A bitter valley waits

  • WORRIED NEIGHBOR: Ed Goedhart, manager of Ponderosa Dairies, with cows that produce organic milk throughout the Southwest

    Jon Christensen
 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

AMARGOSA VALLEY, Nev. - "Yea, though we live in the shadows of Death Valley and Yucca Mountain, we will not fear," it said on the T-shirt of the man in front of me as I checked into the Longstreet Inn and Casino in Amargosa Valley late on a hot dusty afternoon.

"We will be happy, make milk, and prosper," the message on his back continued. It was signed "Elsie," presumably the cow with the American flag painted on her side, who also decorated the shirt. "Ponderosa Dairies, Amargosa Valley, Nevada" underlined the effort.

I introduced myself to the wearer, Jim Hooton, who informed me he was not a dairy farmer, but did odd jobs around this small roadside resort on the border between Nevada and California. Hooton also owns the property closest to Yucca Mountain in a valley that has around 1,500 residents, all prospective neighbors of a future repository for high-level nuclear waste. I finagled an invitation to visit his place the next morning.

"Amargosa" comes from the Spanish for "bitter." The name, which comes from the intermittent river that flows here, fits the valley. It is home to two gas stations, a whorehouse, scattered farms, a smattering of trailers amid cottonwood and ash trees, and a saloon with a horse tied up out front. That's in addition to the casino plopped down on the border to catch the first tourists from California.

I soon found that a kind of bitterness runs through the valley, leavened with patriotism, skepticism, and a raw sort of frontier fatalism.

"Most of us think (the nuclear waste) will go in, whether we like it or not," Michael DeLee, a 31-year-old pistachio grower and father of two, told me when I met with him later that night. "I want a decision based on science. Have (federal officials) changed the rules? That's a political decision. I'm not going to stand in front of the railroad cars (filled with nuclear waste) if it matches the rules. But if they change the rules, I can't make promises."

His friend, Lavonne Selbach, said: "I'm 65. I'm not going to be here. I just think it should be done with caution."

Living with uncertainty

The next morning, Jim Hooton met me out at his place, a couple of acres of scattered junk on the east side of Highway 95, just 11 miles across a creosote flat from Yucca Mountain. Hooton used to work at the Nevada Test Site. "As far as Yucca Mountain," he said, "I think it's the best place to put it. It's already been messed up for 20 years. Why mess up another place?"

But most people I met expressed more ambivalence, including Ed Goedhart, manager of Ponderosa Dairies, which feeds 5,300 dairy cows on alfalfa grown in Amargosa Valley. Half of the herd is organic. Every day the dairy produces 32,000 gallons of milk that are distributed throughout the Southwest. Goedhart took me out to a field where a pivot sprinkler was spraying a thousand gallons of water a minute on the crop.

"They aren't storing it up there yet," he assured me, gesturing toward Yucca Mountain. "We're still investing, still growing, still thriving."

I asked if he could live with the dump. "It's tough to say," he said. "I think we could live with it. Who knows?" But he explained what might happen someday if Yucca Mountain failed. "If there was a container leaking, it would hit the water table," he said. "That migration would pass right by here and end up in Death Valley."

Back at the Longstreet, I asked Cassandra Mills, the teen-aged waitress at the cafe, what she thought. "It scares me," she said. "On the other hand, it might put us on the map. That might be good, unless we have an accident. It could go either way."

On my way out of the valley the next morning, I stopped to see Ralph McCracken, who grows pistachios and raises horses with his wife, Debra, on 240 acres. It smelled sweet. But the heat was on.

"I'm not an anti-nuker," he told me first thing. "I can get along with this, if it's done right," he said. "But the storage of spent fuel is a real issue. It has to be done right.

"That's not what's happening here," he said. "They have found out some things about that mountain that should have disqualified it a long time ago, and they keep looking at it. Now they want the rules changed to fit the mountain."

When I asked if he would leave if the waste came, he looked at me hard. He and his wife had tried to have kids but failed. "If we had kids, we'd look someplace else," he said.

I remembered something Mike DeLee had asked me on my first night in Amargosa Valley. "Will it affect your life?" he said. I didn't know the answer.

"Very few people could say yes," DeLee said. "People 3,000 miles away think the world is ending. What really matters are the people who are here and will be here in the future."

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Jon Christensen

High Country News Classifieds
  • CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Carbondale based public lands advocate, Wilderness Workshop, seeks a Conservation Director to help direct and shape the future of public land conservation on the West...
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR FOR WATER PLANNING WITH WRA'S HEALTHY RIVERS PROGRAM
    Founded in 1989, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) is dedicated to protecting the Wests land, air, and water to ensure that vibrant communities exist in balance...
  • TROUT UNLIMITED BIGHORN RIVER BASIN PROJECT MANAGER
    The Bighorn River Basin Project Manager identifies and implements projects to improve streamflows, restore stream and riparian habitat, improve fish passage and rehabilitate or replace...
  • NON-PROFIT OPERATIONS MANAGER
    One of the most renowned community-based collaboratives in the country seeks full-time Operations Manager to oversee administrative, financial, fund development, and board development duties. BS/BA...
  • RUSTIC HORSE PROPERTY
    in NM. 23 acres, off the grid, rustic cabin, organic gardens, fruit trees, fenced, call 505-204-8432 evenings.
  • DIRECTOR OF VISITOR SERVICES & BOOKSTORE OPERATIONS
    The San Juan Mountains Association in Durango, CO is seeking a Director of Visitor Services & Bookstore Operations to lead our visitor information program &...
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    The Board of Diablo Trust is seeking applications for full-time Program Manager with duties of overseeing the coordination and administration of the Diablo Trusts ongoing...
  • SOLAR POWERED HOME NEAR CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
    1800 sf home on 4.12 acres surrounded by Natl Forest and recreational opportunities in a beautiful area (Happy Valley) between Torrey and Boulder. [email protected], www.bouldermoutainreality/properties/grover/off-the-grid-in-happy-valley,...
  • SECLUDED TWO-STORY CUSTOM LOG HOME
    in 16-acre pinion pine forest with year-round stream, mountain views, wildlife. Garage, root cellar, wood shop, one-room cabin, RV shed, pasture, garden. [email protected]
  • BEAUTIFUL, CUSTOM RASTRA BLOCK ENERGY-EFFICIENT HOME
    Mature, six-acre Ponderosa forest, open pasture. Spectacular Sangre de Cristo mountain & valley views. Well maintained, paved county road, easy drive to world-class skiing &...
  • OJO CALIENTE RIVERSIDE SECLUSION
    Private, 2bd/2bath green home on 2 acres on the Ojo Caliente River between the confluence of the Chama & Rio Grande Rivers. Close to hiking,...
  • CLASSIC NEW MEXICO MOUNTAIN VIEWS
    of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. 3.19 acre lot to build on to escape the crush of city/town life. Short distance to trails, skiing, fishing,...
  • 40 ACRE ORGANIC FARM
    potential fruit/hay with house, Hotchkiss, CO, Scott Ellis, 970-420-0472, [email protected]
  • ASSOCIATE OF PROGRAMS
    The Orton Family Foundation empowers people to shape the future of their communities by improving local decision-making, creating a shared sense of belonging, and ultimately...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING www.westernlaw.org/about-us/clinic-interns-careers The Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) is a nonprofit public interest environmental law firm with a 25-year legacy of success...
  • LAND CONSERVATION DIRECTOR
    Manage, develop and implement all stewardship and land management plans and activities on both private and public lands. Guide and direct comprehensive planning efforts, provide...
  • INTERNET-BASED BUSINESS FOR SALE
    Dream of owning your own business, being your own boss, working from home ... this is the one. 928-380-6570, www.testshop.com. More info at https://bit.ly/2Kgi340.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR FOR MOJAVE DESERT LAND TRUST
    Organization Background: The Mojave Desert Land Trust (MDLT) is a non-profit 501(3)(c) organization, founded in 2006. Our mission is to protect the ecosystems of the...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    If you are deeply committed to public service and would like to become part of our high performing, passionate and diverse team, NCAT is looking...
  • TRIPLEX .8 ACRE KANAB, UT
    Create a base in the center of Southern Utah's Grand Circle of National Parks. Multiple residential property with three established rental units and zoning latitude...