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Little grousing on the prairie

Red Lodge | May 01, 2012 11:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

I’m embarrassed to say that, in the decade I’ve lived on the Colorado Front Range, I’d never been to the Pawnee National Grasslands; that is, until last week. With mountains in my rear-view, I drove east from Fort Collins. Before long, I crossed the border into Weld County (called “Upstate Colorado” as I came to learn) and, after passing the Bison Breath bar in the tony town of Ault, I was on the Pawnee Pioneer Trail.

The land settled into rolling hills of gold and green and pockets of metallic-grey virga hung in the sky. Red-tailed hawks perched on fence posts and lark buntings darted upward then plummeted back toward the earth. Near-dry arroyos accompany small pockets of cottonwoods. There are homesteads with wrought-iron arches proudly marking ranch entrances —the legacy of pioneers who survived the Dust Bowl in the 1930s—and the tumbled-down remnants of the ones who did not. Here the PNG is interspersed with private land in a checkerboard of preserve bordered in spots by cattle munching on rangeland or farms with bales of hay stacked toward the heavens.

Here and there, poking up from the plains like giant, lit cigarettes are gas flares, burning off “waste” from oil drilling operations. The oil and gas game in Weld County is part of the Niobrara play, a rich shale deposit that lies beneath more than 8,000 square miles of northeast Colorado, northwest Kansas, southwest Nebraska, and southeast Wyoming. The formation is made up of layers of shale (where the oil formed) and limestone (where the oil collected) that were deposited 90 million years ago when a vast, inland sea covered most of the West. The wells lie on both private and public land and, out here, it’s hard to tell which is which.

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Rants from the Hill: The silence of desert greetings

Michael Branch | Apr 30, 2012 06:00 PM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

Rants from the Hill is now a podcast too! Listen to an audio performance of this essay, here.  You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or through Feedburner for use in another podcast reader.

Desolate as their reputation remains among people who are looking for a handy place to test weapons or dispose of nuclear waste, American deserts have had as allies an impressive bunch of talented, passionate writers. Among these lyrical defenders I’d include Wallace Stegner, Cactus Ed Abbey, Ellen Meloy, Ann Zwinger, Leslie Marmon Silko, Charles Bowden, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Terry Tempest Williams. And at the headwaters of this dry river of sparkling prose I’d place Mary Austin, the early-twentieth-century writer who once described arid landscapes as “forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.” We don’t need to agree on what God might be to recognize how powerfully this expresses the exhilarating experience of desertness. In her 1903 book The Land of Little Rain, Austin writes of the desert that “There are hints to be had here of the way in which a land forces new habits on its dwellers.”

As a desert dweller myself, I’m fascinated by Austin’s geographical determinism—by her conviction that folks who live in the desert long enough are profoundly shaped by it. Out here in Silver Hills we’re buffeted by uncontrollable desert forces, from aridity, wind, and snow to earthquakes and fire. But we’re also profoundly influenced by the crisp, thin air and the unique quality of the light, by the unforgiving openness of the land and the monstrous silence it engenders. Lately I’ve been thinking about this towering desert silence, and how it might be shaping us even as we speak, or choose not to. I’ve long observed that raven and coyote talk more than we laconic Silver Hillsians do. The few folks scattered along our rural road seem to have tacitly agreed that words are best left in town, and out here we ration them as we do whiskey when we’re snowed in for too long. To illustrate how this desert silence has shaped us, I offer these three small stories of unusual encounters with my rural neighbors.

Nevada desertThe first occurred atop our home mountain, whose base is several miles west of the Ranting Hill, and whose summit ridge sits a little under 8,000 feet. To appreciate this story you must first understand that in a decade of walking these hills, canyons, and valleys—a total of over 10,000 miles logged in all seasons and all weathers—I have seen a grand total of two recreational hikers. When you run into another walker only every five years or 5,000 miles (whichever comes first), you forget that such an encounter is even possible. Although I walk every single day, presidential elections happen more often than I see another desert rat like myself out in these dry, high wilds. One June morning my dog and I had climbed the 2,000-foot grade to the mountaintop, and were picking our way south along the boulder-strewn knife edge of the summit ridge. The wind was howling, the views were spectacular, and we were—if I may presume to speak for the dog—very happy. As we cleared a rough notch in the summit ridge I looked up and saw, to my great surprise, a guy about a hundred yards ahead, making his way toward me along the ridge, and also accompanied by a dog. I thought to myself how unlikely this meeting was, and how much we two must have in common. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what I should say to him, since life in Silver Hills has taught me respect for a kind of inviolable solitude that now seemed oddly endangered by this chance meeting. At last we were almost face to face on the ridge. The guy looked at me and smiled. “Hey,” he said. “Hey,” I replied, smiling back. Neither of us even broke stride.

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How now, Browns Canyon

Ed Quillen | Apr 30, 2012 08:00 AM

U.S. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, got two differing views about Browns Canyon when he met with constituents and hiked in the area during the congressional Easter recess.
The meetings were in Chaffee County in central Colorado. The Arkansas River flows through Browns Canyon, which sits between Salida and Buena Vista. It may well be the most popular whitewater rafting course in America.
Udall was soliciting input on two separate but related proposals. One is to designate the canyon and some surrounding land a national monument, and the other is to designate wilderness on the east side, from the railroad tracks that parallel the river up to the ridge that separates Chaffee and Park counties.
Although most national monuments are created by presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906 (which allows the president to set aside federal land), some have been created by Congress, and Udall said he would prefer to go that route.
Congress is unlikely to pass it, though, without the approval of the relevant congressman, and Browns Canyon sits in the district of Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican who's yet to display any public interest in protecting Browns Canyon. "But Lamborn had said he's willing to talk about it," Udall said.

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Lessons from the Old West: Don’t ban it, brand it

PERC Institute | Apr 26, 2012 01:00 AM

By P.J. Hill

Last Saturday was roundup and branding day at my ranch in the Madison River Valley, about 20 miles west of Bozeman, Montana. Neighbors came to help and I put the P J (my registered brand) on the left side of my calves. As I carefully placed the irons on each calf (yes, they are hot, and yes, there is short term pain but it seems to subside quickly) I was reminded of why branding came to work so well in the West.


In the Old West a statewide registration of brands developed rapidly. Often a brand registration system was one of the first pieces of legislation a territory would pass (for more details, see Anderson and Hill’s The Not So Wild, Wild West). Those registrations continue today. You can go to the Montana Brand Registry and find that if a cow has a P on the left rib and a J on the left hip, that cow belongs to the P J Ranch. Or, a PJ on the left shoulder of a horse establishes my clear claim to that horse. I can issue you a bill of sale if you buy one of my horses or cows, and that serves a proof of a legitimate transfer of rights.

This system works well for the people in white hats, my neighbors who want to know who a stray belongs to, and against those in black hats, the rustlers who might want to steal my livestock. The state maintains the registration and enforces ownership claims. And I can use the existing court system to enforce my property rights.

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Earth Day -- Gone Fishin'

Ben Long | Apr 23, 2012 04:20 AM

Earth Day was once again full of stark warnings about global doom and scolds over my level of recycling and my carbon footprint. So I went fishing.

In particular, I took my 8-year-old to an old gravel pit that has been landscaped into a pond and stocked with rainbow trout straight from the hatchery. One side the pond is flanked by a dense thicket of birch and poplar, the other by abandoned trailers and Quonset huts. It’s not exactly Thoreau’s view of Walden Pond, but on a nice spring day it did the trick.Aidan Long fishing

We arrived to see a pair of drake wood ducks (once an endangered species themselves) spar in the air over the pond territory. There are still cottonwood trunks big enough to host their nests in this urban river bottom. Overhead, an osprey turned on a wingtip, just returned north from warmer climes. Osprey once were nearly wiped out by DDT that weakened their eggshells, but have staged a comeback.

I pinched the barbs off the hooks and we impaled salmon eggs for bait. Before long, Aidan’s bobber bobbed and he felt the bite. He reeled in eagerly to find the bait taken. I hooked a few and let him reel them in, only to release them again. There’s something oddly satisfying about watching a trout dart away from your relaxing fingers.

Once I glanced at his line to notice the bobber going berserk. “Reel!” I shouted. “You’ve got a fish on!” He didn’t so much crank the reel handle as walk backwards, but he landed his first fish, solo. It was a moment to remember. I let him decide, and we released that one, too.

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Sagebrush rebellion rides again

Jackie Wheeler | Apr 22, 2012 06:00 PM

I don’t relish this role, you know. If you happened to have read some of my other posts you may have noticed a certain pattern. Sure, there’s the occasional outlier column that addresses toilets, or aspen trees, or what have you, but on a pretty regular basis I’m the lady who sheepishly discusses all the nut-ball and downright disturbing stuff that goes on in my home state, Arizona.

I was really hoping that this could be another outlier week, where I could write about something pleasant and hopeful (or at least amusing) on the Western environmental front. Believe me, I looked, but around here most of those kind of stories have been obscured by news about the latest round of scandals, subpoenas, and indictments of local officials. Squeezed in between are the antics of the loony state legislature, who must pass a budget very soon but cannot tear themselves away from such issues as birth control, bibles in schools, and seizure of federal lands. Regarding the latter, I can modestly boast that for once, the craziness isn’t all homegrown.

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Lighten up, take a load off

Jackie Wheeler | Apr 09, 2012 11:00 PM

All this serious, recent talk (also see this) about Western water shortages and new pipelines gets me thinking again about a not-so-serious but related subject: poop. Granted, there are many very serious aspects of poop such as its disease-carrying properties.composting toilet The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is so concerned about poop that it is partnering with the German government to invest in innovative sanitation systems to help underdeveloped regions of the world. Laudable outcomes could involve not only disease prevention and water savings but possible recycling of the waste into energy sources and eco-safe fertilizer.

You may be aware that some of these benefits are old news to Joseph Jenkins, author of the cult classic The Humanure Handbook, now in its third edition. Jenkins advocates the use of composting toilets (and their by-product, human-waste compost), which are rapidly gaining popularity not just in national and state parks but with individuals. A Google search for composting toilets reveals dozens of manufacturers and retailers eager to sell you one. Publications like Tree Hugger and Mother Earth News cover the subject frequently, as do local blogs, like the one from my local Phoenix-area Valley Permaculture Alliance.

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A toxic cocktail runs through it

Terri Hansen | Apr 09, 2012 03:00 AM

The Portland Harbor Superfund Site feasibility study released last week by the Lower Willamette Group (LWG) proposes a range of clean-up options by the parties responsible for the contamination in the Willamette River and marks a major milestone in the Superfund process, the Yakama Nation says.

But it doesn’t go far enough.

The federally recognized sovereign Yakama Nation is calling for the LWG, as the Potentially Responsible Parties to do all necessary remediation to the Willamette River, and to pay for the clean up of the lower Columbia River as well.

“The Yakama Nation cannot turn its back on the harm Portland Harbor pollution has done -- and continues to do -- in the Columbia River,” says Virgil Lewis, chairman of the Yakama Nation’s Fish and Wildlife Committee and a tribal council member.

Lewis, whose family has fished both rivers for generations calls this a once in a lifetime opportunity to do the right thing. Failure to do violates the Yakama Nation’s treaty, and the civil rights of all people who rely upon the rivers for subsistence fishing and other uses, he said.

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Calling all citizen scientists

Red Lodge | Apr 04, 2012 06:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

When I was a kid, my three sisters and I were compelled to go on what we called “forced marches” all over the country, from Death Valley (which we dubbed near-to-Death Valley) to Cape Cod National Seashore, where the August sand was so hot that our Jellies—you remember, those plastic shoes that were the preamble to Crocs—seemed to melt and to fuse with our tender feet. We gave copious blood samples in the mosquito-infested Everglades and tramped around maze-like groves among the mercifully-shady Sequoias.

Cape Cod marchWe stopped to read every placard the park service had installed on interpretive trails (attention rangers: your hard work is not in vain), we examined leaves and rocks, we identified “v”- and “u”-shaped valleys, and watched wildlife. And we sisters complained consistently about our dry mouths, our rumbling bellies and our overall need to lay down somewhere, anywhere.

While it sounds like we were juvenile delinquents on a work crew, we were simply on school vacations with our mom, a first-grade teacher.

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Let's Put a Bounty on Stupid

Ben Long | Apr 04, 2012 06:00 AM

What is more stupid than bailing the ocean? Paying someone to bail the ocean.

Yet it seems the Utah Legislature thinks that’s a good idea. Worse yet, Utah lawmakers are co-opting the state’s sportsmen to pay for this folly. If you are a sportsman anywhere between Alaska and Arizona, watch your wallet. This trend ain’t contained to the Beehive State.

burning money imageA pseudo-conservation group, Sportsmen For Fish and Wildlife, is spearheading biologically bankrupt anti-predator schemes that are guaranteed to waste millions of dollars and undermine legitimate wildlife management.

SFW includes some great folks who are honestly concerned about wildlife, but SFW leadership is snookering them.

This spring, the Governor of Utah signed a pair of bills that would (1) raise the cost of a hunting license to hire five coyote hunters scattered across the state and (2) put a $50 bounty on coyotes killed by the public. SFW brags about promoting coyote control, but the sad fact is, these efforts are doomed to fail and waste millions in doing so.

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