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Rants from the Hill: Harvesting the Desert Shoe Tree

Michael Branch | Oct 01, 2012 01:00 AM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

Rants from the Hill is now a FREE podcast! Listen to an audio performance of this essay, here.  You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or through Feedburner for use in another podcast reader.

On the west side of my home mountain, whose rocky crest delineates the invisible line separating the Silver and Golden states, there is a curiosity that has long puzzled and charmed me. Out along a lonely stretch of two-lane not far from Hallelujah Junction—so named because it is the only place in this long valley where we desert rats can load up on gasoline, water, and whiskey—there stands a strikingly tall and graceful Utah juniper. This unusual tree rises in a grand, angular gesture from a sandy island of sage and rabbit brush, without another tree in sight. Its height, open structure, and twisting musculature distinguish it from the low, bushy junipers up and down the valley, making it a kind of natural monument. Any southbounder rolling in from the Lassen lavalands can feel in the dark just where this tree stands: past Red Rock canyon, beyond the mule deer migration tunnels, not far from the Hallelujah resupply. But what makes this tree so special is something a good bit stranger: it is festooned with hundreds of pairs of shoes.


Girls pointing at shoe tree

I have long wondered why the desert shoe tree possesses such monumental appeal. How did this tree become a celebrated landmark, one we always stop at even though we aren’t sure why? Why do my young daughters consider it such a treat to visit the tree? Why don’t we see the shoe tree as an abomination, a site of litter at best, and desecration at worst? One possibility is that, excepting the road itself, the desert shoe tree is the only sign of human culture along this remote stretch of the Fremont Highway. Perhaps the loneliness we feel out on the empty road is diminished by this strange reminder that we aren’t as alone as this valley’s isolation leads us to believe. Or maybe it’s pure novelty that attracts us. If every tree in the valley were full of shoes, would we instead pull over to photograph the one tree that lacked them? Sometimes it seems to me the tree represents a kind of freedom, an unburdening that occurs when we not only throw something away, but throw it with all our might, flinging some discarded fragment of our lives away forever. Or are we compelled by the pure aesthetic beauty of the form: a giant, graceful, organic structure, etched against the desert sky, with hundreds of parti-colored blossoms dangling and twirling in the sweep of Washoe Zephyr? Or do we simply crave the thrill of doing something so playful, so unfettered? Wouldn’t it be more responsible to keep those shoes a little longer, or give them to someone less fortunate? Absolutely. And that is why we bust a gut trying to sling them into the very highest outstretched branches.

Of one thing, however, I’m absolutely certain. These shoes tell stories. Some do so literally, because their hurlers have inscribed them with a dizzying variety of names, dates, messages, and odd pearls of wisdom. My daughters notice that “Jenny” has explained on the bottom of her flip flops that she is on her way home to Portland from a fantastic week in Yosemite. “William” has shed an expensive pair of wingtips, leaving a note on the sole to tell us that he has just married “Maria” up in Feather River country. The recent date on a low-hanging baby shoe celebrates the birth of “Cezar,” while a pair of deck shoes whose rubber soul is inscribed “For Great Grandma” may commemorate a passage in the other direction. And here we discover a pair of dangling boots fully annotated with their story. They were worn in a faraway warzone by “Ansaldo,” who is at last home safely to the western Great Basin, and who reminds passersby that “Freedom is Not Free.” Welcome home, Ansaldo, wherever and whoever you are.Ansaldo's army boots

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GOP risks much with its zeal to sell public estate

Ben Long | Sep 26, 2012 10:55 PM

The Republican Party has formally embraced a policy to sell off America’s chunks of our public lands. That’s likely to prove as welcome as a hornet in a pair of swimming trunks.generic for sale sign

The GOP 2012 Party Platform espouses a purely market-driven exploitation of natural resources, as opposed to the traditional American system that embraces both the free market and public ownership. The Republicans turned their backs on Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and are now heaping more sod on his grave with a national platform that reads:

Experience has shown that, in caring for the land and water, private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship, while the worst instances of environmental degradation have occurred under government control.”  [Emphasis mine.]

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Jaguar versus the copper mine

Red Lodge | Sep 17, 2012 10:55 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

There’s an extraordinary 70,000-square-mile region that encompasses part of southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and northwestern Mexico. This area, called the Sky Islands, is characterized by forested mountain ranges divided by desert or grassland valleys. 

Santa Rita mountainsBecause of the topographic, climatic and biological complexity of this zone, the Sky Islands harbor some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. Over half of all North American bird species use the area, as do 104 mammal species and 3,000 plant species. Four species listed as candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act live there, including the desert tortoise and western yellow-billed cuckoo, as do nine species listed as threatened or endangered under the ESA including the ocelot and the jaguar (more news on this cat later in this post). 

Roughly 30 miles south of Tucson, smack in the middle of the Santa Rita Mountains portion of the Sky Islands is where a Canadian company, Augusta Resource, would like to blast a 6,000 to 6,500-foot-wide and 1,800 to 2,900-foot-deep hole in the ground. 

According to the draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) done by the U.S. Forest Service  on the open pit mine proposal, Augusta Resource (or Rosemont Copper, as its subsidiary is known here) plans to excavate 550 million tons of ore annually of copper, molybdenum and silver. The Rosemont Mine would also unearth 1,228 million tons of waste rock per year, over its estimated 20-year life span. 

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Enviros worry about Utah tar sands water pollution

InsideClimateNews | Sep 13, 2012 11:00 PM

By David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News

The debate over whether oil sands mining should be allowed in Utah inched forward this week when an environmental group and the company that wants to open the mine both filed papers responding to a judge's recent ruling on whether water resources will be adequately protected.

Administrative Law Judge Sandra Allen ruled on Aug. 28 that the Utah Division of Water Quality acted legally when it decided that U.S. Oil Sands Inc. should not have to conduct water monitoring or obtain a pollution permit to begin mining on Utah's Colorado plateau, an arid region dotted with oil and gas wells and used by hikers and hunters.

PR SpringsOn Wednesday Living Rivers, a Moab, Utah-based environmental organization, submitted a 22-page brief arguing that the judge erred when she determined that the only water deserving of protection is found in deep aquifers and that there is so little water close to the surface that it does not qualify for protection under Utah law.

Rob Dubuc, a staff attorney for Western Resource Advocates, which is supporting Living Rivers' efforts to halt the project, said all that's needed to settle the issue is to look around the mine site and the entire Colorado plateau.

"What you see—the wildlife, the grass, the brush—means there has to be water," Dubuc said. "There is nothing in the statutes that talks about how much water, just that all water must be protected."

U.S. Oil Sands also filed a brief on Wednesday—supporting the judge's decision. The company plans to begin mining its first 213-acre site in 2014.

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Antibacterial soaps in the backcountry

jackiewheeler | Sep 12, 2012 06:00 AM

I try not to be one of those people who buy into every alarmist headline about how common products will poison me. Over the years, consumer safety scares have come and gone with predictable regularity. Eggs were forbidden cholesterol-bombs for a while. Caffeine was blamed for just about every possible malady, and then (at least partially) exonerated. And diet soda takes a new hit every few weeks, it seems. 

With guarded skepticism, then, I’ve been following the long-lived debate over another product: antibacterial sanitizers and soaps. Their popularity was reinforced to me last month on a Grand Canyon river trip. Official recommendations for avoiding the Norovirus outbreak that was circulating among some groups involved lots of hand sanitizing. Hand sanitizer cloudThe common denominators in many sanitizing products and soaps are the compounds triclosan or triclocarban, which have been in use since the mid-twentieth century in a wide range of consumer and industrial products. However, the 1990s saw an increase in development and marketing of antibacterial soaps and hygiene products. Soon after, disturbing reports about possible negative health effects, including hormone disruption, began surfacing, as well as questions about whether such products were any more effective than ordinary soap. These reports were well publicized. Around the same time, however, outbreaks of scary epidemics such as bird flu fueled hyperawareness of cleanliness. Hand sanitizer dispensers showed up everywhere. Most K-12 teachers I know keep large containers of the stuff in their classrooms. 

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Pesticides and salmon: It ain't about the fish

Ben Long | Sep 10, 2012 11:00 PM

Ask folks what is the most pressing environmental issue facing America and they’re most likely to say: Water. Protect the water.

So shame on Beltway lobbyists taking apart the legal framework we’ve built to protect our water and the species that depend on it. After all, those species include human beings.

King salmon caught off Alaska (C) Ben Long

See the photo here? That’s a king salmon caught by my Norwegian cousin Ole (hoisting the fish) and my dad (grinning next to him.) I’d try to describe how good that fish tasted, grilled that evening on the shore of Kechemak Bay, but I could not do it justice.

The problems salmon face because of dams and overfishing are well known. But another issue has received less press. Salmon are excellent “indicators” of clean water, the proverbial canary in a coalmine with gills.

Recently, scientists have noticed that even streams that look healthy can be loaded with pesticides from wind drift and runoff.

Pesticides do important work. We use them to control insects that spread disease and more efficiently grow food. But they can be bad news in the wrong places.

According to scientists like John Stark of Washington State University, many streams have become pesticide “soups.” Once in the water, these pesticides mix into super-concoctions, sometimes 100 times more toxic than the original chemicals alone.

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Rinella aims for the impossible, scores a hit

Ben Long | Sep 04, 2012 11:00 PM

Book Review:
Meat Eater, Adventures from the life of an American Hunter
By Steven Rinella
231 pages; Spiegel & Grau. 2012

Periodically, an outdoor writer aims for the impossible: to explain the why of modern hunting, as opposed to producing just another “how to” book.

The task is impossible because the motivations behind hunting are as individual as each hunter and go deep into the human psyche.

Most writers wilt at the challenge. Exceptions include Jose Ortega y Gasset, Ernest Hemingway, Tom McGuane and David Petersen. Put Steven Rinella’s new title, Meat Eater, on the same shelf as the classics.

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Rants from the Hill: Pleistocene rewilding

Michael Branch | Sep 02, 2012 11:00 PM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

Rants from the Hill is now a FREE podcast! Listen to an audio performance of this essay, here.  You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or through Feedburner for use in another podcast reader.

In a 2006 article [PDF] in The American Naturalist, a small herd of perfectly respectable conservation biologists advocates a bold ecological restoration project they call “Pleistocene Rewilding.” The concept itself is outrageously wild. First of all, “rewilding” is the process of reintroducing species to ecosystems from which they have been extirpated—usually by that big bully, Homo Notsosapiens. Think wolves in Yellowstone. Pleistocene rewilding, by contrast, is the incredible idea that we can enhance ecosystem health by reintroducing many of the large mammals that were driven to extinction between 10,000 and 13,000 years ago. The so-called “pre-Columbian benchmark” of 1492 is the commonly used target for restoration efforts. To achieve this benchmark we just figure out how the world looked on the day Chris Columbus made landfall—say, at about cocktail hour—and then restore North American ecosystems to that condition by extirpating exotic species, reintroducing natives, and rehabilitating habitat. It isn’t easy to do, but at least it’s easy to understand.

Then along come these provocative Pleistocene Rewildatators, who ask why we’re so stuck on 1492. In fact, it was about 13,000 years ago that humans showed up in North America, where they wasted no time poking spears into everything that moved—a habit that probably contributed to the disappearance of large mammals. And the mass extinction of megafauna during the Pleistocene—along with a secondary wave of extinctions resulting from the disappearance of those keystone species—caused severe damage to the fabric of North American ecosystems, which have been slowly fraying and unraveling ever since. Since the fossil record gives us a pretty good idea of what beasts roamed here 13,000 years ago, before the arrival of human hunters, why not select an ecological restoration benchmark that is closer to Pleistocene cocktail hour? Why not acknowledge that North American ecosystems are full of holes—ecological niches that have gone unoccupied for 10,000 years—and then do our best to fill those holes by reintroducing large mammals?

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Hope on eight legs

Red Lodge | Aug 31, 2012 02:05 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

Sometimes when I grow weary of news of natural disasters, wars and political squabbling, I flirt with the idea of creating a Great News Network (GNN) which only reports positive events. Effervescent anchorpeople with gleaming smiles would talk of ceasefires, people and pets rescued from peril, Rover landings, that sort of thing.

A story I saw recently in Scientific American would make the cut for GNN. Accompanied by a huge, hair-raising image of a yellow-orange, clawed spider, the article gleefully announces the discovery of the creepy-crawly, previously unknown to science, in a cave in southern Oregon.

Trogloraptor spider

An amateur biologist, who also happens to be a Deschutes County deputy sheriff, was poking around the dark recesses near Grants Pass when he found the Trogloraptor, or “cave robber.” The remarkable find marks a new family, genus and species in the spider family tree—a rarity in science. Since then, similar spiders have been documented in the dim, damp old-growth forest of the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park. Kudos to those plucky folks who went in search of the sizable, battle-ready arachnid clinging in darkness to its tacky web.

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Reviewing how native peoples will deal with climate change

Terri Hansen | Aug 24, 2012 05:00 AM

Editors Note: This piece is cross posted from Mother Earth Journal, where reporter Terri Hansen writes about indigenous people and the environment.

Extreme weather events forced an awareness of urgent climate disruptions this year, with July 2012 being the hottest month on record – hotter even than the Dust Bowl’s July 1936.The science tells us climate changes would be abrupt and include extreme weather events. The book, Asserting Native Resilience – Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis, issued June 1, 2012, couldn’t be more timely. In the book’s introduction editors Zoltán Grossman and Alan Parker tell us, “Climate change is already here.”

Native Resilience book coverGrossman, a professor of Geography and Native American and World Indigenous Peoples Studies at The Evergreen State College (TESC) in Olympia, Wash., and Parker, a Chippewa Cree tribal citizen and Professor of Advanced Studies in Tribal Governments, and executive director of the Northwest Indian Applied Research Institute at TESC, write, “The people of the world, and especially Native communities, no longer have five to 10 years to begin planning. We must begin today!

The editors maintain, “Indigenous nations are on the front line of the climate crisis. With cultures and economies among the most vulnerable to climate-related catastrophes, Native peoples are developing twenty-first century responses to climate change that serve as a model for Native and non-Native communities alike.” Climate change threatens health, culture, livelihoods, species migration and traditional foods for place-based communities, the availability of fresh water, and oceans with increasing acidity (think of it as turning into a cola drink).

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