First, a quiz: The West is a land of wide spaces, deep forests and infinite skies. It's an easy place to lose track of (a) your way; (b) your mail; (c) billions of dollars in Indian trust funds; (d) 24 million acres of public land; (e) salmon; (f) your career prospects; or (g) all of the above.
The answer is (g). Catching up on the region's news, we realized things we've taken for granted for years are a lot different than we thought they were. For starters, the Associated Press reports that Sacajawea - the Shoshone woman whose profile, pointing Lewis and Clark across Idaho to the Pacific, has inhabited the minds of fourth-graders for generations - may have been just guessing where the explorers should go. "Sacajawea was seeing country as new to her as it was to the captains," according to historian James Ronda.
That deals a blow to the sense of place we've been cultivating for years. And so does this: The federal government has gained 24 million acres of public land since 1964, although no one knows where it came from. Barry Hill of the General Accounting Office told a Senate hearing that the government cannot figure out exactly how it got the land except that it did not buy it. He said the agencies are trying to improve their inventory techniques, reports the Casper Star-Tribune.
So, we imagine, is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The agency lost track of $2.4 billion between 1973 and 1992. That amounts to $1 of every $7 that flowed through the tribal trust funds the agency oversaw during that period.
The money isn't necessarily missing. It's just that the BIA can't account for where it came from or where it went, according to a five-year-long audit. Congress ordered the investigation to figure out how much money should be in BIA's 2,000 tribal accounts, which were set up over the years to handle receipts of tribal income from timber and minerals, water and land claims.
"If this were a private bank trustee, they'd be in jail right now," Dan Press, an attorney for a consortium of tribes, told the Associated Press.
Like many "naturalists", Bob Grothe went to People's Park in Spokane, Wash., last May to take a nap in the nude. Because he was asleep, he didn't obey the park's unspoken law - get dressed when the police arrive. The former substitute teacher was subsequently convicted of lewd conduct, which lumps sunbathers in the same category with people who masturbate in public. Faced with the prospect of never getting a people-oriented job again, Grothe is appealing the conviction.
"How can you be lewd when you're sleeping?" wonders Grothe.
Meanwhile, one of the officers involved in the arrest confessed to the Spokane Spokesman-Review, "To be honest, it was a slow day."
But perhaps it was business as usual at Denver International Airport when Peter Leabo's $7,500 computer met an untimely end in the DIA's notorious baggage system. In its tough, plastic-and-plywood case, the computer had successfully negotiated airports from Europe to Kuala Lumpur. Then it landed at DIA.
"You could have (safely) driven a plane over this case," Leabo told The Denver Post as he regarded the cyber-origami sculpture that once was his computer. "It wouldn't have suffered this much damage if they'd thrown it out of the cargo over Colorado."
The Northwest may be losing its salmon, but "Can Helen, Not Salmon" bumper stickers are proliferating in the region, even on the cars of government employees. The slogan refers to U.S. Rep. Helen Chenoweth, R-Idaho, widely known for her sponsorship of an endangered species salmon bake. "A species goes out of existence every 20 seconds," she recently told The Nation. "Surely a species must come into existence every 20 seconds."
A similar optimism can be found among the can-do town leaders of Columbia Falls, Mont., who are planning to construct a waterfall on a vacant hillside, thereby making the town worthy of its name. Ever since the town's name was changed from Columbia to stop a postal mix-up between it and Columbia, Mo., frustrated tourists have trooped through each summer looking for a waterfall to photograph. Says Steve Stahlbert, the chairman of the Community Pride group that is sponsoring construction of the 40-foot high waterfall: "It's going to be real nice."
Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumpersticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or HCNVIRO@aol.com