Yesterday my friend C. crossed into Nogales to help deported immigrants deal with their staggering doses of bad luck. A river runner and wilderness guide, she possesses advanced first-aid skills that come in handy along the border.
While coyotes and drug runners circled the open-air humanitarian aid station looking for new recruits, C. wrapped ankle sprains and bandaged mangled feet. Homeland Security busses dumped loads of newly-captured migrants. Scared newcomers arrived from the south, gearing up for their first shots at el norte.
While she worked, C. listened to stories: Silvio Rodriguez Garcia (not his real name), a 56-year-old farmhand, gave up his attempt to cross when the blisters became too painful; a captured five year-old girl was refused cough medicine by the Border Patrol (“Get some in Mexico,” agents told the parents.). There were tales of rape, and of migrants forced at gunpoint to haul drugs.
C. also learned about “lateral repatriation” a recent Homeland Security innovation where migrants are deported to cities far distant from where they originally crossed— making it harder for them to reconnect with their group or their original smuggler. Many families are split up this way.
C. came back from Nogales bleary-eyed and angry. The migrants, she said, are hardly seen as human: “The coyotes call themselves polleros now: ‘chicken herders’. And if the migrants make it to this country they are called ‘aliens’. So when do they get to be people?” Before I could think of an answer, she crawled into the back of her pickup truck and fell asleep.
Today is better. It’s the third day of spring. We are walking in a rocky wash just east of Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge, about 10 miles north of the border. The morning is warm but not hot. A breeze tousles the new cottonwood leaves, and penstemons brighten the stream banks with splashes of magenta.
“This is the kind of place I would come to for a backpacking trip,” C. says. “Except that it’s like a war zone.”
The U.S.-Mexico border is very much like a war zone, with guard stations, helicopter patrols, electronic surveillance towers, and a 670-mile-long fence (price tag: $500 million). And lots of people die out here. Statistics on migrant deaths vary, so take your pick: Homeland Security recorded 1,058 deaths from 2001-2007; humanitarian groups put the number since 1994 at 5,000. Many more are not accounted for.
This has prompted growing numbers of outdoor-savvy types like C. to take their backpacks and their backcountry skills to the borderlands, where they hope to keep people alive.
Today we are ground-truthing a map of migrant trails put together by a group called No More Deaths. Our daypacks contain extra food, medical gear, clean socks, and several gallon jugs of water.
This hike will never make a Backpacker top-ten list. But for people like C., it offers distinct satisfactions: not just natural beauty or physical challenge, but a sense of purpose.
“I do this,” she says, “because it is not fair. If I were alone in the desert, I would want to know that somebody here cared.”
C. has guided for 20 years in Alaska and Grand Canyon, but insists that the migrants could out-walk her. “They go four miles an hour, all night. Three or four days without food ...”
People do what they have to, I say.
Alejandro is doing what he has to. He appears at the mouth of the side canyon silently, like a cloud shadow. Dressed in shredded black jeans, he carries a tiny daypack and a half-liter plastic water bottle with no top. His dark face is round and wary. He is limping.
Somos amigos, we say. Tenemos agua y comida. His face relaxes.
While we share food and water, we learn that Alejandro is 18 and has been walking for three days. He speaks no English, but has an aunt in a place called Delaware, where he hopes to find work. He has a wife in Mexico City, and a nine-month-old son named Ernesto.
When Alejandro’s right boot comes off, the sock is bloody. C. goes to work, bathing the foot, patching raw, thumb-sized blisters. The kid points to a nearby ridgeline, where his group waits; he is struggling to keep up. C. warns him about the checkpoints and shows him a map. It is 20 miles to Interstate 19, and 2,500 more to that place called Delaware. Alejandro nods gravely. C. gives him a hug before he walks away.
People do what they have to.
Summer is in full swing on the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch—the birds are chirping, the mosquitoes are plentiful, the hay is cut, and the cattle are grazing. Since hiring on in June as the Clark Fork Coalition’s Ranchlands Program Manager, I’ve had a chance to get a feel for the day-to-day operation of the ranch, and explore the role that this property can play in the cleanup and restoration of the upper Clark Fork River.
First, a bit of background: In 2005, with the help of two conservation partners, the C.F.C. purchased the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch. The property is located on the East side of Interstate-90, between the towns of Racetrack and Galen. It’s a 2,300-acre working cattle ranch, and we own around 140 Red Angus cow-calf pairs. Our deeded land includes more than three miles of the Clark Fork River, a large chunk of the floodplain, a tributary stream, and several upland pastures.
Out here it’s impossible to forget about the toxic legacy of mining and the impending Superfund cleanup of the river corridor for more than a few minutes. To the South, the relic smokestack of the Anaconda smelter pokes up toward the mountains like a massive, black exclamation point. From high spots on the property, you can see enormous, dusty flats sprawling outward from the smelter. Walk through the dense willows that grow along our stretch of the Clark Fork, and you’ll encounter barren clearings where the soils are so loaded with Arsenic and heavy metals that nothing grows. Standing in the middle of one of these slickens, it’s clear that this landscape has been profoundly and thoroughly damaged, and that returning the river to pristine conditions will take a huge amount of work.
Fortunately, that work is about to begin, and, given our position at the upper end of the river, we’ll be one of the first properties in line for cleanup. In July, I got the chance to meet with Joel Chavez and Brian Bartkowiak of the Department of Environmental Quality to discuss the way remediation and restoration will happen on our property. We walked the river together, swatting bugs, crashing through willow thickets and finding an endless succession of slickens, eroded banks, and impacted soils.
The worst spots—the places where exposed mine tailings cover the surface of the ground—will be removed, trucked away and replaced with clean soil. In other, less contaminated zones, the soil will be treated in situ. On the D.C.C.R., this will mean tilling amendments like lime into the toxic dirt. Throughout the riparian corridor, the cleanup effort will include re-vegetation of disturbed and impacted soils, as well as a concerted effort to improve the health and stability of the riverbanks.
Although we’re making progress toward on-the-ground cleanup, and are doing everything in our power to keep the process moving forward throughout the Deer Lodge Valley, it’s clear that we’ve still got a while to wait before heavy equipment starts rolling across the Dry Cottonwood Creek Ranch. The latest timeline calls for soil sampling to occur on the ranch in the fall of 2009 or the spring of 2010, with the actual cleanup beginning no earlier than summer 2010.
This blog will chronicle the Superfund cleanup process, as well as my attempts to refine our agricultural practices on the ranch. It will focus a lens on what it means to serve as a steward to a badly beaten landscape. I hope you’ll read along.
Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at www.clarkfork.org.
I can still remember attending Grange suppers when I was a kid. Back then -- that would be three decades or more ago -- Grange halls were pretty ubiquitous in the rural West, especially farming country. They were usually simple buildings, almost stark; places where far-flung farmers could get together for dinners and to catch up with one another and discuss issues that were important to the general community.
We probably won't be serving any real food here at HCN's new blog, The Grange. But we will have plenty of tasty morsels for your perusal. This will be the virtual gathering place for members of the High Country News community of Western thinkers, writers, activists and others; a place where they can share their thoughts and views of the West and its issues, and where you can join the conversation. The Goat blog will be a place for HCN editors, staff and contributing editors to share their thoughts and to keep you updated on breaking news.
Some of the voices will be familiar. Felice Pace and Michael Wolcott -- currently writing provocative and touching pieces on the Goat blog -- will gather here on a regular basis. We also have Bryce Andrews and the Clark Fork Coalition lined up for this spot, along with guest bloggers from NewWest.net. And more are on their way.
If you're interested in becoming a guest contributor on the Grange, e-mail HCN's editor Jonathan Thompson, jonathan at hcn.org, for more details.