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.
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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.
The following was previously published at Think Progress.
Please also check out a list of links to Randy's essays for HCN, located below the post.
I’ll keep movin’ through the dark with you in my heart my blood brother.
I think we will solve climate change, but to do it we will need each other, and we will need leadership and also companionship. Increasingly, over the years, the environmental community has become fractured on the issue of climate—in some cases struggling over best approaches, expressing our frustration and criticism. This is healthy, but it has to be understood in the context of a common struggle. We are in this together.
That is why I find it so deeply saddening to lose leaders and fellow fighters in this battle. I saw Stephen Schneider as nothing less than a fearsome warrior, like a Viking. A wonderful ally.
Now we have lost another brother in arms—energy analyst, innovator, deep thinker, and part time warrior Randy Udall.
I met Randy more than 20 years ago, when he was younger than I am now, and he chose me to join him on grueling and epic skis and hikes in the Sierras, the Wind Rivers, and the Colorado Rockies. He was one of the strongest humans on earth, both physically and mentally. As an Outward Bound instructor on winter courses, he was known to ski into camp in the dark, eat a stick of butter, dig a hole in the snow, and go to sleep. He once skied the entire 200-plus mile John Muir Trail in a week with his brother Mark. To hike with him was to be completely brutalized beyond exhaustion, into a new place. It required the kind of effort Randy and the rest of us are now putting into the climate struggle.
Udall was a pioneer and an innovator. Among many of his important accomplishments was the development of the first utility green power pricing program in Colorado, a mechanism for utilities to bring clean power online. He was a brilliant and incisive writer, a master of metaphor who would spend days mulling a turn of phrase. As editor of Rocky Mountain Institute’s newsletter, he brought wit and life to energy writing.
In his work at the Community Office for Resource Efficiency he developed likely the country’s first carbon tax, imposing a fee on energy intensive development. Like much of Randy’s work, the Renewable Energy Mitigation Program was oddly bipartisan. Many homeowners happily paid the fee, expressing their own desire to help out, to not do harm, to be part of the solution. In the same way, Randy understood that cheap coal and petroleum brought Americans the prosperity we enjoy today, and our solutions must not ignore that debt, and must not sweep the miners and the geologists and the utilities under the carpet. For this, Randy was beloved by coal miners and gas explorers, conservative utility CEOs and environmentalists alike.
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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.
I should admit straightaway that my young daughters never actually asked me to build them a tree house. I came up with the idea myself, got them attached to it, and then pretended that my efforts were strictly for their benefit. But Hannah and Caroline’s spontaneous enthusiasm provided the necessary cover for me to do what every grown man secretly wants to do: construct an arboreal retreat, far from unpaid bills and truck repairs, hassles and compromises, uncertainty about the future, inescapable news of loss and grief. Never mind a long weekend in the mountains or going to a ball game. What I really needed was to climb up into a tree house and pull the rope ladder up behind me.
The problem with building a tree house in the Great Basin is that we have no trees—not many, anyhow, and fewer still that provide tolerable supports for construction. Because the Ranting Hill sits at almost 6,000 feet, we’re high enough to have Utah junipers here, but they’re tangled, tight, scratchy trees that aren’t inviting for inhabitation. As a result, the girls and I devised a plan to build a platform house that would stand on stilts in the midst of a dense grove of junipers. Construction began only once I had persuaded the kids that a platform house in the trees does officially count as a real tree house. Because my main goal was to make the thing so tall that it would produce an exhilarating feeling of being in the treetops, I chose for my main structural timbers four 16-foot 4x6s, which I set in concrete. This would not only produce inspiring height, but also allow a design featuring both a lower and upper platform, making the structure resemble a desert giant’s bunk bed. Next came horizontal 2x6 supports, then 2x4 cross ribbing, and finally the two floors themselves, each consisting of a full 4x8 sheet of plywood. After adding an upper safety railing and buccaneer-style swinging rope ladder the structure was complete: a 13-foot-tall, two-story, 64-square-foot platform house nestled into a thick, aromatic grove of juniper.
“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert.
It is less than 90 miles, as the raven flies, from the Ranting Hill to Rough and Ready, California, a western Sierra foothills town that holds special meaning for a reclusive curmudgeon like me. Rough and Ready was settled as a miners’ outpost in 1849, after which it quickly grew to be a boomtown of 3,000. Just a year or so after its settlement, though, the people of Rough and Ready decided they were already fed up with the constraints of citizenship, and so held a gathering at which they voted resoundingly to withdraw from the Territory of California and secede from the United States. On April 7, 1850, the Great Republic of Rough and Ready was established, and for several months it made out just fine as one of the tiniest and most independent nations in the world.
However, on July 4th of that same year, so the story goes, the men of Rough and Ready ran into trouble when they rode the four miles to nearby Grass Valley to get good and drunk. (During the mid-nineteenth century Americans were both more patriotic and more inebriated than they are today, and even temperance societies offered their members a reprieve from the sobriety pledge for the 4th of July.) But, to their dismay, the thirsty men of Rough and Ready reached the Grass Valley saloon only to be told that they were now considered “foreigners,” and thus would be served no hooch—especially not on the day set aside to celebrate the great nation from which they had chosen to secede. Sticking to the principles most important to true patriots, the men quickly convened another meeting, resoundingly voted to immediately rejoin the United States, and then returned to the Grass Valley saloon, where cheers went up as the newly reassimilated Americans set to patriotically hammering corn liquor just like everybody else.
The tale of the Great Republic of Rough and Ready has a curious addendum. Just after World War II the U.S. Postal Service discovered that Rough and Ready had never formally been readmitted to the union, and so had been essentially operating as a rogue state for nearly a century. A few forms were filled out, and on June 16, 1948, Rough and Ready formally rejoined the U.S. No doubt there was more drinking to celebrate the occasion. These days Rough and Ready has a population of about 900 folks, approximately 700 of whom would shoot you just for stepping onto their porch; the other 200 are telecommuting Bay Area software designers, which is far worse. But I do love to think of the century during which Rough and Ready existed both within and outside the nation that did and did not quite contain it.
There is in fact a long tradition of secessionist movements in America, a nation itself born through secession. Though we often associate secession with the southern states that confederated against the union during the Civil War, folks all over the country have been talking about getting out ever since they got in. Texas was once a free country (though it seceded from Mexico rather than the U.S.), eight counties of western North Carolina existed briefly as the State of Franklin, Maine was born when it seceded from Massachusetts, and both Kentucky and West Virginia were formed through secession from Virginia. There have been a whole slew of 51st state proposals, from folks in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula wanting to become a state modestly named “Superior,” to Long Islanders whose inherent sense of superiority motivated them to try to avoid slumming with the rest of New York. Northern California has been trying to declare itself free of southern California since before the establishment of Rough and Ready, and has in fact never stopped trying. A number of entire states have attempted to remove themselves from the country—the usual suspects, including Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, and California. The citizens of countless cities and counties have also followed Rough and Ready in attempting to sever themselves from the United States. And following the 2012 presidential election, secession petitions were filed from every state in the country.
Idaho is a paradoxical state. In some places it’s desert and sand dunes, in others, ferns and red cedar.
Its people are also a complex mix of rugged individualists with strong churches and communities, of urban professionals and backwoods blue-collar workers. Those contradictions can pull the state apart or bring folks together.
One of those "working together" moments emerged in the Clearwater Basin of north-central Idaho. This country is dear to my heart, as it’s where I grew up and was introduced to the great outdoors. I’ve cruised timber here, learned to backpack, float whitewater, catch trout, and pick huckleberries. Like the native steelhead, I seem to have a homing instinct that draws me back to the Clearwater.
For decades, factions have fought over the Clearwater’s timber, water, wildlife and fisheries. Passions run high because the resources are so rich.
But the major battles and Timber Wars are past and no one really won. Rural towns feel desperate for their future. Conservationists still have no wilderness protected north of U.S. Highway 12 to show for decades of effort. The Clearwater Basin has six million acres of habitat to be managed, most of it national forest, but needed a clearer vision of what that means.
So for five years, representatives of timber, local elected officials, conservationists, the Nez Perce Tribe, motorized recreationists and sportsmen’s groups put together a vision for the future of the Clearwater Basin. The effort was like the old logging days, when lumberjacks blasted huge logjams trying to float logs downstream: it was dangerous, uncomfortable, and strenuous and at some moments seemed futile.
But it worked. This week, the Clearwater Basin Collaborative reached consensus on an agreement for the future of the basin’s people, public land, wildlife and water. It includes protecting key areas like the Great Burn and Mallard-Larkins as wilderness, and additions to the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, but also helps streamline logging elsewhere, consistent with all existing laws, through an approach that has already resulted in increased timber jobs. It also addresses the needs of the Nez Perce Tribe who have called the region home since time immemorial.
Don’t worry: not everyone will like the plan. It will be attacked from both sides of the spectrum. But most are tired of the bickering of the past and want to move forward.
Next, it’s up to Congress. The meeting rooms of Orofino, Lewiston and Kamiah are a world away from the Beltway. But these are national forests and the entire nation has an interest in their future.
The folks in Idaho will have to demonstrate their vision is the best not just for them, but good for all.
So the work begins anew. The logjam may be broken, but good-hearted folks will have to keep their pike poles handy and their spiked boots on and brave the treacherous waters until the job is done.
The Clearwater River and its many tributaries live up to their names with water pure enough for steelhead and cutthroat trout. Photo © Bill Mullins and courtesy of the Clearwater Basin Collaborative.
Ben Long is a outdoorsman, father and conservationist who has split his life between Idaho and Montana, where he currently lives. 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.
Today, the third Friday in May, is Endangered Species Day. Passed by a unanimously-supported Senate resolution several years ago, the holiday is intended to encourage us “…to become educated about and aware of threats to species, success stories in species recovery and the opportunity to promote species conservation worldwide.”
The Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is used to protect and to recover vulnerable floras and faunas, was the first comprehensive federal law passed to protect wildlife and habitat and it marks its 40th anniversary this year. When President Nixon signed it into law (after near-unanimous congressional support) he remarked, “"Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed. It is a many-faceted treasure, of value to scholars, scientists and nature lovers alike, and it forms a vital part of the heritage we all share as Americans.”
Since then the ESA has grown into the toughest federal environmental law on the books. It has prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species listed since its inception and today watches over over 1,400 U.S. species. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) which, along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, administers the ESA, 68 percent of listed species whose conditions are known, are stable or improving.
Like any highly effective piece of legislation, the ESA has led a politically polarized existence. No more so than in the West, where grazing, logging, population growth and energy development (including oil and gas, solar and wind) compete with wildlife for public and private land. Opponents to the ESA like to say the law prioritizes the survival of creatures other than humans but it’s the balance between the two which makes it such a dynamic piece of legislation. Through the many phases of listing, including establishing critical habitat, the ESA specifically requires that human economic needs be considered alongside the survival requirements of other species. Infringements imposed on private industry are exceedingly rare.Read More ...
In an Earth Day podcast, new Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell expressed her concern over the growing divide between people and nature. She pointed to “screen time,” and to other distractions that keep kids, in particular, from exploring their outdoor environments and from developing a general curiosity about the natural world.
Children and adolescents now spend half the time outdoors that they spent 20 years ago. Instead they are in front of screen media for an average of 53 hours each week, or roughly 7.5 hours per day. It’s no wonder then that 83 percent of citizens polled earlier this year in six Western states expressed concern that their children are not spending enough time outdoors.
What does our current preference for a Wii tethered to a flat screen over the “Whee!” squealed while swinging from a tree branch mean for our environment? Researchers have concluded there’s a powerful connection between spending time in wild natural spaces before age 11 and thoughts and actions toward the environment in adulthood. That doesn’t mean every child digging in the dirt is a budding John Muir, but that time spent hunting frogs and splashing in streams activates an awareness that makes them more likely to give a scat what happens to the natural world later on.
Even when do we retreat to wild environs, technology is changing the quality of those experiences. Most times I’m fortunate enough to get to Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) I lay eyes upon an elk with a clunky GPS radio necklace.
Often I see visitors hunched over smart phones studying routes while the landscape begs to be read. Just west of RMNP a drone airplane, operated by the U.S. Geological Survey, recently buzzed above several greater sage grouse breeding grounds. And in south-central Colorado that same unmanned Raven whirred over Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge photographing birds. Such flyovers have become highly sought-after research tools.
“Rants from the Hill” are Michael Branch’s monthly musings on life in the high country of western Nevada’s Great Basin Desert, published the first Monday of each month.
Several years ago, at just this time of year, I had to go back East for a few months of work. When I returned home to the Ranting Hill, which I missed mightily while I was away, I noticed plenty of changes. Great horned owls had taken up hunting perches on the peaks of my roof and had pretty well cleaned out the local population of packrats and ground squirrels. My native shrubs had survived, though they were cropped by black-tailed jack rabbits. It was clear from scat and prints that both mule deer and pronghorn had grazed our property regularly. But the most obvious difference was that a thousand honeybees were buzzing around the eaves at the southwest corner of our house. Honeybees are unusual here in the high desert. Although we do have some forage plants, including snowberry, rabbitbrush, a few wild mustards, and several types of Wyethia, we just don’t have enough year-round forage to make this severe desert environment very appealing to your average honeybee. I hadn’t seen a thousand bees total in a decade on the Ranting Hill, so it was clear that something was out of the ordinary.
Upon closer inspection, the bees were going in and out of a small hole in the eaves where they adjoined the stucco exterior wall. When I called the local extension agent, she immediately asked “Did you spray them yet?” When I replied that I had not she seemed comforted, and then asked “Are they still swarming? That is, are they in a big clump? A swarm of bees can be captured and moved pretty easily.” I explained that instead the bees were flying in and out of the house. “Well, you’re talking structural removal, then. Hopefully you can do a cut out but you might have to do a trap out. Pest control guys are clueless on this stuff, and most beekeepers don’t want the hassle unless they can get an easy score on a swarm. Big Dan’s your man on this.”
Next I called Big Dan—apparently a legend among local bee freaks—who asked “Spray yet?” and “Still swarming?” before patiently posing a number of other questions, and finally agreeing to come out that afternoon to try to help me. Now let me admit straightaway that as a desert rat I don’t know diddly about bees or beekeeping. But somehow I pictured Big Dan as a dude who would step down from an F-350 looking like an astronaut in his fancy bee fighting gear. Instead, a tiny, ancient, hatchback Honda civic rolled up, and out of it rose a man who was not only tall and large but also graced with an immense, bushy red beard, and a long braid of red hair trailing down the middle of his back. He was costumed not in studly bee wrangling gear, but rather in sandals, brown cargo shorts, and a brightly tie-dyed T-shirt with a swirl pattern. He wore small, black-rimmed glasses that were so nerdy as to be completely incongruous with his hippyfied look. Big Dan looked like a red-haired version of Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia, but only if Garcia had also been your local librarian. He responded “I’d be honored” when our then-four-year-old daughter asked if she could call him “Dan Dan the Big Bee Man,” and my own thought in that moment was that this guy was a high desert original—just the kind of character I missed so much while I was back East.
Last week was a perfect illustration of the broken structure that is the United States government. Congress cannot pass a budget. It can barely pass a law to pay bills already incurred and owed. And its best “deficit” cutting attempt is the decade-long sequester, across-the-board cuts that hit the wrong programs, at the wrong times, and in the most harmful process.
Yet inconvenience air travelers and the entire Congress (and President Barack Obama) moves faster than Usain Bolt. So a bill is proposed and enacted to lift the sequester giving the Federal Aviation Administration more flexibility in its spending ending the furlough for air traffic controllers. Problem solved.
But for most of the country the sequester continues for another decade. Cuts that make less sense than air traffic delays, such as laying off teachers in more than three-quarters of all school districts, will continue as planned.
Or the sequester cuts to programs that serve American Indians and Alaska natives. In testimony last week to the House, the National Congress of American Indians reported: “For many tribes, a majority of tribal governmental services is financed by federal sources. Tribes lack the tax base and lack parity in tax authority to raise revenue to deliver services. If federal funding is reduced sharply for state and local governments, they may choose between increasing their own taxes and spending for basic services or allowing their services and programs to take the financial hit. On the other hand, many tribes have limited ability to raise substantial new revenue, especially not rapidly enough to cover the reduction in services from the across the board reductions of the FY 2013 sequestration.”