The Unforgiving Sky
By Dean A. Ferguson
Ranchers, farmers and river outfitters are seeing Idaho’s sky lose its predictability. In the span of 30 years—the age of a youthful tree—folks who live close to the land are finding generations of weather wisdom useless. They are marking gradual change in the climate and adjusting their lives. Weather is hardly idle chatter for these people. Greet them with a "Nice day, isn’t it?" and they might think hard before responding.
Fourth-generation Idaho rancher Tom Peavey didn’t hesitate before recalling his favorite weather-related memory: a day filled with silence and peace and a great white desert stretching to infinity.
Peavey was 17 years old in 1982. His family was gathered for the holidays at the Flat Top Ranch, on land they have owned since 1929. Here, 20 miles east of Bellevue, the Peaveys were socked in the whitest Christmas the family had seen in years.
"We got a big wallop of snow over the holidays and couldn’t feed the cattle for a few days," Peavey recalled.
Tom and his brother David loaded an old pickup truck hood with hay bales, rigged it to the back of a pair of snowmobiles and dragged the improvised sleigh toward the stranded cattle. It was tough work, digging and pushing through waist-deep snow. The sled bogged down and the brothers dug it out again and again. Weary from the work, they paused. The mountains that make Sun Valley famous ringed the boys to the north. To the south, where the Peaveys’ sheep and cattle ranged in the spring, foothills slipped into flattened desert.
David told Tom to listen.
"It was so quiet in the middle of the winter that you noticed it," Tom said. "No trees ruffling. No wind. You can hear the neighbor five miles away talk to his horses."
Winter silence is still out there. That hasn’t changed. But recent years have been tough at the Flat Top; the land has become drier and drier. Alfalfa fields only grow enough for one good cutting, much less than in years past. The last big drought was in 1977, but the mid-1990s saw drought six out of seven years. And 2007 was grim, "pretty close to ’77," Peavey said.
Drought kills hay fields, it kills wheat and barley, kills animals. To a rancher, drought feels like it is killing him. "It’s not like a flood or a storm that hits you all at once," Peavey said. "It’s all ever-dying, ever-worrying. It just sucks the life out of you." Natural ponds in the desert, where livestock find water, go dry now. The Peaveys have invested in wells and 46 miles of pipe to keep far-flung watering troughs full. In this southeastern corner of Blaine County, the weather has become unpredictable, Tom said. The storms are less frequent, but more violent. And the timing always seems the worst.
"You can still predict it’s going to rain if you have your hay down," Peavey said, cracking the same defiant grin that shows even when soggy hay rots in the fields. Given the stresses of his work, it is little wonder that silence amid deep snow is where this rancher finds peace.
Michael Jennings says that the changes Peavey is seeing on his Carey ranch are the beginning of "early stages of rapid change." Jennings, a University of Idaho professor and senior Nature Conservancy scientist, traveled to Boise one cold, snowy day last January to address a panel of lawmakers about the possible effects of unchecked global warming. Some scientists fear the globe is nearing some possible point of no return, he said, terrible precisely for what scientists don’t know about it. Jennings claimed 99.9 percent of the world’s 3,000 to 4,000 top climate scientists agree on one thing at least: "It’s under way now."
At the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Moscow, plant geneticist Gerald Rehfeldt predicts a changed Idaho in 80 years. North of Coeur d’Alene, the climate will be wetter, he says, and the land will resemble the coastal temperate rainforests of Washington state and British Columbia. South of Boise, the desert will be drier and hotter, replicating the Sonoran. In the Sawtooths, the alpine flora that fills today’s postcards may not be as permanent as it seems.
Clint Stennett, Blaine County’s State Senator, was on the nine-member Senate committee that earlier this year asked for a report on Idaho’s greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. The committee’s request was rebuked by the full Senate and proved again that, in Boise, debate about big business affecting the climate can turn as hot as south Idaho blacktop.
Monty Pearce is typical of the climate change skeptics in the Idaho Statehouse. The New Plymouth farmer is passionately opposed to the theories of global warming and has railed against devoting any energy or money to studying greenhouse gas emissions.
"We’re talking here now about building a bureaucracy on top of theory. That’s really it," Pearce said during debate on the Senate floor. "We’re opening the tent up and saying, ‘Camel, stick your head under,’ and not recognizing that the camel has bad breath."
Prior to the debate, Pearce plied his peers with his own research: copies of "Environment and Climate News," a Heartland Institute publication. Heartland is a nonprofit that trumpets free market solutions for various national policy woes and has been partially funded by oil interests—about $800,000 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2006, according to SourceWatch.
Pearce has allies aplenty. As chair of the state’s budget committee, Dean Cameron wields substantial legislative power. The Rupert insurance salesman saw no reason to study a phenomenon that so many of his conservative peers reject. To finance the study, Cameron said, would be acknowledging that global warming is fact. "I don’t know that I’m all the way there yet," he said.
Amid assertions that Earth is actually cooling and that higher carbon dioxide levels encourage plant growth, the overwhelmingly conservative Senate killed the study in a 20 to 13 vote. Stennett assumed a familiar state of dismay, but did acknowledge the historical context—this was the first time climate change was debated in the Idaho Legislature. Meanwhile, Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter has made some timid steps forward. He signed onto the Western States Climate Registry, a regional effort to establish a greenhouse gas monitoring system and has also ordered state agencies to cut emissions, starting with driving more fuel efficient vehicles.
In his 40 years in the Wood River Valley, Stennett has seen winters become milder. He has watched forest fires grow bigger, hotter and faster. Last summer’s Castle Rock Fire (48,520 acres burned, 2,000 homes evacuated, $25 million and 1,700 firefighters to suppress) renewed his fears for the Sawtooth forests that, plagued by pine-beetles, stand tinder-dry.
Stennett has seen the most change near his ranch in the Big Lost River Valley between Arco and Mackay. Lush, up-valley greenery has given way to dry creek beds. Skeletons of cottonwoods are an uneasy reminder of wetter times.
"Arco was an oasis. It was a beautiful oasis," Stennett said. "Now there isn’t much there."
Ranching and farming in southern Idaho is sustained by damming, diverting and irrigating precious river water. But in the north, the climate is wet enough that folks don’t stop the clear running water as it flows past their fishing holes, hunting sites and cabins.
In 1976, Mike and Marie Smith bought Three Rivers Resort, about 100 winding miles east of Lewiston where two wild rivers, the Lochsa and Selway, join to form the Middle Fork of the Clearwater. A string of rustic wood cabins, a store and a bar had lured salmon fishermen for years. The Smiths saw paradise and invested their lives in it.
Each spring, the Lochsa gallops out of the mountains, tumbling down waterfalls and rapids like frothing white horses. People travel the world to find this kind of whitewater, and while the Smiths don’t worry about losing the river any time soon, they have seen its cycles alter.
Smith rattles off the changes he’s seen over the years without hesitation. "High water used to be June 6, now it’s in mid-May every year," Smith said. In summer, the resort’s grass once needed twice-weekly mowing. Now he mows once a week and can stop entirely in August. Smith doesn’t know why, but blue grouse have disappeared. He hasn’t needed a bulldozer to remove the snow for years. Salmon used to run until July 4; today most are caught by May. "The fishing has gone to sleep," Smith said. Today, rafting trips bring in most of the family’s income.
The Smiths’ children are deeply involved in the business and are raising a third generation in the wilderness setting. A year ago, they witnessed the driest year on record. But this year, snowpack at Lolo Pass on the Montana-Idaho border—80 miles upriver—was 300 percent deeper than normal. Amid increasingly erratic weather patterns, the Smiths are watchful. If predictions hold true and snow leaves the mountains in spring torrents rather than summer-long flows, the Smiths—along with the plants and animals that surround them—will have no choice but adapt.
Given the pendulum swings of weather, it’s difficult for many Idahoans to accept the notion of the entire planet warming. While the Big Lost River Valley might grow drier, recent pounding winter storms and torrential spring rains hardly felt like warmth.
The changes noted by Peavey and Smith are one with broader trends of a destabilizing climate. Rather than the heat connoted by the term "global warming," many climate scientists now predict increasing weather extremes. On the heels of tornadoes that swarmed Midwesterners this summer, American scientists said to expect more of the same. In June, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program released the nation’s first comprehensive analysis of past and projected changes in North American weather.
"We are now witnessing and will increasingly experience more extreme weather and climate events," said Tom Karl, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, North Carolina.
The report predicts more abnormally hot days and nights with frequent heat waves. Arctic Ocean ice is expected to continue decreasing and may disappear entirely in summer. Rain and snowfall is likely to be less frequent but heavier. Droughts will intensify. The worst winter storms in the Atlantic and Pacific will produce stronger winds and higher waves.
This is the warning. Take it or leave it.
Stennett is taking heed. He is concerned about his state’s role in a drying West and a future where, to paraphrase Mark Twain’s timeless quip, water issues will rile up a crowd quicker than straight whiskey. Stennett fears that teeming southern cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix could one day force Idaho to share already contested waters in the Snake River and southern Idaho aquifers. He plans to continue pushing legislation that raises climate awareness among his peers in the capitol.
Change is not a welcome message to some, nor does a vague warning make it any easier to prepare. Given recent deep-snow winters and one of the longest, coldest springs in memory, it is difficult to trust science’s forecasts and models. Is it not the nature of weather, after all, to change?
Idaho has always dealt with change, from displaced Indian tribes to the wild times of logging and mining boomtowns. Just as Idahoans in the 1970s shook their heads in disbelief as stove-up cowboys spun yarns about the wild West, people 50 years from now may be rapt by tales of verdant rangeland and summer-long mountain runoff.
More than most Americans, Idahoans are connected to the land. Just as those dead cottonwoods in the Big Lost River Valley can’t pick up and leave, a family on a fourth or fifth generation ranch feels no less firmly rooted.
But Tom Peavey and Mike Smith are seeing something happen to their Idaho land. They mark gradual change and adapt. For many like them, the best days ahead may be found during the quiet times, those tantalizing moments during the calm between violent storms.