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Bribery slips under the border

Ariana Brocious | Aug 10, 2009 07:41 AM

It starts with a $50 bill. Then $5,000, just to look the other way at the port of inspections. Suddenly the formerly-loyal U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer has become yet another link in the chain of corruption, bribery, contraband and violence that plagues the southern border.

And he’s not the only one.

An Associated Press investigation has found that U.S. border officials are being charged with criminal corruption in numbers previously unseen: More than 80 federal, state and local law enforcement officials have been leveled with such charges since 2007. 

Meanwhile, both governments are stepping up patrols, according to the AP:

As Calderón sent thousands of soldiers to northern Mexico to stop the gruesome cartel violence and clean out corrupt police departments, Customs and Border Protection — the largest U.S. law-enforcement agency — boosted its border forces by 44 percent, or 6,907 additional officers and agents, on the southwestern border.

At the same time, CBP saw the number of its officers charged with corruption-related crimes nearly triple, from eight cases in fiscal 2007 to 21 the following year.  

Corruption runs the gamut, allowing activities such as drug-trafficking, human smuggling, weapons trade and unauthorized entries across the border--committed by high-ranking, established BP officials down to recent agency hires, some of whom are planted by the drug trade. And while bribery (a bargain for smugglers to ensure safe passage) is the leading incentive, drug cartels frequently use another powerful motivator—offering agents a choice between “plata o plomo”--silver or lead.

As continuing border wall construction endangers wildlife and the President requests ramped-up CBP funding, citing Mexico’s long-reputed corrupt officials has been an easy way to dodge the blame. But it finally seems we’re taking a necessary hard look at our own side of the problem. 

 bordercorruption graph

Graph from the Arizona Daily Star.

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West Nile figures trickling in

Marty Durlin | Aug 10, 2009 05:18 AM

The Centers for Disease Control say that only 35 cases of the West Nile virus have so far been reported in the United States this year, but the season is just getting started: late summer and early fall are the times when most infections occur.

Of the 35 cases, 19 are in the West and 10 of those cases were reported as encephalitis/meningitis. Researchers caution that the high percentage of neuroinvasive disease is often overstated because serious cases are more likely to be reported than mild cases.

In 2008, 1,356 cases were reported nationwide, including 44 fatalities. About half the cases were neuroinvasive. There were 680 cases in the West, with California reporting the highest number (445) and Washington the lowest (3). There were 398 cases of encephalitis/meningitis, with California again having the most: 292. Montana and Wyoming reported no cases of neuroinvasive disease.

The peak of West Nile infection in the U.S. occurred in 2003, when cases totaled nearly 10,000 nationwide and 264 people died of a neuroinvasive strain.


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A pleasing discovery

Ed Quillen | Aug 08, 2009 03:03 AM

    In general, I think it is no coincidence that the words "travel" and "travail" have the same root -- the Latin word "tripalium," a three-pronged instrument of torture. But on occasion, there are pleasant surprises.
    It was time for Martha and me to visit our daughters (and grandson) in Oregon. In the past, we've always flown, which is a pain when you live in Salida, 150 miles from Denver International Airport. Further it is hard to express just how much I loathe standing in lines and going through security just to jam myself into a cramped airline seat.
    This time around, though, we had more time available since we'd sold our little magazine (Colorado Central) earlier this year.
    As a railroad buff, I considered Amtrak: Catch the California Zephyr in Colorado, ride it to Emeryville, Calif., then board the Coast Starlight north to one daughter's home in Eugene, Ore. But that meant something like 48 hours each way on the rails, a bit much even for me. The logistics of a compromise -- flying one way and using the rails for the other -- got more difficult the more I pondered the matter.
    So why not a Great American Road Trip? We finally own a vehicle with air-conditioning, cruise-control and a fine stereo. We wouldn't have to meet the airline or train schedules. As history buffs who weren't in any special hurry, we could stop at all historic markers, scenic overlooks, and the like.
    My only worry was eastern Oregon. Several people had described it to me as boring, arid territory, fit only to hold the rest of the world together, and traversed by bad roads at that.
    But instead I found decent two-lane highways through scenic hills, mountains and forests, all pleasantly uncrowded. In ways, I liked it better than western Oregon, since in the east, the forests were seldom so thick as to block the vistas.
    On the way to Bend from Ontario, we took U.S. 20 through Burns and discovered the pleasant Malheur River valley, as well as Stinkingwater and Drinkwater passes, only a few miles apart. To return, we drove U.S. 26 through Prineville, John Day and Unity. Little towns, big views, abundant pullovers -- wonderful territory for a leisurely road trip.
    I'm beginning to think that those people who tried to warn me away from eastern Oregon were really just trying to keep it for themselves.

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HCN's favorite Tweeple

Jonathan Thompson | Aug 07, 2009 04:05 AM

You may be one of those people who thinks Twitter is some kind of narcissistic echo chamber. That it's a place where folks broadcast their breakfast to the world in 140 characters or less.

Well, yeah.

Still, even the social media skeptics here at the High Country News have gotten swept into the Twittersphere and we've discovered that ... it's not all bad. In fact, Twitter can be a very valuable tool for catching news and gleaning important opinion from all of those Inter-Tubes running around cyberspace. Indeed, following @highcountrynews is a great way to keep track of breaking and ongoing Western news.

For those of you who're thinking of taking the dive into this Twitterific new world, or if you've already started tweeting but still find yourself following Tweeple who update on every personal hygiene event and non-thought that enters their minds, we compiled a list of some of our staff's favorite quality tweeters out there - Tweeps whose tweets show that Twitter can provide substance beyond the musings of superstars like @aplusk and @oprah.

Social Media Guru Stephanie Paige Ogburn @highcountrynews



@matt_weiser: Sac Bee reporter on water and environment. Posts great breaking news stories and tweets interesting news items.

@EnviroLawNews: A good source for wonky updates on environmental law.

@revkin: Indispensable NYTimes reporter covering climate and planet-wide environmental challenges.

@ThePhoenixSun: Freelance writer Osha Gray Davidson's always up on solar and other Western environmental news

@agahran: Western-based new media guru with an environmental bent.

@cfra: Center for Rural Affairs - not only Western news but rural news and issues important to many Westerners

@tomphilpott: NC-based food editor for; a must-follow for anyone who cares about food.

@AmericasPower: follow coal industry front group to see what PR trick the coal kings have up their sleeve next.

@wildnevada: The Nevada Wilderness Project. Need I say more?

@navajonation: News from the Rez. Infrequently updated but always interesting.

@gjsentinel: The Grand Junction Sentinel helps me keep up with Western Colo. news.

@seedmag: The dorkiest accessible science news around (closely tied with @newscientist)

@ConsBio: Conservation Biology news from Corvallis, Ore.

@NREL: The National Renewable Energy Lab in Golden's always working and tweeting on something interesting.

@COIndependent: great local investigative reporting out of Colorado

@Sightline: Environmental, economic and social news from Cascadia

Editor Jonathan Thompson @jonnypeace (Where he micro-blogs about mostly un-HCN stuff, like good food and weird thoughts.)

@jontalton: The Rogue Columnist tweets about the Arizona "Kookocracy" and more.

@CalFireNews: It's like watching the fire scanner of the whole state of California, with commentary tossed in.

@Defenders: Defenders of Wildlife gives an activist-bent to enviro news.

@jfleck: Thoughtful, sometimes snarky, take on New Mexico water and more.

@drgrist: No holds barred mini-blogging from David Roberts of Grist. Likes to tear @AmericasPower a new one.

@humphryslocombe: Okay, this is a San Francisco ice cream place. It has nothing to do with Western news, and I can't get any of their ice cream here (Golden Beet Saffron; Bacon Peanut Brittle). But after a long day of slogging through copy, I want some ice cream (even if just vicariously).

Associate Editor Jodi Peterson @Jodi_Peterson

@NewsRimes4Lines: From Native journalist Mark Trahant. Sample Tweet: Congress in a mad rush to sell more cars/finding a subsidy from the stars/Oh wait that money's not free/we're actually borrowing it you see

@HDJEditor: Western lit mag High Desert Journal's twitter feed.

@nytimesscience: Science, environment and space news.

@NewWest: Western growth and development, plus environment news and great book reviews.

@ecopolitologist: Tim Hurst's thoughts about politics, energy, environment.

@RDavidian: This SoCal guy tweets about all things outdoors: hiking, backpacking, birding, wilderness survival and photography.

Assistant Editor Sarah Gilman @Sarah_Gilman

@inciweb: Regular status updates on nearly every wildfire in the country, with cool statistics on firefighters and equipment involved in various blazes, acres burned, acres contained, and any new developments.

@AltEnergyNews: Good rundown on national energy news, with western tidbits.

@kate_sheppard: Grist's snarky political writer, who often blogs on energy-related stuff

@TheOilDrum: Wonk-fest about fossil fuels and peak oil. Energy expert Randy Udall turned me on to this one.

@judlew: HCN contributing editor Judith Lewis, who tweets infrequently, but insightfully.

Intern Arla Shephard @tres_arla

@moniguzman: Monica Guzman follows Seattle's more quirky news for's award-winning The Big Blog (@bigblog), but it's her personal Twitter that keeps me in tune with what's happening in the Emerald City.

@BluandYellow: This Denver-based environmental justice group, formed by women of color, aims to promote economic, social, and racial diversity in sustainability issues.

@seattletimes: The Seattle Times covers cultural, political, and social issues in Washington— and is still my favorite Western paper.

@TreeHugger: TreeHugger's extensive number of media platforms (blogs, Twitter, daily newsletters, video segments) keep enviros up-to-date on all things sustainability.

@highcountrynews: I can't help it. Where else can I get comprehensive coverage on environmental issues in the West?

Did we miss your favorite Western Tweeps? Add them on to our list in the comment section!



"Impossible to remain silent"

Arla Shephard | Aug 06, 2009 09:23 AM

When Laura Amos of Silt, Colo., was diagnosed in 2003 with a rare adrenal condition, she began to suspect that it had something to do with four natural gas wells less than 1000 feet from her home.

After EnCana Corporation drilled the wells in 2001, the family’s tap water resembled fizzy, gray soda pop. Amos says that while fracturing the wells, the company created a connection between her water well and one of the gas wells -- lacing the family's drinking water with methane. Amos later discovered that the company had used the compound 2-butoxyethanol in the hydraulic fracturing. The chemical can be found on California’s list of hazardous substances but was removed from the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of hazardous pollutants in 1994.  

Amos’ story is only one featured in a new documentary about the effects of the oil and gas industry in the Rocky Mountain West. Split Estate premieres this week in New York and Los Angeles, and is the directorial debut of Debra Anderson. The film is narrated by Academy Award-nominated actress Ali MacGraw.

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The rural West, on clearance

Cally Carswell | Aug 05, 2009 03:57 AM

Statistics released by the USDA yesterday paint a sobering economic portrait of the rural West.  

The agency reported declines in agricultural land values across the country for the first time in more than 20 years. And it’s the Mountain states that have been clobbered worst of all.

Montana farmland values fell a whopping 22.2 percent from 2008 to 2009, compared to an average 3.2 percent decline nationwide, and 10.5 percent drop in the Mountain state region.

But anyone looking for a real steal should head to New Mexico, which claims the cheapest farmland in the country at an average $480 an acre. Just how dirt-cheap is that? It’s pretty bottom of the barrel compared to the nation’s most expensive farmland, found in Rhode Island, which commands $15,300 per acre.

According to the Wall Street Journal:

The USDA's report is consistent with what farmers, ranchers and bankers have been seeing over the past few months. Some farmland in the Plains, for example, has fared better because grain prices, while coming off their highs, remain relatively strong.

On the other hand, the Mountain states have seen bigger declines largely because of the prevalence of livestock. Cattle ranchers have been struggling amid low cattle prices and high feed prices.


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California sun and spray

Ariana Brocious | Aug 04, 2009 08:20 AM

California’s farmworkers support an $11 billion industry, making the state the nation’s leading agricultural producer and exporter. But their working conditions are often difficult – they’re exposed to harmful pesticides and dangerous levels of thirst and heat. Now, the LA Times reports that the state is considering approval of another hazardous pesticide, and it’s facing a lawsuit over shade and water requirements for workers.

                                              sun mad raisens

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Crossroad at the foot of a mountain

Michael Wolcott | Aug 03, 2009 06:05 AM

Lilacs bloomed on the corner next to the hostel. A freight train rumbled through the little downtown, the third one in the past hour; the swirling clouds of railroad noise carried echoes of Hank Williams and Woody Guthrie. A block south of the tracks, a black Irish beauty from New York stood in front of a coffee shop, holding hands with her boyfriend. The lucky guy was me. It was 1987 in Flagstaff, AZ, and we were on a Grand Canyon vacation. Manhattan felt as distant as Pluto.

That morning, for the first time in my 32 years, I had set foot in the desert Southwest. It was the same for her; we had both grown up in upstate New York. I was addled by the utter strangeness of everything in Arizona, high on all of it: the crazy, crumbling mountains; an electric blue sky; prickly, misshapen plants that seemed to have been invented by wizards. The sound of trains—like the smell of lilacs and the piercing silver light—added to the mix. The whole big show seemed to be rearranging my cells.

I read aloud from an index card scotch-taped to the plate-glass window: FOR RENT: Small cabin near town. Wood stove, electricity, and outhouse. No running water. $100/month.

 “What do you think?” I said. “Could we do it?”

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Fire and Smoke

Felice Pace | Jul 31, 2009 05:09 AM

Back in June of this year I did a GOAT Blog post on the wildfires that burned during the summer of 2008 in Northwest California. In October of 2008 I posted a commentary on reasons why western wildfires are getting larger. Included in the June report was the controversy that arose in Northwest California last year over smoke-related health impacts and whether decisions not to directly attack the wildfires and firefighter lit backfires and burnouts added significantly and unnecessarily to those health impacts. In 2008 about one third of the billion dollars spent nationally on firefighting was expended in Northwest California.

The Redding Record Searchlight did a series on the 2008 fires which focused on smoke and firefighting tactics. They have continued to follow-up on the series this year.

Health officials working for the Hoopa Tribe are leading efforts to get Forest Service and firefighters to give greater consideration to the health impacts of smoke as they make decisions on fire suppression strategy and tactics. However, it is unknown how much of the smoke which blanketed Northwest California last summer was the result of natural wildfires and how much was the result of the extensive backfires and burnouts which firefighters lit. The Forest Service and the firefighting bureaucracy continue to refuse to distinguish natural wildfires from discretionary backfires and burnouts when they map and report of wildland fires. Forest Service and university researchers have not helped; I can find no studies that look at this aspect of the smoke issue.

Westerners don’t know how much of the health-destroying smoke we breathe during wildfires is the result of natural wildfires and how much is the result of decisions to light backfires and burnouts. Likewise, it is unknown how much of the documented increase in the size of western wildfires is the legacy of fire suppression and logging and how much of that increase represents increased use of backfires and burnouts.  Many folks like me who live in the forest and study the wildfires on the ground are convinced that the backfires and burnouts are getting larger. In last year’s Northern California Siskiyou Fire Complex, for example, well over 50% of the total area burned was the result of management decisions to light backfires and burnouts far from the actual wildfires. Yet the Forest Service and fire researchers continue to describe the entire area as if it was an all natural fire.

Now we are in a new fire season and I can report that the Forest Service is responding to the sustained criticism of how the summer 2008 fires were managed. This has been reported extensively in area media.

Most Northwest California residents appear to be pleased that the Forest Service directly attacked and – with the help of cool weather and moist fuel - was able to put out this year’s Backbone Fire in the Trinity Alps Wilderness. Controversy remains, however, concerning how much of last year’s smoke is the result of decisions not to directly attack the fires (for firefighter safety) and how much is the result of firefighting strategies that rely on large burnouts and backfires. 

Also under dispute in Northwest California are causes of the watershed impacts that result from wildfire and fire suppression. The Redding Searchlight, for example, claimed in a recent editorial that one of last years wildfires destroyed important salmon habitat.       

While it is clear that wildfires can have significant negative impacts on water quality (particularly when the fires burn at high intensity), it is unknown how much of the sediment Record Searchlight editors believe resulted from “natural” wildfire was actually from firefighter lit burnouts and bulldozed fire lines. Even more difficult to determine is whether fire suppression strategy and tactics used on that fire were needed and appropriate.

Answers to these questions will remain illusive until fire researchers begin to seriously investigate the impacts of fire suppression strategies and tactics as part of natural history-type investigations of wildfires. Such investigations, however, will be difficult to complete until the Forest Service and Fire Fighting Bureaucracy begin to map and disclose burnouts and backfires.   

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Let it burn?

Ariana Brocious | Jul 30, 2009 09:10 AM

Despite wildfires smoldering across the West in recent weeks (outside of Denver, in Southern California, and near Arizona’s Kitt Peak Observatory), one Colorado town is backing off on wildfire protection.

Breckenridge, Colo., a mountain resort town about 80 miles southwest of Denver, this week revoked an ordinance requiring homeowners to thin vegetation and remove trees around their homes to reduce fire danger, reported the LA Times. Similar ordinances are routine for Californians but unusual in other Western states.

Breckenridge residents, concerned that the law would hurt property values, encroach on property rights and require expensive tree removals, submitted a petition with over 330 signatures to the town council. The council chose to repeal the month-old law rather than put it to a vote.

Never mind that thousands of trees in the area are already dead from the mountain pine beetle epidemic (which HCN covered a few weeks ago), which prompted the council to pass the ordinance in the first place.

Or that fire officials who were counting on the law to help in defending homes must now rely on voluntary vegetation clearing from residents.

While summer temperatures -- and fire danger -- peak, Breckenridge's reversal on fire safety isn't setting a good example:

Opponents have criticized the strategy as pointless unless other communities in the area participate. Many state residents had followed closely the developments in Breckenridge, one of the few communities--if not the only--in Colorado to take such an aggressive approach.   LA Times



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