Mountain News 

Cloud seeding in wilderness debated

PINEDALE, Wyo. – For the most part, environmental activists have shrugged off cloud-seeding. If intrinsically distrustful of tinkering with nature, they have seemed to see cloud-seeding as among the least of their worries.

And, for that matter, water-providers and ski areas have for the most part kept their distance from cloud-seeding, with several notable exceptions: Vail and Beaver Creek since 1978, a Durango-based water district for about as many years, and Crested Butte for the last several years. As well, several agriculture-based districts in Central Utah and some hydroelectric companies in the Sierra Nevada have seeded clouds for decades, the latter since the 1950s.

Some scientifically rigorous experiments have been done, most notably near Colorado’s Climax Mine in the 1960s and 1970s. Those experiments showed cloud-seeding caused augmentations of snowpacks by 10 to 15 per cent.

Still, the efficiency of cloud-seeding remains disputed. And the federal government has been clear for about 25 years that it will provide little or no money for basic research, winter or summer.

But pushed by cattle and sheep ranchers in Wyoming, the State Legislature there has appropriated $8.9 million for cloud-seeding research during the next five years. The project has two components, one in the Sierra Madres, in the area between Laramie, Wyo., and Steamboat Springs, Colo. There a double-blind experiment is planned to better refine under what conditions cloud-seeding works and to what degree.

A second component proposes to seed clouds on their way to the Wind River Range, located southeast of Jackson Hole. The intent there is less pure science, and more just the goal of producing more water. Slow-melting snow, after all, is like a reservoir in the West.

Environmental groups are distrustful of the cloud-seeding, reports the Jackson Hole News & Guide. “It’s fraught with such peril,” says Sierra Club spokesman Steve Thomas. “Trying to manipulate precipitation is generally not a good idea. It has impacts that people are not anticipating.”

And environmentalists believe they have a legal ax to grind, at least in this case. “The idea of attempting to manipulate a wilderness ecosystem in one of the few areas where we’ve decided, as a society, that we are not going to try to manipulate, flies in the face of the concept of wilderness,” said George Nickas, executive director of the Wilderness Watch.

Because the Wind River Range is mostly in designated wilderness, cloud-seeding raises serious policy and serious legal questions, Nickas said. He did not, however, say whether he believes his or other environmental groups will make this a line-in-the-sand case.

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