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Adopt a stimulus project

Marty Durlin | May 28, 2009 07:25 AM

Affirming that "investigative journalism is at risk," ProPublica began publishing a year ago. A nonprofit newsroom in Manhattan led by Paul Steiger (former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal) and Stephen Engelberg (former managing editor of Portland's Oregonian and once an investigative reporter at the New York Times), ProPublica is bankrolled by the Sandler Foundation to the tune of $10 million a year and employs 32 journalists. Stories are offered to traditional news organizations, free of charge, and then appear on the ProPublica website after a period of exclusivity.

Our work focuses exclusively on truly important stories, stories with “moral force.” We do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

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Confessions of a trespasser

Ed Quillen | May 28, 2009 06:40 AM

    My favorite dog-walking trail near town has just undergone another transformation from the federal Bureau of Land Management. A new sign sprouted on a post at its start a few days ago: ROUTE CLOSED. And then, a few days later, the post and sign were gone.
    Before March of this year, it was just a bone-jarring mud-holed rock-ridden chunk of dead-end road that twisted for less than a mile between the railroad tracks and the Arkansas River about two miles downstream from Salida. Then the BLM planted a post in it, announcing it was closed to motorized vehicles.
    That post was knocked down, and there were complaints about diminished access.
    The BLM put up a new post, but a few days ago, the agency changed the sign from "No motorized vehicles allowed" to ROUTE CLOSED.
    What happened?
    The BLM does not want to encourage people to trespass on railroad property, and this route did wander across some railroad land at various points. Thus the new sign.
    Some history is in order. The line was built by the Denver & Rio Grande in 1880. The D&RG was not a "land grant railroad" like the Union Pacific or Northern Pacific, wherein the federal government  subsidized construction by issuing vast tracts (generally alternate sections for ten miles out from both sides of the tracks) that the railroad could then sell.
    But where the D&RG crossed public lands, all the federal government gave it was a right-of-way that extended 100 feet on both sides of the center line of the track. It shows up on old maps as a "railroad reservation" because the land was "reserved" from other uses, like mining claims or homesteads, along the same lines as Indian reservations or military reservations.
    As the BLM implemented its travel management plan for this area earlier this year, determining which routes would be open to motorized vehicles, the agency recently discovered that this trail, as it wound along the river, also wound across railroad land.
    Apparently no one had really noticed before because there's a barbed-wire fence (not in good repair) between the tracks and the road. But the fence, as it turns out, was just to keep cattle off the tracks; it didn't indicate the property boundary.
    As for the property owner, the original D&RG became the Denver & Rio Grande Western, which became part of the Southern Pacific in 1988. In 1996, the Southern Pacific was merged into the Union Pacific, and the UP decided to close the "Tennessee Pass Line" through here. The last train over these tracks ran in early 1999 to haul the last load of lead and zinc concentrates from the Black Cloud Mine near Leadville as it shut down.
    In railroad parlance, the line is not abandoned; instead it is "out of service." The rails remain in place, but they are covered with rust and sit atop rotting cross-ties on a weedy roadbed dotted with sporadic small rockslides.
    If the UP actually used the land it owns for its intended purpose of providing transportation, that would be one thing. But as it is, I plan to keep walking my dog there. I'll take my chances on getting arrested for trespassing by the railroad cops.
    As for the post and sign that vanished a couple of days ago, I called the BLM, figuring there had been yet another development and perhaps the BLM was washing its hands of this troublesome portion of the travel-management plan. But no, the post and ROUTE CLOSED should have been there. Some vandal had pulled out the post, and the BLM plans to replace it.

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False Claims Virus on the loose!

Felice Pace | May 28, 2009 05:55 AM

All humans like to believe their community, region or country is special. This has led to countless specious claims to greatness based on size: the tallest flag pole, the deepest canyon, the highest waterfall, the oldest building….and so forth. Some of these claims are, of course, true; but the vast majority of them are not. Even some claims that are verified and accepted for years - the tallest waterfall is an example - turn out not to be true after all.

Westerners – at least those of us who arrived in the region within the last 200 years – are particularly prone to this sort of exaggeration. Whether it is caused by infection with a potent form of the disease known as American Exceptionalism or by something else (the water?), western boosterism has resulted in some spectacularly outrageous claims. Perhaps the most famous is that “rain follows the plow” – a specious claim that led to much suffering on the western Great Plains but also played a role in producing/inspiring great western writers and historians - Wallace Stegner and Donald Worster for example.

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In salty, seaside beaver ponds...

Terray Sylvester | May 28, 2009 05:55 AM

Greg Hood is a researcher in western Washington who knows a few things about salmon habitat -- a few surprising things. When Hood talks about preserving threatened populations, he doesn't mention in-stream flows, fish ladders or water temperatures. Instead, he brings up a mostly-vanished ecosystem than once lined significant portions of the Puget Sound. It was composed of a shrub named sweetgale, tidal marshes and... beaver ponds near the seashore. That's right, some beavers stake out seaside territory, and according to Hood, their ponds make excellent homes for juvenile salmon. Problem is, most of that tidal habitat has been destroyed over the last century or so. So little of it remains today that he thinks most people have forgotten -- or have just never realized – how important the beaver ponds once were to the endangered Puget Sound Chinook.

The Seattle Times recently covered Hood’s work, and some of his research can be found online, but here's the gist of his findings: 

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"The Sportsman's Park Service"

Jodi Peterson | May 27, 2009 09:26 AM

Do paved trails, groomed picnic areas, and visitor centers stocked with tacky t-shirts and soft-serve ice cream make your outdoor experience seem uncomfortably like Disneyland? Next time, skip Rocky Mountain National Park and wander into the much less developed lands of the National Landscape Conservation System – like the Gunnison Gorge, in western Colorado.

The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area is one of some 800 units in the NLCS, created by then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 2000  to protect the “crown jewels” of BLM land and emphasize conservation over multiple use. Congress finally gave the NLCS official standing this spring, when it voted to make the system

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From Gitmo to Montana?

Ed Quillen | May 23, 2009 01:40 AM

    During the presidential campaign, both Barack Obama and John McCain promised to close the detainee prison at the Marine Corps base at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba.
    Obama won, and he's been looking at ways to fulfill his promise. One complication is that there are people in custody who should stay in custody -- where can they be kept if not at Gitmo?
    Not many communities have raised their hands and said "We'd like those prisoners," but one has: Hardin, Montana. It has a new state-of-the-art high-security prison that's sitting empty, along with a high unemployment rate and a fading town.
    But U.S. Senator Max Baucus doesn't want them in his Montana. Similarly, Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter said it wouldn't bother him if they were housed at the federal "SuperMax" facility in Florence, Colo. However, Ritter may have been the only elected official in Colorado who wasn't up in arms about it, and the story is much the same in other states.
    Now, there may be practical reasons, like capacity, not to put them in SuperMax.  But the place already has some of the worst of the worst, like Oklahoma City bomber Terry Nichols and various of the plotters of the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center.

    It's only 65 miles away from me, one of four federal prisons in Fremont County, Colo., which also has nine state prisons, making about 7,500 inmates altogether.
    That's down the river from Salida, where I live. Up the river, about 25 miles away, is another state prison, the Buena Vista Correctional Facility, with about 1,200 inmates.

    There are a lot of bad guys locked up around here. But I've never lost a moment's sleep on that account. Prisoners aren't a danger to the community unless they escape, and as Obama pointed out, no one has ever escaped from a SuperMax. So if Hardin is ready, willing, and able to help close Gitmo, why not?





A change is gonna come

As more consumers choose to eat locally, agribusinesses tailor their ads to fit the market. According to Mark Muller of Civil Eats, this reactionary stance from the corporations is a big shift in our current food system.

Lay’s just recently tried on the “local” hat. And Walmart did too last year. But skeptics are put-off by all this corporate local talk, because it changes the public perception of the phrase. “True” locovores generally get their food within a hundred-mile radius. Whole Foods Market defines local with a 7-hour truck drive. And a lot of the bigger corporations consider anywhere in the state as local. That can be a long drive out here in the West.

Muller also mentioned the letter that CropLife sent to Michelle Obama. They’re upset that her White House garden is organic. And they're urging folks to write letters to her with pleas like, "What message does that send to the non-farming public about an important and integral part of growing safe and abundant crops to feed and clothe the world -- crop protection products?"

Check out the full letter, and you’ll see all the comments below it are railing the conventional-farm-minded people.

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Snowbowl Redux: The Question of Balance

Michael Wolcott | May 20, 2009 03:49 AM

Every journalist is biased. Scribes-for-hire have opinions, just like anybody else. However most readers expect some approximation of fairness and balance. The reporter’s job is to lock his personal views in a cage until press time.

This professional obligation was very much on my mind last winter when I wrote “The Snow War,” a summary of the bitter controversy and legal wrangling that surround Arizona Snowbowl’s plan to make artificial snow from reclaimed sewage effluent on the San Francisco Peaks—which are held sacred by 13 southwestern tribes.

Snowbowl operates on Coconino National Forest, which approved the plan to make snow with Flagstaff’s treated sewage water. Native Americans say this would desecrate their holy mountain. Environmentalists argue that micro-pollutants in the water could harm human health and the mountain ecosystem. The U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether to hear the lawsuit that seeks to block snowmaking, Navajo Nation vs. the U.S. Forest Service. If the high court chooses not to, then Snowbowl wins.

My biases on the issue are well-documented. (See “Religion loses to recreation in Arizona”). I have testified against snowmaking at public hearings, filed objections on EIS documents, given media interviews, and stood on Snowbowl Road with other protesters, holding a sign that said "No to Yellow Snow.” Still, I intended to tell this story fairly.

Did I succeed? Well, that depends on who you talk to.

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The "Bennett Thaw", at last

Jodi Peterson | May 19, 2009 09:15 AM

Last week, President Obama signed legislation putting an end to a time warp in Indian land. For more than 40 years, Navajos and Hopi living near Tuba City, Ariz., had been prohibited from building new roads or new homes. Nor could they improve existing homes, or even install electricity and running water when those services became available. 

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Beyond adventure porn

Emily Underwood | May 19, 2009 05:49 AM

Adventure sport films can be a lot like pornography. Claiming little-to-no real artistic merit, they are produced explicitly for the excitement of the viewer and the ego-gratification of the performers. They have predictable soundtracks. They provide the chance for adrenaline junkies to sit, slack-jawed, and live vicariously through someone else’s physical abandon. Other adventure sport films achieve a higher level, more like erotica, “... in which the sexual element is regarded as part of the larger aesthetic aspect.” In these documentaries, reckless physical acts are seen as serving some larger point or higher purpose.

At the 2nd Annual 5 Point Film Festival in Carbondale, CO, organizers did their darndest to show a collection of films that went beyond mindless stimulation. Their mission was lofty and commendable: “to inspire adventure of all kinds, to connect generations through shared experience and respect, to engage passion with a conscience, and to educate through film.”

Not surprisingly, the results were mixed. Some of the films stayed comfortably within the realm of adventure porn: “Faster, steeper, higher, deeper.” The maniacal joy in the eyes of extreme backcountry skiers, gnarly climbers and suicidal base jumpers did inspire the thought, Where oh where is my passion?,  but didn’t make any coherent argument about why you should follow your passion to remote slopes in Alaska by helicopter rather than to, say, Prada, and charge thousands to your husband’s credit card. Depending on your taste, both experiences provide deep aesthetic satisfaction. They are both expensive, potentially risky, and make you look fantastic. But do they make you a better person?

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