Rushing headfirst into the apocalypse: Imagine having a viewshed

Joseph and I went cross-country skiing up Suce Creek in Paradise Valley, Montana, on Friday evening.

Often, when I talk about journalism to people, they ask whether journalists can actually be unbiased. Can you actually write a story without projecting your opinion? How do you do that?

I, like all journalists (and all humans for that matter), do often have opinions about the things I cover, but I like to think I do a good job of staying out of the way. Usually, I feel like when I’m writing something, the facts can speak for themselves and people can make their own decisions based on those facts. Who am I to project my value system on the reader?

Sometimes it’s hard, but sometimes it’s much easier than having an opinion.

This week, I sat in the courtroom in Livingston, Montana, for three days, watching testimony in a lawsuit that is attempting to stop a proposed wind farm between the Yellowstone River and the Crazy Mountains, an absolutely beautiful stretch of land so attractive that it has become a hub for millionaires and billionaires looking for an escape from the world. And that brings us to the case.

Two local ranchers are wanting to erect wind turbines on their land. The ranchers say they want to pass down their land to their families, and this project would help them do that. One is 87 and wants to retire. The other has Parkinson’s and cried at the thought of his family not being able to follow in his footsteps.

The plaintiffs are a group of extremely wealthy individuals (a Texas oilman, a Las Vegas attorney who has represented Bruno Mars and Paris Hilton and Shaq and Martha Stewart, a wealthy Colorado businessman who is trying to sell his ranch for almost $20 million) who own luxury ranches and are alleging that a wind farm would decrease their enjoyment of their property. They bought the land here because it is unsoiled, and they want to watch golden eagles and bald eagles fly over one of the premier trout rivers in the United States. An industrial wind project will get in the way of their viewshed and the viewshed of every other person who comes to this area to enjoy its pristine beauty.

It’s a typical NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) case – except it isn’t. Their backyard has value for many people. The views they see are also the views we see when we retreat into our public lands in the Custer Gallatin National Forest, either in the Absaroka mountains or the Crazy Mountains. The birds that brought them here also bring in tourists. Those views benefit regular people like fishing guides and hotels and restaurants.

The commoditization of things like views is somewhat sickening. I don’t recall ever having heard the word “viewshed” until I moved to Montana in May. The level of wealth that owning a property and being concerned about its viewshed demands is unfathomable to me. I don’t think I will ever in my life have a viewshed. But I also understand there is an inherent value in its preservation.

If you lose the value in an unsoiled place – one of the few places left with the charisma able to inspire regular people to take action to help save about the world around them – then what’s left preserving? Are 26 500-foot-tall turbines, structures that would be the tallest manmade structures in the state, worth disrupting that? I mean it’s not that many turbines, but they matter as much as any turbines, I suppose. At a time when the world is heating up, anything helps.

It reminds me of that wild and pessimistic piece in the New Yorker from a few years ago by Jonathan Franzen, arguing that earth is a terminal cancer patient and we need to decide whether to make the most of the time we have left or try to fight the disease to prolong our life.

This is something I’m glad I don’t have to weigh in on.

For my birthday, me and a group of friends got a cabin in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. On January 13, it was more than 50 degrees. We walked to the top of a hill with views of at least four mountain ranges: the Crazies, Snowy’s, Beartooth’s and Absaroka’s. There were wind turbines visible from the top of the hill. The pictures I took from the top of the ridge don’t have the turbines in them. Standing there, they didn’t take anything away from my view. I don’t know that my experience would have been any different had the wind turbines not been there.

But here I am, more than a month later, and I remember those turbines, one of the few anthropogenic structures in an otherwise natural landscape.

Stories for this week

A Centuries-Old Idea Could Revolutionize Climate Policy

The Green New Deal isn’t some far-out idea. It has the roots in Alexander Hamilton’s view on how the federal government should function, with the public sector driving private sector innovation.

But not everyone, even progressives, is supportive of the deal.

The Hard Lessons of Dianne Feinstein’s Encounter with the Young Green New Deal Activists

Much has been made of the interaction, which isn’t as bad if you watch the full video but still isn’t exactly inspiring. But the best thing to come out of it was this Bill McKibben piece. The whole thing is fire.

“This means that youth carry the moral authority here, and, at the very least, should be treated with the solicitousness due a generation that older ones have managed to screw over.”

Australian Rat Declared Extinct Due To Man-Made Climate Change

Climate change claims its first mammal:

“The 2016 report concluded that the ‘key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation,’ which resulted in ‘dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals.'”

Pay attention to the growing wave of climate change lawsuits

It’s not just the kids anymore (though they’re getting closer to going to court). Fishermen, farmers, cities and states are suing on climate change.

Is the Insect Apocalypse Really Upon Us?

Following up on last week: Are all the insects really going to die? Probably not, but let May Berenbaum, of the lovely University of Illinois, explain: “The loss of even a small percent of insects might also be disproportionately consequential. They sit at the base of the food web; if they go down, so will many birds, bats, spiders, and other predators. They aerate soils, pollinate plants, and remove dung and cadavers; if they disappear, entire landscapes will change.”

“Do we wait to have definitive evidence that species are disappearing before we do something?” Berenbaum asks.

Climate change may affect ecological interactions among species

This week in interesting studies that I haven’t seen anyone write about is this study from Brazil on how predator-prey relationships will likely be disrupted by climate change.

Did Bernhardt once try to blow up Endangered Species Act?

A group affiliated with the new Secretary of the Interior tried to get protections for species that would be so widespread they would almost certainly have to change the way the law works.

The 3 Big Things That People Misunderstand About Climate Change

The three things? Speed, scope and severity.

I talked up David Wallace Wells’ book last week, and my copy should be coming tomorrow.

100% Renewable Energy Needs Lots of Storage. This Polar Vortex Test Showed How Much.

“During the Jan. 27 – Feb. 2 polar vortex event, the analysts test case of 50 percent wind, 50 percent solar would have had gaps of up to 18 hours in which renewable sources were not producing enough electricity to meet the high demand, so storage systems would need to fill in.”

Billion-Dollar Weather and Climate Disasters: Overview

A few weeks old but:

In 2018, there were 14 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. These events included 1 drought event, 8 severe storm events, 2 tropical cyclone events, 1 wildfire event, and 2 winter storm events. Overall, these events resulted in the deaths of 247 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted. 

And it’s worse outside of the United States.

Climate change ’cause of most under-reported humanitarian crises’

Millions went hungry because of climate change-induced food crises, and no one wrote about it.

Just getting to games a major challenge for Mackinac Island basketball team

This isn’t climate related, but Boswell wrote about how the Mackinac Island (Mich.) basketball team gets to games: snowmobiles, an ice-cutting ferry boat, a school bus and sometimes small planes. In a winter wonderland, could that change because of the climate.

Which brings us to…

What I’ve been working on: A changing scenery

As the world changes, it’s important to take stock of what we have before it’s gone.

Thanks for reading,


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