“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
Last night I got a phone call with the bad news that I have received what my neighbors out here in the remote Silver Hills refer to as a “redneck promotion.” To be specific, I have been promoted from plain member and citizen to Road Captain, which is a position no sensible person would covet. Despite the cool name and apparently elevated rank, the job is without compensation or administrative support, is unelected, and descends on you by fiat when the current Road Captain tells you you’re it.
The road to the Ranting Hill is 2.3 miles in length and has eight houses scattered along it. It is a terrible road which sometimes degenerates to pure caliche mud in winter and bone rattling washboard in summer. There have been times when it was so dry and abused as to be barren of gravel; at others it has been impassable because the water flowed across it in an unbroken sheet. Many seasons it is so muddy that we Silver Hillbillies must resort to hanging around in town drinking beer after work just to kill enough time for the mud to freeze up so we can cross it to reach our homes. There have been winters when the ruts in the muddy roadbed became so deep that if your wheels dropped into them your truck would glide along like a vegetable peeler, the skid plates cleanly shearing off and polishing the surface off the road. The road’s ditches are full of silt, the few culverts have crushed heads, and if there were ever any road signs they have long since blown away in the Washoe Zephyr or been hung on a horseshoe nail in somebody’s pole barn. (Our mailboxes are all crooked and our addresses are out of numerical order, too, but that’s a story for another day.) Here’s the kicker: this is a “private” road, which means that while the county won’t maintain it nobody else wants to either. So who, by default, is in charge of stewarding this mess? The Road Captain.
Many years ago we had a neighborhood association out here, to which we paid modest annual dues that were used for nothing but road work and snow removal. But most Silver Hillbillies are by nature unsociable, misanthropic, and paranoid, a worldview that inclines us toward conspiracy theories and radical libertarianism. As a result, a majority of my neighbors voted to get rid of the association, which they regarded as oppressed peasants do an occupying foreign army. The theory seemed to be that anybody who would collect association dues would soon come for our whiskey and guns. Once the association was disbanded it was every man for himself, which is precisely the arrangement most of my stubborn, independent, and heavily armed neighbors prefer.
Ever since the neighborhood association was busted up the roads out here have become even worse, and some roads have even descended into social chaos. On one nearby road which has only four houses, each neighbor has adopted the same strategy of trying to outwait the other three to see who will find the road so intolerable that they give in and fix it themselves. So far nobody has surrendered, even when for weeks at a time they were all forced by deep mud to park out at the paved road and hike up to their homes. On another road a guy who is especially entrepreneurial bought an expensive grader in hopes he’d have a field day, but because he was once seen having a beer with our local real estate developer nobody would hire him, and the bank took his shiny grader back pretty quick. On a third road a guy who had repaired the roadbed at his own expense threatened to install a toll gate if his skinflint neighbors wouldn’t pony up.
On our road this sort of chaos was averted only through the leadership of my friend Ludde, the seventy-year old man who lives on 60 acres across the draw from the Ranting Hill. He is hands down the toughest and most curmudgeonly guy I’ve ever met, which is another way of saying that he is my role model. Ludde has for some years been our Road Captain, and it is a role that suits him perfectly. He doesn’t speak often, but when he does everybody pays attention. For example, while riding his big horse out in the desert he is fond of mentioning to illegal off-roaders, wherever he finds them, that “this is my favorite place to shoot, because I’d never expect anybody to be riding here. Why, a fella could get himself killed.” You’d be scared of this guy even if he didn’t have a twelve-gauge in a saddle scabbard by his right shin, which he does. On another occasion Ludde confronted a dirt biker who was shredding our road. The biker, who didn’t know who he was talking to, cussed the old man out and tore off. Ludde climbed into his F-350 and chased the motorcyclist for several miles along BLM roads at high speed until the biker finally laid it down on a loose turn. Ludde left his truck running and walked slowly up to the young man, who lay sprawled near his wrecked bike with a badly broken arm. Looking down with a grin Ludde said, “Looks like your arm is bent funny, partner. Well, nice day for a walk.” And with that he cocked his buckaroo hat, climbed back into his rig, and drove contentedly home.
It takes that kind of grit to be an effective Road Captain. One time a neighbor on the road to the south of us went rogue and drove overland across her property and some public land to use our road because hers was in such bad shape. On the day the lady pioneered her new route, Ludde intercepted her and explained that if she wanted to use our road she’d have to pay the same amount the rest of us do to keep it up. The woman not only refused, but produced a .30-06 deer rifle, which she gripped while responding that she’d do as she pleased. Ludde didn’t blink. As he walked away, he said only “We bought a little rock for the road. Let me know by morning if you want to pay your share.” The next morning Ludde had two end dump truck loads of road base deposited in in the mouth of the makeshift driveway the lady was using to access our road. I’ll spare you the math: this is a quarter of a million pounds of gravel. Ludde left that monster pile there for the better part of a year, by which time the woman had learned what the rest of us already knew: you don’t mess with our Road Captain.
To be such a tough guy, though, Ludde is also resourceful and flexible. Whenever a neighbor couldn’t afford to pay their fair share he’d offer to cover them until their cash flow improved. Once he let a neighbor work off his road dues doing roofing work on Ludde’s barn, after which Ludde paid the man’s share. Another neighbor who has a big tractor but little money contributes by doing ditching work along the road. Yet another never pays American dollars, but always produces two loads of “rock” (shorthand for type two road base gravel), which is a meaningful contribution even though no money changes hands. Indeed, Ludde understands that rock is the coin of the realm out here—a kind of redneck Bitcoin—and that it can be traded for almost anything. A neighborly trade might involve farrier tools, a case of rye, a calf, or a truck winch, and that is fine with Ludde, so long as the exchange ends in the common currency of rock, which then goes down on our road.
When I answered the phone last night, Ludde’s first words were “I’ve got some good news for you.”
“Let me guess. You didn’t shoot anybody today?” I replied.
“I’ve already told everybody else on the road,” he continued, ignoring me. “And more good news: this redneck promotion comes with a six-pack. Congratulations.”
“Ludde, please tell me this isn’t what I think it is. Please. What have I ever done to you? Haven’t I been a good neighbor all these years?” I asked.
“Yup. That’s why I have confidence in you, Captain,” he replied, only emphasizing the word “captain” a little.
“Listen,” I pleaded. “You were born to do this job. I don’t have the cojones to run this road. Why in hell would you want me?”
“Because you’re fair. Not very tough, but fair. And you’re one of the only folks on the road who hasn’t been threatened with a gun,” Ludde explained.
“Yeah, but that’ll change as soon as I’m Captain. These Silver Hillbillies will eat me alive.”
“Comes with the territory, son. Besides, this is easy. What did I do when old lady Jenkins said we should reckon each person’s dues by their distance from the paved road?” he asked.
“Nothing?” I guessed.
“How about when Matt wanted to figure dues by how many vehicles each family drives?”
“Not a thing,” I answered.
“And when Smitty complained about the weight of Roper’s flatbed? Or when Bill said he wouldn’t pay up until Janie did? Or when Jesse put buckshot into the side of the Fed Ex truck because it was going too fast?”
“Nothing,” I repeated. “Not a damned thing.”
“Got the picture, Captain? Everybody pays the same amount, due at the same time, unless they make a trade or show up with rock. Simple.”
“I really don’t want to do this, Ludde, but you’ve left me no choice. Can I at least call on you for help when things get rough?”
“Nope,” he replied. “Now you go share this good news with Hannah and Caroline. It isn’t every little girl has a Daddy who’s a Road Captain. And drop by for that six-pack anytime.”
All photographs are by the author.
“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
I’ve always been impressed by vanity license plates—at least when they’re genuinely clever or funny—and have long thought that a little back bumper wit on my part might help my fellow Silver Hillbillies endure the one stoplight that interrupts our 25-mile cruise from here to town. But there are perfectly good reasons why I’ve never managed to make a move on customized license plates. First, I’m so practical as to have trouble rationalizing an expense that is so obviously unnecessary. Second, I like to change my mind about things, and so have been hesitant to commit to any one message, however witty or insightful. Most important, though, to get customized plates I’d have to actually go to the Department of Motor Vehicles, a place that is the seventh circle of bureaucratic hell even in a world already overflowing with superfluous administrative horseshit. I just haven’t thought of a vanity plate that would be funny enough to make it worth the misery of spending an afternoon at the DMV.
Of course that didn’t keep me from thinking about the possibility, and occasionally I’d toy with an idea for a tag. I figured I’d go with something that would assert my identity as a high desert hillbilly, like DSRT RAT or BSN RNGE or GR8 BSN or DSRT MTN. Even something like NEWWEST could be cool. Or I might instead go with a cute, place-based proclamation like IM SAGE, or maybe I could tap the nickname we use for rattlers out here: BZZZWRM. It also occurred to me that I could cleverly use the fact that our state tags boldly say NEVADA atop them to create a two-word slogan by adding NO WSTLD, since “Nevada: Not a Wasteland” is the slogan used by those of us who would just as soon not have the nation’s nuclear waste buried here. Another two-word message could be produced by choosing WD OPN, since another of our many equivocal state mottoes is “Nevada: Wide Open,” a slogan that seems vaguely to refer not only to landscapes but also to accelerators and legs.
While I was dreaming up customized Nevada tags I came up with a lot of ideas that I thought might work for somebody else in Silver Hills, if not for me. One of my neighbors who is a professional poker player might either DBL DWN or FOLDEM. The old lady at the only gas station in our valley likes to play slots, so she could hope to HIT 37S. The guy up the road from us raises longhorns and so might like to claim that he has BIG BLLS. Or maybe not. But he could still use STEERNG. My friend who paints desert landscapes should use RBBT BRSH, and our neighborhood dowser could ask WHRS H2O. All the equestrians out here can argue over BITBYBIT, and the lady mining engineer might confess to being a GLD DGR. Our road’s resident conspiracy theorist should have CNA UFO. And our mail delivery woman, who is very nice but nevertheless has frosted blonde hair, poor taste in clothes, and a lower back tattoo that reads “LADY,” might do well to order up NTA HKR.
I also found a website called something like ZILLIONTAGS.COM, which not only had thousands of actual vanity plates but also had them organized by state, which I thought might help me determine where the good ideas were coming from. Of course I began with my home state, which I soon discovered had mounted the most pathetic custom tag display imaginable. Nevada had a total of four entries: IHVNOJB, 99 PROBS, IH8 WMPS, and the incredibly dumb NOT DUM. Next I turned to Utah, which provided no encouragement whatsoever. Utahans are either too frugal or too well-mannered to excel at self-expression in the highly specialized medium of the vanity plate. Like Nevada, Utah boasted a total of four entries, three of which I couldn’t understand; the fourth was GOLFING, which struck me as genuinely depressing. Next I tried Idaho, which had a whopping five tags, not a single one of which made a lick of sense to me. Could these be survivalist code messages instructing rural neighbors to hoard whiskey and guns?
In desperation I turned to Oregon, whose tags were weirdly sincere, like B YRSLF and GOD NO1 and BE GR8R, though one lady who reminded me of an old girlfriend had confessed to having PMS 247. Thankfully I found that the Sand Cutters down in Arizona were more creative, and had come through not only with many more tags but also with a variety of respectable entries, including AEIONU, SCO BEDO, IMLAME, VNTY PL8, MMMBEER, FATTKID, and RCY BOBY, not to mention the charmingly confessional IFARTED.
Although the plates of a few Arizonians were slightly risqué, like GETNAKD and IL SPNKU, they couldn’t hold a candle to the work of my neighbors to the west. California had hundreds of custom tag entries, at least half of which were pornographic. Even those that were not explicitly sexual seemed obsessed with power and money – a sentiment elegantly distilled by 2L8 I1 on a new jag. But the California tags were also expressive, irreverent, and comical in ways that might prove instructive over in Utah and Idaho. Among the countless solid entries from the Californicators were FROMMYX (on a Mercedes), MO FAUX (on a Caddy), JST 1MPG (on a Hummer), FRENDLY (on a creepy, windowless panel van), BLONDE (with the tag mounted upside down), GEEKDAD (on a Prius), H8LAFWY (on an old pickup), UGHHHHH (on a Tercel), and my personal favorite: CMON WTF (on a yellow VW bug).
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“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
Last Saturday around noon I was still feeling desperate for more alone time when my daughters Hannah (age 10) and Caroline (age 7) asked if I was finally ready to play with them. I had been making excuses all morning, explaining that I needed to get Beauregard the dog out for a hike, that I had to spend some time splitting wood, that it was important for me to haul rock to riprap a drainage trench I had recut with the tractor. In truth these chores were an excuse to drink beer, listen to tunes, and have a little time to sift the week’s detritus through my partially clogged noggin filter. “It occurs to me that you girls haven’t watched enough TV today,” I replied, beer in hand. “Let me recommend Scooby Doo. Facilitates cerebral development. Worked for me, anyhow. Besides, your teachers aren’t going to help you learn important words like ‘Zoinks’ and ‘Jinkies’. Why don’t you meddling kids go fire up a couple of episodes?”
At just that moment my wife Eryn stepped around the corner of the house, frowning at her irresponsible husband. “Ruh-roh,” I muttered, changing my tune. “Girls, much as I hate to deprive you of more Scoob and Shag, let’s go play. What did you have in mind?”
“Let’s build something ginormous!” exclaimed little Caroline.
“I think we should build a gigantic one of those,” said Hannah, pointing at the label on my beer bottle. “What is that cool thing, Dad?” I had been drinking the best beer brewed in my town, an Ichthyosaur IPA from Great Basin Brewing – a barleypop fondly called an “Icky” by all brewfully inclined western Great Basinians.
“That, my dear, is an Ichthyosaur. It was a giant marine reptile that swam around Silver Hills when this place was beneath the ocean a couple hundred million years ago. It also happens to be the state fossil of Nevada.” At first the girls didn’t believe me that states have their own representative fossils. “Yup,” I continued, “but most of them aren’t as cool as ours. Arizona’s is petrified wood. Lame. In Tennessee it’s the bivalve. Bivalve? Lamer. Connecticut? Dinosaur tracks. Lamest of all, because the state fossil of Massachusetts was already dinosaur tracks. But Nevada has a big old sea lizard. We rock.” I hoisted the bottle in cheers and downed the last of my Icky.
With that Caroline raised both puny arms above her head and shouted “Let’s build a giant Itchy-sore!” Of course Hannah wanted to know what we would build it out of, and I confess that the prospect of constructing a giant sea lizard registered with me as the ten thousandth time I had felt myself inadequate to a task that was suddenly very important to my kids. “How about firewood?” Eryn suggested. I grinned in reply. “That, my friend, is genius. Let’s do it! Girls, y’all go make a quick sketch of a sea monster, and I’ll hook up the trailer and get your work gloves.”
Twenty minutes later I had us ready to haul wood, and the girls had drawn a prototype marine reptile. In addition to having a serpentine shape that would make it look like it was wriggling through the ocean of our Nevada desert, it would also have a series of big humps, each of which would be larger than the last as we worked our way toward the head. And Eryn added a creative twist: if we could build our sea beast with high humps but low saddles in between, a good snow would bury the arches and reveal the humps, making it look like our marine reptile was swimming through a frothy ocean of fresh powder.
In order to keep packrats from colonizing cover too close to our house (we’ve had Neotoma cinerea, that furry hell, nesting in the crawl space more than once) we keep the woodpile about a quarter mile down our half-mile-long driveway. The girls pulled on their gloves and climbed into my small utility trailer and we bounced down to the woodpile and started loading bucked juniper, pinyon, and ponderosa, a little sugar pine and white fir mixed in. Returning to the house we selected a flat area near the garage and began laying out the logs, starting at the tail and at first using only a single-log construction so as to establish the shape of our giant reptile. As we did, Eryn sat nearby in a lawn chair, reading about Ichthyosaurs to the girls from something she had googled on her phone.
“Ichthyosaurs lived from 245 to 90 million years ago and were widely distributed around the globe,” she reported. “Middle Triassic, Late Cretaceous. They evolved from a group of unidentified land reptiles that at some point moved back into the sea. The name Ichthyosaur is from the Greek, meaning ‘fish lizard.’ Although they swam like fish and looked a lot like fish, they were reptiles. The fact that they developed a lot of fishlike parts is called ‘convergent evolution.’ That means that although fish and Ickys are totally unrelated, they developed similar kinds of fins because it is just useful to have fins if you plan to swim.”
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The quintessential Nevada film is John Huston’s 1961 picture The Misfits, starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift. The movie had its origins in playwright Arthur Miller’s trip to Nevada in 1956. While doing his requisite six weeks’ Nevada residency in order to divorce his first wife so he could marry Marilyn Monroe, Miller closely observed the landscapes and people of Nevada, including witnessing a wild horse roundup out on the Smoke Creek Desert. He documented his Nevada experience in the short story “The Misfits,” which appeared in Esquire magazine in October, 1957, and which he subsequently rewrote as a screenplay he described as a “valentine” for Monroe, for whom he wrote the starring role of Roslyn Tabor.
The plot of this dark film might be summarized as follows. Roslyn, a fragile, lost woman seeking a divorce, comes to Reno, where she meets three lost men—three different sorts of cowboys—each of whom is also in escape mode and all of whom soon fall in love with her. This odd crew remains impressively drunk most of the time. At last they head out into the desert to hunt wild horses in a roundup so violent and tragic as to compel the realization that the values of the Old West, now gone forever, have been replaced by nothing but uncertainty, instability, and loneliness.
Sound fun? The story gets better. In addition to the production of The Misfits being an over-budget and behind-schedule nightmare of emotional volatility, psychological pressure, drug addiction, alcoholism, and excessive gambling on the part of cast and crew alike, the picture now has an over-hyped but irresistible reputation for having crushed or killed many of the people associated with it. The highly publicized Miller-Monroe marriage imploded during the making of the film, as Monroe spiraled downward into narcotics addiction. Gable, who at age 59 insisted on doing many of his own stunts, said of Monroe on the last day of shooting, “Christ, I’m glad this picture’s finished. She damn near gave me a heart attack.” The next day he did suffer a heart attack, and ten days later he was dead. The Misfits was also the final film for Monroe, who died of a probable suicide in the summer of 1962. Monty Clift survived a few years longer than his co-stars, but the film nevertheless plays a strange role in the story of his demise. The Misfits was on television on the evening of July 22, 1966. Asked by his companion if he wanted to watch it, Clift headed off to bed with a curt reply: “Absolutely not.” Those were his last words. By morning he was dead at age 45. Monroe was only 36.
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This is the week to watch Congress. If all goes well, Senate budget chairman Patty Murray will make a deal with the House budget chairman Paul Ryan that outlines federal spending for the rest of fiscal year 2014 and 2015.
What kind of deal? As The Washington Posts Wonkblog puts it: "The budget deal Patty Murray and Paul Ryan are crafting isn't a grand bargain. It doesn't put the nation's finances on a vastly different path (or even any different path). It doesn't reform the tax code or overhaul Medicare. It doesn't include infrastructure spending or chained-CPI. It doesn't even replace all of sequestration."
But the deal does lift about a third of sequestration's cuts while giving agencies more flexibility to deal with the rest. It does mean the 2014 budget is the work of human hands rather than automatic cuts. It might be a vehicle for Capitol Hill to extend expiring unemployment benefits. And it would be a small but real boost to the economy.
Huzzah? No. Thanks for nothing. This non-grand-bargain basically represents more of the same. There will be limited budget relief, but there won't be the kind of investment needed to build a stronger economy in Indian Country. And here's the really sad note: This deal, if it happens, is the best outcome possible. There are not the votes to replace the budget with a progressive spending plan, such as the Senate's or the president's budget; nor are there the votes for the House plan. The House plan would be an unmitigated disaster for Indian Country with across-the-board cuts around 17 percent.
So this deal, such as it is, is the best that can happen. At least it keeps the status quo and pushes back decisions about ideology and values past this next couple of elections. (Remember, to win that contest of ideas, one side or another will have to sweep the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate. Holding one of the three bodies is enough to keep saying no to a solution of any kind.)
On MSNBCs Morning Joe, Rep. Chris Van Hollen -- who is the top Democrat on the House budget committee -- said there is only about a fifty-fifty chance of a deal before Friday.
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Although it is the product of my imagination, the following “conversation” was inspired by actual comments posted in response to several online news stories about the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) recent, controversial roundups of wild horses and burros on public lands in Nevada. Some folks feel passionately that these BLM horse “gathers” are inhumane, while other wild horse advocates go further, arguing that the roundups are unnecessary because horses are a natural part of the western landscape and should thus be left undisturbed. On the other side of the argument are people who see wild horses and burros as introduced, invasive species that damage the range, putting native plants and animals at risk, and risking their own destruction through starvation or dehydration. While palatable solutions are difficult to come by, this “conversation” gives some sense of the quality of current public discourse on a topic that is especially important to those of us who live in the rural Great Basin Desert.
sweetpea: “I think what they’re doing is terrible!!! How can Man be so cruel when these beautiful animals are supposed to run wild and free in Nature?”
ridinandropin: “Wild horses look pretty, but they tear up the range. Their overgrazing is a huge problem, and because they don’t have natural predators their population doubles every four or five years. Roundups are the only way to protect the range and keep herds from massive starvation.”
sweetpea: “ridinandropin, did it ever occur to you that Nature got along fine without us for thousands of years? Those wonderful horses don’t need our ‘help’ at all. This is just another way of interfering with Nature. How would you feel if somebody chased YOU with a helicopter? We should be ashamed!!!”
whatthehellanyway: “Are you serious, sweetpeabrain? Are you saying that people haven’t been living in North America for the last few millennia? And do you know that horses have NOT been around for thousands of years? They were introduced fairly recently (in the 16th c.) by the Spanish. Every one of your My Little Ponies is descended from horses owned by guys named Pedro. Try getting your science from a book other than National Velvet.”
buds420: “Dude, that Pedro crack is totally racist. Besides, horses HAVE been around for tens of thousands of years. They went extinct here about 11,000 years ago, so really the Europeans were just reintroducing a native species to their home. Those horses belong here.”
whatthehellanyway: “Hey, buds, why don’t you take sweetpeabrain to the prom? You geniuses deserve each other. Please tell me you aren’t saying that an animal that has been absent from an ecosystem for more than ten thousand years is NATIVE when you stick it back in there? Horses are an INVASIVE species and should be EXTERMINATED. That’s the only way to restore what is natural.”
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With winter upon us and the days getting noticeably shorter, so too is the time left to speak out on behalf of Mexican gray wolves. Among the country’s most imperiled species, there are only about 75 lobos left in the wild. The ultimate fate of these iconic animals could be decided in the next year and, troublingly, it appears that the wolves’ best interests may not be the only factors at play.
Scientists agree that there are three things vital to successful wolf recovery – a comprehensive, science-based recovery plan; the release of more wolves into the wild; and at least two new core populations in the most suitable habitat areas in the Grand Canyon region and southern Utah/southern Colorado. But these recommendations are seemingly falling on deaf ears as the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) makes decisions about the lobos’ future management that ignore these basic findings. Worse still, the FWS may be engaging in some backroom dealing with states.
A letter from the director of the Arizona Game and Fish Department to FWS Director Dan Ashe dated August 1st of this year suggests that in a discussion on July 23rd, state and federal officials came to certain agreements regarding the proposed rule changes for Mexican gray wolf management. Not only do the agreements alluded to in the letter imply that the FWS decisions on the wolf were made before due public process, but, what’s worse, they ensure that the lobos are not allowed to disperse outside of an arbitrarily drawn geographic region – which precludes them from reaching the suitable habitat necessary for recovery.
Perhaps if the FWS had taken a hard look at just how significant lobos are to the ecological health of the Southwest before having this private “discussion,” the conversation would have gone a little differently. The FWS proposal not only blatantly ignores best science, but also the opinions of the public. A recent poll conducted by Tulchin Research reveals overwhelming support for Mexican gray wolves in the Southwest. 87% of voters polled in both Arizona and New Mexico agree that wolves are a “vital part of America’s wilderness and natural heritage;” 8 in 10 of those polled agree that the FWS should make every effort to prevent extinction; 82% of Arizona respondents and 74% of New Mexico respondents agree there should be a science-based recovery plan; and over two-thirds of voters polled in both states agree with scientists who say there are too few wolves in Arizona and New Mexico and that we need to reintroduce two new populations of wolves in suitable habitat in the states.
If these numbers don’t make it clear to the FWS that Americans want to save the lobo, I don’t know what could.
Our nation is one that prides itself on both preserving the symbols of our character and on scientific innovation, so why is it so easy for the government to turn a blind eye to basic, sound science that tells us how to save one of America’s most iconic animals just to play politics instead?
By Eva Sargent, Defenders of Wildlife Director of Southwest Programs. Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
For a couple of years back in the 1970s, when I was a little kid, my family had an artificial Christmas tree that I thought was incredibly cool. It was fun to put together, with a central “trunk” that resembled an oversized broomstick, full of downward-angled holes into which the “branches” were fitted. The “needles” were shiny silver strands of industrial-strength tinsel, and the whole thing was so perfectly symmetrical and so ridiculously garish that it was only a sort of notional tree, one that was vaguely reminiscent of treeness while making no real attempt to resemble anything found in nature. I also talked my Mom into buying an electrical device that sat beneath the tree, slowly revolving an illuminated, multi-colored wheel, which projected up into the silvery branches light that was by turns yellow, green, blue and orange. It was the funkiest tree on our street – the disco ball of trees, the kind of Christmas tree Donna Summer or the Bee Gees probably had. I didn’t love it because it looked like a tree. I loved it because it didn’t.
I was reminded of that old fake tree the other day, while driving down from the Sierra Nevada Range into the Great Basin Desert on my way home to the Ranting Hill, when I noticed next to the local volunteer fire station one of those cell phone towers that is disguised to look like a tree – in this case a vaguely ponderosa-ish pine. In this Halloween season, what strikes me as most odd about these cell towers costumed as trees is that they don’t really look much like trees, at least not to anybody who ever paid any attention to trees in the first place. Like my childhood Christmas tree, these copies somehow suggest a tree without actually resembling one. Unlike my childhood tree, though, they don’t seem to embrace their artificiality in a way that is celebratory. You get the sense they’re still under the illusion that they actually look like real trees, which is both cute and somehow a little sad. Maybe the artificial cell tree just needs to embrace its true identity as a tasteless fake and accessorize with a giant, ponderosa-sized color wheel.
This question of what cell towers look like is more significant than you might think, simply by virtue of scale. There are almost 7 billion mobile phones in the world, 328 million of which are in the U.S., which means that we have more cell phones than people in America, even if you count the infants – which is probably wise, since babies will be using cell phones soon enough. This level of saturation necessitates a lot of towers: about 200,000 in this country alone, which adds up to a lot of ugly crap on hills and ridgelines. Because the range of a cell tower isn’t much above 20 miles even when those hills and ridges aren’t in the way – and because the number of towers is proportional to the number of users – we need to build more towers every day, and they are most effective when installed in places that are visually prominent.
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Our daughter Caroline is six years old, a fact that is less important to her than the much more exciting fact that she is about to turn seven. The other day Caroline and I were discussing plans for her birthday celebration when she asked, out of nowhere, “If I’m going to be seven, how old is the earth going to be?” “Four and a half billion,” I replied. After being reassured that billion was not, like zillion or cajillion, a made-up word, Caroline wanted to know “how anybody ever figured out such a big birthday number.” “It all started with seashells on mountaintops,” I told her.
“How did seashells get on top of mountains?” she asked. “That’s exactly what people tried to figure out for a couple thousand years,” I said. Caroline persisted. “What did people think when they found the shells up there?” “Well, some folks thought they were washed up by a big flood that’s mentioned in the Bible, but a lot more people thought they just grew there, right out of the rock.” Now Caroline’s ten-year-old big sister, Hannah, jumped in. “Seriously? How could anybody believe that?” she asked. “Back then nobody realized the earth was super old,” I explained. “They just counted up the generations of all the people mentioned in the Bible and reckoned that the earth was about 6,000 years old. And nothing they knew of in those 6,000 years could explain how seashells ended up on the tops of mountains.”
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The enemy is out there. It is green. It is slimy.
Toxic algae outbreaks are a growing problem on our nation’s lakes, and maybe one you love. I’m lucky to live in a county with more than 150 lakes, including the biggest, cleanest freshwater lake in the western United States.
Yet even here, we see the nasty stuff. In some lakes near my home, the problem is so bad that dogs can die when they swim in or drink from algae-infested lakes. Toxic algae blooms occur when agricultural runoff, septic tank runoff and other pollution overwhelm bodies of water. Warmer summer temperatures that we see recently only make it worse.
“It looks like automobile antifreeze with chunks of steamed broccoli floating in it,” one scientist said, describing a lake in California. “It smells like an old gym bag.”
My family is just coming off a long, hot summer. Here, relief on hot days means jumping into a lake, paddle boarding, fishing or clowning around with inner tubes. I think every American family should be free to enjoy those things, without unnecessary threats from water pollution.
A new, first-of-its-kind national online map by my communications firm Resource Media shows that 21 states across the U.S. have issued health advisories and warnings related to harmful algal blooms at 147 different locations on lakes, rivers and ponds this summer. That’s just a fraction of the actual toxic algae outbreaks happening across the U.S., since not all states even monitor for the stuff. Small ponds, like the one that kills and sickens dogs in my neighborhood, usually don’t get counted.
In partnership with the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, Resource Media is also releasing a report, “Toxic Algae: Coming Soon to a Lake Near You?” The report provides a look at how extreme weather and an increase in nonpoint source pollution from agriculture and failing septic systems are spurring its spread.
The good news is, we have the technology and know-how to stop this problem. We just need the political will. Education is the first step.
Ben Long is an outdoorsman, father and conservationist in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.