Two weeks in the West

  • Humanitarian groups and the Border Patrol have long tried to reduce heat-related deaths on the border with posters like this, which translates as: Crossing the desert is not as dangerous as they told you. It’s worse

“We’re not out to destroy the universe. We’re here to make money. And if we can do that with minimal impact, that’s my job.”
—New Mexico State Land Office Archaeologist David Eck on a proposal to drill for natural gas just outside Chaco Culture National Historic Park.

Down in the Sonoran Desert, the blue-flowered lupines carpet the earth, and bats and hummingbirds alight on the blood-red fingers of the ocotillos. This time of year is the season of new life. But in the vast spaces between official border crossings, it is also the beginning of the season of death.

Each year, hundreds of border crossers die. Sometimes, vans stuffed with migrants flip or roll, crushing the passengers. Other times, as they make their way through the palo verde, migrants are ambushed and killed by thugs.

But the leading cause of death by far is exposure to the elements, usually in the form of heat exhaustion or dehydration. Last year, some 200 migrants died in Arizona alone. More than half perished from the dry, 90-degree-plus heat that sears the desert starting in April or May and often lasts into autumn.

To stem this trend, humanitarian groups leave water out in the desert and try to warn would-be migrants about the dangers. Now, Tucson doctor Samuel Keim has come up with a plan to keep people alive: a death probability index. The index, relying on weather forecasts, will warn hopeful border crossers when maximum temperatures are expected to reach fatal levels. It’s a controversial idea: Some question whether the warnings will stop anyone from crossing while anti-immigration zealots, such as members of the Minutemen, a group of self-appointed border guards, accuse the doctor of “aiding and abetting” illegal immigrants.

In related news: Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., has entered the 2008 presidential race. The congressman is staunchly opposed to illegal immigration and says he will base his campaign on an immigration platform.

People in the higher, cooler parts of the West are still hitting the slopes for last-minute spring skiing, but the lowlands are already hot, dry and flammable. Instead of racing down slushy slopes, folks in some places are racing the flames of wildfires.

Southern California, which is coming off its driest winter since the 1920s, is already smoky:
• Flames charred 4,000 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 200 homes near Hesperia, just over the mountains from Los Angeles in late March.
• A few days earlier, fire raced up the Hollywood Hills (leaving mansions and the landmark sign untouched).
• In early March, the state got a sign of what’s to come when 2,000 acres burned in the Anaheim Hills.

Ditto northern Nevada, where Reno saw two homes eaten up by two fires in March.

Though this season’s conflagrations licked the edges of cities, giving them a high profile, the fire season nationally has been relatively mellow so far — total acreage burned to date is about 30 percent below average. Last year by this time, over 1 million acres had gone up in flames; fewer than 300,000 acres have burned this year.

Do you think President Bush has nightmares of pushing a big rock up a hill over and over again, only to have people in long black robes knock it back down? He doesn’t need to dream it — it’s happening in real life. During a span of less than a week in late March and early April, the administration suffered three major losses in federal court.

The biggest blow was from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that carbon dioxide is indeed a pollutant. Seems obvious, but the legal distinction is an important one: It gives the Environmental Protection Agency the authority to regulate the greenhouse gas, something the agency had earlier tried to avoid. In response, a group of states, cities and environmentalists had sued.

A federal judge also sent new forest rules back to the drawing board, saying that the Bush administration’s revamped planning process violated environmental safeguards and lacked adequate public review. The rules, originally issued in 2005, were intended to streamline the cumbersome planning process for national forests. But until the Forest Service subjects them to proper environmental analysis and public comment, ruled Judge Phyllis J. Hamilton of Federal District Court in San Francisco, the rules are on hold. As of press time, the Forest Service had not yet decided whether to appeal.

Finally, Judge Ricardo Martinez in the U.S. District Court in Seattle shot down a rule that would have weakened the 1994 Northwest Forest Plan. The rule would have allowed tree-cutting projects that caused short-term harm to salmon.

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