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Putting politics before science won’t save the lobo

DefendersofWildlife | Nov 19, 2013 03:00 PM

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.

Wildlife advocates say that the Fish and Wildlife Service’s proposed changes to wolf management would not allow for sufficient recovery of the Mexican gray wolf, one of which is pictured here.

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.

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Rants from the Hill: Towering Cell Phone Trees

Michael Branch | Nov 04, 2013 09:40 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

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.

A cell phone tower disguised as a tree.

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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Rants from the Hill: Seashells on Desert Mountaintops

Michael Branch | Oct 08, 2013 09:50 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

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.

The author's daughters, Caroline and Hannah, in Nevada.

“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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Green slime – coming soon to a lake near you?

Ben Long | Sep 25, 2013 04:35 PM

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.”

dog swimming
A dog swims in mountain lake. (c) Karen Nichols.

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.

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Policy blueprint for a renewable energy future

Carl Zichella | Sep 24, 2013 01:55 PM

This post was originally published on the Natural Resources Defense Council Staff Blog, Switchboard.

There is a deep irony at work in the intersection of energy and the environment. The biggest threat to our planet is climate change, caused in large part by our profligate use of energy. And one of the biggest solutions is to de-carbonize our electricity system by building renewable energy projects, linked to cities and large urban centers with new transmission lines. These renewable energy systems can require large amounts of land. But with careful planning, we can preserve conservation values while significantly reducing our carbon footprint.

A second challenge is that many renewable energy and transmission projects will be built on private lands, especially farms and ranches. While farmers and ranchers are eager to see the economic benefits of hosting wind farms and supplying biomass for energy, for instance, the track record with transmission development in America gives many of them pause. But again, new policies and practices can help make new infrastructure welcome in the American countryside.

At the request of the Energy Foundation, we developed some solutions for improved siting policies and practices, as part of America’s Power Plan. The Plan is a comprehensive response to the rapid changes in the power sector coming from new technologies, consumer demand and policy. Siting new renewables and the associated infrastructure is a key part of that transition.

In our chapter: Finding a Home for Renewable Energy and Transmission we have developed a set of smart reforms of policies and business practices. With the right changes, we can see continued success in siting new generation and transmission.

First, of course, we must maximize the efficiency and use of the existing grid. “Non-wires” alternatives like targeted efficiency improvements, demand response and distributed generation can help us wring more out of our existing transmission system.

But the current inflexible grid was built for fossil and nuclear generators. A system for renewables will need to increase access to new regions, like the Midwestern wind belt and the sunny Southwest. It will also need to be more interconnected and flexible, to smoothly and reliably integrate variable generation, like wind and solar.

A package of reforms and best practices can reduce conflict and streamline the process of siting new projects, making it faster, cheaper and less environmentally harmful.

New approaches include engaging stakeholders early, accelerating innovative policy and business models and employing “smart from the start” strategies to avoid the risk of environmental and cultural-resource conflicts. Institutional reforms may be the most critical, such as greater coordination among regulatory bodies and improved grid planning and operations. Developers and regulators should work with landowners to develop new options for private lands, including innovative compensation measures that help avoid costly and lengthy legal disputes over eminent domain.

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True Believers would destroy the Indian health system

Mark Trahant | Sep 18, 2013 05:00 AM

Congress always works on two tracks. The first rail is legislation that gives the government authority to spend money. The second rail is one that actually appropriates the funds. It’s that second law that dictates how the government can spend dollars for the Indian Health Service (or any other program) under parameters set by law.

This two-track idea is important to remember when you think about the chaos in Washington concerning the budget and debt ceiling.  Some Republicans, True Believers, are bent on using the budget process to rewrite the Affordable Care Act and that proposal would be catastrophic for the Indian health system.
Remember track one? Every appropriation from Congress has to link back to the legislation that set the rules for spending. In the case of the Indian Health Service, the legislative authority comes from the Indian Self-Determination Act, the Indian Health Care Improvement Act, and the Public Health Service Act. The Indian Health Care Improvement is part of the Affordable Care Act (or, as the Republicans like to call it, “ObamaCare.”)

The proposal to defund the Affordable Care Act would wipe out most of the Indian Health Service budget. This scenario is beyond absurd: Imagine every Indian Health Service, tribal, nonprofit, or urban clinic unable to open its doors after October 1 and remain closed for a full year.

That’s exactly what House Joint Resolution 62 would do. The resolution, promoted by Georgia Republican Tom Graves, would fund the government at sequester levels, while eliminating any money that implements the Affordable Care Act.

Normally this proposal wouldn’t be worth mentioning. It has some sixty supporters in the House and a few members in the Senate, so it’s not a majority view. But this also shows how Congress is drifting toward a more conservative stance. The Heritage Foundation, for example, is providing “research” on the viability of defunding the Affordable Care Act. Heritage said: “It is beyond dispute that Congress can use its power of the purse to defund ObamaCare—both its mandatory and discretionary spending—in appropriations legislation this fall. The lone remaining question is whether Congress can summon the political will to do so.”

Republicans who support this defunding approach appear unwilling to compromise. There is no middle ground for True Believers.

Idaho Republican Raúl Labrador is a good example of the True Believer Thinking. He says he will not vote for a bill that doesn’t strike down ObamaCare. “House Leadership should bring it to the floor for a vote,” he said in a news release. “If the House passes it and the Senate rejects it, it will be the Senate that’s responsible for shutting down the government.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but House Republicans must seize this opportunity to keep our promises to the American people on ObamaCare.”

The thinking from the True Believers such as Labrador is that the public would blame the president for “shutting down” government because everyone understands that neither the Senate nor President Obama would agree to such a destructive approach. (And, at some point, as I wrote last week, Republican leaders might just have to work with Democrats in the House to head off a government shutdown or a debt default.)

But the True Believers don’t care. They are willing to sink their own Republican leaders and the country in order to kill the Affordable Care Act. But do they have the votes? Even in the House? And what happens after that? Hard questions. And we need the answers soon.

Mark Trahant is the 20th Atwood Chair at the University of Alaska Anchorage. He is a journalist, speaker and Twitter poet and is a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. Join the discussion about austerity. Comment on Facebook here.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.


Fight the Green River nuclear reactors project in Utah

Matt Pacenza | Sep 12, 2013 09:00 AM

Drive south from Price, Utah for about an hour until Route 6 intersects with I-70. On your right, toward the west, the stunning San Rafael Reef rises. And on the left, the eastern Book Cliffs rise.

And, just there, to the east of Route 6, if the energy development company, Blue Castle Holdings, and Utah state water officials have their way, you’ll soon see an industrial park dominated by the Mountain West’s first commercial nuclear reactors: the so-called “Green River nuclear” project.

Later this month, at a courthouse in Price, a Utah state judge will hear a bid from more than a dozen environmental groups, businesses and citizens to overturn a decision approving the transfer of Green River water to cool the proposed reactors. This trial is likely the last and best chance to stop the project before it moves to the industry-friendly Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

HEAL Utah – an advocacy group that I am policy director of – is a lead plaintiff, along with Uranium Watch and Living Rivers, fighting the construction of the Green River reactors.

We are determined to stop this project because we believe nuclear power is a poor choice for Utah’s energy future; it uses too much water, produces costly power we don’t need and poses serious risks. In addition, allowing the Green River nuclear reactors to move forward sets a dangerous precedent, at a time when the Colorado River basin faces numerous water-consumptive energy proposals.

In other words, if you’re worried about tar sands, oil shale and fracking, you damn well should be worried about the Green River nukes too.

The site south of Salt Lake City, Utah near the Green River where two nuclear reactors may be built. Photo from HEAL Utah.

The story of the origin of the Green River nukes is a classic Western water tale, rife with backroom deals, political shadiness and an aggressive salesman with a big story to sell.

In 2007 a Utah legislative committee debated a bill to allow a utility to charge customers for a nuclear reactor’s development costs. That committee’s chair (Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab) and vice-chair (Rep. Aaron Tilton, R-Springville) didn’t disclose any direct interest in nuclear power, but it soon came out that the two had quietly been negotiating a related deal.

The Kane County Water Conservancy District (run by Noel) had agreed to lease Transition Power Development (run by Tilton) water to cool its proposed nuclear power project – a project Utahns didn’t even know existed until press broke the story in late 2007.

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Rants from the Hill: The Washoe Zephyr

Michael Branch | Sep 03, 2013 05:00 AM

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.

Those of us who live out in the western Great Basin Desert, up in the foothills on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada Range, are all too familiar with a wind that is known locally as the Washoe Zephyr. During his time as a cub newspaper reporter in the mining camps of the western Nevada Territory (then nicknamed “Washoe,” after the native people who inhabit this region), Mark Twain was also familiar with this special wind, which was already the stuff of tall tales by the time he arrived on the Comstock in the early 1860s. Calling the Washoe Zephyr a “soaring dust-drift about the size of the United States set up edgewise” in Roughing It (1872), Twain described the layers of items he observed blowing by above him: “hats, chickens, and parasols sailing in the remote heavens; blankets, tin signs, sage-brush, and shingles a shade lower; door-mats and buffalo-robes lower still; shovels and coal-scuttles on the next grade; glass doors, cats, and little children on the next; disrupted lumber yards, light buggies, and wheelbarrows on the next; and down only thirty or forty feet above ground was a scurrying storm of emigrating roofs and vacant lots.” “A Washoe wind,” Twain concluded, “is by no means a trifling matter.”

Mark Twain called the Washoe Zephyr wind in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada eastern slopes “by no means a trifling matter.”

Twain’s comic exaggeration is funny only if you don’t actually live here. In my decade on the Ranting Hill quite a few of the items on Twain’s list actually have blown away from here, along with plenty of things he didn’t think to mention. Of course the Washoe Zephyr blows away papers and magazines, hats and sweaters, tarps and blankets, but would you believe that it also blows away plastic coolers, bird netting, chicken wire, and five-gallon buckets, that it routinely rolls everything from soccer balls to trash cans off the Ranting Hill, and that the only way to keep a half-full bottle of beer from being knocked over is to down it straightaway? Our heavy outdoor furniture routinely slides around as if the patio were an ice rink, and the Zephyr has even toppled well-stacked cords of juniper and pine. On one memorable occasion a sudden blast knifed under my young daughters’ blue, plastic wading pool. I stood gripping my beer as I watched the blue disc simply sail off into the desert sky. It took me an hour of hiking around to even find the pool, which had eventually returned to earth and lodged in a juniper grove almost a half-mile from the house.

Meteorologists call the Washoe Zephyr a seasonal diurnal wind: it occurs regularly during the summer, and is driven by temperature and pressure gradients that are built up and broken down over the course of the day. Like everything and everybody around here, though, our wind is extremely weird. In the normal pattern, diurnal mountain slope winds move upslope during the day and downslope at night – just as you would expect, given that hot air rises and cool air sinks. But here in the western Great Basin the pattern is reversed: the wind howls down out of the canyons all afternoon at 20 to 30 miles per hour, finally shutting off or gently reversing itself an hour or so after dark. What causes this odd reversal of the normal wind pattern?

Weather geeks have been arguing about the mechanism of the Washoe Zephyr for a long time. While a number of theories have been proposed, the most persuasive is that this unfailing west-southwest afternoon wind is a “thermally driven flow phenomenon.” During the day, heated air rises from the desert floor, creating a conveyor or chimney effect that sucks the cooler air down out of the high Sierra. But the situation is more complicated than that, since the Zephyr is produced not only by this thermal differential but also by a giant, regional-scale pressure gradient: in summer, the low pressure system that is produced out in the high-elevation desert of central Nevada remains in an unstable relationship with the high pressure system produced on the west side of the Sierra. The great equalizer is the Zephyr, which relieves the pressure of this atmospheric asymmetry by pulling California air through the mountain passes and down into the Nevada desert.

Scientific theories notwithstanding, the Zephyr remains a strange and not very well understood feature of life in the western Great Basin. Even Twain recognized the mystery of the wind’s origin. The Washoe Zephyr, he wrote, is “a peculiarly Scriptural wind, in that no man knoweth ‘whence it cometh.’ That is to say, where it originates. It comes right over the mountains from the West, but when one crosses the ridge he does not find any of it on the other side!” Like a local cloud that hovers atop a big volcano like Mt. Shasta even when skies surrounding the peak are clear, our home wind is produced by the mountains. While we tend to think of wind as something that blows in from somewhere else, the Washoe Zephyr is instead endemic, a signature phenomenon created by the daily conversation taking place between mountain and desert.

I’d have to be a soft-hearted tree hugger to have much good to say about the Washoe Zephyr, which is more akin to an existential trial than it is to a welcome breeze. A nature writer like Annie Dillard can emote about the “spiritual energy of wind” only because she is lolling in the gentle breeze that ripples the verdant banks of Virginia’s Tinker Creek. As Twain knew, the case is entirely different in the western desert. Here the wind is so desiccating as to make gardening virtually impossible. It is so hot that facing into it is like standing in front of the open door of a kiln that is being vented into your face by the world’s largest exhaust fan. When wildfires burn up in the Sierra, which they do much of each summer, the Zephyr funnels their choking smoke and ash directly into these desert basins and sometimes drives curtains of roaring flames toward our home.

The amount of dirt that ends up in your eyes after a hike would be enough to pot a houseplant, if your eyeballs weren’t so dried out and stinging as to cause desert debris to stick to them almost indefinitely. Inside your boots you’ll discover enough gravel to sandbag a levee. And don’t bother clenching your teeth in frustration while being blasted by the Zephyr, because you’ll be doubly exasperated when you feel the grit grinding between your molars. Is it any wonder that the Buddhist and Hindu concept of nirvana – which signifies a liberation after a lengthy period of suffering – is understood by some etymologists of Sanskrit to mean a state of no wind? Each evening when the blast of the Washoe Zephyr subsides, it is as if the world has suddenly stopped clenching its muscles and squinting its eyes. Calm comes over the land in a form that can never be produced by an absence of wind, but only by a cessation of it.

A dust devil kicks up in the wind along Highway 50 in Nevada.

What has somehow been lost in the story of the Washoe Zephyr is that the name of this big wind is in fact a joke – one that originated with Twain and the frontier storytellers he liked to drink with up in Virginia City. Named for Zephyrus, the Greek god who was celebrated as the bringer of light summer breezes, the word zephyr specifically evokes the gentle stirring of a soft, western breeze. This is what Shakespeare intended, when in Cymbeline he wrote that two beautiful children “Are as gentle / as zephyrs blowing below the violet, / Not wagging his sweet head.” Calling our ripping Washoe wind a zephyr is a triumph of the sort of ironic understatement that is essential to the American tall tale tradition. The droll implication of the Washoe Zephyr’s name is that out here the landscape is so vast and intense that our version of a gentle breeze is a blast that carries off lumberyards, wheelbarrows, and vacant lots.

We desert rats don’t enjoy the Zephyr, but we learn to endure it, and in enduring it we are made more thoroughly a part of this place. And the fact that the name of this grueling, incessant wind is a wry joke is very much to the point. We often endure the desert through laughter, which seems a fitting gesture of reciprocation with a landscape that so often seems to be laughing at us – that chuckles knowingly even at our pretention to inhabit it. But if the Washoe Zephyr were suddenly to cease forever, a fleeting moment of nirvana might be followed by a sense that something extraordinary had vanished from this land. Because our embrace of nature in this place is an expression of both struggle and affection, we find that the Washoe Zephyr is something we can no longer live without.

“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert. Dust devil photo by Flickr user Flakyredhead.


Rants from the Hill: Arid lands bibliopedestrianism

Michael Branch | Aug 05, 2013 05:00 AM

I’ll admit that those of us who live in remote desert places tend to be idiosyncratic, though it is unclear to me whether the weird are attracted to the wild, dry country or if we are instead sculpted by it. And when you live in relative isolation—and in a physical environment that conspires with that isolation to scour away affectation and superfluity—you discover some odd things about yourself, among which is that you are odd. But living in this high desert outback also helps correct for the homogenizing tendencies of living in town, where our unique character is too easily distorted by the social requirements of conformity, consistency, and compromise. Out here we tend to revert to whatever we might have been if the demands of the social contract had never burdened us in the first place. I don’t claim that the end result of this reversion is always pretty. On the contrary, neither nature nor human nature inspire much romanticism out here, where a pastoral fantasy is about as sustainable as a lawn. Still, it is liberating to live in a place where there’s nobody close enough to see what you’re up to, let alone suggest that you trim your hedges or go to church.

A recitation of my own weird habits and tendencies would occupy more space than this Rant allows. While I’m not in the habit of expounding upon my innumerable idiosyncrasies, the eldest of our two young daughters has now reached an age at which she has begun to insist that I explain and defend these eccentricities—an exercise that largely defeats the purpose of rural desert living, in which the sanctity of the inexplicable, indefensible, and idiosyncratic is all but holy. As it turns out, however, this concept of freedom is too abstract for ten-year-old Hannah, whose social comparisons have led her to the mildly troubling and no doubt inevitable conclusion that I am “totally not like other Dads.”

As Hannah becomes more socially aware, more concerned about what is normal, and more worried that our family may not qualify, I am barraged with unanswerable questions. Why do I correct the baseball radio announcers when I know they can’t hear me? Why do I tell chicken-crossing-the-road jokes to our hens? Why am I not afraid of scorpions and rattlesnakes but nervous around cows? Why do I fly kites using a fishing pole? How did I ever learn so much about pronghorn antelope without learning anything about Taylor Swift? Why do I have pet names for my chainsaw (“Landshark”) and weed whacker (“Cujo”)? Why do I always have to say what kind of animal’s butt the poop came from? Why do I like to put goldfish into the BLM stock tanks? Why do I so often wear no pants? This kind of interrogation makes me wish my kid would just ask about something simple, like mortality, God, or where babies come from. But, no, it always has to be the no pants thing again.

Michael Branch walking and reading near his home in western Nevada.

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How the BLM's communication style can backfire

Ben Long | Jul 09, 2013 10:20 AM

Land managers have a hard enough job without the repercussions of using words that leave the public confused and misled.

The latest example comes out of southwestern Idaho, a modest parcel of public land called Big Willow near the town of Payette. There, off-road vehicle riders were running roughshod on both public land and adjoining private ranch lands. It happened to be a piece of ground where a rare plant grew, Packard’s milkvetch. This plant is a candidate for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Under existing rules, the BLM had no limits on off-road vehicles at Big Willow. As crowds grew on ever-more powerful machines, the land took a beating. So the agency went through a long and arduous task of limiting motorized traffic to specific areas where they would do less damage.

But the newspaper headlines rang out “BLM Closes Area To Protect Rare Plant.” That kind of news goes over poorly in the libertarian-leaning West.

Trouble is, those headlines are dead wrong. The area wasn’t closed at all. Not closed to people. People remain free to walk over every inch of it. They can hunt, ride horses, walk their dogs, bird-watch, mountain bike or camp.  Ranchers can still graze their cattle over most of the parcel, with some sensitive habitats fenced off.

The only difference is that ORV enthusiasts may no longer drive over all of it.  (There are two ORV play areas remaining nearby.)

The BLM was doing just what any prudent land manager would do — placing limits on where people can drive motor vehicles. I appreciate it when visitors to my house park in my driveway and not on my lawn. I hunt a couple of private ranches every year. The rancher tells me where I can park and I walk from there. And I thank him for keeping his land open.

The BLM wasn’t closing land, as much as trying to provide balance. It wasn’t taking away freedom, as much as no longer allowing one group’s freedom to overrun the freedom of others.  But news outlets framed the debate as people vs. milkvetch; government bureaucrats putting plants over human beings. That’s wrong, confusing and needs to change.

I can’t blame the reporter or editor, since the BLM uses the same language. When the agency announced it was putting some commonsense rules in place, it called it an “area closure.”

Public land managers are often stuck like sandwich meat between the public’s demand for freedom and the demand for responsible management. It’s a difficult, thankless job. It takes a lot of guts and perseverance for local rangers and land managers to do the right thing. The easiest thing to do is ignore problems, stay out of trouble, take home a paycheck and retire cynical.

It doesn’t help matters when the public is confused and thinks its being locked out of its land when the fact is, it is not.

A more accurate word is “limits,” not closure. As in, “vehicles limited to conserve rare plant.”

Words matter. Land managers should explain when they are conserving habitat, imposing reasonable limits, or providing balances between competing land uses. But they should choose their words carefully and do what’s right.

Correction: An original version of this post said that Payette was in southeastern Idaho, when it is actually in the southwestern part of the state. The story has been corrected.

Ben Long is a conservationist, writer and outdoorsman 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.


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  4. Summer swimming in a Washington lake | A writer takes the plunge in frigid water.
  5. Colorado water users gird for first statewide plan |
  1. The death of backpacking? | Younger people don’t seem interested in this out...
  2. Idaho’s sewer system is the Snake River | As Big Ag flourishes, this massive waterway suffer...
  3. A graceful gazelle becomes a pest | Inrroducing an African gazelle called the oryx for...
  4. Illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans | A native-born New Mexico Hispanic points out that ...
  5. Plains sense | Ten years after Frank and Deborah Popper first pro...
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