Help the Methow Valley News explore local impacts of global climate change
Last summer my husband and I spent many hours hacking back the sagebrush that surrounds our little cabin outside of Winthrop. The McLeod Fire was 5-6 miles away and we were afraid it would sweep down out of the forest and burn our place. Big pieces of ash wafted through the air. Helicopters flew overhead. The air was full of smoke.
It felt like we were living inside a post-apocalyptic snow globe. I bucked hay with a mask on my face and saw so many other valley residents driving around with face masks on, as well. Suddenly, climate change was very real. We joked, morbidly, that we moved to this beautiful place just in time to see it fall apart.
I’ve reported on climate change for more than a decade, mostly from big, liberal, coastal cities. Living here has made this story all the more real — and complex. The Methow Valley — and other rural communities like it in the West — are what climate scientists are now referring to as a “frontline community.” These are places where the effects of climate change are being felt more acutely than on the wetter, more urban side of this state, for example.
Stories of lower snowpack, scarcer water, hotter summer temperatures (day and night) and, of course, wildfire and smoke, are becoming more frequent. And for people who make their living off of the natural resources we enjoy here, these stories are becoming harder and harder to ignore.
Just about everyone I’ve met, since moving to the valley a year ago, has a story from the Carlton Complex Fire of 2014 — many of which are stories of loss and death.
Dave Creveling’s family has run cattle in the Methow Valley since just after the Civil War. He told me that when the Carlton Complex Fire swept down the valley, 42 of his cows were trapped against a fence and scorched to death. They couldn’t escape.
“My wife, Margaret, cried for days. I was just upset at all the hard work that would go into fixing all that fencing,” he said. Creveling has replaced miles of fence posts.
But right alongside the stories of loss are the stories of hope and community strength: Neighbors working for hours to protect property from the blaze, rescuing livestock, providing housing to those who lost their homes, and rebuilding structures and fences after the fire.
If there is one place I want to be when the harshest effects of climate change take hold, it is here in the Methow Valley. The bonds within this community supercede the differing views people may have as to the causes of climate change. When it comes right down to it, people here are going to help one another get through the hard times, just like they always have.
As a journalist, I want to better understand what those hard times might look like in the years ahead, and share lessons from other communities facing similar challenges. So, in the next few months I’ll be starting a deep dive on how climate change could affect tourism, health, agriculture and livestock in this valley. I’ll be starting my reporting with a focus on ranching and move on from there — and I’d like your help.
The story on ranching will be the first of a year-long series of in-depth stories — four in all — focused on different aspects of how climate change is affecting life here, and how those impacts resonate with other communities in the West. The stories are supported by a Rural Reporting Fellowship provided by the nonprofit, Portland-based organization Ecotrust, which is involved in a wide range of social, economic and environmental projects (see accompanying story, and No Bad Days column on page A4, for more information). The News will produce the stories independently without editorial oversight by Ecotrust.
What to expect
Just this past fall, the fourth National Climate Assessment was released. This is a report, mandated by Congress, to be produced every four years in order to assess the state of climate change and its effects in the United States. A team of more than 300 federal and non-federal experts — including individuals from federal, state and local governments, tribes and Indigenous communities, national laboratories, universities and the private sector — volunteered their time to produce the assessment.
And we have a connection to this report, right here in the Methow Valley. Amy Snover served as co-convening lead author of the previous National Climate Assessment, and also helped out with the latest assessment. She is the director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. Her parents live in the valley and she and her family also have a home in Pine Forest and visit frequently.
I asked her what the science tells us we can expect here.
Every single scenario about climate change shows the state and eastern Washington getting hotter. And when it’s hotter we know we’ll have less snow. We really depend on mountain snowpack for our summer and fall drinking and irrigation water and water for fish and all the scenarios show those flows decreasing and rivers getting warmer.
— Amy Snover is the director of the Climate Impacts Group at the University of Washington. Her parents live in the valley and she and her family also have a home in Pine Forest.
“Every single scenario about climate change shows the state and eastern Washington getting hotter,” Snover told me. “And when it’s hotter we know we’ll have less snow. We really depend on mountain snowpack for our summer and fall drinking and irrigation water and water for fish and all the scenarios show those flows decreasing and rivers getting warmer.”
Snover said summer and early fall water shortages could become the new normal, putting junior water rights holders at risk of not getting their allotment in the future. With those high temperatures and changing precipitation patterns (more rain, less snow) can come an increase in pests and disease, she said.
“Another area to consider is grazing lands and forage,” Snover said. “It’s likely that forage quality will go down. One of the things with climate change and increasing CO2 is that some plants grow faster but they have fewer nutrients in them and so the nutrient quality of the forage is decreased.”
From the latest National Climate Assessment: Food and forage production will decline in regions experiencing increased frequency and duration of drought. Shifting precipitation patterns, when associated with high temperatures, will intensify wildfires that reduce forage on rangelands, accelerate the depletion of water supplies for irrigation, and expand the distribution and incidence of pests and diseases for crops and livestock.
According to the National Climate Assessment, livestock production costs are likely to increase in the Northwest because of additional feeding and watering requirements due to warmer conditions and poor forage quality.
The good news, Snover said, is that the effects in the Northwest may be less severe than in other regions that are already hotter and drier than ours, “but it’s still something that would potentially impact ranchers in our region.”
And then there’s wildfire. I asked Snover about what the scientific modeling projects for wildfire in this region in the future. Forest fire size and frequency have increased in recent years, though she said that is partially due to forest management practices that have suppressed fire for decades, allowing fuels to build up in the forest.
That said, “As we look forward, warmer temperatures dry the fuels faster, earlier snowmelt means a longer dry season, essentially longer fire season, so we expect forest fires to be larger, more frequent and the risk of very large fires is known to increase with climate change,” she said.
According to one recent peer-reviewed study Snover shared with me, modeling suggests that if our greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise at current rates, by the 2080s the median annual area burned in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana would quadruple relative to the period from 1916-2007. That means a median of 2 million acres could burn in this region each year.
I’m eager to hear how wildfire is affecting ranchers in the Methow. Have you lost rangeland on which to graze your cows? How many miles of fencing have you had to replace and at what cost? Are you keeping fewer animals as a result of reduced grazing opportunity? Maybe you’re trucking in more water and hay?
And here’s a harder question that I’m guessing not many folks want to talk about: how are these changes affecting you, emotionally?
“I think the mental health aspects of climate change are really only becoming recognized now,” Snover said. “I think there can be a lot of grief or pain or anxiety about having the place that’s familiar to you not be familiar any more and to see it happen in your lifetime.”
Heading Down Under
I was curious about what other countries are doing to help farmers and ranchers cope with the effects of climate change — economic as well as emotional.
As part of my reporting for the Methow Valley News and the Rural Reporting Fellowship, I’ll be heading to Australia in mid-February to learn about how ranching and rural communities there are coping with climate change. Australians are no strangers to drought, but temperatures and fire risk are hitting new highs there this summer (which is now, as seasons are reversed in the southern hemisphere). Temperatures in parts of southern Australia reached 120 degrees Fahrenheit recently, with fires and blackouts sweeping across Tasmania.
I connected with the president of the Mountain Cattlemen’s Association (which is quite similar to the Back Country Horsemen, here). The president, Graeme Stoney, invited me to visit him in a part of the country that experienced severe bushfires in 2009. People refer to the tragedy as “Black Saturday” — the day when hundreds of bushfires roared through the state of Victoria, killing 180 people and burning more than 1 million acres.
The fires started after a drought, hot temperatures and high winds. Sound familiar?
The drought sparked scientific research on the mental health effects in rural Australian communities. Some research showed a correlation between drought and a rise in suicides and reported cases of depression in agricultural communities. I’ll be talking to the scientists who conducted that research while I’m in Sydney and Canberra. I’ll also be talking to two counselors who started a support program in the Murray-Darling Basin north of Melbourne to help the farmers and ranchers in their community talk about the emotional challenges associated with raising livestock in a drought-stricken region. Jenny O’Connell, one of the counselors, told me about dairy farmers she’s worked with who have had to shoot their livestock because there was not enough water to keep them alive. She and her husband have worked with families who have lost loved ones to suicide, but who are finding ways to talk about their experiences in the hope of helping others in their community cope with emotional trauma.
Before I head to Australia, I’d love to hear from ranchers and farmers here in the Methow. How has drought or wildfire here affected you and your ability to make a living? I want to hear your stories and I want to know what you’d like me to ask folks in Australia who share a rural way of life. Please don’t hesitate to send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we can set up a time to talk on the phone or visit in person.
And stay tuned for more reporting when I get back to the Methow in March.
Ecotrust’s Rural Reporting Fellowship: supporting in-depth rural journalism
The Methow Valley News and Ecotrust, a Portland-based nonprofit which supports a wide range of social, economic and environmental projects and initiatives in the West, have entered into an ambitious partnership to support in-depth reporting of climate change issues on a local basis.
Methow Valley News reporter Ashley Ahearn has been awarded an Ecotrust Rural Reporting Fellowship, which will provide a year-long grant to support the development of four substantial articles. The News will administer the grant and have independent control over how the stories are conceived, reported and written.
To acquaint you with Ecotrust, here is the organization’s mission statement:
“Ecotrust’s mission is to inspire fresh thinking that creates economic opportunity, social equity, and environmental well-being. Ecotrust is powered by the vision of a world where people and nature thrive together. Since 1991, we have partnered with local communities from California to Alaska to build new ways of living and doing business. From forestry to finance, food access to green building, we work to advance social equity, economic opportunity, and environmental well-being. Together, we are making this place we live a home that we love.”
For more information about the organization and its work, visit ecotrust.org.
Ahearn will work with Editor and Publisher Don Nelson to identify major stories of local importance and broader relevancy, and report on them to the fullest extent. Each story will be published in the paper and online, with the option to have the story picked up by other outlets and/or feed into a story for radio.
Ecotrust does not have control over the stories, which will be produced independently by the Methow Valley News with the expectation that they will also have broader distribution through other media.
For more background information, see the related No Bad Days column.
Ahearn is an award-winning public media journalist who has covered science and the environment for NPR and member stations for more than a decade. Her stories have appeared on Marketplace, All Things Considered, Here and Now, The World and other NPR shows. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from the Annenberg School at the University of Southern California and has completed reporting fellowships at the Knight Center at MIT, the Vermont Law School, the Metcalf Institute at the University of Rhode Island and the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources. She and her husband moved to the Methow a year ago. When she’s not out flailing around on cross country skis, she’s riding her spunky little Arabian mare, Pistol.