Heard Around the West

  • It's hard to believe, but this "men only" sign in Parachute, Colorado, was created by a woman



Your poinsettia isn’t wilting, it’s trying to warn you. June Medford, a Colorado State University biologist, came up with the idea to genetically engineer plants to tattle on terrorists. How would the plants accomplish this? By changing color in the presence of a biological or chemical agent. The potential is huge, claims USA Today: “One day, everyone in America might be able to use a cheap houseplant as an early-warning system.” Medford now has $500,000 from the Pentagon to put plants to the test, with estrogen standing in for the real airborne poisons. If one of her plants did spot a deadly nerve gas, such as sarin, “it would probably be too late to help people nearby.” But if the agent were anthrax, there would be time to take antibiotics and survive. Medford isn’t the only scientist working on novel ways to signal or respond to a terrorist attack: Beetles, crickets, bees and moths around the country are being studied for their defense potential.


Moab writer Jim Stiles confesses that he suffers from a strange ailment he calls “Bovolexia,” which comes upon him whenever he sees a herd of cattle. The urge to communicate is irresistible, he tells us in the Canyon Country Zephyr, so he rolls down his car window, hangs his head into the wind and bellows. “Sometimes I moo forcefully and lustily with a bullish spirit; other times my moos are plaintive and melancholy, as a poor steer might feel as he/it looks at all those heifers and wonders why he isn’t interested.” It is very satisfying, he says, when the cows moo back.


Pass the Sierra Club tea, please. The Sierra Club has decided to raise money by endorsing a variety of products, says Carl Pope, the nonprofit’s executive director. Look for branded coffee, tea, toys, hats, gloves, pillows and mattresses, all of which will “make it possible to create a total Sierra Club lifestyle,” according to a licensing maven for the nation’s largest environmental group. Revenues are expected to generate some $1 million a year after the first year, reports The New York Times, though there might be a downside: A marketing professor warns that if consumers become disappointed with a product sporting the Sierra Club imprimatur, they might just boycott the organization.


As the saying goes, whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting. Rancher Clarence Conway blasted a collection bucket hanging beneath a helicopter when it attempted to lift water from his stock pond to fight a fire on the Tonto National Forest near Punkin Center. Conway, 59, told the Arizona Republic that he’d warned the Forest Service not to mess with water on his Greenback Ranch. Last year, he had filed a claim with the agency, accusing it of airlifting more than $2,000 worth of water meant for thirsty cattle, but the government never paid up. Conway’s aim was good: He hit the bucket twice with his shotgun. He is now under indictment by a federal grand jury on a single count of interfering with the performance of federal officials or contractors. Conviction could mean a year in jail.


The state struggling with the biggest budget deficit is also stewing about another problem: travelers in such a rush that they pee into bottles and hurl them out of car windows. The problem is severe in the Sierra Nevada, where rest stops are few, and along the trucking corridors of Interstates 4, 10 and 80, reports the San Francisco Chronicle. When state highway workers find just a few filled bottles, they don gloves and dispose of them, “but when they find a couple of dozen — which happens with surprising frequency — they call one of the hazardous materials crews.” That means big bucks, since these well-protected and trained workers bill the state $2,500 a trip. This annoys state Sen. Ross Johnson, R, who asks, “If mothers and nurses can deal with urine, why can’t Caltrans — especially when the state is awash in red ink?” A spokesman for the California Department of Transportation points out that “urine is considered a biohazard.”


President Bush can’t please anyone, at least when it comes to the environment. The Washington, D.C.-based League of Conservation Voters just gave the administration an “F” for failing to enforce environmental regulations. At the same time, the libertarian group, PERC — the Political Economy Research Center, which bills itself as the Center for Free Market Environmentalism — gave the president the barely passing grade of “C-.” The Bozeman, Mont.-based group says the Bush team has backed away from support for decentralization and respect for property rights.

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column.

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