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for people who care about the West

It's March and all is well, right?

 

As I write this in March, it's raining. A moist flow has set in, and we're looking forward to a spring full of wildflowers: Indian paint brush, sego lilies, penstemon. It's a wet cycle in the high desert of southern Utah. Not only is it raining, we've had more snow this winter than we've seen in 16 years.

It seems that the seasons are walking in step, and everything's normal. Global warming? Actually, it's rather cool right now. But don't joke about that issue with Utah State Rep. Mike Noel; he's said that all the fuss about global climate change and our contribution to it is part of a conspiracy. Our Kane County commissioners don't believe in it either; all support the proposed Alton coal strip mine in Kane County just southwest of Bryce Canyon.

We live in Kanab, the seat of Kane County's government. Our town's motto is, "Kanab: a Western Classic." What is classic is the Western reliance on resource extraction as an economic solution, even though historically, it has meant a boom-and-bust situation with most of the gain going to the mining corporations.

The commissioners' belief that natural resources are the key to our economic future has never been fulfilled here; in fact, it was tourism that transformed the subsistence economy. In 1930, a tunnel was bored through Navajo sandstone in order to build a road linking Zion National Park with the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Just like that, Kanab became the midpoint for the region's tourism. Since then, tourism has been the economic mainstay, even though many locals continue to insist that coal can transform Kane County into Saudi Arabia.

When I worked for the Park Service at the Grand Canyon, I regularly walked out along the trail to Bright Angel Point on the North Rim, either leading a group on a geology walk or just by myself. I looked for fossils in the Kaibab limestone, the top layer that was a seafloor in Permian times. If you looked closely enough, you saw the traces of an abundance of sea life -- sponges, sea lilies, brachiopods -- preserved in the rock. If you only looked out into the canyon -- certainly a majestic view -- you missed that intimate discovery.

The Permian Period of some 250 million years ago is known for encompassing the largest extinction of life that ever happened on our planet. Almost everything living was killed off, and it took 50 million years before an equivalent diversity and density of species was restored. The Permian extinction is now thought to have been propelled by massive burning from enormous magma flows. They caused the tundra to burn, resulting in huge emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere and then into oceans. It was a planet-altering event, but somehow, the sea-bottom dwellers that I admired survived the extinction, preserved in limestone.

Our current geologic time is called the Holocene. My house sits on a layer of rocks that were deposited closer to our present time. Not far off, even younger strata hold beds of high-grade coal.

Of course, most of us now know that burning coal to produce most of our electricity is forcing our world into an unstable climate. And it's probably happening at lightning speed compared to similar changes in the past. Species of plants and animals are becoming extinct also at lightning speed.

Meanwhile, some people keep confusing weather with climate, and when we have a rainy day and the flowers bloom, those same people tell themselves a pretty story that all is well - despite the efforts of experts like Dr. James Hansen, formerly of NASA, who warns that the temperature of the world is rising, the Arctic is melting and huge ice sheets are calving off. We don't notice; it snowed a lot this winter.

Our local climate deniers must love this spring weather, and I have to admit that I do, too. I'm looking forward to lush wildflowers. But if I only look at today's weather, I'll miss the whole story. I won't see the bigger and not so pretty picture, much the way many visitors to the North Rim never glimpse the extinction tale that's written in the rocks of the Grand Canyon.

Tom Carter is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes and walks in Kanab, Utah.