I'm continually amazed and inspired by the beauty captured and posted in photographic form by High Country News readers at our HCN Flickr Pool. Not only are readers capturing the beauty of the West, they're cataloging their fascinating explorations and keen observations of the landscape they call home.
It's getting harder and harder to choose a weekly reader photo, (submit yours!) but I kept coming back to this one, an deeply saturated image of a thermal pool in Yellowstone, submitted by reader/photographer SigmaEye.
Of the many findings presented in a recent American Civil Liberties Union report, which concludes that many Indians face discriminatory policies and actions that deny them their constitutional right to vote, poor circumstances facing western tribal citizens tend to stand out.
One of the most shocking cases of disenfranchisement highlighted in the report, titled “Voting Rights in Indian Country,” centers on Buffalo County in central South Dakota, which, until recently, had a decades-old plan in place for electing its three-member county commission.
“Despite the fact that 83 percent of its population is Indian, the plan packed nearly all of them – some 1,500 people in a county of 2,000 inhabitants – into one district,” according to the report.
“Whites, though only 17 percent of the population, controlled the remaining two districts, and thus controlled the county government.”
And this wasn’t in ancient times. This was just a few short years ago.
In 2003, tribal members filed a lawsuit with the help of the ACLU, in which they alleged that the districting plan inequitably divided its population for representation and had been drawn to discriminate.
The county ended up admitting its plan was discriminatory and agreed to submit its future plans to federal supervision.
The situation in Buffalo County is just one of many bad scenarios presented in the report involving Indian voting rights that have called for legal intervention.
Interestingly, almost every lawsuit cited was filed on behalf of Native Americans in western states, namely Colorado, Montana, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming.
After reading about so many discrimination cases throughout the region, I grew curious—why? Is the West more likely to discriminate against Native voting rights? Are Indians there more likely to litigate?
To help answer those questions, I turned to a couple of Native voting rights experts, including Daniel McCool, a professor of political science at the University of Utah who co-authored the 2007 book “Native Vote: American Indians, the Voting Rights Act, and the Right to Vote.”
He explained that there have been many voting rights cases filed in the old confederacy, but the numbers of African-American and Hispanic voters dwarf the number of Indian voters there, so that's where the attention from advocates tends to be focused.
Not fair, but reality.
McCool also said that protections in the Voters Rights Act tend to favor situations where Indians are concentrated in a certain area, which is often the case involving many western reservations.
He added that cases involving Natives and language assistance have all been in the West because that is where there are still significant numbers of Indian people who do not have a mastery of English and prefer using their own language.
McCool’s explanations tell me that the West is not necessarily any worse than any other region on Native voting rights—but it is fertile ground for study. And with study comes attention. And with attention comes change.
We're loving the variety and beauty of the many photos HCN readers are posting up on our Flickr group. This week's selection was tough, since there are so many amazing images. But the old-timey feel of this image makes it an instant classic - it seems like a snapshot you'd find in an old shoebox in your grandma's attic.
The Pew Charitable Trust has launched a new effort and website which "aims to raise public awareness about the role of federal subsidies in the economy. Subsidyscope should be useful to Westerners who want to know the details of where federal subsidies are distributed around our region. it has long been observed that - while Westerners generally extol the virtues of "rugged individualism" - they have been nevertheless both eager and effective at getting the federal government to subsidize the region's industries and governments.
I decided to use the database to see if the West as a region receives more federal subsidies than do other regions. Here's what I found.One of the first areas which Subsidyscope investigated is subsidies to airports which rate as low priorities according to the National Priority Ratings system (NPR). According to the Federal Aviation Administration "NPR is a numerical model that is one of several tools FAA uses to prioritize airport development projects."
The Pew database “includes information on enplanements —the number of paying passengers who board scheduled airlines or charter planes—to give users a sense of the level of commercial activity at a particular airport.” It “also includes data on operations—takeoffs and landings of air carrier, air taxi, general aviation and military aircraft—when such numbers are available.”
What I found is that of the 20 airport receiving the most dollars per enplanement during the 2005 through 2008 federal fiscal years eleven of the projects are in the West, seven are in the South and two are in Minnesota. For this purpose Texas and Oklahoma are not considered part of the West; there were no Texas projects in the top 20 but there was an Oklahoma project. You can check out the 20 projects and other related information on the Subsidyscope website.
It is clear that too many airport subsidies are going to airports which do not serve many everyday citizens, i.e. those who do not own a private plane. Most of the traffic at many of the subsidized low enplanement airports are private planes piloted by wealthy Westerners who want to commute from rural locations to western cities.
Pew seems to be arguing that this money would be better spent on airports that serve more people. In the West we have lots of rural land but we are also the most urbanized region in the nation. In accordance with my Western populist tendencies, I’d argue that the rich private aircraft owners should have to pay their own way….or at least that urban Westerners should get a fair share of the airport subsidies.
Did you notice the two projects in Minnesota? I decided to check the Congressional Directory at Congress.org to determine if Minnesota has powerful senators or representatives on the committees which oversee the FFA.
Low and behold, I found that Representative James Oberstar, a Minnesota Democrat, chairs the House Transportation and Infrastucture Committee and that Democrat Tim Walz is a member of that committee. I suspect that one of the criteria the FAA uses to select airport subsidy projects is the political power wielded by members of Congress with jurisdiction over FFA activities.
No surprises there; I can't wait until Pew takes a look at water subsidies!
I’d like to invite HCN reporters, bloggers and readers to use the Pew Subsidyscope database to investigate where illogical distribution of federal subsidies reflects political power rather than social priority. Maybe by shining light on these boondoggles we can cause our politicians to think twice before they deliver the pork. I think that is exactly what the Pew Trust is hoping will happen.
On October 1st, we trailed 136 cow/calf pairs down Dry Cottonwood Creek and settled them in a stubble field near the Clark Fork River. This cattle drive marked the end of the 2009 grazing season and the beginning of our shift toward winter management of the ranch and herd. Now, with the days getting shorter and fall’s first snow on the ground, it seems like a good time to revisit some of the summer’s challenges and achievements.
The D.C.C.R. ran two herds this year: The smaller bunch, which grazed on our deeded ground, rotated through a series of six pastures over the course of four and a half months. Moving in accordance with a season-long grazing plan, the herd passed quickly through the ranch’s more fragile areas and spent the bulk of their summer up on the high, grassy benches between Sand Hollow and Dry Cottonwood Creek. Temporary electric fence and consistent herding kept our cattle moving, and close attention from ranch staff ensured that we left ample grass in each pasture for wildlife and general improvement of the range. We were able to defer grazing in two pastures, allowing for reseeding on than 800 acres of native grassland.
On the National Forest, things were a bit more complicated: We share a grazing permit with three other ranchers, and have a combined herd of more than 500 cow/calf pairs. The allotment consists of four enormous pastures, which are better measured in square miles than acres and span the drainages of four perennial creeks. Three of these pastures are grazed each summer, while one enjoys a full season of rest.
The allotment’s vast scale and steep topography make it difficult to manage cattle well. It’s hard to find the cows up there, let alone control where and when they graze. In past years, intensive management on the allotment was viewed as something of a lost cause. The herd went where it pleased, and fragile riparian areas around Orofino, Sand Hollow and Dry Cottonwood Creeks suffered as a result.
This year marked the beginning of a new era on Dry Cottonwood Creek: In May we joined forces with our co-lessees to hire an allotment rider. Our rider, Jim, herds cattle away from creeks and other fragile areas, and does his best to avoid overgrazing. I supplement this work with a comprehensive range and riparian monitoring program to track improvements and identify problems.
All in all we’re making progress. Although a few trouble spots remain, the allotment looks healthier than it did last October. In some places our efforts have produced striking results: There are areas along Dry Cottonwood Creek where I can walk with grass up to my knees, see new shoots on what used to be browsed-out willows, and feel as though we’re getting somewhere—forging a balance that works for wildlife, livestock, and the land.
Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at www.clarkfork.org.
Fall, for me at least, is the time of still moments, of stepping back and watching silently as the light shifts and the colors change. This photo, by Flickr user juliaahbell, while black and white, seemed to capture that feeling perfectly.
High Country News picks a reader photo each week (approximately) - join our Flickr group and add your unique images from the West.
A recent opinion piece by Mike Medberry wisely suggested that there needs to be a reasonable middle ground in the deeply polemical attitudes toward managing wolves in the West.
Unfortunately, this encouraging argument was followed by much of the same tired, politicized and oversimplified rhetoric, pitting environmental groups against the government and mischaracterizing the premise and background behind the ongoing legal actions.
The truth is that the restoration of a viable wolf population to the West could be “the most successful program ever accomplished under the Endangered Species Act [ESA]” – but we still have a little ways to go. And, as much as we’d love to, given our decades of time, money and energy on this recovery effort, we cannot declare victory until the criteria of the ESA are met.
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A real forest partnership is NOT about giving up rights under the law; suspending duly established government process or excluding the public from important decisions about the public lands. Real forest partnerships are not about accommodation; they are about finding a new social balance which is respectful of the laws and the land. Real forest partnerships honor the Organic Act which created the national forests so that westerners could enjoy "favorable conditions of water flow" and as a hedge against future timber famines. Real forest partnerships honor the mandates of the National Forest Management Act: biodiversity, clean streams, diverse recreation and responsible resource use without impairing the land.
When communities and industries embrace such a vision – the original and therefore the conservative approach – left and right wing labels dissolve into air and true community – not shotgun weddings or marriages of convenience but real community - emerges.
As an elder of the tribe I consider it a disappointment and a disgrace that some who call themselves defenders of the earth are willing to make deals and reach accommodations which do not honor the far seeing laws enacted to protect public land and public trust resources including water and wildlife. These are bedrock laws and public trusts; true partnerships will not compromise them.
For many western politicians all forest partnerships that include timber corporations are the same: they have never seen one that they did not fall all over themselves seeking to support. These politicians have been too eager to pass legislation which skirts bedrock public land laws in order to get more trees out of the woods. This is what happened with the Quincy Library Group Bill championed by Wally Herger and Diane Feinstein and passed into law in 1997. Its proponents promised not only jobs but also fire risk reduction and even that the bill would augment California’s water supply by removing “thirsty” trees from the Sierra Mountains.
The QLG legislation has been a failure. Not only has it failed to deliver the promised logs, it has increased rather than reduced conflict over Northern Sierra timber sales, increased rather than decreased the risk that forest fires will burn catastrophically and decreased rather than increased the dry-season flow in Northern Sierra rivers and streams. Can I prove these claims? Well in the case of the water claim I do not need to provide justification – at least according to Nobel laureate Wangari Mattei. When asked in a 2005 interview published in Sierra Magazine why she concentrated her efforts to help women on tree planting Mattei replied:
We all know where water comes from, from forested mountains.
I am not sure just which “we” Mattei referred to. She apparently does not realize that here in the American West the full connection between trees and water supply is a carefully guarded secret which not even Forest Service researchers have the political will to study.
The press has been as gullible and uncritical as the politicians. HCN is one of the few publications that has provided diverse perspectives on the QLG legislation and other forest partnerships. Unlike environmental groups which are classed as right or left, radical or mainstream, etc and whose actions are closely evaluated, forest partnerships have gotten a free ride from the western press. Following the lead of the politicians, the western press declares “success” if former antagonists sign an agreement. I know of no instance where the media has gone back later to report on the actual results on the ground. Where, for example, are the follow-up stories on the QLG legislation? I’ve done the on-line searches and I can not find a single example of a forest partnership or collaboration which the media - including HCN - has revisited after implementation to report on results.
As a mater of fact, that would be a great article for HCN – an evaluation a dozen years after its passage of how the QLG legislation has played out on the ground.
From north to south, the pastures of the Dry Cottonwood Creek Allotment are as follows: Orofino, North Fork, Basin, Sand Hollow, Upper Hilltop, Lower Hilltop, and Butte Pacific. The last of these—Butte Pacific—is foremost in my mind today.
All the other pastures are named for natural features: Orofino for a creek and a mountain; North Fork for one of two little brooks that join to form Dry Cottonwood Creek; Basin for a massive bowl of grass that stretches nearly to the continental divide; Sand Hollow for a creek that disappears into the ground (although the cartographers missed the mark on this one, since the creek itself doesn’t flow through the pasture); the Hilltops, both Upper and Lower, for a massive ridge that curves like the back of a sleeping dog.
Butte Pacific is different. It’s named for a few caved-in shafts and a shattered concrete foundation that used to be a copper mine of middling worth. The Butte Pacific pasture is oddly shaped and speckled with a shotgun pattern of private in-holdings. Butte Pacific hangs off the south end of the allotment like an afterthought. The other guys who run cattle up here tell me that it’s always the first pasture to dry out, and that the grass never seems to last long. They warn me about some of the people that live back in the mountains, and tell stories about being run off at gunpoint, or being threatened by men with crazy eyes and blunt instruments in their hands. “If the cattle get up that way,” A friend of mine said, “I’d just as soon leave ‘em.”
Butte Pacific sits on a boundary between worlds. Look north and you see an endless line of lumpish mountains—an ecosystem as healthy as most of the others around here. The land has problems, to be sure, but by and large they are the familiar epidemics of western Montana: Cows beat hell out of the creeks; Ill conceived roads spill sediment downhill; People tear around on ATV’s; Pine beetles color the hillsides a hopeless shade of red.
These things are bad. Some of them are even catastrophic. But in spite of them the land endures. Westslope Cutthroat trout swim in the North Fork. Elk bugle through the groves of dying lodgepole pine. North of Butte Pacific it is still possible to hope. The mountains are alive enough to suggest a brighter future.
Not so to the south. That way lays the wasteland. Climb up to the top of the principal ridge in Butte Pacific, look upstream along the Clark Fork River, and this is what you see:
The horizon is all mountains—sheer gray triangles that make up the Anaconda Range. This September they hold just a few last shreds of snow. The principal peak is Mount Haggin, and it juts into the sky like a bony shoulder. The mountains are the highest points in the panorama, but not by much. Let your eyes fall just a bit from the skyline, and you’ll see the Stack.
It is inadequate to say that the Stack is big. It doesn’t do justice to specify that it measures 585 feet from bottom to top, has walls that taper from six to two feet thick, and is a strong contender for the title of ‘tallest freestanding masonry structure in the world.’ The thing is gargantuan, built on a scale to match Montana’s famously big sky.
The Stack is what remains of the Anaconda Smelter, a facility that spent the better part of the last century cooking a massive profit out of low-grade ore from Butte. It looks jet-black from where I’m standing, regardless of the weather or the angle of the sun. It sits like a crow on the hill above Anaconda.
From my point of view the Stack looks ominous. I know it’s toxic as hell—soaked through with Arsenic and heavy metals—and that it rained a dilute, poisonous ash across this valley for more fifty years.
In old photos, the Stack is connected to a labyrinth of furnaces and smelters by a handful of massive flues. The buildings and their exhaust pipes are gone now, removed in the early stages of an environmental cleanup that continues today. Nowadays we’re left with one towering chimney, which has the presence of a war memorial, and vast tracts of polluted land.
The worst of these are the Opportunity Settling Ponds, which stretch downhill from the base of the smelter toward the Clark Fork River. The ponds are dry now, and from up in the Butte Pacific Pasture they look white as old bones. Nothing grows on them. Nothing moves across that benighted, manmade desert except a few haul trucks and the wind. I’ve been down there, and it’s bad dirt as far as the eye can see.
Bryce Andrews is the Ranchlands Program Manager for the Clark Fork Coalition, the "Voice of the River." More information can be found at www.clarkfork.org.
This week, we're featuring a photo by Flickr user VexingArt. It's not only a nice shot, with plenty of depth and character and that cool old photo look, but it also captures one of those common features of so many Western landscapes: The shot out appliance. To see more High Country News Reader photos, or to submit your own, go to our Flickr group.