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Rants from the Hill: Time for a Tree House

Michael Branch | Jul 01, 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.

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.Branch-treehouse-1

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.

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Rants from the Hill: Most likely to secede

Michael Branch | Jun 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.

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.

rough and ready

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.

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Collaborative brings good news to Clearwater Country

Ben Long | May 28, 2013 05:00 AM

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.

Fly fishing Kelly Creek

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.

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It's Endangered Species Day!

Red Lodge | May 17, 2013 05:00 AM

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.”

Spotted owl drawing
Spotted owl, by Endangered Species Day 2013 Youth Art Contest Semi-finalist, Ann C. Sonu.

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.

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The danger of too much screentime, in and out of the woods

Red Lodge | May 14, 2013 12:30 PM

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.

Collared elk
Elk with GPS collar. Courtesy of Lori Iverson, USFWS.

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.

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Rants from the hill: Trapping the bees

Michael Branch | May 06, 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, 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.”bees

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.

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Congress quickly fixes the wrong problem

Mark Trahant | Apr 30, 2013 12:30 PM

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.”

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Two tales of one river

Red Lodge | Apr 25, 2013 11:15 AM

As Earth Day passed with little fanfare this week, news was mixed for the Colorado River.

American Rivers, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization, released its annual list of the nation’s most endangered waterways. Half of them are in the West, and the Colorado has the dubious distinction of landing the number one spot. The group points to the pressures drought and over-allocation have put on the fish, wildlife and humans that rely on the Colorado.

Colorado River in the Grand Canyon
Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Courtesy of the USGS.

It’s not exactly breaking news that there isn’t enough Colorado River water to meet current demand across the basin states, and that if we continue on our current course, meeting future increased demands will be impossible.

Map of Upper and Lower Basin States
Map of Upper and Lower Basin states. Courtesy of the State of Arizona.

Yet this was also the message from a recent Bureau of Reclamation (BOR) report, prepared with the input of the seven Colorado River Basin states, which projects acute water supply and demand imbalances throughout the river basin and adjacent areas over the next 50 years. The river currently provides water to nearly 40 million people and the BOR study says that number could double by 2060. Stir in the expected climatic changes and the shortfall is projected to be greater than 3.2 million acre-feet per year (one AF is what an average household uses annually).

We’re not likely to have to wait that long before experiencing serious problems, however; the report says there’s potential for “critical imbalances” as early as 2025. Considering that several large cities, 5.5 million acres of farmland, and at least 22 federally-recognized tribes rely on Colorado River water for drinking, irrigation and power generation, as well as 11 national parks, seven national wildlife refuges and four national recreation areas, finding solutions should be of paramount importance.

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Uranium is no good for the Navajo

Eric Jantz | Apr 23, 2013 05:00 AM

A recent post on the High Country News website advocates the position that the Navajo Nation should eventually drop its 2005 uranium ban so that it can get a better deal on uranium development, which the author, Jonathan Thompson, sees as inevitable. The post holds up the example of the Ute Tribe as an example of how a ban or moratorium on extractive industry can be a useful gambit for increasing tribal revenues when industry comes knocking.

As an attorney representing Navajo communities resisting new uranium mining for the last 15 years, I found HCN’s showcase of this perspective both troubling and disappointing. I also think the fundamental assumptions that underpin the piece are misguided.

Like the Ute Tribe ultimately growing rich off oil and gas production, the article’s author assumes that the Navajo Nation can likewise grow rich off uranium mining. The economic realities don’t support this position. World uranium prices have been depressed for 30 years and there is no end in sight. An upsurge in nuclear power demand might change that, but the trend since the Fukushima disaster has been to move away from nuclear power and toward renewables. Indeed, the only places where nuclear power has even a chance to survive is in countries where there is unwavering state support for the industry, i.e., China, India and Russia. So comparing petroleum to uranium simply isn’t equivalent in economic terms.  Further, uranium’s economic realities, should they come to pass on the Navajo Nation, guarantee significantly more modest economic development gains than the riches promised by the uranium industry.

But the more troubling aspect of the piece is its ahistorical view of uranium on Navajo and failure to acknowledge the reality of tribal sovereignty in the Federal Indian Law context. In the piece, there is an acknowledgement of the devastation that past uranium mining has caused on the Navajo Nation. However, what isn’t acknowledged is the continuing reluctance of the uranium industry to take responsibility for the legacy contamination and the devastation it has caused. Until communities can expect the uranium industry to take the very fundamental step of taking responsibility for its past (and in many cases ongoing) part in the public health nightmare that many Navajos face daily, any discussion of future resource extraction should be off the table.

Additionally, the environmental and public health track record of the uranium industry has not appreciably changed since the last uranium mining boom from the 1950s to the 1980s. Uranium mining is still responsible for contamination of hundreds of millions of gallons of water in Texas, Wyoming and Nebraska and for ongoing public health disasters in those states.

The article also cites the recent Churchrock Chapter resolution endorsing both clean up of past uranium mining waste and new uranium mining as an example of a community choosing economic gain over the long term integrity of their groundwater. However, the Churchrock resolution was a product of grossly overblown economic promises and outright fabrications about the mines’ groundwater impacts. In fact, neither the Chapter nor the Navajo Nation will receive any revenue from one of the mine sites in Churchrock because it is located on private land and not subject to tribal jurisdiction. While communities and tribes have the right to make decisions about their resources, the decisions must be made after free, prior and informed consent, consistent with international law. When the uranium industry refuses to be truthful about the economic benefits and public health impacts, informed consent is impossible.

Finally, the piece rests on the assumption that corporate interests will eventually get to exploit the uranium resource. This prediction may or may not come to pass, but it reinforces the idea that resource exploitation is inevitable and the only choice tribes have. I disagree. This perspective only serves to perpetuate the federal government’s assimilationist and racist policies of the last 250 years in which meaningful tribal sovereignty is always subordinated to corporate interests and resource extraction. It’s time that we support the truly meaningful exercise of tribal sovereignty, which includes the right to choose economic development that is both healthy and consistent with traditional cultural values. Uranium mining is neither.

Eric Jantz is a staff attorney at the New Mexico Environmental Law Center.

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

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Real bears get a helping hand from Hollywood

Ben Long | Apr 17, 2013 10:22 AM

It’s a long way from the cold, rainy valleys of northwestern Montana's Cabinet Mountains to the bright lights of Hollywood. But they are both bear country, in very different ways.

Hollywood is about myths — taking old myths and digging them deeper. Grafting on new, odd branches to existing myths.

Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart.
Doug Seus and his most famous movie bear, Bart.

Hollywood plays to the mythology of bears.  A Hollywood bear did in Brad Pitt in Legends of the Fall and menaced Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin in The Edge. More recently, a Hollywood bear snarled in front of 10 million viewers worldwide, in the opener of Game of Thrones on HBO.

Those Hollywood bears are the product of Doug and Lynn Seus, who have made a career of training grizzly bears for the movies. These bears, with trademarked names like Bart, Honey Bump and Tank, have eaten more Oreo cookies than huckleberries.

The bears of the Cabinet Mountains look similar but act different. They have no sense of at all for the limelight. I’ve been roaming here 25 years and seldom see more than a scratched up tree or tracks in the trail mud. Small wonder, since the grizzly population of that mountain range was probably below 15 bears before conservation measures began taking hold.

This time of year, what’s left of them Cabinet grizzlies leave their dens in the snowy alpine and go to scrounge the sprouting grass and moldering winterkills of the Yaak, Fisher, Kootenai and Bull River valleys.

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