Best of the West: Transitioning coal communities; Affordable housing made with mushrooms; Preserving Indigenous languages; and an international sled dog race in Wyoming

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Jan. 30, 2023. (Photo courtesy of Adobe Stock and The Living)

Federal and state grants are helping develop new economic and workforce opportunities in western communities affected by closures of coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

With millions of Americans residing within one mile of abandoned coal mines or orphaned oil and gas wells, abandoned mine cleanup could become one of the most important job generators for those communities. 

The Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE) recently awarded North Dakota $3 million to close mine shafts, reclaim unstable slopes, and improve water quality. The investment also supports reclaiming hazardous land for recreational facilities, advanced manufacturing, and renewable energy deployment. Wyoming received $9.6 million from the OSMRE for similar projects in and around coal communities.

Over the last few months, Alaska, Kansas, New Mexico, and Texas also received financial support from the Department of the Interior to reclaim abandoned land. Funding for tribes is available on a rolling basis.

Other states are using the funding to support new industries. In Utah, the Office of Energy and Development is pursuing programs to bolster rural development as coal production is phased out in these communities. Listen to an episode of WGA’s Out West podcast to learn more about the programs and how they’re diversifying the state’s energy portfolio. 

With the Craig Station power plant in Colorado slated to close by 2030, city officials are turning to outdoor recreation and tourism as alternate revenue streams. In addition, the town is looking to attract companies in the manufacturing, transportation, energy, and technology sector.

The Centennial State also set aside $9 million for a Coal Transition Community Grants program to manage facility closures. “Transition funding is one way we are working to ensure a Colorado economy that works for everyone,” said Eve Lieberman, executive director for the Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

In 2022, Hawaii became the first state to stop burning coal. As renewable energy projects come online, former coal plant employees are training for positions at solar and battery facilities. Geothermal is another resource the Big Island uses to generate clean, affordable power. Learn more about WGA’s tour of the Puna Geothermal Venture as part of Gov. Jared Polis’ Heat Beneath Our Feet initiative. 

Sustaining Species for Generations: A study by the Natural History Museum of Utah and Northern Arizona University found that wildlife corridors between national parks can help species live hundreds of generations longer. The research analyzed protected migration corridors between Yellowstone and Glacier national parks and Mount Rainier and Northern Cascades national parks. The Yellowstone-Glacier study compared current and past migration patterns and discovered that linkages between protected land could help wildlife live 682 generations longer. 

Preserving Indigenous Languages: Across the West, efforts are underway to maintain Native languages. Michael Running Wolf, a computer scientist who grew up on Montana’s Northern Cheyenne Reservation, is developing artificial intelligence to reclaim languages. The technology will understand and speak in Native languages like Amazon’s Alexa. Washington state tribal leaders are implementing Indigenous language in schools. “We need to keep our traditions and language close,” said Savannah Onessimo, a student who will earn official bilingual status in Ichishkíin this summer. 

Building Homes with Mushrooms: Mushrooms and other organic materials will help make a 300-unit affordable housing development in Oakland, California. The architect behind the sustainable project, David Benjamin, began exploring “fungitecture” in 2014. He designed an event space for the Museum of Modern Art using mycelium and hemp bricks. Find out more about how Western Governors prioritize housing through a bipartisan lens

Sled Dogs: The 28th Pedigree International Stage Stop Sled Dog Race is underway in Jackson, Wyoming, drawing 250 canines from around the globe. Teams of five to 10 dogs carry sleds 30 to 35 miles daily, ending in Driggs, Idaho. Wyoming resident Alix Crittenden is on one of the 24 teams participating, making it her sixth race. “You fall in love with the dogs, fall in love with the people, fall in love with the sport,” she said. 

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