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Enjoying the wilderness

Jackie Wheeler | Jun 18, 2012 01:00 AM

Only five days left. Amidst the turmoil of final preparations – checking and re-checking gear, packing, food-shopping – I’m engaging in a little psychological battle with myself regarding the object of all this activity: a 19 day, 16 person, DIY rafting trip on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. For those of us who are “private” boaters (i.e. we use our own boats and equipment and don’t hire professional guides) as well as for those who go on trips with commercial outfitters , “The Grand” is the apex of all U.S. river trips, the longest, most difficult to secure, most challenging and most beautiful adventure of them all. This will be my third private “Grand,” each trip nearly a decade apart (yes, permits are that difficult to get), and the two previous experiences together with hundreds of trips on other western rivers have made me pretty confident that all the logistics involving supplies, safety, and comfort – my role in them, anyway – are well accounted for. So, why the psychological battle?

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Aging mining law handcuffs the American West

Ben Long | Jun 11, 2012 11:00 PM

Two of my favorite western cities, Tucson, Ariz., and Boise, Idaho, share some common blessings and one common curse.

The blessings include lovely mountain backdrops, vibrant universities and increasingly diverse economies.

The shared curse: badly misguided mining claims upstream.

Santa Rita mountainsWhy, in the 21st Century, should communities like Boise and Tucson be shackled to an antiquated federal mining policy dating back to the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant?

I was a newspaper reporter in Boise for a short spell and when I return, I am drawn to the Boise River and its marvelous greenbelt. It’s a rare city where the trout fishing and kayaking are so good within city limits.

Folks in Boise are rightfully concerned about a Canadian company that has proposed a cyanide-leach gold mine upstream from the Boise River. Besides fishing and floating, the Boise provides about a fifth of drinking water for the largest metro area in Idaho. The battle cry there is: the Boise River is more precious than gold.

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Don't be too self-righteous

Jackie Wheeler | Jun 05, 2012 11:00 PM

Many years ago, in an interesting turn of events, I found myself in the same truck (mine) as a famous environmental writer. I can take no personal credit for her presence there; she was speaking that evening at a literary event sponsored by a local college. A good friend of mine was organizing the event and was much occupied with preparations, so he pressed my spouse and me into giving the famed personage a ride from her hotel to the college. Of course, I was flattered at the opportunity to meet her but also a bit flustered, as I usually am around people I admire. As we drove through the outer Phoenix suburbs, the writer commented on all the newly constructed offices and shopping centers we were passing. I replied that the area had seen extensive growth in recent years, and that, unfortunately, some of the particularly lovely foothills desert nearby had been bulldozed in order to accommodate the infrastructure needed by the new residents. At this, the author turned to me and asked, coolly, “how long have you lived here?”

Ouch! I answered her (“since 1965”), but I also felt the sting of the implied rebuke. Somebody had bulldozed some desert to make room for me, too. Point taken. Luckily we arrived at the event soon after, so I didn’t have any more opportunities to put my foot in it.

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Water to the people

Red Lodge | Jun 04, 2012 11:00 PM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

I hadn’t realized until I got an (en masse) email from Senator Mark Udall recently, that we’re celebrating water in Colorado this year. He and Sen. Michael Bennet introduced a resolution in May recognizing 2012 as the “Year of Water.” The declaration piggybacks on governor Hickenlooper’s “Colorado Water 2012” initiative which, among the goals of reminding citizens that water is liquid gold here, is intended to “motivate Coloradans to become proactive participants in Colorado’s water future.”

Colorado river raftIt may not be quite what those politicians had in mind, but two motivated Coloradans have made news recently with controversial proposals to amend the state constitution in a way that would dramatically change water management in the state, valuing public use over private and limiting water diversions that negatively affect public uses. Phil Doe of Littleton and Richard Hamilton of Fairplay have introduced Public Trust Initiatives #3 and #45.

The first measure would apply the common-law doctrine of “public trust” to water rights, and make “public ownership of such water legally superior to water rights, contracts, and property law.” Initiative 3 would also grant unrestricted public access to natural streams and their banks.

The second measure proposes to amend Article XVI, Section 6 of the state constitution, which talks about the diversion of un-appropriated waters of natural streams. Initiative 45 seeks to limit, and possibly prohibit, stream diversions that would “irreparably harm the public ownership interest in water.” 

In April, the Colorado Supreme Court cleared the way for the initiatives to proceed and, two weeks ago, the Colorado Secretary of State posted the final forms for Doe and Hamilton to be able to begin collecting signatures. In order for them to appear on the November ballot, each initiative must wrangle 86,000 valid signatures by August 6. Those are big hurdles to clear, but even the discussion around the measures merits some examination.

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Rants from the Hill: Sorry, Utah

Michael Branch | Jun 03, 2012 06:00 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 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.

Out here in the high elevation desert of Silver Hills the country is rough and remote. Much of it is so inaccessible that the common detritus of the dominant endemic species, Hillbillicus nevadensis (var. redneckii), is nowhere to be seen. So while the rutted, dusty BLM roads in the sage-filled valley bottoms are beribboned with spent shell casings, Coors light bottles, and empty cans of chew, there’s simply no easy way to litter the steep, rocky high country. There is only one unfortunate exception to this rule, and that is when trash is airlifted into these isolated mountains and canyons in the form of balloons. I’ve picked up so many trashed balloons over the years that I find myself wondering what in hell is so jolly about California, which is the nearby, upwind place where all this aerial trash originates. But maybe the prevalence of balloons in the otherwise litter-free high desert shouldn’t surprise me, since millions of balloons are released in the U.S. each year. We release balloons at graduation celebrations, birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, even funerals. There is in fact a company called Eternal Ascent that will, for $1,500, load your ashes into a balloon and float them away. Balloon launches for a pet’s ashes cost only $600, though, so if I go this route I’m going to advise my family to say that I was a Saint Bernard.

The moment a balloon is released it becomes trash, and this trash can cover some serious ground. A sixteen-inch diameter, helium-filled latex toy balloon will float for 24 to 36 hours, and if released can cover hundreds of miles while climbing to an altitude of 25,000 feet, where it freezes, explodes, and rains down to earth in the form of garbage, which some desert rat like me then has to tote home in his backpack. And while latex balloons will eventually biodegrade, the same is not true of metalized nylon balloons, which become a more or less permanent feature of the natural environment. That’s the downside of these so-called foil balloons. The upside is that they’re really shiny. Because they conduct electricity, metalized balloons also cause hundreds of blackouts in the U.S. each year by short-circuiting power lines, which perhaps suggests the vulnerability of the grid. If Cactus Ed Abbey were alive today he might enjoy the idea that the elaborate infrastructure of post-industrial capitalism can be brought down by a single, drifting, metalized Mickey Mouse. Frog  balloonSo the next time you release a balloon, don’t think of it as a celebratory symbol of freedom. Think of it as trash. You should also think of it as you would a message in a bottle, because someday, somewhere, there’s a chance that somebody will have to read whatever unimaginative nonsense is on your balloon. Given this rare opportunity to communicate across time and space, please try to come up with something more clever than the message on the last foil balloon I recovered out here: “Hoppy Birthday.”

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Arizona, unpredictable as always

Jackie Wheeler | May 23, 2012 02:00 AM

This month, all U.S. citizens have cause to celebrate: Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed Senate bill 1332, which authorized the state to seize federal lands within its borders. Of course the whole notion was nuts, not to mention unconstitutional – although this didn’t prevent Utah governor Herbert from signing a similar bill awhile back – and Brewer deserves some credit for putting a stop to it.

By now, you may be thinking, that Jan Brewer? The Jan Brewer of the deer-in-the-headlights debate freeze-up and the finger-wagging airport tantrum directed at President Obama? Yes, that one. Here in Arizona, we’ve been trying to figure her out for awhile now, with little success. She’s signed some highly controversial pieces of legislation, such as the infamous anti-immigration SB 1070, and vetoed others, such as recent “bring-your-gun-anywhere-you-please” attempts.


Likewise, her record on public lands is a head scratcher. The federal government isn’t always the best manager of its (our) land holdings, but they’re certainly preferable to some of the schemers and incompetents who run this state, as I noted in this blog last month, and the recent veto proves that Brewer can sometimes have a cool head when she needs to. Unfortunately, the emphasis here is on “sometimes.”

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Make anglers allies for endangered species

Ben Long | May 16, 2012 11:00 PM

The prism of clear river water can distort and magnify the size of a fish, an effect amplified by adrenaline and nostalgia. Still, I remember one fish big enough to shake my whole view of the world.

 I was of that tender age when one believes one’s father to be capable of anything except failure. Dad and I were camping along a headwater tributary of Idaho’s Clearwater River.

The trout rose from the shadows of the glassy waters, beyond reach of my childlike casts. It dashed after my dad’s spinner, but never struck. My mind’s eye sees that fish flashing bright and infuriating until the rich evening light faded to dark.

The fish made my old man mortal. That was my introduction to a bull trout, apex predator of the Columbia River Basin.Montana bull trout

 Today, I live in the stronghold of the bull trout – the Kootenai and Flathead Drainages of western Montana. I’ve watched as the legendary run from Flathead Lake crashed, and another at Swan Lake drifts into trouble. I’ve also seen the species go from obscurity to headlines when it was listed under the Endangered Species Act.

Still, in Montana waters where the species is holding its own, one may catch -- and even keep and eat -- bull trout. I believe that’s a good thing, and shows the inherent flexibility of the Endangered Species Act.

It surprises many that fishermen are still allowed to pursue bull trout under the Endangered Species Act, that notorious “atomic sledgehammer” of a law.

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Treaty tribes dedicate final replacement fishing site

Terri Hansen | May 15, 2012 11:00 PM

DALLESPORT, Wash. – On April 25, 2012, representatives from four tribes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Army Corps of Engineers all stood by the Columbia River to mark the end of a construction project both useful and symbolic. It was the completion of the 31st -- and final -- fishing access site on the river, giving tribes the ability to use their traditional fishing grounds and village sites, which they had lost access to due to dams on the river.

Prayer site dedicationThe moment harkened back to another gathering, that of the Bonneville Dam’s fiftieth anniversary in 1987, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration threw a big celebration called, “Roll on, Columbia,” immortalized earlier in Woody Guthrie’s ballad about the dam.

Dignitaries arrived from near and far. Hundreds joined the VIPs to celebrate the first of eight federal dams on the Columbia/Snake river system dedicated Sept. 28, 1937. Somehow the Corps and the BPA forgot to invite the Indians displaced by the hydroelectric power.

They came anyway.

But the four Columbia River treaty tribes, the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce didn’t join the revelers. Instead they set up their tee pees and an oversized drum on the Washington side of the project and took up a 50-hour vigil, mourning lost salmon, and their river way of life.

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Debate over what makes a road rages on in Utah

Red Lodge | May 15, 2012 07:00 AM

By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

This spring, to fulfill a friend’s birthday wish, we traveled from Colorado into Utah, dropped south off of I-70 near Green River on Utah Highway 24, and drove about 30 miles before leaving the pavement. Our destination was the West Rim trailhead in the Horseshoe Canyon Unit of Canyonlands National Park. To get there we bumped and lurched over 30 miles of washboard dirt road, the final few miles of which reminded me of my last dentist appointment. 

Walking into Horseshoe CanyonOnce parked, we hoofed it across the benchlands and over slickrock domes, weaving around pinyon and juniper, then dropped about 750 feet down into the canyon on an old stock trail. From there, we trudged along the sandy wash bottom for miles to the Great Gallery, an astonishing panel of Native American pictographs and petroglyphs unlike anything I’d ever seen. One large, ethereal figure, painstakingly painted on the Navajo sandstone and standing nearly eight feet high, raises goosebumps in my recollection.

It took some effort to reach the Great Gallery and we saw just a handful of people over several hours, one of whom was a national park ranger. Its remoteness, and the quiet that enables introspection there, is part of what makes a visit to Horseshoe Canyon an uncommon and moving experience. 

But a debate that’s spanned a decade in Utah, and may soon come to a head, could make places like Horseshoe Canyon more accessible to the masses by leveling, widening and/or paving historic “highways.” Local government argues it’s a necessity, but wilderness watchers are worried that fragile desert ecosystems and archaeological treasures are at risk.

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Strip mining kitty litter

Jackie Wheeler | May 08, 2012 11:00 PM

So there’s this enduring stereotype about English teachers. We like cats. In my experience, it’s mostly true – among my colleagues (the nice ones anyway), a reliable conversation topic is always the latest amusing cat story/photo. There are other stereotypes also: yes, we do Tweet in complete sentences. But for the purposes of this post, I’m sticking with the cats. If you’re not a cat person or English teacher, please bear with me; I promise there are some Western environmental implications that will emerge shortly.   

First, the background: one of my earliest posts for High Country News, in October, 2010, was a narrative about the death of my outdoor cat Finley and a reflection on the ethics of keeping cats outdoors, given their less-than-ideal impact on the environment. While it was rather far afield from my assignment at the time to write about environmental justice (the human variety), the HCN editors were kind enough to run it, and it received quite a lot of thoughtful comments. The commenters’ remarks, taken as a whole, represent a snapshot of what is to this day a lively debate about cats’ actual impact on birds and other fauna. Some statistics project an astronomical figure; others question those numbers. Still, if you’ve seen little Muffin with a terrified, thrashing hummingbird in his mouth, it’s not a pleasant sight.

Anyway, this begs the question: does keeping kitty indoors resolve all green concerns? If you’ve been following the cat litter debate (I confess I hadn’t been), you know that the answer is no.

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