Dear Friends

 

The Ides of March

It's hard not to get a case of spring fever these days, though Mother Nature is being her typical, contradictory self in western Colorado. Just as the first crocuses and daffodils pushed their green heads through the soil last week, a Pacific storm dumped a foot of cement-like snow on Paonia, breaking thigh-thick tree limbs like toothpicks.

One branch narrowly missed an HCN staffer as he shoveled the sidewalk in front of his house. After hastily retreating indoors, where he waited a few hours for the waxing March sun to do its thing, Paul Larmer ventured back out to assess the damage done by the giant Chinese elm (yes, it's an exotic) limb: torn-up shrubbery and grass; a wild scattering of elm twigs, thick with swollen red flower buds; and an odd roll of grayish string, apparently the remnants of a western kingbird nest from the previous summer.

Birds, especially migratory ones like the sandhill crane, are eagerly anticipated spring guests among a hardcore group of local birders. Next week, the second-grade class of Paonia Elementary School will trek to Fruitgrowers Reservoir near the town of Eckert to see the leggy avians as they rest up for their flight to Idaho and beyond. In the morning, Cinda Clay's students will research the life history and habits of the sandhill cranes; following the afternoon field trip, they'll roast hot dogs at Cinda's house.

Such adventures are seldom part of the public school curriculum. In fact, as writer Steve Stuebner details in this issue, environmental education is a hit-and-miss proposition in most of the West. Whether your child learns about birds or forest ecology depends almost solely on the interests of teachers and parents. Fortunately, as Stuebner discovers, the West is blessed with some excellent public-school teachers, who not only incorporate environmental issues into their classrooms, but also expose their students to real-life conservation struggles faced by their own communities.

Spring greetings

With spring in the air, the flow of visitors is starting to pick up. Jon Fredericks stopped by to pick up a subscription on his way to a job interview in Carbondale, Colo. Fredericks, a graduate student in landscape architecture at Logan's Utah State University, reports that due to Olympics-related construction, "the whole region is just a mess." Fredericks graduates in two months and plans to leave the state as quickly as he can.

Subscribers Walter Wapman and Gail Ryba came through the office and shared stories from New Mexico. Wapman works at the Sandia National Lab in Albuquerque, where he designs robots that disable munitions from World War II and the Korean War. Robotics isn't cheap. According to Wapman, the Pentagon found that it's less expensive to use real people to take apart bombs. He says there's no reason to worry, "Once workers are exposed to a certain radiation level, they're moved to a different job." Ryba used to work for the lab designing fuel cells, but now lives in Santa Fe, where she champions bike paths and works for the Sierra Club.

Former HCN staffer Dustin Solberg recently sent us an e-mail from the small town of La Empalizada, Guatemala, where he is working on an organic farm associated with the Presbyterian Church. Although La Empalizada is over 2,000 miles south of the U.S. border, Dustin writes that the promise of better jobs in America lures many people north. "A young father left the other day for el norte. He's a mojado, as people say here. This means he left for the United States, but he doesn't have a visa, so he'll hire a coyote to lead him across the border. He's been before and has a nice second-hand Nissan pickup to show for it. His daughter's name, Yosselin, is in chrome letters on the windshield. Now he's headed back because he knows jobs in el nortepay a lot more than any jobs in Guatemala. His family's still here, along with his pickup, and they'll live without him for another couple of years." We hope that Dustin stops by the office with more tales when he returns from down South.

A FREE discussion

In early March, senior editor Paul Larmer migrated north to Bozeman, Mont., to attend a three-day seminar on land-use management sponsored by the Gallatin Writers, a project of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment. FREE's founder and chairman, John Baden, describes his organization as a place where "intellectual entrepreneurs" hash out the pressing environmental issues of the day.

The event lived up to this promise. It brought together an eclectic group of academics, federal land managers, writers, environmentalists and ranchers to discuss the relatively new endeavor of ecological restoration in the West. New Mexico writer Tom Wolf led a discussion on fire ecology, which not only rehashed the chaos of the Los Alamos, N.M., fires, but delved into sticky questions of whether the federal land agencies are up to the task of thinning forests in the urban interface. Much will depend on who gets their hands on the more than $1 billion Congress has allocated for fire control and restoration this year and whether a market for small-diameter timber ever develops.

Conservation biologist Michael Gilpin, who constructs models for the protection of rare and endangered species, made a counterintuitive assertion, if only half in jest: the Endangered Species Act should stay focused on individual species rather than ecosystems. Gilpin noted that it is much easier for policy makers, judges and scientists (particularly modelers) to grasp the decline of a particular population than an amorphous ecosystem.

Perhaps the liveliest presentation came from ranchers Jerrie and Toni Tipton of Mina, Nev. The Tiptons use cattle, hay and water to restore hardrock-mine waste sites in the Great Basin. Their startling before-and-after photos were more convincing than those found in any WeightWatchers brochure.

On the seminar's last day, Baden said his only regret was that he failed to invite an economist to inform the conversations, an oversight the participants didn't seem to mind at all.

The spirit of free-wheeling debate promoted by the Gallatin Writers lives on at High Country News in the form of our syndicated columns service, Writers on the Range. In fact, the idea sprang from a similar Gallatin conference more than four years ago. Gallatin was set to begin the service, but turned the key over to HCN when funding grew slim. We are grateful.

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