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.
We all know that irresponsible off-road vehicle use causes major damage to public lands. The June 8 HCN contained a story about Western states passing laws to more strongly regulate offroaders ("States rev up ORV rules").
KUNC's Kirk Siegler recently interviewed associate editor Jodi Peterson about that story, focusing on the new laws and the problems they're attempting to address. You can listen to the interview here.
The June 8th HCN edition included an excellent article on the potential for beaver to restore western watersheds and, in the process, improve water supplies. The piece, however, omitted a few important caveats:
- Before the occupation of the West by white folks, Beaver did not exist in all Western watersheds. This is reflected in the diaries and history of the mountain men. For example, Jedediah Smith scouted from Colorado to Southern California and then North to Oregon. He found some valleys loaded with beaver; but many of the watersheds he scouted – not only in the Southwest but even in Northern California and Oregon -contained no or only a scattering of beaver.
- Many of the places beaver thrived are now fields of alfalfa or pastures for cattle. The Scott Valley where I lived for 40 years was once known as Beaver Valley. The first year Hudson Bay trappers worked it, they took out 50 mules loaded with beaver pelts. But there is no way the beaver are going to be restored in this valley; that would require moving out the people and the cattle. Beaver are still being killed in the Scott Valley as varmints today.
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Today reports from two far-flung airports illustrate the ongoing conflict between modern human culture and animals simply doing what they do.
In New York City -- five months after Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger safely landed a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of geese -- some 2,000 Canadian geese living around JFK and LaGuardia airports will be euthanized starting this week. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has given the USDA a permit for the euthanization, releasing the agency from the the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
The local geese (as opposed to the migratory birds that flew into the US Airways plane) will be herded into fenced areas at parks and wastewater treatment plants within five miles of the airports, put into crates and "humanely" euthanized .
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Yesterday I read, “What every westerner should know about oil shale,” a report published last week by the University of Colorado’s Center of the American West. It left my ears ringing with a sort of dull reverberation that, while it lasted, actually seemed to be getting louder. I think that ringing sound had something to do with the time line below, which I've culled from the report.
The report offers all sorts of handy information on, for example, the social impacts of boom and bust cycles, shale extraction laws and the latest extraction technologies (Exxon's sounds like the Frankenstein monster of fracking) but in large part, it's a history of shales's many false promises and failures. So it's surprising that it left me with the feeling that commercial shale production isn't so much futile, as fated. Despite all of the hurdles, shale companies have been testing the U.S. oil market for the last century and a half. They've been rebuffed every time. But over the decades we've only become more dependent on fossil fuels, and sooner or later we'll run out of conventional resources. A habit is a hard thing to break. It seems unlikely that we'll skate right over into an alternative energy economy without first tapping a petroleum reserve as huge as the Green River Formation. As the report puts it, “…oil shale may well be the end game of the Fossil Fuel Age. But it is a very big play.”Read More ...
It's fairly common knowledge that the poor, though they've released far less than their share of the world's greenhouse gasses, will feel the nastiest effects of climate change. Usually, we take "the poor," in this case, to mean residents of Tuvalu, Bangladesh, Papua New Guinea or other developing states whose governments lack the resources or the inclination to help them. But the poor residents of the industrialized world have been, and will be, disproportionately affected as well. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina proved that, and this recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office makes the point as well.
According to the report, 31 of Alaska's roughly 231 native villages face "imminent threats" from erosion and flooding related to climate change, and most have already been affected to some degree. Twelve are in the process of relocating. Scattered up Alaska's coast and strung along its rivers, the villages have been subject to flooding and erosion when river ice breaks up in the spring, and during coastal storms. Those may sound like run-of-the-mill problems in the far north, but rising temperatures have made them more dangerous. Permafrost -- the glue that holds the land together -- has been thawing, and the sea ice that typically sheltered coastal villages from waves and storm surge has dwindled.
The Government Accountability Office has taken an interest because so far, the U.S. government has done little to address the problem on a large scale.
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Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Arizona skiers may soon be spared the inconvenience of living in one of the Union’s warmest and driest states.
Last week the high court removed the final legal hurdle blocking Arizona Snowbowl from making artificial snow with reclaimed sewage effluent on the San Francisco Peaks—a plan which 13 southwestern tribes say will desecrate their sacred mountain.
In a long-running lawsuit filed against the the U.S.Forest Service (the ski center's landlord) the Navajo and several other tribes had sought protection under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, arguing that to make snow on the mountain would decrease the "spiritual fulfillment" tribal members get from practicing their religion. By declining, without comment, to act on the tribes' appeal of a lower court ruling, the Supreme Court effectively gave Snowbowl the go-ahead.
Lawyers for the tribes say they still have several options (which appear to be long shots) for blocking Snowbowl. For now, though, Snowbowl is free to busy itself with that time-honored Western tradition: moving water uphill toward money.
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A few miles north of Rock Springs, Wyoming, a big interpretive sign is titled, Landscapes of Power. Yes, the landscapes are powerful: The massive piece of earth that seems just to have awakened and violently ripped itself out of the land up the Green River from Vernal, Utah; or the cloud enveloped Wind River range, rising up from the glowing Wyoming sage.
But today's drive took us through landscapes whence a different sort of power is derived -- mostly of the fossil fuel variety. Early this morning, HCN Executive Director Paul Larmer, Multimedia Reporter Jeff Chen and I headed out of Paonia, and paralleled the route of the train that hauls coal from the three massive underground coal mines up river. We passed through Grand Junction, where many a gas field service worker lives. To Rio Blanco County, where compressor stations pop up along a valley floor, not far from rock art panels, including a giant, red Kokopelli. On to Rangely, a town that owes its existence to fossil fuels. Chevron found oil here back in the thirties, and the place boomed after World War II -- it was incorporated in 1947. Today, pumpjacks dance their slow grind all over town, and, according to the checkout girl at the White River Market: "There's not much to do around here unless you're a drinker." Jeff, though, found a bull to ride, even with nothing to drink.
The landscapes of power don't dissipate. Vernal, Utah, at the heart of a big natural gas play, is surrounded by industrialization. In the Frachtech yard between town and the muddy brown Green River, huge space-age trucks sit shiny and green, ready to inject hydraulic fracturing material into the earth. Guys hose off their Halliburton trucks in monster-sized car washes. Motel parking lots hold a mixture of tourist's cars and the white pickup trucks ubiquitous in gas country. Just on the other side of town -- a surprise to us -- half a mountain had been scraped bare then reclaimed. This wasn't for energy, but fertilizer: The Simplot phosphate mine, which had transformed the landscape almost as dramatically as the much older, much slower geologic forces that had warped huge fields of rock nearby. Or as dramatically as Flaming Gorge Dam, which generates hydropower with the water of the Green River (we missed the daily tours, unfortunately, and got chided for stopping on the dam, a security threat).
Still, surprises and beauty await amidst the wreckage. Up on a high plateau south of Rock Springs, a pipeline scar is visible way off into the distance, yet that doesn't stop the light from seemingly seeping from the sage and the grass. Powerlines snake their way into the distance south of town, but raptors still dive for prairie dogs. Rock Springs itself, which appears from the Interstate to be no more than a glorified man camp, has its own surprises. Arts and crafts era homes line streets near downtown, where handsome buildings stand beautiful but abandoned -- a reminder of past booms and busts.
We continued north out of Rock Springs, past the Interstate-side truck stop detritus, up onto a sage-covered plain, into a sky ominous with dark clouds toward the Wind Rivers. Near a space filled with industrial equipment and trucks, we turned left, and headed into the Jonah Field, where a frenzy of drilling is happening. Stop the car here, and the background grinding hum is constant. In the distance, flares from the rigs, which pierce the horizon. Once rolling grassland, the machinery has taken over. And yet. Pronghorn still dance nimbly, watching closely over fawns. The evening light still merges with the Wyoming Range in the distance. This boom, too, will someday contract. These huge spaces that characterize the West, however, will persist.
Photos, from top: Equipment near the Jonah Field, Rangely accommodations, Rock Springs bank, and native pollinators at work on a non-native thistle on Douglas Pass.
Recently I had the opportunity to backpack in Northern California’s Yolla Bolly-Middle Eel Wilderness. The wildflowers were wonderful and among the many birds I got a close up look at a Lazuli Bunting.
One day I climbed Black Rock Mountain which provides spectacular 360 degree views – including a view of several of last summer’s wildfires. One of those fire areas lay below my feet, mostly inside the wilderness. Forest Service firefighters had constructed a fireline with a bulldozer on the wilderness border. They had also fired a burn out into the wilderness from that line. Here is a photo showing the fireline (light line on the right) and portions of the burn out:
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The tussle over Adobe Town continues. This spectacular chunk of Wyoming's Red Desert has been in the sights of energy companies for years (see our story The desert that breaks Annie Proulx's heart) . But the area has also been designated "Very Rare or Uncommon" by the state, in recognition of its unique geology, fossils, and habitat for sage grouse, pronghorn and other wildlife. Now, the BLM plans to lease 11,000 acres of the Red Desert for oil and gas drilling, including land adjoining the Adobe Town Wilderness Study Area.
Some of the Red Desert lands that BLM offered for leasing in early June are lands that the agency officially declared had wilderness qualities in 2003. They're also within the Monument Valley Special Management Area, which the BLM is considering designating an "area of critical environmental concern".
The BLM is accepting comments on the proposed drilling through June 15th.