Heard around the West

  • Spencer Merkley at school district meeting

    Trent Nelson/Salt Lake Tribune

If you're standing on the vast Hanford Nuclear Reservation in eastern Washington and a tumbleweed tumbles your way - better step aside. Last year the federal Department of Energy surveyed tumbleweeds on the 560-square-mile complex, a high-security bomb factory, and found that 20 tested toxic. That's up from 1995, when only five of the weeds caused Geiger counters to stutter. Tumbleweeds, which are native to Russia, apparently suck up contaminated groundwater, reports the Colorado Springs Independent. Then they emit radiation as they're buffeted by the wind. In 1998, the government spent almost $2 million to "control" radioactive plants, mice and insects.

Reporters covering the green beat turn out to be conservative types. They trust sources who provide scientific data, eschew "stunts' like sitting in trees and refrain from "self-righteousness and overblown rhetoric," reports Paul Rogers in the SEJournal, a quarterly magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. On the other hand, those same unnamed reporters respect activists in the environmental movement because they're waging battles "against incredible odds," they're not in it for the money and they don't give up. To increase credibility, added the 35 reporters who were surveyed, green groups should "stop polarizing every issue to sell memberships."

An unusual investment opportunity has emerged in the rural town of Mound House, Nev. A family-run brothel is on the block for $1.6 million cash, reports the Nevada Appeal. The business is legal and has been a steady earner for 16 years, say the owners, who wish to remain anonymous. Staff includes 30 to 50 prostitutes described as "licensed independent contractors."

It was just a "little goofy newspaper" published by an 18-year-old senior at Kearns High School in Salt Lake City. But it ticked off school officials, who confiscated copies in the halls. Dave Matthews, the founder and editor, had hoped to give away 300 copies of his four-page paper, The Stool Pigeon. Writing under the byline "The Incredible Bulk," his big scoop was the revelation that two 20-minute lunch periods were to be merged into one, reports the Salt Lake Tribune. For his trouble, the paper was banned on the grounds that it was produced by an "outsider." But just a week later, a lawyer for the school district must have reread the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, for he ruled that the newspaper could come back to campus. Meanwhile, Matthews, who had put his paper on a Web site - www.stoolpigeon.8m.com - said he'd "learned some things about freedom of speech."

In Sandy, Utah, you can get kicked out of school for wearing a hooded sweatshirt that says "VEGAN." That's what officials at Bingham High School did to Spencer Merkley. They said the word, which means someone who does not eat meat or dairy products, was reminiscent of a gang called the Straight Edge. School administrators did allow Merkley back the next day, but only if his sweatshirt stayed in the closet. That's when Merkley decided to gather allies and take his case to a meeting of the Board of Education, reports the Salt Lake Tribune. One of his supporters there was Tom Rogers, a former dairyman and rancher, who said strokes and a heart attack led him to give up animal products 12 years ago. "We need to make sure we don't act without reason," he told board members. "Let our children voice their concerns over their world. It's their world."

In Aspen, Colo., a few years ago, an anti-fur-selling ordinance went down to defeat. In Beverly Hills, Calif., recently, a "truth in slaughtering" initiative passed the city council and will be offered to voters in a special election May 11. The measure did not please furriers, reports The Washington Post, and the mayor blasted it as inviting zeal from a "pelt posse." If passed, a chilling "consumer notice" will be attached to fur coats: "This product is made with fur from animals that may have been killed by electrocution, gassing, neck-breaking, poisoning, clubbing, stomping or drowning, and may have been trapped in steel-jaw leghold traps."

What do you do if you're at the Big Sky ski resort in Montana and your chairlift suddenly halts? And it grows dark, the wind picks up to 30 mph, and you're swaying, 30 feet above the slopes? If you're 20-somethings Heather Turner and Melissa Buller, you keep busy; you spend almost 17 hours making up songs and singing them, shadow boxing and "renaming nearby peaks," reports AP. The women, who had ridden the last lift of the day, were certainly scared, they reported the next morning, "but we knew not to overreact." Neither suffered hypothermia or frostbite.

Even though most are uncomfortable in the spotlight, women in Idaho are more frequently holding office in local government and more often bearing the brunt of insults from taxpayers. They also put up with patronizing co-workers. In Caldwell, Idaho, that's what Albertson College sociologist Robin Lorentzen found by studying women office-holders for five years. Often, these clerks, treasurers, commissioners, council members and others took their posts reluctantly, she found, and once in office almost half reported some kind of abuse, including harassment, crank calls, bullying and blackmail threats. "It didn't faze most of them," Lorentzen said. "They didn't always have a name for sexism but they recognized it immediately. And many oppose the concept of feminism." In Idaho, where women now hold about 20 percent of all local offices, "every one of them has a story," Lorentzen learned. "They're just everyday people, pillars of their communities, with incredible fighting spirits."

Heard around the West invites readers to get involved in the column. Send any tidbits that merit sharing - small-town newspaper clips, personal anecdotes, relevant bumper sticker slogans. The definition remains loose. Heard, HCN, Box 1090, Paonia, CO 81428 or [email protected]

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