Summer is officially upon us and for many that means camping, often in the company of family or friends. This summer is an especially good time to get outside to spend a few nights under the stars, sing off-key by the campfire and roast all manner of food on a stick, because the National Park Service is offering three fee-free weekends at over 100 National Parks.
But for those who are less than comfortable with the prospect of potentially sleepless nights, mosquito bites and half-raw, half-charred hotdogs, yet still balk at exploring the great outdoors from inside a giant RV, there is a compromise in the Oregon State Parks.
Called “Camping Lite,” Oregon State Parks offer yurts, cabins and tepees in addition to the standard tent and RV sites. “Roughing it has never been so smooth,” says their Web site, which lists the amenities offered in both rustic and deluxe sites. Not all state parks offer all the options, but most have at least one alternative kind of camping site.
I stayed at a rustic yurt in the Valley of the Rogue State Park, Ore. at the end of May, after a day spent visiting Oregon’s only national park, the gorgeous Crater Lake. Nearing the end of a three-week road trip up the West Coast, it seemed like a fun break from tent camping. Our yurt could sleep five people on a combination of futon and bunk beds, had a table and chairs and was equipped with light and electricity—very useful for the coffee pot my trip companion insisted on hauling around everywhere (a concession I granted given his caffeine addiction and resulting nasty withdrawal behavior). All cooking had to be done outside, but we did have a nice porch on which to sit and watch the sunset.
Personally, I quite enjoy sleeping out in the cool night air, body close to the earth, hearing only the crisp silence of early morning and being lucky enough to witness wildlife. But I’ll be honest—a good night’s sleep on a real mattress in the screened yurt felt pretty nice. It's a happy middle ground for those between hard-core backpackers and RV devotees, which hopefully means even more people will leave their air conditioning, television and Internet behind for a few days and check out the natural beauty of Oregon.
I step out of my shack beneath a waxing half moon. Milky light pours down on northern Arizona. Scattered ponderosas march across the bunchgrasses of Government Prairie, casting oval shadows to the west of each tree. As usual, my walk takes me along the fence line.
A cloud shutters the moon. Across the barb-wire, two huge silhouettes emerge from a clump of pines: horses. Big, solid geldings. Sorrels, I think. But in the gauzy moonlight you can’t really tell. The grass is silver, the trees black; a star on the bigger horse’s forehead seems to be a watery yellow. The horses’ bodies appear a vague, pastel blue.
Blue horses in moonlight. They consider me from the edge of the trees, then walk to the fence. One shoves its great blue head toward me. The other tries to move close, but gets pushed away. They smell like horses: dried sweat, leather, and damp sweet-grass. That scent carries memory:
It is sunrise on the first day of June a decade ago, at a place in Wyoming called Blackrock. Twenty miles to the west, the saw-tooth profile of the Tetons shines platinum in the brand new day. To the north, the blocky Absarokas are silver and white with snow.
I am walking the south bank of the swollen Buffalo Fork where it loops around the bunkhouses and barns, the pasture and corrals of the Forest Service compound. I am hoping to spot a moose, or maybe a grizzly. It’s my second day on the district.
The morning will be warm, but for now the mud underfoot is still frozen. Two sand hill cranes rise from the willow bottom on six-foot wings. Their ratcheting voices sound like dry tree branches rubbing together.
I climb up out of the riverbed into the pasture, strewn with purple larkspur and yellow balsamroot. White phlox blossoms fleck the new grass like patches of snow. Suddenly, without warning, comes that cliché: thundering hooves.
A hundred yards away, a stand of lodgepoles seems to part like some wild-west version of the Red Sea. Out of the breach come fifty horses: bays, buckskins, sorrels, pounding the ground at a dead run. They bob shoulder-to-shoulder across the meadow, fleeing with one mind. I can see the whites of their frightened eyes.
Three crazed border collies work the herd from the sides, funneling them through a wide metal gate, into a chute that leads to the corrals. Bringing up the rear are two black-hatted cowboys, whooping and spurring. I do not care about horses, yet it is impossible to not be stirred by this sight.
Later today the wranglers, Jack and Bill, will teach me to saddle a horse. In the years to come, I will learn a few other things: to avoid a horse's deadly hooves, to pack loads that will ride twenty miles, to keep my broad-brimmed hat on in a windstorm. I’ll lope across summertime meadows, drag a string up over Two Ocean Plateau in a snowstorm, and get bucked into Soda Fork Creek by a paint mustang named Kid. I will get back on the horse.
The Wyoming summers will come and go. Without bothering to consult me, the future will become the past. I'll move on. I stroke the gelding’s withers, breathe in that unutterable fragrance, and remember. Blue horses carry me back.
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Like hundreds of small towns around the West, Paonia will celebrate the Fourth of July with a parade down the main drag (Grand Avenue, in our case) and festivities in the park. It's the annual Cherry Days event, some 62 years old, awash in tradition and punctuated by occasional sparks of innovation. There will be the inevitable Clown Band in their ancient red and yellow costumes, the Shriners in their miniature cars, the handsome horses, the cherubic children stained with cherry juice and sticky with cotton candy, the Cherry Day Queen waving from a float, the cherry cook-off, the barbecues, the carnival rides. The "new" events this year include a cake walk and a bed race, and a bunch of us from High Country News are participating in the Ladies' Precision Irrigation Shovel Brigade, complete with accordion accompaniment.
I've attended Cherry Days off and on since 1953, when my father brought me, a six-year-old with a pony tail in a dress of cherry-print fabric. As a budding politician, my father was campaigning in the Democratic stronghold of the county and took me along, while my mother remained in the Delta hospital with my new baby sister. At one house we drank thick fruit juice -- made from home-canned peaches, apricots and plums -- and at a potluck luncheon we ate batter-fried chicken and thick slices of chocolate cake. I remember that year especially well because it was so unusual to be alone with my father, and I was treated like a star wherever we went, everyone congratulating us on the birth of my sister.
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Yesterday, a federal judge once again struck down an attempt to revise the rules governing national forest planning (see our story "The End of Analysis Paralysis"). Environmentalists had filed suit, charging that the changes would weaken protections for wildlife (by getting rid of the viability requirement) and exempt national forest plans from formal review under the National Environmental Policy Act. It's now the third time the changed rules have been pushed back in court. The San Francisco Chronicle reports:
The decision means the Forest Service will have to reinstate rules protecting fish and wildlife and limiting logging in 150 national forests and 20 national grasslands covering 192 million acres, including more than a dozen national forests in California.
"It is a great victory for national forests," said Marc Fink, a lawyer for the Center for Biological Diversity, which was one of the plaintiffs. "We're hoping today's ruling is the final nail in the coffin for the Bush forest policies and that we can move forward and do what is right for the forests."
The agency will now have to return to either its 1982 or 2000 planning rules. But those cumbersome, inflexible rules are still in need of an overhaul. “We’ve sort of run the course (with the previous rule) and a lot of things haven’t worked,” said Tony Cheng, associate professor of forestry and natural resource policy at Colorado State University (quoted in our 2007 story). “Maybe it’s time to try something new. Public lands are an experiment in participatory democracy.”
The West's renewable energy resources -- especially the wind, solar and geothermal energy concentrated on our vast public lands -- are in the limelight a lot these days. With that in mind, HCN put together this summer's special issue around the concept of alternative alternative energy -- as in, not just those big solar and wind plants that everyone's jawing about these days, but also the role small, local energy projects could play in helping solve climate change, and the big challenges in the way of any attempts to change our energy mix to make it less greenhouse-gassy.
Conrad Wilson of KDNK, a community radio station in Carbondale, Colo., recently interviewed HCN Assistant Editor Sarah Gilman about some of the stories in that issue. You can find their conversation here.
Who owns the rain?
In Colorado, you generally didn't have any right to use the rain that fell on your property.
But that's changing, as the New York Times explained in a recent article. Now some property owners will be able to use rain barrels legally.
Colorado's water laws are arcane and complex, but there are two main principles: "beneficial use" and "prior appropriation."
It's the "prior appropriation" that became an issue with rainwater. There's a detailed explanation here, and the quick way to explain is by a hypothetical example.
Suppose you live on the family ranch along Remote Creek. Your great-great-grandfather settled there in 1868 and began irrigating the hay field with a ditch he dug that taps Remote Creek.
And suppose I bought some land upstream in 1993, built a cabin, and started holding rain water in barrels.
A dry year comes along. Remote Creek isn't carrying enough water to meet your needs, even though you have an 1868 water right. And here I am, capturing water upstream, a process I started in 1993. You could argue that I'm depriving you of water that is rightfully yours, since you've got a much older claim to the water.
That's the legal theory. In practice, the connection is rather tenuous, since so much rainwater either evaporates or is consumed by vegetation in the distance between my water barrel and your field.
During the eight years of the Bush Administration a number of bills which included designating wilderness in the West were passed by Congress, signed by President Bush and became law. Most mainstream national and regional environmental organizations praised them as great victories. A few long-time activists, including this blogger, raised an alarm.
Grassroots activists’ concerns with Bush-era public lands bills are of two types:
- Provisions within the legislation which activists say undermine the integrity of wilderness and the intent of the Wilderness Act. For example, some of these bills allow helicopter and airplane uses within wilderness for various purposes or select users.
- Provisions included which have nothing to do with wilderness but which critics claim are anti-environmental. One example of this sort of legislation is a bill pushed through by Nevada Senator Harry Reid which designated a small amount of wilderness in his state but also authorized the pipeline by which Las Vegas intends to exploit Eastern Nevada groundwater.
Now the Seattle-based Western Lands Project has come out with a new book – Carving Up the Commons: Congress and our Public Lands – which not only “examines the emergence of ‘quid pro quo’ land bills of 2000-2008” but also includes sections on the origins of our public lands, the process and pitfalls (unintended consequences) of congressional land deals and deals in which powerful western members of congress have served the interests of well-connected private parties. The book examines five land deals in depth in order to “illustrate the elaborate machinations and distortions….that can characterize these projects.”
Best of all, the book is cheap ($10 for printing and shipping a hard copy) and it is available as a free download. To order, download or for more information visit the Western Lands Project web site.
Most of us have heard of "hydraulic fracturing." It's a way to get fluids out of the ground by drilling a well, then pumping liquid under pressure down the hole. The liquid fractures nearby rocks, thereby releasing a substance (generally natural gas these days) that has been trapped in the rocks.
"Hydraulic fracturing" is a mouthful, though, so naturally there's a shorter locution. The problem for us print journalists is how to spell the condensed version.
Some go with fracing. That's short, but it makes it appear as though the term rhymes with tracing, when it actually rhymes with tracking.
So I go with fracking, since it's pronounced that way. It also fits with the logic of our language, by analogy with trafficking or picnicking. That is, when you're constructing a gerund from a sequence of letters that ends in a hard c, you append a k before adding the ing.
Granted, the terms frack and fracking have appeared on the television show Battlestar Gallactica as a polite substitute for another word that starts with f and ends with k, but the context should make it clear as to which meaning is intended.
I have also heard from geologists who say they spell it fraccing, and one who says it's fracting with a silent t.
As nearly as I can tell, there's no general agreement on how to spell fracking. Sometimes you even see it spelled different ways in the same publication.
It should be noted that hydraulic fracturing is not the only way to frack. About 30 years go, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission attempted some big-time explosive fracturing on Colorado's Western Slope. It had the same goal as modern fracking -- releasing trapped natural gas -- but the Rulison Project involved an atomic bomb.
The natural gas was too radioactive to be used, and there remains a controversy about how close modern operators should be allowed to drill.
After two kittenless years, Colorado's Canada lynx are breeding successfully again. The Colorado Division of Wildlife, which has reintroduced 218 of the large-pawed cats to the state over the past decade, located 10 new lynx kittens during their annual spring survey this year. That total includes two dens of kittens whose parents are native to Colorado -- a major milestone for the reintroduction effort.
"We are very close to achieving all of our goals," DOW lead biologist Rick Kahn said in a statement. "We have had successful breeding and (now) we have had Colorado-born lynx reproduce. Our next goal is to determine if our level of recruitment is exceeding our mortality rates over a couple of years. We are very encouraged by the results this year and are hopeful that these animals will contribute towards a sustaining population for Colorado."
As I reported this winter, lynx in Colorado face a variety of threats, not least of which is a possible decrease in the population of snowshoe hare, the cat's primary prey. Researchers have speculated that such a decline, though it has not been rigorously documented, may have been to blame for the last two years' dearth of kittens. Hopefully the current kitten crop is a sign that the cats can overcome such obstacles as they spread through the state's high country.
Let’s start with this: mountain people do not curse the weather. They have slept out in the rain and know that the weather will change. They know that just to be around—under any sort of sky—is good luck enough.
Mountain people have crooked grins and broken hearts and dirt under their fingernails. They are unimpressed with shiny cars, botoxed smiles, or the latest lies delivered from Washington. They know that the best things in life are not things.
Mountain people know what they like and do not accept substitutes. They prefer books to TV, banjos to golf clubs, and right now to “sometime in the future.” They have affinities for cast-iron skillets, steel-grey skies, and bulletproof prose.
They may write poems – mostly bad ones, but occasionally a poem so brilliant you will need to look away. When you do, there will probably be a mountain in your mind’s eye, a mountain that has taught you something you could not have learned any other way.
Mountain people are not sure what they’ll be when they grow up, though it will certainly not be president. They are less likely than flatlanders to have health insurance, retirement plans and annuities (what IS an annuity, anyway?). If they have children, mountain people are pretty sure their children will “be OK.” Whatever that means.
Mountain people are frugal. Some will even leave the baggage tags on their backpacks from one Greyhound trip to the next, even if it’s two years later, because they don’t want to waste the paper. Mountain people are also spendthrifts. They will dock their scruffy trucks in the casino parking lot, walk in, and cheerfully lose all they have. Along the way, they’ll out-tip the high rollers. The panhandler who asks a mountain person for a buck could get a twenty. Hey, everybody needs a good day once in awhile.
Mountain people are sentimental – their cabins are full of special rocks, dusty feathers, and old love letters. Mountain people are practical – the cabin will also have a set of socket wrenches, at least one roll of duct tape, and a window that opens onto something beautiful.
Mountain people tend to laugh a little too loud. Sometimes they will laugh with tears in their eyes, saying things like “Sure I’m depressed, but I don’t let it get me down” or “I’m only happy when I’m miserable.” When mountain people are in trouble, they call other mountain people. It may be two in morning. They may say “Nothing needs to be fixed. I just need to hear somebody on the other end of the line.”
A mountain person will stay on the other end of the line. If asked, a mountain person will quite literally give you the shirt off his back. If you really need a shirt, you probably won’t have to ask.
When a mountain person is bent over by what hurts, he will lean on beauty like an old man leans on his cane.
My friends are mostly mountain people, though some may have never scaled an actual mountain. (As the great Yosemite climber Doug Robinson once put it, in true mountaineering, no climbing is required.)
People who move to the West from somewhere flat might be mountain people, or they might not. Some at least want to be mountain people, which is a start. Wannabe isn’t a dirty word, not if you wannabe righteous.
But to succeed, a wannabe will have to give up some things. Mountain people by necessity go light. Mountains are problematic for those who want security and certainty, because the only certainties a mountain will offer are gravity and erosion, heart-piercing storms and rose-colored visions.
Mountain people may also happen to be desert people, or even river people. That’s because mountain people know that deserts and rivers and mountains are three faces of the same god. They know this to be true, even if there is no god.