating schools, biodiesel for heating homes, and a new cross-border biodiesel project for trucks.

Brush fires in the school
The AP recently reported on a Forest Service program, Fuels for Schools, that sends the slashed brush and limbs from forest thinning to heat schools in several states including Idaho and Montana. Replacing oil furnaces, biofuels reduce cost, air pollution, and dependence on foreign oil. I'm all for finding new uses for waste products. But is this really a good idea?

We keep hearing that decades of fire suppression have built up dangerous amounts of fire-prone underbrush in the region's forests. That's probably right. Still, it's not too implausible that thinning could get out of hand, leading to a different sort of ecological imbalance. Rampant thinning may also remove soil nutrients that forests needs to thrive.  And, as we've seen with Oregon's and Washington's school funding, using wood to heat schools could create perverse incentives to thin excessively in order to give schools cheaper heat.

Still, on a limited scale, Fuels for Schools' proven benefits likely outweigh the uncertain costs.

Biodiesel for your home
The Seattle PI reports that local biodiesel fans can now put "powered by biodiesel" bumper stickers on their homes. Two Seattle companies are offering 10 to 30 percent biodiesel heating oil. As expected, it doesn't save you money and hasn't been completely proven not to damage regular furnaces, but the companies say customers are very interested.

Cross-border biodiesel
A new cross-border biodiesel project called Bio-49 Degrees will replace some of the diesel in Puget Sound Energy and BC Hydro utility trucks with biodiesel from waste vegetable oil. Much of the biodiesel will be processed and distributed by students learning the trade at two technical colleges in Bellingham and Burnaby. The cross-border collaborative is another example of governments realizing that environmental issues follow bio-geographic, not political boundaries. Air quality in Bellingham, for instance, is affected more by Vancouver than by Seattle.

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