The working West: grassroots groups and their newsletters

  • Cover of Friends of Great Salt Lake newsletter

  • Cover of Green Fire Report

  • Cover of The Survivor newsletter

  • Cover of Trail Breaking News newsletter

  • Cover of The Sportsmen's Voice newsletter

  • Cover of

    ine newsletter
  • The Oro Valley group with editor Patty Estes, kneeling center

    Wayne Pearce photo
  • Newsletter photo illustrates the need for bike lanes in Oro Valley

    Wayne Pearce
  • Members of Friends of Great Salt Lake protest highway construction

    Jim Zinanti

In February, High Country News asked readers to send in samples of newsletters published by grassroots environmental groups. I asked people to send in those newsletters without any clear idea of what I would do with them. And even after 70 individual newsletters had arrived, I still didn't know what to make of them, except piles.

A glance showed that most were sober as a judge and plain as a North Dakota winter day. But some shone, either because of their appearance, or their earnest homespun nature, or their spirit.

So I did what Americans usually do when presented with a bewildering choice among incommensurable objects: I created a contest, and New Mexico won, going away. Its victory wasn't based on numbers. We received 16 newsletters from Colorado, while 13 came from New Mexico, which just edged out California - a state High Country News doesn't even fully cover.

Nor did New Mexico have the most ambitious newsletter; an astounding one-person effort (see story page 11) out of Wyoming takes that honor. And the best-designed newsletter came out of Utah and was about the Great Salt Lake.

What New Mexico's mostly modest newsletters have is intellectual depth and personality, as well as a cultural and ethnic mix unique to that state. (The rest of the West, as manifested in newsletters, is white-bread rather than multigrain.)

The most modest newsletter in New Mexico is the Carson Sage, a three-sheet publication out of a northern New Mexico town so small it isn't in my State Farm road atlas. Like many of the newsletters, the Sage looks like it's printed on a copier, and, indeed, the mast lists Pam Gonzales as Xerox Production, just above Mica DeLise and Linda Higgins as Label and Stamp Lickers.

Despite the image conveyed by Norman Rockwell paintings, the curse of small towns is a tendency toward infighting and nastiness, and the Sage announces on its front page that it will have none of that. The editor calls the approach "Constructive Freedom of Speech. Destructive criticism without a positive alternative suggestion for consideration by the community will, as usual, not be printed."

The principle is illustrated on page 3 under the headline, "Road Warrior News," where Bob Logue explains that the county allows him only $1,500 per year to keep Post Office Road graded. "There is so much traffic on the road now (about 10 times what it was just a few years ago) that a blading just won't last long."

After the constructive criticism comes the positive alternative: "Everyone could help by driving the speed limit or below to keep down the washboard." An editor's note at the end thanks Bob for his work and solicits contributions to help with the grading. A $30 contribution buys an additional hour of grading.

If this were a contest, the Sage would win the most creative budget category. The April 1998 edition breaks the budget down in three ways. One is by postage, printing, phone, et al. One is by category - the land-use plan cost $141.96 and the May issue of the Sage $75.20 (the September issue was cheaper, at $71.96). In the third category, "crying in our beer" cost $.86, "back stabbing" $.95, "flogging dead horses' $.02, and "bustin" our butt for Carson" $642.09. In 1997, the organization took in $651.88 and stayed in the black, spending only $647.09. Mica DeLise, treasurer, says there is $706.21 in the general fund.

The Carson Sage is determinedly local, but La Jicarita, out of Peûasco, also in northern New Mexico, is a sophisticated blend of local stories, such as a fight against a copper mine, and efforts to provide a theoretical understanding of rural communities' place in the global economy. Stanley Crawford, who describes himself as a farmer, first, and writer (Mayordomo, A Garlic Testament), second, writes in the February 1998 issue:

"The global economy has little use for places like northern New Mexico in terms of production. We are wanted only as consumers. The success of our work as consumers will be measured in the size of our landfills and junkyards, the ultimate products of the consumer society."

He says of Intel, whose computer chip plant in New Mexico requires much water, that "every time we buy or even use a computer we are, you might say, making a down payment for their purchase of our water."

Although no one would describe Crawford as upbeat - -... what little hope I have ..." - he sees some cause for optimism in northern New Mexico, thanks to the guard its thousand small acequias, or irrigation ditches, mount over the region's water. Add to that the region's fragmented land holdings and unreliable rainfall, and you have a prescription for inefficiency that discourages "gigantism" in agriculture or industry. An adjunct to smallness, he writes, is a tendency toward small markets that bind together the small producers.

Crawford's piece would slide smoothly onto The New York Times' op-ed page, but it fits even better into La Jicarita, which would be one of the newsier and more informative newspapers in New Mexico if it weren't a monthly newsletter published by the Rio Pueblo/Rio Embudo Watershed Protection Coalition.

La Jicarita is unique because it is a general interest newsletter, attempting to write about all of the forces affecting its watershed even as it covers the ground. More typical of newsletters, and of the tighter focus of the groups behind them, are The Quivira Coalition and Barbed Wire. Quivira is a handsome, stapled, two-color publication devoted to consensus and improving the health of grazed rangeland. It is published by a rancher named Jim Winder and edited by Barbara Johnson and is filled with examples of recovering rangelands. In stark contrast, Barbed Wire is put out by Susan Schock's Gila Watch. It proclaims that it's "Time for a buy-out" because "all attempts to reform public-lands grazing have met with dismal failure." We put the two newsletters together, expecting them to set each other on fire, but nothing happened.

The group that has bitten off the biggest bite, judging by its bulletin and by its annual review, Bravo!, is Amigos Bravos. Its goal is to return the Rio Grande watershed and the rest of New Mexico's rivers to health.

The 1997 review is filled with photos of attractive people pulling out tamarisk, planting cottonwoods and cleaning up riversides. Amigos Bravos knows how to keep up its spirits, but it is no Pollyanna; the introductory letter to Bravo! reads:

"In spite of the fact that Amigos Bravos has been in the process of becoming for eight years, the rivers of New Mexico are as polluted as they were when we began. They may even be in a worse condition ... there is no avoiding the fact that most of the places where we once swam or fished or even drank from the Rio Grande as children are no longer safe for those practices or pleasures, that entire bosques and bird and fish populations have been wiped out in less than half of a human lifetime. Despair or its counterpart, apathetic surrender to the collective forces that continue to cause this annihilation is, at times, unavoidable."

Colorado's most impressive newsletter comes from the wolf reintroduction group Sinapu, and is titled Southern Rockies Wolf Tracks. Like Amigos Bravos, Sinapu is looking far down the road, with a mix of education aimed at children (-Wolves can run up to 24-40 miles per hour while chasing dinner'), lawsuits, and tours to introduce people to forests that would be perfect if only wolves were roaming them.

Years from now, at the end of its effort, Sinapu hopes, lies a successful ballot initiative in Colorado. But the task is daunting. One newsletter says, "The road to the ballot, long and tortuous, requires real planning and organization." But the ecological and political landscapes seem fertile. Sinapu calculates that the Southern Rockies could support 1,000 wolves, and that 70 percent of Coloradans favor wolf reintroduction.

Sinapu staff did the most forthright boasting we saw. "We set the "cheapskate" record at the conference, staying for free" at a nearby Catholic school for wayward boys and "eating on the cheap in our rooms."

But staff members are willing to spend on a good cause; Mike Stabler bet Wyoming-based mountaineer Paul Petzoldt, the 89-year-old founder of the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wilderness Education Association, and an opponent of wolf reintroduction, $1,000 that a wolf could survive outside Yellowstone for a year. The bet was a year ago, and one family of wolves has lived since then on the Wind River Reservation outside of Dubois. Stabler hopes to convince Petzoldt to pay up.

Are the West's public lands a big, free jungle gym on which recreationists can try out their toys and nerves and muscles? Or are they nature preserves through which people should tiptoe quietly?

Access Notes has an ice ax to grind when it comes to those questions, but it does so in a thoughtful way. Unlike, let's say, our off-road-vehicle friends, the Access Fund tries to protect natural places and wildlife even while it supports pounding bolts into cliff faces.

But climbers have always been different from, or at least ahead of, other recreationists. David Brower, before he put his mind to saving the Grand Canyon, was a world-class mountain climber. The Access Fund attempts to continue that tradition. Its newsletter says the fund contributed money to The Nature Conservancy to help buy the Dugout Ranch, near Canyonlands National Park. The ranch has many natural values, but the Access Fund is most interested in making available the "world-famous crack climbing" on the Supercrack and Battle of the Bulge buttresses.

Climbers are not above creating a climbing opportunity where none exists. They call it "ice farming." The best known ice park, the newsletter says, is near Ouray, Colo. "Through the creative use of hoses, sprinklers, shower heads and strategic leaks in the pipeline, Ouray locals have created a diverse spectrum of climbs."

The Ouray ice park was created legally. But in Boulder Canyon, climbers "farmed" by tapping into the aqueduct above the canyon's north-facing side without getting permission. Repercussions came once the area became famous. The Access Fund is debating whether to extend its protective mission to ice parks.

While the Access Fund debates ice farming, the very modest Western Colorado River Journal is worrying about the water that goes into the ice. Conventional wisdom holds that the dam-building era is over, but Uli Kappus, a consultant writing in the Journal, says that that is far from true, and that his firm alone "is working on seven major dams around the country."

However, there are no new dams planned for major rivers - that era is over, he says. The new structures are "smart dams' situated on tributaries of major rivers or out of the main channel.

Newsletters such as the Journal, that concern themselves with public policy, are the exception rather than the rule. Most newsletters stay very local, like The Underground News, which promotes urban gardens in Denver. Denver Urban Gardens gives away seeds and finds garden space, such as the Urban Farm at the old Stapleton Airport. (Maybe something good is coming of Denver International Airport, after all.)

Even though High Country News' potluck in Tucson this January got us interested in newsletters - all 200 people at the potluck seemed to be part of a local group with a newsletter - we got only seven from that state. We were most struck by View of the Valley, published by the Oro Valley Neighborhood Coalition, northwest of Tucson. Its September 1997 lead story described how land developers around Tucson both shortchange local government and ruin land through a rent-a-cow scheme. In it, developers put cows on desert land they intend to eventually develop. Because agricultural land is taxed at a much lower rate than vacant land intended for development, the developers save a lot of money.

Another View of the Valley dealt with a $70 million Army Corps of Engineers flood-control plan that would have opened up the southwestern slope of the Tortolita Mountains to intense development. In the letter sent with the newsletter, editor Patty Estes wrote that the media often pick up issues that are first aired in the newsletter. That is easy to understand. View of the Valley has good photos and a calm, objective tone - although with an edge - to the issues it seizes on.

The Flow gives the same calm but focused impression, although this newsletter from Friends of the Santa Cruz is not a crusader; the only villain in the issue I read was that scourge of Southwest rivers - the tamarisk.

From the Salt Minds, published by the Superstition Area Land Trust, is in the business of protecting Arizona's state-trust lands, with most of its attention reserved for the Sonoran Desert around the Superstition Mountains east of Phoenix. But preventing sprawl requires attractive cities, and so SALT applauded the city council for approving narrower streets in subdivisions. "It is much cheaper and safer. Cars typically speed up on wide, straight roadways. It is also more aesthetically pleasing, especially with trees between the road and the walkways."

Finally, the newsletter says, in a plea for full funding of the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, "It is up to us to make sure the next generation can sing the words to America the Beautiful and have them still be meaningful, and not merely nostalgic."

In most states, newsletters were spread evenly over a variety of issues: watershed restoration, land conservancies, wildlife protection, rivers, wilderness, agriculture, sustainable development. But of the 10 newsletters we got from California, seven focus on regional land protection. Some of the landscapes these groups grapple with are huge. The League to Save Lake Tahoe takes responsibility for the entire Lake Tahoe Basin, and the Sierra Nevada Alliance is a coalition of groups strung out across that immense mountain range.

One of the Sierra Nevada groups with a smaller focus is the Foothill Conservancy Focus, out of Amador and Calaveras counties. This group holds a lasagna dinner fund raiser one night so that it can join a lawsuit against a developer the next night. I was most impressed with its Winter 1997 issue on the implications of the sale, by Georgia-Pacific, of its local mill, particle board plant and 127,000 acres - that's 200 square miles - to the Sierra Pacific Holding Company. The exploration of the sale's implications was worthy of a first-class academic journal or a serious newspaper.

Despite its name, Focus lacks the focus that a one-issue group - interested in wolf reintroduction or wilderness protection - can bring. And it lacks some of such groups' verve and personality. The people who belong to the Foothill Conservancy and who edit Focus see a larger picture and a more complex world.

Among the California groups, we were most taken by The Survivor, published by The Desert Survivors. Survivors roam the forbidding areas of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona in search of heat and snakes and thirst and scorched hills that shimmer off in the distance. In the course of their roaming, they discover things missed by lovers of green-colored landscapes and lots of water. In the spring 1997 issue, Dave Halligan described the ongoing theft of the Owlshead Strip, a piece of land two miles wide by 30 miles long that is technically - only technically - being managed by the Bureau of Land Management.

The land, which contains several springs and is bounded to the north by Death Valley National Monument, was excluded from the California Desert Protection Act because the Army said it needed it for national defense, as part of a 331,000-acre expansion of Fort Irwin. Halligan, while exploring the strip, says he discovered why the Army is really interested:

"On a recent trip to this area, I discovered the Army's true need for the Owlshead Strip: RECREATION! Yes, that's right. At Quail Spring, in the western portion of the Strip, I discovered a well-maintained and completely refurbished miner's cabin, and all of the evidence observed on the ground indicates that the cabin and the surrounding areas are regularly used by personnel from Fort Irwin to "get away from it all." Yes, driving tanks around, shelling creosote, and creating dust storms can be hard work, and when it's "Miller Time," desert cabins and off-roading are just what the Army needs to keep our tank forces in top shape."

For the most part, newsletters run photos only of local people. But the Yolo Basin Foundation's Yolo Flyway made an exception for Bill Clinton when the president came to their restored wild bird sanctuary to help dedicate it. The restoration work was done by a very unlikely coalition, made up of the foundation, Ducks Unlimited, the California Transportation Department, the Bureau of Reclamation and the Army Corps of Engineers.

Originally, Yolo Flyway reported, a modest dedication ceremony had been planned; after all, the birds were already in residence. But then Clinton showed up with an "astonishing motorcade" of 27 vehicles on the muddy levee roads. He's only the president, of course, but it was exciting anyway to see a picture of him talking birds with Robin Kulakow, the foundation's executive director, and with Greg Schmid, whose land helped make the project work. (Journalistic honesty requires me to say that Schmid did not look all that thrilled to be with the Leader of the Free World.)

Utah didn't send in many newsletters, but it sent in the one with the most beautiful cover: A watercolor by Denise Brown of a salt marsh graced the Friends of Great Salt Lake Winter 1998 newsletter. In addition to having taste, the group is ambitious. It uses science and nature education as tools to protect the immense lake.

From the other end of the spectrum comes the Wild Wasatch Front, whose front-page flag features a monkeywrench, and which is put out by an Earth First! chapter based in Brigham City. Again, if this were a contest, WWF would get the award for the most unlikely provenance for a newsletter. It is totally short on news, but long on exhortation and humor: "hom*o*pho*bi*a (hom½ a fo½ be a) n. - insecurity about being heterosexual." A boxed area on another page (green paper, of course) states: "This space not available for corporate advertising."

Oregon had the most upbeat newsletter, E-line, published quarterly by the Corvallis Environmental Center. Its winter 1997 issue read: "The winter solstice this year brings much to be thankful for, both locally and globally. The approval of mixed-use zoning continues to keep Corvallis moving toward a sustainable lifestyle." In the view of volunteer coordinator John Ledges, the mixed-use zoning fits in with the Kyoto, Japan, meeting on carbon dioxide emissions by making Corvallis less dependent on the automobile.

Asking for newsletters seemed initially like a great idea, but as they came in, and came in, and piled up so high that they had to be divided in two, and then in three, I came to be perversely grateful to the folks in Wyoming and Montana and Idaho and Nevada and Oregon and Washington and Utah, who either have the good sense not to publish a lot of newsletters or who can't be bothered sending them to High Country News.

For weeks, I looked away from the newsletters, but when the third pile threatened to fall over into a fourth pile, I began to sort them, first by state (how I loved Wyoming, with its lone publication), and then by category. After the taxonomy, I began to read them. A very few seemed obligatory. You could almost hear whoever had volunteered to be editor saying: "Well, it's time to get out another newsletter," and then proceeding to fill the space.

Others had things to say, but the writers said it as if they were clones of the government agencies they were attempting to influence. Their game seemed to be: Can we be as formal and incomprehensible as an environmental impact statement?

A few were righteous, living in a hermetically sealed world with room for only one brand of truth. And a couple were about gaining personal fulfillment by an attachment to the land. All of us, of course, hope to be ennobled by the causes we work at. But these few wear their hearts so large on their sleeves that there is no room for issues. In fact, the issues are never defined. Because it is all self, the newsletters were unreadable.

But the failures were a very small minority. The vast majority were committed without being righteous. Even as they work to advance their values, they understand that there are other values. I can't find it now, among the 150 or so newsletters (many groups sent multiple issues), but one newsletter explained that hikers and off-road-vehicle users have this in common: They both want to roam the public land in a search for freedom. But, the newsletter continued, if the ORVers get all the freedom they crave, the land will be destroyed and there will be nothing left for the rest of us.

It is the self-appointed role of the media to draw universal truths from anecdotal information. So I should be able to say whether newsletters are a sign of a maturing, vital West, or a last gasp before a noxious mix of suburbia and Disneyland rolls over us.

But no grand conclusion leaps out. What the piles scattered upon my office floor show is that the West has a great many clear-thinking, hard-working people who are looking for ways to protect, enhance and improve their communities and the surrounding land. I also see that the gap created by the often inadequate, occasionally craven work of the conventional media is being partially filled by these newsletters. You can probably get a better picture of the West from reading an array of newsletters than you can from reading the local newspapers or watching TV news.

While it is impossible to say what all these newsletters "mean," the spirit of most of them can be seen in a cover letter sent in by Ben Y. Mason, a director of the Ruidoso River Association, Inc., with his group's newsletter, Notes from the Noisy Water. Because there is no longer enough water in the Ruidoso for it to live up to its name, the title is ironic, nostalgic and hopeful, all at once. But placing blame for the river's quiet, or launching lawsuits to make the Ruidoso noisy again isn't on the River Association's agenda. Instead, the group is working hard to put more, and cleaner, water back in the Ruidoso. Here's what Mason wrote about the approach he and his colleagues take:

"We do not conduct post mortems on past errors and conduct, no matter how dubious they may now appear in hindsight. Moreover, we do not litigate. When we prepare either internal reports or drafts for general publication, we submit them for review to whatever agency the report discusses. We hope always to avoid error or bias, and we go out of our way to do favors and to write favorably about agencies that cooperate with us ...

"Neither Dick Wisner, Executive Director, nor I are young (I am 75) and we are more experienced in business than in environmental advocacy ... Both of us are fiscal and social conservatives, and neither of us has time for the exaggeration, animosity and invective that we often see in the environmental community ... I hope that our method of addressing our own particular problems continues to serve us and those who govern."

How can it miss?

Ed Marston is publisher of High Country News.

Two sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

"A fiery Wyoming newspaper pursues the state's fat cats"

"A guide to the glue that keeps the West stuck together"

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