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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Pinnacles in California named as 59th national park

While California's state parks are perpetually troubled, at least the Golden State can celebrate a new national park. On Thursday, President Obama signed into law a bill by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) that makes Pinnacles National Monument in central California a protected national park, the 59th in the country and ninth in the state.

Pinnacles National Monument

The San Jose Mercury News has more:

"The park's sanctuary for the California condor and native wildlife, its red crags, caves, impressive displays of spring wildflowers, and opportunities for star-viewing under its noteworthy dark skies make Pinnacles a special place and worthy of its national park status for future generations to enjoy," said Neal Desai, Pacific Region associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Farr had tried to make the bill stronger, but was foiled by House Republicans:

[T]he last Congress, which ended Jan. 3, was the first Congress since 1966 not to designate a single new acre of public land in America as federally protected wilderness, where logging, mining and other development is prohibited.

Farr's bill originally called for designating 3,000 acres inside Pinnacles boundaries as wilderness. The area is where biologists in recent years have been releasing California condors as part of a captive breeding program to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. But that provision was stripped out by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Read more: Living, Politics


German neo-Nazis take to organic farming


If someone eats organic and/or vegetarian, we tend to make assumptions about their politics. With the notable exception of Glenn Beck, vegan and conservative don't tend to mix. (And he only lasted three weeks.)

Not so in Germany, where a small but vocal movement of right-wing environmentalists with some creepy ideas about food and purity are farming organic crops. The German Green Party's Böll foundation published a book about these "brown environmentalists" last year. The New Yorker introduces us to one of them: Helmut Ernst, a corn farmer, activist, and "not a Nazi" but a supporter of other seriously right-wing policies.

“What we’re seeing is a stable right-wing movement in Eastern Germany,” said Hubertus Buchstein, who is a political science professor at the University of Greifswald and one of the book’s authors. “Some of them have started organic farming—it seems to fit the right wing. Now, instead of being militant, a new strategy is to live in the country and sell organic apples. Some are vegan, very strict.”

Read more: Food, Politics


Fixing a broken gas tax could fix broken roads

Too many people are driving too many dang efficient cars in the Pacific Northwest lately, and Washington and Oregon have had enough. Between those efficient cars and a population that's just generally driving less, gas tax intake has fallen nationwide, meaning less money for road maintenance and repairs that all cars (and bikes!) need. Now some states are looking at new ways to make up the difference.


Starting next month, Washington will begin taxing electric vehicle owners $100 per year, though with about 1,600 electric cars in the state, that's not likely to fill those empty coffers. In Oregon, lawmakers are considering a proposal to tax through a flat fee like Washington or by taxing drivers of fuel-efficient cars based on the number of miles they drive. (A new report to the Washington state legislature says a mileage tax there would be "feasible.")

Some say that taxing based on vehicle miles traveled, or VMT, will be the gas tax of the future not just for West Coast hippies, but for everyone. From CNBC:

Either way, what's happening in the Pacific Northwest is raising a number of questions. The primary one being: Is it only a matter of time until anybody owning a car or truck is paying a special tax based on how much they drive their car?

Supporters of VMT or per mile taxes point out that electric car and even hybrid car owners are paying nothing or very little to help maintain state roads.


Shell gets massive, involuntary aid package from Alaska, U.S. Coast Guard, and you

"I've been working this case relatively nonstop since the 27th."

Petty Officer First Class David Mosley didn't sound all that tired when I spoke with him yesterday, but, then, he's a public affairs specialist, a professional. A few times he stumbled over his words, once or twice forgot specific numbers. On the whole, though, no problems as he walked me through the massive complement of U.S. Coast Guard staff and sea vessels and aircraft deployed to fix Shell's mistake.

U.S. Coast Guard

Two weeks from yesterday, the Kulluk, a drilling rig managed by Noble Drilling and owned by Shell, broke free of its tow lines as tug boats struggled in inclement weather to move it away from the Alaskan shore. On Dec. 31, it ran aground within an important bird area on Kodiak Island. A unified command comprised of representatives of Shell, Noble, the Coast Guard, the state of Alaska, and local representatives spent the next week and half determining whether the rig was safe to move and, ultimately, moving it to a nearby harbor. Some 700 people were involved in the effort by the time it had been safely docked.

How many of that 700 were from the Coast Guard? "That's a very good question," Mosley told me. He noted that "the command center at Coast Guard Center Anchorage was very much involved in the unified command," proving the point by listing just the people who came to mind:

Captain Mehler, the federal on-scene coordinator, all the way down to your storekeepers and yeomen and people like myself, public affairs specialists, who were all swept up and involved in this in some way. The people who provided support on Base Kodiak and Air Station Kodiak, moving gear around and making things happen on the base. Maintenance crews with the helicopters, the C-130s. You've got the crews that were involved with the Alex Haley. We had stationed the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory and the Coast Guard Cutter Spar, both of which are 225-foot buoy tenders that were activated and would have come out to the scene as needed.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley
U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Alex Haley.


Can fed-up Oregon organic farmers get a GMO ban on the ballot?

Image (2) hill-crops_tall.jpg for post 13741Petitioners in Southern Oregon's Jackson County are pushing a measure onto the ballot that would outlaw the farming of genetically modified crops in the region.

Recently Jackson County organic farmers found genetically modified sugar beet crops planted by the Swiss corporation Syngenta AG as close as one-eighth of a mile from their farms. Until last year, any GMO crop planted within four miles of an organic farm would've been against Department of Agriculture rules. But since then, it's been a farming free-for-all.

From the Mail Tribune:

Ashland seed farmer Chuck Burr said he has a personal reason to support a proposed ban on genetically modified organisms in Jackson County.

He had to throw away $4,700 in chard seed after learning it might have been contaminated with pollen from nearby GMO fields.

"I'm up against it here," said Burr, the owner of the 10-acre Restoration Farm on Old Siskiyou Highway. "I have to make a living, and I have an absolutely constitutional right to engage in commerce.

"And if another company comes in from outside the area and prevents me from doing it, then my rights trump theirs."

Read more: Food


Silicon Valley’s ‘unbuilt Manhattan’ is best left unbuilt

Over the past two decades, an influx of tech money has sent rents in San Francisco skyward. It's the fastest growing rental market in the country, with the East Bay's Oakland coming in second. Last year, landlords in San Francisco used the "Ellis Act" to evict three times as many tenants as they had in 2011, in order to circumvent rent control.

Image (2) san-franciscosmaller.jpg for post 31443

Ken Layne at The Awl harkens back to a simpler time when you could rent a studio in SF for less than $2,400, and compares that to now:

In 2013, the bigger tech companies are still in Silicon Valley, but the people working there—from Mark Zuckerberg to the newest $100K hires straight out of college—want to be in San Francisco. Zuckerberg is a part-timer, with a fancy apartment in the Mission. The rest are part-timers in Silicon Valley, commuting to and from work on immense luxury buses run by Google, Apple, EA, Yahoo and the rest. This has caused problems, notably for San Francisco residents unlucky enough to survive on less than a hundred-grand starting salary. Talk of raising the city's skyline is met with anger. People argue endlessly over the appropriate comparisons to New York. Is Oakland the Brooklyn to SF? What about Berkeley, or Marin, or the Outer Sunset? And what does that make Bayview or Burlingame?

All of this assumes that urban San Francisco equals Manhattan. It does not. San Francisco, with its leafy parks and charming row houses and distinct villages and locavore restaurants and commuters fleeing every morning to work, is the Brooklyn to an as-yet-unbuilt Manhattan.

To some extent, this is true. Many parts of San Francisco have become bedroom communities for tech workers who take company-sponsored shuttles or hellish Caltrain routes to work many miles south, to a place where rents are cheaper, but the living is decidedly suburban. The youngs making six figures at start-ups seem to prefer the hell of Caltrain to the hell of Silicon Valley suburbia.

Nobody wants to move to the Bay Area for work and then discover they actually have to live in a completely different climate an hour's drive (without traffic) from the actual bay. The magical part of the Bay Area is really confined to the Bay Area, with its relatively green hills and foggy mornings and cool ocean air.

So Layne proposes building dense, walkable, appealing neighborhoods in the bleak, sprawling stretch between San Francisco and Silicon Valley some 40 miles to the south. "[I]n the post-automobile era, where else would you look to expand your metropolitan area other than the underused sections in the middle of your metropolitan area?"

Read more: Cities


Rum promoter won’t be allowed to hold shark-killing tournament

A tame shark in the Dominican
A tame shark in the Dominican Republic.

From the Associated Press:

A popular rum promoter is drawing the ire of environmentalists for his plan to hold a shark-hunting tournament in the Dominican Republic similar to one he organized after the release of the movie “Jaws.” …

The newspaper Listin Diario recently quoted [promoter Newton] Rodriguez as saying that the country’s tourism industry suffered and people grew afraid of sharks after the blockbuster hit “Jaws” was released in 1975, leading him to organize a shark hunt a year later.

Well, idiot, first of all they already killed that shark in Jaws (via explosion) so you don't need to worry about that. Second, a number of shark species are already endangered. Third, some 73 million sharks a year are slaughtered, many to fuel the sketchy trade in shark fins as phony medicinal treatment.

Read more: Living


House Republican politicking is obviously more fun than supporting Sandy victims

According to House Speaker John Boehner's master plan, the House will next week consider the other $51 billion in Sandy relief funding that it punted on earlier this month.

House Republicans will absolutely not approve all of it. The question is how much they'll sign off on. With a coda for pessimists: if any.


Advertising distribution mechanism outlines how the vote is expected to go.

First, the House plans to call up a bill by Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-Ky.) that totals $27 billion in relief. Then, it will immediately amend the bill to deduct the $9.7 billion in flood relief passed before Congress recessed -- bringing the bill's total to $17 billion.

Amendments will be allowed -- including spending reduction amendments -- and then the House will vote on passage of the Rogers amendment. This would set up $17 billion to be sent to the Senate.

But then leadership will allow Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) to offer an amendment that offers an additional $33 billion. Republicans think this can pass as well.

But efforts by Rep. Mick Mulvaney (R-S.C.), who abstained from voting for John Boehner for speaker, could change the equation.

The South Carolinian has already offered multiple amendments seeking spending offsets, which if made in order could seriously complicate the pledge of Majority Leader Eric Cantor to move the legislation quickly.

Smart precedent by a representative of a state whose most tourist-friendly city lies right on the Atlantic Ocean.


Chevron is pleased with how much money it made last year, which is nice

Hey, hey! Happy times at Chevron headquarters, located at 10 Satan Street in a secret city that hovers out of sight behind storm clouds. The company's fourth quarter profits will be "notably higher" than third quarter profits! (Third quarter revenues for the company were only $56 billion. Sad face.)

Chevron headquarters, somewhat obscured
Bruna Costa
Chevron headquarters, somewhat obscured

From Bloomberg:

The outline given by the second-largest U.S. oil producer by market value hints at a bright succession of earnings reports when the world’s biggest publicly traded energy producers begin releasing results in coming weeks, said Brian Youngberg, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co. in St. Louis.

“Chevron’s results certainly provide an optimistic preview of what its peers in the integrated energy sector have in store,” Youngberg said in a telephone interview yesterday.

Hooray! Optimism in these dark times. Refreshing.


Happy 25th anniversary, San Jose’s useless light rail!

For part of the time that I lived in San Jose, Calif., my apartment was downtown, across the street from a light rail station. I used to take the train to work, which was great for the first 80 percent of the ride: The car was almost always near-empty as it chugged along down the middle of streets, passing dozens of automobiles at each stop light. When I reached the stop closest to my office, I'd get off -- and start the 20-minute walk in, having to either walk well out of my way or, if I was in a hurry, dash across a busy highway with no crosswalk. It was an hour's journey, easily, for a trip that took 10 minutes by car without traffic.

My friend Michael and I took to calling the light rail "the Buzz," both because it sounded confusingly like "the bus," which amused us, and because it implied a speedy, futuristic system, which the light rail very much is not. A guy I knew who worked with the union that represented bus and light rail operators called it the "ghost train," since you'd often see it passing by at night, lit up and empty.

Sprawl on the valley floor
Sprawl in Silicon Valley.

The Atlantic Cities' Eric Jaffe has a good look at the light rail as it celebrates its 25th anniversary. From his article: