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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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Indian Country & health care reform

Mark Trahant | Sep 11, 2009 08:03 AM

Will ‘poor old grandma’ redefine this debate?

You hear a lot about grandma now that Congress is back to work on health care reform legislation.

“Poor old grandma” is a reason opponents say they will fight health care reform. Grandma will lose services, her Medicare will be less than it is, and some bureaucrat far away will decide when it’s her time to die.

This is not the first time this debate has surfaced. In the 1960s opponents of Medicare used the phrase “poor old grandma” to warn that the legislation would rob elderly of their Social Security or provide insufficient care. They were wrong, of course. Medicare has probably become the most popular government program ever. These days it’s common to speak as if Medicare is the universal coverage for American elderly. (Medicare is for the elderly and disabled, Medicaid is partnership with the states aimed at some people with low-income.)

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Phenology and the Mojave Desert

Seth Shteir | Sep 10, 2009 03:25 AM

Last spring I found myself transfixed by the brilliant crimson petals of a Mojave mound cactus and the seemingly endless procession of bee pollinators that crept into its petals.  Flowers and fruit are pleasing to the eye, so it’s no wonder that in the Mojave Desert they attract bees and also many wildflower enthusiasts.  But it’s important to remember those flowers, insect pollinators and the fruits and seeds they ultimately produce are far more than just aesthetic; they’re an essential part of plant reproduction.

The life cycle of plants and its relationship to the birds, bees, and other animals has fascinated United States Geological Survey Scientist Kathryn Thomas for many years.  Thomas, an ecologist with the USGS, is interested in phenology, the timing of life history events in plants and animals.  In plants it’s when flowers germinate, pollinators arrive, fruit appears and even the time of year herbivores eat the plant.

“People have been paying attention to phenology since the caveman," says Thomas, who points out that scientists, naturalists and even farmers have observed this type of data for centuries.  But like with so many natural phenomena, a seemingly simple question like “What time of year do plants flower and produce fruit?”  has a complex answer.  For example, many plants in the Mojave Desert flower in response to temperature and precipitation, and some plants depend on insect pollinators for successful reproduction. 

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Ray Ring's "Affirmative actions"

Felice Pace | Sep 03, 2009 07:35 AM

In his recent HCN report “Affirmative Actions” (August 17 edition), Ray Ring makes this statement:        Obama’s array of appointees mirrors the percentages of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in our society. More than anything, these three controversial appointments highlight the (environmental) movement’s chronic failure to recruit minorities into its top echelon.

Over almost 40 years in the Environmental Movement I too have noticed the lack of minority representation in the "top echelons" of large national environmental organizations. Here's my perspective on why this has been and remains the case today.

I do not believe there is a lack of minority involvement in the Environmental Movement as a whole. For example, there are a host of Indigenous (Native) American environmental organizations in this country including, for example, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the California Indian Environmental Alliance, the Wind River Alliance and the Seventh Generation Fund (SGF).  SGF itself raises funds for an array of grassroots Indigenous environmental projects on and off reservations throughout the Americas. Likewise, there are a variety of environmental justice and action projects and organizations based in other “communities of color” throughout the US.

But a leader from these ranks rarely if ever lands a top job in the Environmental Establishment – the large corporate organizations which soak up the bulk of funding from environmental foundations and large donors. I do not think this has anything to do with racial or ethnic bias or discrimination but rather that it has much to do with class – a topic which is typically self-censored in explanations of US social phenomena.

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Big Horn Betrayal | Sep 03, 2009 02:12 AM

By Allen M. Jones, NewWest.Net Guest Writer, 8-31-09

I like to hunt, and I like to fish, and I like to do them in good conscience. This means, first and foremost, that I do my best to obey the rule of law, toe the line in the interests of, among other things, preserving the resource. As a hunter and fisherman, I want people to think well of me. I bristle at stereotypes, I wince at photos of 300 pound rednecks on ATVs proudly holding up forkhorns they shot under a jacklight. Aware of the public relations disaster that is too often the image of hunters viz the city folk, I dig it when the bad guys get their comeuppance.

I should be pleased, then, to see a few more ne’er-do-wells taken off the playing field in Montana.

Charges were recently filed in state district court against James Reed (Rexberg, Idaho), Blake Trangmoe (Glendive) and John Lewton (Whitehall). Lewton received the majority of the charges, including felony unlawful sale of a game animal, felony unlawful possession of a game animal, two misdemeanor counts of hunting without landowner permission, and a misdemeanor count of outfitting without a license.

Indeed, I should be pleased to see these guys caught. But… 

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