Heard Around the West

  • BIG GULPS: Super-sized advertising along Interstate 70



The satirical newspaper The Onion spoofed the Burning Man celebration in the Black Rock Desert, reporting that everybody was too spaced out to bother going. But in fact, some 30,000 people turned out in late August to “burn the man” — a 77 foot-high neon-colored effigy made of wood. Flames shot 150 feet in the air while revelers in elaborate costumes hooted and danced and drove bizarre homemade vehicles. But this year, there was “trouble in counterculture utopia,” as the New York Times put it. Since 2001, Burning Man organizers have stashed debris, fuel tanks, and metal and woodworking equipment on “the ranch” — 200 acres they bought for $70,000, a half-hour away from the festival’s instant city. But some Washoe County locals say the ranch is a garbage dump, an eyesore and a fire hazard, and they want it cleaned up. For now, it’s a standoff, with Burning Man organizers suing the county for as much as $40 million for denying special-use permits for the ranch. They might even Burn the Man someplace else: The Paiute tribe at Pyramid Lake, Nev., is reportedly courting the event.


County fairs are getting health-conscious. At the North Idaho Fair in Coeur d’Alene, men were invited to get their prostates examined, courtesy of the local hospital. That led reporter Kevin Taylor to speculate that fair-goers might have heard moos “that weren’t all coming from the cows.”


Usually when you hear about an “exotic” choking out native plants in the West, the explanation goes like this: Invading weeds have no natural enemies, so they easily out-compete the locals, using resources faster and better in their adopted environment. Now we know there’s a darker side to this story, thanks to researchers at Colorado State University, the University of Montana and Penn State. They found that spotted knapweed, an aggressive invader in 35 states, kills off its competition by forcing native plants to self-destruct. The research team told Science magazine that the roots of spotted knapweed release catechin, a natural herbicide. Catechin sparks a genetic response in native plants, and within minutes, the plant’s cells begin to die.


After the Animal Liberation Front — which the FBI calls a terrorist organization — “freed” 10,000 mink from a farm near Sultan, the saboteurs didn’t hang around to see what happened next. About 9,000 of the coddled predators starved to death, were hit by cars or recaptured, while some 1,000 hungry survivors are now going after chickens, ducks, cats, geese and any other small animals they can get their claws on, according to the Seattle Times. A mink industry group, Fur Commission USA, says farm-raised mink can’t survive in the wild; the animal-rights group disagrees. A similar mink-liberation in England almost caused the extinction of a rare water vole in 1998.


Humans aren’t dominant in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and that’s a rare and wonderful thing, writes columnist Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times. Kristof has been exploring the remote area to find out whether the land and its abundant wildlife can coexist with oil exploration. He’s also learned about the proper use of pepper spray from bush pilot Walt Audi, who says, “If a bear attacks you, just spray yourself in the face, and you won’t see it.”


Put a lot of pigs together and things can get explosive. Some 2,000 hogs produced so much manure at the Big Sky Hutterite Colony near Cut Bank that the resulting methane gas blew up a large building. The building was ventilated, reports The Associated Press, but colony president Dan Wipf said a spark from a heater somehow ignited the blast. No one was injured, if you don’t count the hogs.


Here’s a tip for Western county commissioners: Michigan officials have published a “scratch and sniff” brochure for city folk thinking of moving to the country. “When scratched, the leaflet emits a pungent odor of manure,” reports the new magazine, The Week. That reminds us of a story about the John Deere Company, which is said to guarantee all its farm implements, except one: “They do not stand behind their manure spreaders,” says Albert Bartlett, of Boulder, Colo.

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 “Heard Around the West.”

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