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HCN Reader Photo: A Still Moment at Navajo Arch

Stephanie Paige Ogburn | Oct 06, 2009 04:20 AM


Navajo Arch

Fall, for me at least, is the time of still moments, of stepping back and watching silently as the light shifts and the colors change. This photo, by Flickr user juliaahbell, while black and white, seemed to capture that feeling perfectly.

High Country News picks a reader photo each week (approximately) - join our Flickr group and add your unique images from the West.


Wolf victory still elusive

Erin McCallum | Sep 30, 2009 05:10 AM

recent opinion piece by Mike Medberry wisely suggested that there needs to be a reasonable middle ground in the deeply polemical attitudes toward managing wolves in the West.

Unfortunately, this encouraging argument was followed by much of the same tired, politicized and oversimplified rhetoric, pitting environmental groups against the government and mischaracterizing the premise and background behind the ongoing legal actions.

The truth is that the restoration of a viable wolf population to the West could be “the most successful program ever accomplished under the Endangered Species Act [ESA]” – but we still have a little ways to go. And, as much as we’d love to, given our decades of time, money and energy on this recovery effort, we cannot declare victory until the criteria of the ESA are met. 

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Center for Biological Diversity shows the way

Felice Pace | Sep 25, 2009 10:00 AM

Thank goodness that the Center for Biological Diversity has given us an example of what a forest partnership worthy of the name looks like.

A real forest partnership is NOT about giving up rights under the law; suspending duly established government process or excluding the public from important decisions about the public lands. Real forest partnerships are not about accommodation; they are about finding a new social balance which is respectful of the laws and the land. Real forest partnerships honor the Organic Act which created the national forests so that westerners could enjoy "favorable conditions of water flow" and as a hedge against future timber famines.  Real forest partnerships honor the mandates of the National Forest Management Act: biodiversity, clean streams, diverse recreation and responsible resource use without impairing the land.

When communities and industries embrace such a vision – the original and therefore the conservative approach – left and right wing labels dissolve into air and true community – not shotgun weddings or marriages of convenience but real community - emerges.

As an elder of the tribe I consider it a disappointment and a disgrace that some who call themselves defenders of the earth are willing to make deals and reach accommodations which do not honor the far seeing laws enacted to protect public land and public trust resources including water and wildlife. These are bedrock laws and public trusts; true partnerships will not compromise them.

For many western politicians all forest partnerships that include timber corporations are the same: they have never seen one that they did not fall all over themselves seeking to support. These politicians have been too eager to pass legislation which skirts bedrock public land laws in order to get more trees out of the woods. This is what happened with the Quincy Library Group Bill championed by Wally Herger and Diane Feinstein and passed into law in 1997.  Its proponents promised not only jobs but also fire risk reduction and even that the bill would augment California’s water supply by removing “thirsty” trees from the Sierra Mountains.

The QLG legislation has been a failure. Not only has it failed to deliver the promised logs, it has increased rather than reduced conflict over Northern Sierra timber sales, increased rather than decreased the risk that forest fires will burn catastrophically and decreased rather than increased the dry-season flow in Northern Sierra rivers and streams. Can I prove these claims? Well in the case of the water claim I do not need to provide justification – at least according to Nobel laureate Wangari Mattei. When asked in a 2005 interview published in Sierra Magazine why she concentrated her efforts to help women on tree planting Mattei replied:

We all know where water comes from, from forested mountains.

I am not sure just which “we” Mattei referred to. She apparently does not realize that here in the American West the full connection between trees and water supply is a carefully guarded secret which not even Forest Service researchers have the political will to study.

The press has been as gullible and uncritical as the politicians. HCN is one of the few publications that has provided diverse perspectives on the QLG legislation and other forest partnerships. Unlike environmental groups which are classed as right or left, radical or mainstream, etc and whose actions are closely evaluated, forest partnerships have gotten a free ride from the western press. Following the lead of the politicians, the western press declares “success” if former antagonists sign an agreement. I know of no instance where the media has gone back later to report on the actual results on the ground. Where, for example, are the follow-up stories on the QLG legislation? I’ve done the on-line searches and I can not find a single example of a forest partnership or collaboration which the media - including HCN - has revisited after implementation to report on results.

As a mater of fact, that would be a great article for HCN – an evaluation a dozen years after its passage of how the QLG legislation has played out on the ground.


Butte Pacific

Bryce Andrews | Sep 25, 2009 04:31 AM

From north to south, the pastures of the Dry Cottonwood Creek Allotment are as follows: Orofino, North Fork, Basin, Sand Hollow, Upper Hilltop, Lower Hilltop, and Butte Pacific. The last of these—Butte Pacific—is foremost in my mind today.

All the other pastures are named for natural features: Orofino for a creek and a mountain; North Fork for one of two little brooks that join to form Dry Cottonwood Creek; Basin for a massive bowl of grass that stretches nearly to the continental divide; Sand Hollow for a creek that disappears into the ground (although the cartographers missed the mark on this one, since the creek itself doesn’t flow through the pasture); the Hilltops, both Upper and Lower, for a massive ridge that curves like the back of a sleeping dog.

Butte Pacific is different. It’s named for a few caved-in shafts and a shattered concrete foundation that used to be a copper mine of middling worth. The Butte Pacific pasture is oddly shaped and speckled with a shotgun pattern of private in-holdings. Butte Pacific hangs off the south end of the allotment like an afterthought. The other guys who run cattle up here tell me that it’s always the first pasture to dry out, and that the grass never seems to last long. They warn me about some of the people that live back in the mountains, and tell stories about being run off at gunpoint, or being threatened by men with crazy eyes and blunt instruments in their hands. “If the cattle get up that way,” A friend of mine said, “I’d just as soon leave ‘em.”

Butte Pacific sits on a boundary between worlds. Look north and you see an endless line of lumpish mountains—an ecosystem as healthy as most of the others around here. The land has problems, to be sure, but by and large they are the familiar epidemics of western Montana: Cows beat hell out of the creeks; Ill conceived roads spill sediment downhill; People tear around on ATV’s; Pine beetles color the hillsides a hopeless shade of red.

These things are bad. Some of them are even catastrophic. But in spite of them the land endures. Westslope Cutthroat trout swim in the North Fork. Elk bugle through the groves of dying lodgepole pine. North of Butte Pacific it is still possible to hope. The mountains are alive enough to suggest a brighter future.

Not so to the south. That way lays the wasteland. Climb up to the top of the principal ridge in Butte Pacific, look upstream along the Clark Fork River, and this is what you see:

The horizon is all mountains—sheer gray triangles that make up the Anaconda Range. This September they hold just a few last shreds of snow. The principal peak is Mount Haggin, and it juts into the sky like a bony shoulder. The mountains are the highest points in the panorama, but not by much. Let your eyes fall just a bit from the skyline, and you’ll see the Stack.

It is inadequate to say that the Stack is big. It doesn’t do justice to specify that it measures 585 feet from bottom to top, has walls that taper from six to two feet thick, and is a strong contender for the title of ‘tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world.’ The thing is gargantuan, built on a scale to match Montana’s famously big sky.

The Stack is what remains of the Anaconda Smelter, a facility that spent the better part of the last century cooking a massive profit out of low-grade ore from Butte. It looks jet-black from where I’m standing, regardless of the weather or the angle of the sun. It sits like a crow on the hill above Anaconda.

From my point of view the Stack looks ominous. I know it’s toxic as hell—soaked through with Arsenic and heavy metals—and that it rained a dilute, poisonous ash across this valley for more fifty years.

In old photos, the Stack is connected to a labyrinth of furnaces and smelters by a handful of massive flues. The buildings and their exhaust pipes are gone now, removed in the early stages of an environmental cleanup that continues today. Nowadays we’re left with one towering chimney, which has the presence of a war memorial, and vast tracts of polluted land.

The worst of these are the Opportunity Settling Ponds, which stretch downhill from the base of the smelter toward the Clark Fork River. The ponds are dry now, and from up in the Butte Pacific Pasture they look white as old bones. Nothing grows on them. Nothing moves across that benighted, manmade desert except a few haul trucks and the wind. I’ve been down there, and it’s bad dirt as far as the eye can see. 

Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at



HCN reader photo: Dead television

Jonathan Thompson | Sep 24, 2009 09:02 AM

This week, we're featuring a photo by Flickr user VexingArt. It's not only a nice shot, with plenty of depth and character and that cool old photo look, but it also captures one of those common features of so many Western landscapes: The shot out appliance. To see more High Country News Reader photos, or to submit your own, go to our Flickr group.


dead television


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Plastic bags plague the Bay

Amy Ricard | Sep 23, 2009 06:45 AM

 Have you ever wondered what happens to those pesky plastic bags that blow out of trash cans and float aimlessly along city streets and through neighborhoods?

Eventually, they find their way to storm drains, creeks, bays and oceans.  Once in the water they become toxic food for unsuspecting wildlife or flow to join the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating island of trash in the North Pacific Ocean, twice the size of Texas, where a recent study found that plastic particles are more abundant than plankton.

Plastic bags are some of the most pervasive, preventable and costly types of marine pollution. In fact, plastic bags were the second most frequent item of litter picked up by volunteers during the Ocean Conservancy's 2008 International Coastal Cleanup Day with 1.37 million plastic bags removed from coastal areas worldwide.


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Taxing the logic of tribal health benefits

Mark Trahant | Sep 22, 2009 03:07 AM

WASHINGTON – There is near universal agreement: the Indian Health Service needs more money. At the National Indian Health Board Consumer Conference last week several members of the U.S. Senate and House were critical of the historic under-funding of IHS. These were Democrats, Republicans, some representing Indian country constituents, others from districts with no reservations and few tribal members. Yet they communicated the same message: the United States made a health care promise to Native Americans and it’s wrong to fund a system with substantially less money than what is spent per person on federal prisoners.

The Indian health system’s funding is so low that many patients are counted as part of the uninsured population in government data.

The Senate Finance Committee’s health reform concept paper put it this way: “The IHS itself has stated that its funding does not allow it to provide all the needed care for eligible Indians.  As a result, some services are ‘rationed,’ with the most critical care given first. … The reality of this under-funding is that money for contract health services does not last the entire year, forcing IHS to limit services to circumstances involving a ‘loss of life or limb’ circumstance.  This predicament is so common in Indian Country that many tribal members fear that if they need care after June, they will be forced to go without.”

The Obama administration at least added 13 percent to its IHS funding request. But it’s a small step and neither the Executive Branch nor the Congress has made funding parity a priority or even a proposal.

So many tribes have stepped up and contributed their own money to improve health care in Indian Country. This ranges from paying extraordinary medical bills of tribal members to purchasing health insurance.

Hurrah. But this is where this story takes a strange twist: The government’s response to those innovative approaches is to treat this generosity as a taxable event. The IRS wants 1099 forms sent to individual members. (Perhaps a tax bill should be sent to the U.S. government instead.)

The Pechanga Tribe Band of Luiseno Indians in California studied its heath care needs for two years, and then enacted a mandatory group coverage policy for tribal members. “This has led to measurable improvement in the physical health of our tribe. Earlier this year, we opened a new exercise facility that both contributes to and facilitates the health and wellness of our tribal citizens,” testified Mark Macarro, the band’s chairman, before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Friday.

However the IRS asked the tribe to demonstrate how the program was “need” based – or it would consider these taxable benefits.

“It appears to us that the IRS is interpreting ‘need’ as meaning only ‘financial’ need,” Macarro said. “From our perspective, this makes absolutely no sense. The Pechanga government has stepped in where the federal government has fallen short for our people. … Pechanga has decided not to wait on the federal government to fulfill its trust obligation to our people.”

The basic issue is how the IRS interprets its “general welfare” exclusion. Sarah Ingram, the IRS commissioner for Tax Exempt and Government Entities, said there is a difference in the law between those who work for tribes as employers and tribal members. “Where there is no employer involved, the (tax) Code contains no provision that would allow a tribal member who is not a tribal employee to exclude the value of tribally-provided health care coverage.”

There are two ways to fix this mess. Congress could clarify the law (the route the IRS would prefer). Or a “revenue ruling” could easily fix this problem administratively, testified Scott Taylor, a professor of law at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. He cited other examples of such a governmental exclusion, including the Veterans Administration and Medicare. Taylor is an expert and was a professor-in-residence with the IRS.
For once, it seems, there ought to be enough consensus in Washington to force the easy route. This is common sense. The IRS ought to get a call from the White House and the Treasury Secretary and be told to resolve this issue quickly.

But there is another alternative: Those who decry the under-funding of Indian health could come up with real appropriations and make the system whole.

Mark Trahant is the former editor of the editorial page for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He was recently named a Kaiser Media Fellow and will spend the year examining the Indian Health Service and its relevance to the national health reform debate. His regular blog posts on the subject can be found at Trahant is a member of Idaho’s Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

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Exempting Native Americans from the mandate

Mark Trahant | Sep 17, 2009 04:45 AM

There is growing consensus about a key element of health care reform: a requirement that you must buy health insurance. The idea is that the insurance pools would be less expensive if every American were included – especially younger, healthier workers who for a variety of reasons decide not to buy insurance. The reform proposals would require people to sign up for Medicaid, buy subsidized insurance, or purchase a policy at work or on their own.

This would be difficult in Indian Country. Already Indian Country reflects the highest number of Americans who do not sign up for Medicare, the closest thing we have to universal coverage for the elderly (by my count almost a quarter of Native American elderly are not on the program). The story for Medicaid is similar. Moreover in recent studies one of the reasons for the low participation is the notion expressed by many who did not believe they should have to sign up for any program because health care is a treaty obligation of the United States.

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Back to the future: Public Health hospitals

Mark Trahant | Sep 14, 2009 03:17 AM

Seattle-based, the world’s largest online retailer, will move into its new headquarters near Lake Union next year. Then Amazon will leave an old Art Deco building, once known as the U.S. Marine Hospital.

What if we took this empty building and turned it into a hospital? What if we staffed it with federal employees? What kind of health care would that look like?

The answers are in our history. Congress passed a law in 1789 that provided for health care for sick and injured merchant seamen. But the thinking, even then, was broader. Philadelphia faced an extraordinary Yellow Fever outbreak in 1783 that killed more than 4,000 people (out of a population of 37,000). And therefore the primary mission of the new health service was to intercept diseases brought home by sailors returning from sea.

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Vilsack calls for “change”

Felice Pace | Sep 12, 2009 07:50 AM

In his first major speech on forest policy, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack laid out the Obama Administration’s plans for managing national forests and grasslands that total 193 million acres (an area the size of Texas!) much of it in the West. Vilsack also emphasized wildfire management in an era when the size of wildfires and the cost of fighting them are both spiraling upward.

Vilsack also asserted that the Administration’s plan to restore national forests and grasslands would create green jobs.

Here’s the core of what he had to say:

  •           Declining forest health and the effects of our changing climate have resulted in an increasing number of catastrophic wildfires and insect outbreaks. It is time for a change in the way we view and manage America’s forestlands with an eye towards the future. This will require a new approach that engages the American people and stakeholders in conserving and restoring both our National Forests and our privately-owned forests. It is essential that we reconnect Americans across the nation with the natural resources and landscapes that sustain us.

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