“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.
Almost ten years ago, after my wife Eryn’s difficult and dangerous 22-hour labor, our first daughter, Hannah Virginia, made her reluctant entrance and began an unbroken run of being a sweet, smart, thoughtful, interesting kid. In the early years of Hannah’s life Eryn and I were in the habit of congratulating each other on what amazing parents we were. What could be wrong with all these other people, whose kids ran around screaming and climbing things, when our daughter’s only idiosyncrasy was her preference for quiet and order? We felt sorry for these exhausted parents, who had to live with so many failed attempts to tame their ungovernable urchins. For us, parenting was a pleasant affirmation that, even in a world of chaos and noise, a rational, intelligent approach could produce a kid who is well-adjusted and delightfully low-maintenance. It was this unchecked hubris that prompted us to have a second child. After all, we were so good at parenting that doubling down seemed an easy call.
But that was before we met Caroline Emerson. Six years ago Caroline was born after a fast and hard labor, and she has been running us ragged ever since. I suppose the middle name we chose for her may have started the trouble. Ralph Waldo Emerson is America’s most eloquent exponent of self-reliance—the belief that fierce independence, individuality, and non-conformity are the qualities we should develop in ourselves and value in others. This wild independence is precisely what we got in Caroline, though in her it is braided with an intense physicality—a remarkable strength, coordination, and spontaneous desire for adventure that makes her appear equal parts cute little girl, simian beast, and Hollywood stunt double.
At two weeks old Caroline launched herself out of her grandmother’s lap; at ten months she stood up and walked away from us; at four years she insisted that monkey bars should be built instead of sidewalks because she can cover ground faster when “it’s just swinging.” It is a major accomplishment to persuade her to operate occasionally on the horizontal surfaces of the world, and her innate ability to climb is both terrifying and inspiring. Caroline can scramble up anything: trees, fences, walls, and (in one of our best father-daughter party tricks) even me. I stand perfectly still as Caroline jumps onto my chest, momentarily hugging me like an orangutan, after which she wedges her toes into my hipbones and then, reaching for my neck, buries her fingers under my collarbone and leaps up onto my shoulders in a single, graceful motion, like an organ grinder’s monkey hopping onto a pony’s back. Having summited “Daddy Mountain,” Caroline pumps her fists in the air and screams “BOOOYAAAHHH!”
Friday, March 29 will be the 15th anniversary of the day U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers braved a blizzard to release the first group of captive bred Mexican gray wolves – also called “lobos” – into the wild. The wolves had been waiting in pens in the Apache National Forest in Arizona, the first of their kind in the wilds of the Southwest in decades. Now, 15 years later, there are 75 wild Mexican gray wolves in Arizona and New Mexico, and a handful in Mexico. That’s something to celebrate – part miracle, part Endangered Species Act triumph. An animal that was completely extinct in the wild, with only seven “founder” wolves as breeding stock to save it, is back and howling and having pups and strengthening the natural systems that sustain everything, humans included.
If you live in the Southwest, we have opportunities to celebrate in Flagstaff and Pinetop, Arizona, and Albuquerque, New Mexico. Of course, some people will prefer to sob: there are not enough lobos in the wild; they need to overcome genetic problems; and they are confined to one population in one area of the Southwest. The slow turn of the Mexican gray wolf as it tries to step back from edge of extinction is agonizing to watch. Will the rarest wolf in the world teeter and fall? As someone who lives lobo recovery and politics every day, I can’t just sit around and sob. I need to act, and I need you with me.
Earlier this week President Obama used authority granted by the Antiquities Act of 1906 to designate five new national monuments.
Delaware earned its first national park unit, celebrating the state’s inaugural role in ratifying the U.S. Constitution. Maryland’s Underground Railroad National Monument pays tribute to famous conductor Harriet Tubman. Nature and culture are now protected on Washington’s San Juan Islands. And New Mexico scored the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument, which safeguards abundant wildlife habitat and the archaeology of Archaic-era Indians and Hispanic explorers from the 18th century and beyond.
The fifth park, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio preserves the home of the U.S. Army soldier and West Point graduate who, prior to the establishment of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916, served as one of the first superintendents of Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) national parks. Young, as head of a regiment of so-called Buffalo Soldiers, was one of few African-Americans who achieved the rank of officer at the time. He was known for his courage, diplomacy and sheer volume of accomplishments.
A thread linking these monuments is that each pays tribute, in part, to this nation’s immigrants (early Dutch, Swedish, Finnish and English settlers founded the colony of Delaware) and/or its current minorities—African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans.
Idaho’s Rep. Mike Simpson, a Republican, asked a critical question Tuesday. It’s one rarely asked, let alone, answered. The question: Does more government money work?
Specifically, Simpson, the chairman of the House Interior Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies, was asking if recent increased funding for the Indian Health Service has made a difference.
Dr. Yvette Roubideaux, director of the IHS, went through the numbers at an oversight hearing. IHS appropriations have increased 29 percent since 2008 which, she said, is “making a substantial difference in the quantity and quality of healthcare we were able to provide to American Indians and Alaska Natives.”
For example: Contract Health Service dollars, money spent to purchase medical services outside of the Indian health system, has been increased by 46 percent since 2008. “Four years ago, most programs were funding only Medical Priority 1, or ‘life or limb’ referrals. Now, Dr. Roubideaux reported, “the increased CHS funding means that almost half (29 out of 66) of Federal CHS programs are now funding referrals beyond Medical Priority 1.”
That means that there is now money, at least some money, for preventative services such as mammograms and colonoscopies. “The increased CHS money also means that the IHS Catastrophic Health Emergency Fund, which used to run out of funding for high cost cases in June, now is able to fund cases through August,” Dr. Roubideaux said.
Simpson said: “You can get sick now up to August?” To which Dr. Roubideaux replied, that the phrase, “Don’t get sick after June,” has been incredibly effective describing the problem of what it means for a health care delivery system to run out of money.
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This week the U.S. Senate is wading through nearly 100 budget amendments tacked onto the federal spending bill. This continuing resolution—which would prevent a government shutdown and fund federal agencies through the rest of the year—includes some unrelated, politically-charged measures which, while ultimately non-binding, give an interesting peek into political agendas.
According to aides, GOP lawmakers are expected to push for votes on amendments related to ending green energy tax credits, hindering an Environmental Protection Agency rule to limit greenhouse gas emissions from new power plants, green-lighting the Keystone XL pipeline, and facilitating drilling on public lands.
Couple this knowledge with efforts to subvert federal control of public lands in a handful of Western states, and one campaign to elevate protection of some of those areas is looking like a particularly hard sell. Given the current fervor in Utah to assert state control, the push to establish the Greater Canyonlands National Monument (GCNM) could lead to all-out political warfare.
The 1.4 million acres being proposed for protection as the GCNM would comprise the largest roadless area in the lower 48 and are prime red-rock country currently administered by the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management. The two existing units of Canyonlands National Park (including Horseshoe Canyon) would be the centerpiece and a GCNM as proposed would encompass Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Manti-La Sal National Forest and Natural Bridges National Monument. It was within these mazes where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid sought shelter, Thelma and Louise launched their car and themselves into oblivion, and Aron Ralston spent 127 horrific hours.
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We have been immersed in another round of what some like to call “public lands theater,” the seemingly endless war over who best to manage or, perhaps even own, the federal land estate of the United States. Last year the Arizona legislature tried to demand almost all the federal lands within its boundaries, even the Grand Canyon. The legislature submitted the demand to a vote of Arizonians, and lost 66% to 33%. Perhaps the notion of "Grand Canyon State Park" put some people off. It put me off, but I was a ranger at Lees Ferry once.
Utah began heading down the same path, thought better of it, and then first called for a study of the various issues and problems regarding the management of federal lands. Idaho and New Mexico have also considered similar moves and strategies; certainly an unbiased study makes sense. What I would like to do here is outline some starting points for conversations that might move things in a positive direction.
1. These lands are public lands managed by the national government. Congress can decide that the states ought to manage them, by transferring such lands. This is the only way to do this. States cannot "demand" them, say that federal management is unconstitutional or "require" the national government to hand them over. The supremacy clause of the US Constitution, and court understandings that federal lands are federal property, make that clear.
There’s renewed movement in Congress on some legislation that would affect our public lands in a big way. Bills to create wilderness areas, combat bark beetles and streamline mining and grazing will be debated, and despite having “improvement” and “protection” in their names, not all would not encourage sustainable or resilient ecosystems in the West.
Of the handful of land bills that passed in the last Congress, none protected public land or established new wilderness (for first the first time in decades). In this 113th Congress, whether or not they are controversial, the bills will compete for divided attentions and scant dollars. Public support and feedback can make a difference.
These bills would bolster conservation in the West and deserve support:
Federal Land Transaction Facilitation Act (FLTFA): Since this law was first passed in 2000, it has enabled the purchase of 18,000 acres of valuable conservation land adjacent to federal parcels and the sale of roughly 26,000 acres of “low value” federal land. Before FLTFA expired in July 2011 land sales earned the Bureau of Land Management $115 million. Over 100 conservation, recreation and sportsmen’s groups have praised reauthorization of the act and it has bi-partisan support.
Forest Jobs and Recreation Act of 2013: This bill, reintroduced by Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), pairs conservation and timber harvests. S. 268 establishes 677,000 acres as wilderness in Beaverhead-Deerlodge, Kootenai and Lolo national forests, and mandates the harvest of at least 10,000 acres of trees per year for the next decade as part of broader restoration projects. Tester conceived the bill, he says, to accelerate the recovery of those forest habitats and their watersheds from the bark beetle epidemic. The legislation, whose supporters include loggers, recreationists and conservationists, will also secure access for hunting, angling, camping and motorized recreation. Learn more and comment on the bill.Read More ...
"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert, published the first Monday of each month.
When I say that American writers have ignited fires, I don’t mean only that they have fired our imaginations or that they have sparked changes in the way we understand the world. I mean also that many of my favorite American authors actually burned stuff down. Not on purpose, of course. In her poem “Upon the Burning of Our House,” Puritan poet Ann Bradstreet describes the harrowing experience she had in July, 1666, when she awoke to discover her home on fire. “I wakened was with thund’ring noise / And piteous shrieks of dreadful voice. / That fearful sound of ‘Fire!’ and ‘Fire!’ / Let no man know is my desire.” The power of Bradstreet’s poem is ultimately in its inquiry into whether and how the stuff—the material possessions destroyed in the fire—should be valued. She knows that her love of God must triumph over her love of the things of this world, and yet the poem is rich with genuine regret because although she is relieved not to have lost her life, she also knows that things often tether us powerfully to those we love and to who we are.
A century later, in February, 1770, Thomas Jefferson’s home at Shadwell, Virginia burned in a house fire that resulted, lamented Mister Jefferson, in the loss of “every paper I had in the world, and almost every book.” When Jefferson returned to the smoldering ashes of what had been his home, his first question was whether his books had been saved. I can only imagine what went through the mind of eighteenth-century America’s greatest bibliophile upon being informed that his library had been lost in the blaze but that his servants had managed to save a fiddle. “A fiddle? Are you f****** kidding me?”
A century after Jefferson’s Shadwell fire, the misadventure of a truly incendiary American literary figure occurred in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts. In April 1844, Henry David Thoreau had, as usual, been hiking and fishing while his neighbors were living those lives of quiet desperation back in town, and now he wanted to fry his catch. Instead, he accidentally fried the neighboring woods, burning more than 300 acres of forest, threatening the town with destruction, and contributing to his already bad reputation as an irresponsible ne’er-do-well. It didn’t help that Thoreau remained unremorseful, writing in his journal that “I once set fire to the woods . . . . It was a glorious spectacle and I was the only one there to enjoy it.”
It's always fascinated me that domestic dogs are widely embraced as "man's best friends," while wild dogs like coyotes and wolves often elicit deep-seated animosity. So I was particularly taken by this video of livestock guard dogs by the Montana-based conservation group, People & Carnivores. The good folks at People & Carnivores work to resolve real-world conflicts between wildlife and livestock producers, making life a bit easier for both. Specially-trained guard dogs imported from Central Asia keep sheep and cattle safe while scaring off wolves, coyotes and bears. They even wear spiked collars -- yikes! I thought I knew a thing or two about dogs, but this video includes a bunch of amazing breeds I had never heard of, plus cute puppies.
Ben Long is a writer, outdoorsman and conservationist in Kalispell, Mont. He is senior program director for Resource Media. He owns a Lab mix guard dog who protects the bird feeder from squirrels, skunks and coyotes.
By Kylie Paul, Defenders of Wildlife
After more than a decade of legal hand-wringing, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) finally proposed on Feb. 1 to protect wolverines in the lower 48 states as a threatened species. But invoking the Endangered Species Act alone is not going to save wolverines from looming threats on a warming planet.
Scientists believe there are as few as 250 to 300 wolverines across the entire lower 48. Those numbers sound alarmingly low, though wolverines naturally exist in low numbers because they have large home ranges and reproduce slowly. But this small population is facing an even greater challenge: climate change. Wolverines need deep springtime snow for denning – and scientists predict that wolverines will lose 63 percent of their suitable snowy habitat in the lower 48 by 2099. Further, if that remaining habitat becomes too fragmented, then reduced genetic diversity is likely, and the resulting tiny isolated populations will be at risk of disappearing altogether.
So what do we do? With many endangered species there is a clear path to recovery based on addressing immediate threats. For instance, with bald eagles and other birds of prey, banning harmful pesticides like DDT made recovery a reality. For other plants and animals, protecting habitat can provide enough relief to allow species to recover on their own. Not so with the wolverine. The best bet for securing a future for wolverines is to help them reclaim habitat they once occupied, especially where their historic habitat is most likely to persist into the future.