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Know the West

Heard Around the West



How did that quote by Benjamin Franklin begin: "For want of a nail, the shoe was lost ...." Didn’t it end with the loss of a kingdom? Well, a similar phenomenon may be occurring in the mining industry, which is going great guns, except for one problem: There aren’t enough 12-foot-tall tires around for the industry’s monster dump trucks, which can hold 400,000 pounds. "It’s definitely a problem," says the president of the Utah Mining Association, and because of stepped-up mining in China and other Asian countries, the tire shortage is global. Two big mines in Utah are feeling the pinch: Kennecott’s vast copper mine at Bingham Canyon and a surface phosphate mine near Vernal. Every large tire that will be produced through 2006 is already spoken for, reports The Associated Press, with each tire costing $30,000 and lasting only about six months.


Let’s hear it for the tiny rufous hummingbird, whose epic journey of 2,000 miles to and from Mexico is the longest of any hummer. "They do it on a few grams of fat," always balancing the need for energy-producing nectar with the need for a lean body, reports Earthcare Northwest, the newsletter of the Seattle Audubon Society. What’s most amazing, says writer Carolee Colter, is that juvenile birds "with less than 1/10,000th of our brain volume," make their first migration without benefit of parental guidance, since the grownups take off at least a week before they do. No one knows how the young birds do it. But in the face of threats such as coastal development, drought and global warming, some fear that the species as a whole may be in trouble. Fortunately, as Colter reminds us, migrants are resourceful by definition, traveling bravely across water, deserts, mountains and through seasons. Not to mention the fact that the rufous birds are so aggressive that they shove aside other hummers to get to the good flowers. "Some say the meek shall inherit the earth," Colter concludes, "but in nature, the ferocity of the ‘red menace’ may be its key to survival."


Columnist W. Bruce Cameron says he’s miffed at being urged to prepare for his death, having understood "that this particular chore would sort of schedule itself." He’s still procrastinating on drawing up a "living will," much less a regular will, but the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel writer has come up with some contrarian tips, starting with: "You should never purchase so much life insurance that it makes you nervous to be alone with your children." As for prized possessions that you might leave to your heirs, he cynically predicts that they will hurl these sentimental collections, favorite books and other priceless items out the window on the way home from the funeral. Still, he says, estate planning is probably a wise thing: "You should sit down with your attorney once a year and review your will in order to ensure that he can generate an annual fee."


Ever-vigilant on behalf of its $2 billion-a-year cash crop — the potato — Idaho is lobbying California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to block signs in restaurants and store windows warning that french fries can cause cancer. California has been updating a 1986 citizen’s right-to-know law, and consumer advocates want the state to publicize a carcinogen in potatoes called acrylamide, which occurs naturally in carbohydrate-rich foods that have been baked or fried. Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne pooh-poohs any danger, reports the AP. He worries that "warnings could stoke fear among consumers and dent potato sales that have already been hurt by low-carbohydrate diet trends."


Meanwhile, Idaho is forging ahead in public relations, making plans to add a giant inflatable Mr. Potato Head to the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Capital Press reports that the potato-man balloon will wear running shoes, a pedometer and carry a water bottle, continuing an emphasis on fitness. In 1987, Mr. Potato Head "surrendered his pipe to the U.S. surgeon general," says Linda McCashion, a public relations veep for the Potato Board, based in Eagle, Idaho. "Now he’s going to be our Spokes Spud for a healthy lifestyle." The potato industry also plans to rejigger how its spuds get displayed in supermarkets, moving away from tall stacks of 10-pound bags. Said one Potato Board staffer, we hope in jest: "If the average 5-foot-2-inch-tall female shopper attempts to pull a bag of potatoes out of such a stack at her eye level, she will in fact die."

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, Heard around the West.