"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.
Out here in the high elevation desert of Silver Hills the country is rough and remote. Much of it is so inaccessible that the common detritus of the dominant endemic species, Hillbillicus nevadensis (var. redneckii), is nowhere to be seen. So while the rutted, dusty BLM roads in the sage-filled valley bottoms are beribboned with spent shell casings, Coors light bottles, and empty cans of chew, there’s simply no easy way to litter the steep, rocky high country. There is only one unfortunate exception to this rule, and that is when trash is airlifted into these isolated mountains and canyons in the form of balloons. I’ve picked up so many trashed balloons over the years that I find myself wondering what in hell is so jolly about California, which is the nearby, upwind place where all this aerial trash originates. But maybe the prevalence of balloons in the otherwise litter-free high desert shouldn’t surprise me, since millions of balloons are released in the U.S. each year. We release balloons at graduation celebrations, birthday parties, wedding ceremonies, even funerals. There is in fact a company called Eternal Ascent that will, for $1,500, load your ashes into a balloon and float them away. Balloon launches for a pet’s ashes cost only $600, though, so if I go this route I’m going to advise my family to say that I was a Saint Bernard.
The moment a balloon is released it becomes trash, and this trash can cover some serious ground. A sixteen-inch diameter, helium-filled latex toy balloon will float for 24 to 36 hours, and if released can cover hundreds of miles while climbing to an altitude of 25,000 feet, where it freezes, explodes, and rains down to earth in the form of garbage, which some desert rat like me then has to tote home in his backpack. And while latex balloons will eventually biodegrade, the same is not true of metalized nylon balloons, which become a more or less permanent feature of the natural environment. That’s the downside of these so-called foil balloons. The upside is that they’re really shiny. Because they conduct electricity, metalized balloons also cause hundreds of blackouts in the U.S. each year by short-circuiting power lines, which perhaps suggests the vulnerability of the grid. If Cactus Ed Abbey were alive today he might enjoy the idea that the elaborate infrastructure of post-industrial capitalism can be brought down by a single, drifting, metalized Mickey Mouse. So the next time you release a balloon, don’t think of it as a celebratory symbol of freedom. Think of it as trash. You should also think of it as you would a message in a bottle, because someday, somewhere, there’s a chance that somebody will have to read whatever unimaginative nonsense is on your balloon. Given this rare opportunity to communicate across time and space, please try to come up with something more clever than the message on the last foil balloon I recovered out here: “Hoppy Birthday.”Read More ...
This month, all U.S. citizens have cause to celebrate: Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer, vetoed Senate bill 1332, which authorized the state to seize federal lands within its borders. Of course the whole notion was nuts, not to mention unconstitutional – although this didn’t prevent Utah governor Herbert from signing a similar bill awhile back – and Brewer deserves some credit for putting a stop to it.
By now, you may be thinking, that Jan Brewer? The Jan Brewer of the deer-in-the-headlights debate freeze-up and the finger-wagging airport tantrum directed at President Obama? Yes, that one. Here in Arizona, we’ve been trying to figure her out for awhile now, with little success. She’s signed some highly controversial pieces of legislation, such as the infamous anti-immigration SB 1070, and vetoed others, such as recent “bring-your-gun-anywhere-you-please” attempts.
Likewise, her record on public lands is a head scratcher. The federal government isn’t always the best manager of its (our) land holdings, but they’re certainly preferable to some of the schemers and incompetents who run this state, as I noted in this blog last month, and the recent veto proves that Brewer can sometimes have a cool head when she needs to. Unfortunately, the emphasis here is on “sometimes.”Read More ...
The prism of clear river water can distort and magnify the size of a fish, an effect amplified by adrenaline and nostalgia. Still, I remember one fish big enough to shake my whole view of the world.
I was of that tender age when one believes one’s father to be capable of anything except failure. Dad and I were camping along a headwater tributary of Idaho’s Clearwater River.
The trout rose from the shadows of the glassy waters, beyond reach of my childlike casts. It dashed after my dad’s spinner, but never struck. My mind’s eye sees that fish flashing bright and infuriating until the rich evening light faded to dark.
The fish made my old man mortal. That was my introduction to a bull trout, apex predator of the Columbia River Basin.
Today, I live in the stronghold of the bull trout – the Kootenai and Flathead Drainages of western Montana. I’ve watched as the legendary run from Flathead Lake crashed, and another at Swan Lake drifts into trouble. I’ve also seen the species go from obscurity to headlines when it was listed under the Endangered Species Act.
Still, in Montana waters where the species is holding its own, one may catch -- and even keep and eat -- bull trout. I believe that’s a good thing, and shows the inherent flexibility of the Endangered Species Act.
It surprises many that fishermen are still allowed to pursue bull trout under the Endangered Species Act, that notorious “atomic sledgehammer” of a law.Read More ...
DALLESPORT, Wash. – On April 25, 2012, representatives from four tribes, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Army Corps of Engineers all stood by the Columbia River to mark the end of a construction project both useful and symbolic. It was the completion of the 31st -- and final -- fishing access site on the river, giving tribes the ability to use their traditional fishing grounds and village sites, which they had lost access to due to dams on the river.
The moment harkened back to another gathering, that of the Bonneville Dam’s fiftieth anniversary in 1987, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Bonneville Power Administration threw a big celebration called, “Roll on, Columbia,” immortalized earlier in Woody Guthrie’s ballad about the dam.
Dignitaries arrived from near and far. Hundreds joined the VIPs to celebrate the first of eight federal dams on the Columbia/Snake river system dedicated Sept. 28, 1937. Somehow the Corps and the BPA forgot to invite the Indians displaced by the hydroelectric power.
They came anyway.
But the four Columbia River treaty tribes, the Umatilla, Yakama, Warm Springs, and Nez Perce didn’t join the revelers. Instead they set up their tee pees and an oversized drum on the Washington side of the project and took up a 50-hour vigil, mourning lost salmon, and their river way of life.Read More ...
By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House
This spring, to fulfill a friend’s birthday wish, we traveled from Colorado into Utah, dropped south off of I-70 near Green River on Utah Highway 24, and drove about 30 miles before leaving the pavement. Our destination was the West Rim trailhead in the Horseshoe Canyon Unit of Canyonlands National Park. To get there we bumped and lurched over 30 miles of washboard dirt road, the final few miles of which reminded me of my last dentist appointment.
Once parked, we hoofed it across the benchlands and over slickrock domes, weaving around pinyon and juniper, then dropped about 750 feet down into the canyon on an old stock trail. From there, we trudged along the sandy wash bottom for miles to the Great Gallery, an astonishing panel of Native American pictographs and petroglyphs unlike anything I’d ever seen. One large, ethereal figure, painstakingly painted on the Navajo sandstone and standing nearly eight feet high, raises goosebumps in my recollection.
It took some effort to reach the Great Gallery and we saw just a handful of people over several hours, one of whom was a national park ranger. Its remoteness, and the quiet that enables introspection there, is part of what makes a visit to Horseshoe Canyon an uncommon and moving experience.
But a debate that’s spanned a decade in Utah, and may soon come to a head, could make places like Horseshoe Canyon more accessible to the masses by leveling, widening and/or paving historic “highways.” Local government argues it’s a necessity, but wilderness watchers are worried that fragile desert ecosystems and archaeological treasures are at risk.Read More ...
So there’s this enduring stereotype about English teachers. We like cats. In my experience, it’s mostly true – among my colleagues (the nice ones anyway), a reliable conversation topic is always the latest amusing cat story/photo. There are other stereotypes also: yes, we do Tweet in complete sentences. But for the purposes of this post, I’m sticking with the cats. If you’re not a cat person or English teacher, please bear with me; I promise there are some Western environmental implications that will emerge shortly.
First, the background: one of my earliest posts for High Country News, in October, 2010, was a narrative about the death of my outdoor cat Finley and a reflection on the ethics of keeping cats outdoors, given their less-than-ideal impact on the environment. While it was rather far afield from my assignment at the time to write about environmental justice (the human variety), the HCN editors were kind enough to run it, and it received quite a lot of thoughtful comments. The commenters’ remarks, taken as a whole, represent a snapshot of what is to this day a lively debate about cats’ actual impact on birds and other fauna. Some statistics project an astronomical figure; others question those numbers. Still, if you’ve seen little Muffin with a terrified, thrashing hummingbird in his mouth, it’s not a pleasant sight.
Anyway, this begs the question: does keeping kitty indoors resolve all green concerns? If you’ve been following the cat litter debate (I confess I hadn’t been), you know that the answer is no.
Read More ...
By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House
I’m embarrassed to say that, in the decade I’ve lived on the Colorado Front Range, I’d never been to the Pawnee National Grasslands; that is, until last week. With mountains in my rear-view, I drove east from Fort Collins. Before long, I crossed the border into Weld County (called “Upstate Colorado” as I came to learn) and, after passing the Bison Breath bar in the tony town of Ault, I was on the Pawnee Pioneer Trail.
The land settled into rolling hills of gold and green and pockets of metallic-grey virga hung in the sky. Red-tailed hawks perched on fence posts and lark buntings darted upward then plummeted back toward the earth. Near-dry arroyos accompany small pockets of cottonwoods. There are homesteads with wrought-iron arches proudly marking ranch entrances —the legacy of pioneers who survived the Dust Bowl in the 1930s—and the tumbled-down remnants of the ones who did not. Here the PNG is interspersed with private land in a checkerboard of preserve bordered in spots by cattle munching on rangeland or farms with bales of hay stacked toward the heavens.
Here and there, poking up from the plains like giant, lit cigarettes are gas flares, burning off “waste” from oil drilling operations. The oil and gas game in Weld County is part of the Niobrara play, a rich shale deposit that lies beneath more than 8,000 square miles of northeast Colorado, northwest Kansas, southwest Nebraska, and southeast Wyoming. The formation is made up of layers of shale (where the oil formed) and limestone (where the oil collected) that were deposited 90 million years ago when a vast, inland sea covered most of the West. The wells lie on both private and public land and, out here, it’s hard to tell which is which.Read More ...
"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.Rants from the Hill is now a podcast too! Listen to an audio performance of this essay, here. You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes or through Feedburner for use in another podcast reader.
Desolate as their reputation remains among people who are looking for a handy place to test weapons or dispose of nuclear waste, American deserts have had as allies an impressive bunch of talented, passionate writers. Among these lyrical defenders I’d include Wallace Stegner, Cactus Ed Abbey, Ellen Meloy, Ann Zwinger, Leslie Marmon Silko, Charles Bowden, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Terry Tempest Williams. And at the headwaters of this dry river of sparkling prose I’d place Mary Austin, the early-twentieth-century writer who once described arid landscapes as “forsaken of most things but beauty and madness and death and God.” We don’t need to agree on what God might be to recognize how powerfully this expresses the exhilarating experience of desertness. In her 1903 book The Land of Little Rain, Austin writes of the desert that “There are hints to be had here of the way in which a land forces new habits on its dwellers.”
As a desert dweller myself, I’m fascinated by Austin’s geographical determinism—by her conviction that folks who live in the desert long enough are profoundly shaped by it. Out here in Silver Hills we’re buffeted by uncontrollable desert forces, from aridity, wind, and snow to earthquakes and fire. But we’re also profoundly influenced by the crisp, thin air and the unique quality of the light, by the unforgiving openness of the land and the monstrous silence it engenders. Lately I’ve been thinking about this towering desert silence, and how it might be shaping us even as we speak, or choose not to. I’ve long observed that raven and coyote talk more than we laconic Silver Hillsians do. The few folks scattered along our rural road seem to have tacitly agreed that words are best left in town, and out here we ration them as we do whiskey when we’re snowed in for too long. To illustrate how this desert silence has shaped us, I offer these three small stories of unusual encounters with my rural neighbors.
The first occurred atop our home mountain, whose base is several miles west of the Ranting Hill, and whose summit ridge sits a little under 8,000 feet. To appreciate this story you must first understand that in a decade of walking these hills, canyons, and valleys—a total of over 10,000 miles logged in all seasons and all weathers—I have seen a grand total of two recreational hikers. When you run into another walker only every five years or 5,000 miles (whichever comes first), you forget that such an encounter is even possible. Although I walk every single day, presidential elections happen more often than I see another desert rat like myself out in these dry, high wilds. One June morning my dog and I had climbed the 2,000-foot grade to the mountaintop, and were picking our way south along the boulder-strewn knife edge of the summit ridge. The wind was howling, the views were spectacular, and we were—if I may presume to speak for the dog—very happy. As we cleared a rough notch in the summit ridge I looked up and saw, to my great surprise, a guy about a hundred yards ahead, making his way toward me along the ridge, and also accompanied by a dog. I thought to myself how unlikely this meeting was, and how much we two must have in common. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure what I should say to him, since life in Silver Hills has taught me respect for a kind of inviolable solitude that now seemed oddly endangered by this chance meeting. At last we were almost face to face on the ridge. The guy looked at me and smiled. “Hey,” he said. “Hey,” I replied, smiling back. Neither of us even broke stride.Read More ...
U.S. Senator Mark Udall, a Colorado Democrat, got two differing views about Browns Canyon when he met with constituents and hiked in the area during the congressional Easter recess.
The meetings were in Chaffee County in central Colorado. The Arkansas River flows through Browns Canyon, which sits between Salida and Buena Vista. It may well be the most popular whitewater rafting course in America.
Udall was soliciting input on two separate but related proposals. One is to designate the canyon and some surrounding land a national monument, and the other is to designate wilderness on the east side, from the railroad tracks that parallel the river up to the ridge that separates Chaffee and Park counties.
Although most national monuments are created by presidential proclamation under the Antiquities Act of 1906 (which allows the president to set aside federal land), some have been created by Congress, and Udall said he would prefer to go that route.
Congress is unlikely to pass it, though, without the approval of the relevant congressman, and Browns Canyon sits in the district of Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican who's yet to display any public interest in protecting Browns Canyon. "But Lamborn had said he's willing to talk about it," Udall said.
By P.J. Hill
Last Saturday was roundup and branding day at my ranch in the Madison River Valley, about 20 miles west of Bozeman, Montana. Neighbors came to help and I put the P J (my registered brand) on the left side of my calves. As I carefully placed the irons on each calf (yes, they are hot, and yes, there is short term pain but it seems to subside quickly) I was reminded of why branding came to work so well in the West.
In the Old West a statewide registration of brands developed rapidly. Often a brand registration system was one of the first pieces of legislation a territory would pass (for more details, see Anderson and Hill’s The Not So Wild, Wild West). Those registrations continue today. You can go to the Montana Brand Registry and find that if a cow has a P on the left rib and a J on the left hip, that cow belongs to the P J Ranch. Or, a PJ on the left shoulder of a horse establishes my clear claim to that horse. I can issue you a bill of sale if you buy one of my horses or cows, and that serves a proof of a legitimate transfer of rights.
This system works well for the people in white hats, my neighbors who want to know who a stray belongs to, and against those in black hats, the rustlers who might want to steal my livestock. The state maintains the registration and enforces ownership claims. And I can use the existing court system to enforce my property rights.Read More ...