When we look out our windows, do we always see the real West out there, or do we often perceive what photographers have taught us to to see?
The question comes up with an exhibit of 120 photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Called "Into the Sunset, Photography's Image of the American West," it runs through June 8.
According to MoMA's website, the photos "illustrate photography's role in popularizing ideas of the sublime landscape, Manifest Destiny, and the 'land of opportunity,' as well as describing a more complex vision of the West, one that addresses cultural dislocation, environmental devastation, and failed social aspiration."
Not that I'm likely to see the exhibit, but you see a dozen of the photos, along with some thought-provoking commentary by Sara Boxer, at Slate, an on-line magazine.
It's well worth an on-line visit where you'll learn that "You may be the victim of a great Western fantasy," since photography "has done more than anything to construct our vision of the West."
My own attitude about photography and the West developed when I was reviewing a book of gorgeous mountain landscape photos, and it struck me that these were to the real mountains as Playmate photos were to real women. Real women have stretch marks and moles; Playmates don't. Real mountains have road cuts and power lines and mine dumps; Coffee-Table Book Mountains don't.
In both cases, a photographer seems to be promoting a fantasy, and perhaps it has ever been so in the West.
We are not talking about border policy here. This is about Planet Desert.
The hungers grow. Fewer crumbs reach the global economy’s bottom-dwellers, so they abandon the slums and failing campos to take their best shots at something more. For this, they must be hunted. I am in the Altar Valley to look at the tracks.
The Altar Valley south of Tucson is one of those places where Latin America and the United States have stopped remembering their own names. “The border” has become an inadequate term for such Homeland Security hotspots. They are el mundo nuevo, the new world.
Here on this militarized edge, with its checkposts and spy towers and aerial surveillance, much is revealed. Old notions crumble. The might of the U.S. security state is rendered irrelevant by poor people in sneakers. The shrill debate over immigration is drowned out—by helicopter traffic and by the silence of mourning. Instead there are mere facts: a $500 million-dollar wall and triple-digit temperatures; human desperation licking at finite resources; cartels, coyotes, and luckless poor people dying on the rocks.
It is late March, just before the killing heat arrives. The truck bounces along in 4-wheel-drive. The woman at the wheel is with a gringo humanitarian group that puts out plastic jugs of water on the migrant trails. The jugs are dated, and bear messages scrawled in Spanish with black markers: “Good Luck Amigo!” and “Be Strong!" The jugs are often found empty, slashed with knives.
Twenty miles to the west, across the valley, sunrise flares pink on a huge stump of old volcanic rock called Baboquivari Peak. A few miles to the south, the Las Guijas Mountains are sprayed with dusty gold. The woman says there is a place in the Las Guijas that I must see.
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The Environmental Working Group just released a two-year study focusing on the toxins found in five minority women at the forefront of environmental justice battles. Within each community, these women work tirelessly to protect citizens from various forms of pollution. And within each of these women, scientists found significantly higher amounts of toxins than other Americans who have been tested.
Here's a look at the three Westerners in the study:
Suzie Canales of Citizens for Environmental Justice (CEJ) investigates all of Corpus Christi, TX., for the impacts of the energy industry there. The study says CEJ “found the city’s birth defect rate to be 84 percent higher than in other parts of Texas.”
Suzie's current battle: preventing Citgo Petroleum Corp. from expanding operations in Corpus Christi
- Tested positive for 26 to 29 of 75 chemicals.
- Bisphenol A - 85th percentile. Higher than all but 15 percent of Americans tested.
- Polycyclic musks - 86th percentile. Higher than all but 14 percent of people tested.
- Also found - Perchlorate, lead, perfluorochemicals (PFCs), polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), mercury.
Jean Salone, also of CEJ, chaired a biomonitoring study that found residents of her predominantly African American community “had elevated blood and urine concentrations of benzene, a chemical associated with oil drilling and refining and listed by the U.S. government as a known human carcinogen.” Hillcrest, Salone’s community, borders the Citgo oil refinery. She wonders if her own bout with breast cancer is connected to refinery emissions.
- Tested positive for for 40 to 45 of 75 chemicals chemicals.
- Bisphenol A - 77th percentile. Higher than all but 23 percent of Americans tested.
- Perfluorochemicals (PFCs) - 80th percentile. Higher than all but 20 percent of Americans tested.
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - 89th percentile. Higher than all but 11 percent of Americans tested.
- Also found - Perchlorate, lead, mercury, polycyclic musks.
Vivian Chang, former executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, in Oakland, CA., says Asian immigrants face “isolation and invisibility to the regulatory agencies,” because nobody speaks their language. She organized the Laotian community of Richmond, CA., “to confront environmental problems caused by the local Chevron oil refinery.”
- Tested positive for for 40 to 45 of 75 chemicals chemicals.
- Mercury - 91st percentile. Higher than all but 9 percent of Americans tested.
- Polycyclic musks - 84th percentile. Higher than all but 16 percent of people tested.
- Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) - 86th percentile. Higher than all but 14 percent of Americans tested.
- Also found - Perchlorate, bisphenol A (BPA), lead, perfluorochemicals (PFCs).
In April, researchers from the University of Massachusetts and the University of Southern California released a study stating that low-income and minority neighborhoods are disproportionately affected by industrially-generated toxic air.
Where's the corporate responsibility?
You could say I'm pika-obsessed. I've sat in many a talus field until my butt went numb, watching the diminutive rabbit-relatives ferry mouthfuls of wildflowers. I've spent collective hours trying to mimic their squeeze-toy call (without success) while I built trails on Mount Massive, outside of Leadville, Colo. I even sharpied myself a "Pika Power" patch, complete with a drawing of the furry creature, on a scrap of old sheet and sewed it to the back of a blazer, so that I might sport my pika-love with pride. In other words, I'm a huge nerd.
And as a certifiable pika nerd, I'm feeling pretty ambivalent about the latest pika news: On Wednesday, May 6, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the alpine critter may warrant federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. As Michelle Nijhuis documented in her 2006 High Country News cover story "The Ghosts of Yosemite" and accompanying sidebar, pikas -- high altitude lovers by nature -- have been retreating to higher and higher elevations as the climate warms. If the trend continues, they may be pushed off the peaks and out of existence.
That possibility led the Center for Biological Diversity and Earthjustic to petition for pika listing back in 2007. The service's latest finding came after the groups filed a lawsuit in 2008 to force the feds to respond to the petition, and later settled with the government this past February.
On one hand, the announcement indicates pikas may finally get some protection from the feds. And their plight, once fully recognized, may add yet more urgency to mounting a meaningful response to climate change.
On the other hand, it's one more sign that we don't have all that much time to act. And that regardless of what we do, we may quickly lose some of the things that fill us with unselfconscious nerdy wonder.
For three decades, Oregon has been a leader among Western states with its progressive planning for growth. Now the city of Portland is looking into the future, staking out land for farms and homes for the coming decades.
After the state passed landmark land-use planning rules in 1973, Portland decided to protect the open space and farmland surrounding the city, and restricted urban development to a 22-square-mile block. A backlash against similarly strict land regulations began building across the state, and in 2004, citizens passed Measure 37, which loosened urban growth boundaries and strengthened property rights. Alarmed by the development anarchy unleashed by Measure 37, residents passed Measure 49 in
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Ray Ring's HCN report “Champions Go Both Ways – Two Weeks in the West” in the April 27th edition was sure to spur debate. The report focused on Obama Administration appointments at the Interior Department which were described as plums and pay backs which have been handed out to members of the environmental establishment in a manner similar to the way the Bush Administration rewarded supporters from extractive industries.
You can read the article and the multitude of comments from readers it has inspired on line. And while these terms were not used in either the article or (so far) in on-line comments, it seems to me that the debate about Ray's report is essentially about the difference between special interests and the public interest.
Environmental organizations tell the world that they operate in the public interest. The basis for this claim is the Public Trust Doctrine. First formulated by the Roman Emperor Justinian, the PTD declares that air, water and the shores of navigable rivers and streams are public property which can not be owned or controlled by private interests. The doctrine has been carried into American common law via the Magna Carta and English Common Law. It has been argued that laws like the Endangered Species Act have extended the concept of the public trust to apply to the survival of animals and plant species.
Politicians, however, treat environmental organizations not as representatives of the public interest but as just another special interest whose power, influence – and campaign contributions – need to be considered and weighed against the power, influence – and campaign contributions – of corporate and other private interests.
It seems to me that the environmental establishment has, for the most part, accepted the status of special interest while some environmental establishment organizations have wholeheartedly embraced that role. This is reflected in the proliferation of 501-c-4 environmental organizations which, while non-profit, can lobby for specific legislation. This in turn has corresponded to a waning of interest in claims and campaigns based on the public trust.
To be fair, it is a bit disingenuous to blame the environmental establishment for accepting a role which has been thrust upon it by politicians and society. In our society and in our politics many things that were traditionally public have been redefined as private – a process which continues to this day. Water privatization and air pollution trading are two contemporary examples. Privatization of the air and water are criticized by Indigenous activists as contrary to the essential public nature of these elements.
Most Americans are unaware of the extent to which the public interest as a guiding concept in our public life has already been eroded and continues under attack today. The drive to redefine water, air, wildlife and all things traditionally public as private is a radical development which conflicts with the bedrock values which prevailed during most of human history and which persist today in Indigenous societies and within our own traditions. Whether our children and grandchildren will enjoy the benefits of the Public Trust Doctrine, however, appears to be in doubt.
Since the 1940's, farmers in the Mexicali Valley in Baja California have relied on leakage from the All-American Canal to irrigate their fields. The 80 mile-long channel runs from the Imperial Dam, north of Yuma, Ariz., along the U.S./Mexico border, ending near Calexico. It diverts about 3.1 million acre-feet of Colorado River water to nine Southern Calif. cities and waters 500,000 acres of Imperial Valley farmland every year.
Because the Bureau of Reclamation originally dug the channel through sandy dirt, leaving it unlined, about 67,700 acre-feet, or 2 percent, of that water escapes on a yearly basis through the absorbent walls of the canal, filling wells in the Mexicali valley across the border and watering thousands of acres of wetlands. However, this unintended generosity finally dried up last Saturday as California officials gathered to celebrate the completion of a new, $300-million project which replaced a 23-mile section of the dirt canal with a concrete-lined channel.
Conserving 67,700 acre-feet per year may alleviate some of the pressure on Southern Calif. to get more water from the Sacramento or Colorado Rivers. It will provide 16,000 acre-feet per year in water rights for the Mission Indians and other local groups. However, it will also dry up 3,000 acres of prime agricultural land in Mexico, and over 15,500 acres of wetlands.
Funded by the San Diego County Water Authority and the state government, the plan to line the canal was approved by Congress in 1988, but lawsuits from the Mexican government and protests from environmentalists have slowed its progress. See Matt Jenkins' 2007 story, "The Efficiency Paradox," for an exploration of how the canal's sloppy engineering has sustained ecosystems as well as thousands of Mexican farmers.
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After years of legal deadlock over the federal government's inadequate attempts to recover Columbia Basin salmon devastated by dams, the Obama administration appears to be steering a new course. Ken Olsen just wrote High Country News an extensive analysis of how this new political order -- combined with the efforts of a diligent federal judge, Congressional changes, shifts in attitude among dam beneficiaries, renewable energy gains and other factors -- could finally get federal salmon recovery rolling, potentially even leading to the eventual removal of four particularly harmful dams on the lower Snake River.
Just after Olsen's article went to press (it will appear in the May 11 issue and is now featured on our Web site), the Obama administration made a move that appears to bolster Olsen's analysis. In a letter to U.S. District Judge James Redden, who is overseeing the longstanding salmon case, Obama administration officials announced that they want extra time to review the outgoing Bush administration's final salmon recovery plan. The Associated Press reports:
The Justice Department said top officials in the Obama administration want a delay of up to two months to "more fully understand all aspects" of the plan.
. . .
Witt Anderson, a spokesman for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Portland, said the delay would give officials of the new administration time to familiarize themselves with all the issues in the complex case. Jane Lubchenco, the new administrator of NOAA, was among those attending high-level meetings on the case in recent days.
Of course, that's not a definitive indication that the administration will change the plan, or finally include the option of breaching dams to save fish. But it may be among the first indications that major changes are in order for Northwest salmon.
In the context of climate change, our energy appetite has shoved us into a corner. We've gotten used to a diet of cheap, energy-packed fossil fuels, and it will probably be impossible to find an alternative that doesn't bring along its own set of environmental impacts: Solar arrays will damage deserts, wind farms decimate birds and bats, and where the heck will we site the transmission lines?
And now the Idaho Statesman is describing another twist to the general dilemma: when it comes to killing salmon, hydro power dams and climate change are in fierce competition. Right now, dams may be decimating smolts by the millions, but wait a few decades and warmer water temperatures may stop southerly salmon populations -- and those that spawn in the summer -- dead in their tracks.
In light of those facts, the article poses the question: do we demolish dams or not? After all, argues the Statesman reporter, if we remove dams, fossil-fuel powerplants might replace them. Some salmon populations will benefit from unimpeded spawning runs, but will the added carbon emission result in a larger threat to the species as a whole? Which is more dangerous: millions of tons of greenhouse gases distributed in the atmosphere, or all those tons of concrete sitting in a river?Read More ...
Imagine a water conference focused not on fluvial geomorphology, hydraulics, creek restoration, riparian grazing management, stream bank erosion, non-point source pollution, cumulative water resource impact assessment and the like, but instead on water as a mysterious, magical, extraordinary substance.
That’s what former Hopi chairman Vernon Masayevsa had in mind when he conceived “Braiding Through Water: Weaving Traditional and Western Sciences and Knowledge,” a conference held in Flagstaff, Ariz., last month.
In Hopi, water is life and energy, the connecting power that links living beings, islands and continents, and earth to other planets in the cosmic sea. To employ water as a mere commodity – as, for example, Peabody Energy did when it used the pure water of the Navajo Aquifer under Northern Arizona’s Black Mesa to make coal slurry – is to take the wrong path. In 1998 Masayevsa formed the Black Mesa Trust to save the dwindling aquifer, claiming the company had taken so much water that washes and sacred springs on Hopi land had begun to run dry.
“At first we had to play the game according to their rules,” says Masayevsa. “And there was no way for us to win (that way). So we asked the water and the water said: Bring the fight to your territory, talk about water as the ancestors talked about it. So we went to our ancient traditions and knowledge, and that was when Peabody could not fight us.”