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Know the West

Heard Around the West



If Glen Canyon Dam were a person, says Shaun McKinnon in the Arizona Republic, "it would surely suffer from low self-esteem." There are several reasons: Environmentalists want to breach the dam to benefit native fish and bring back beaches, the writer Ed Abbey wrote about blowing it to smithereens in The Monkey Wrench Gang, and in 1997, former Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater shocked people when he confessed that if he had it to do over, "I'd vote against it (the dam). I've become convinced that, while water is important, particularly for those of us who live in the desert, it's not that important." The electricity it provides to hundreds of thousands of homes in Los Angeles, Tucson and Phoenix is still important, but as the 710-foot-tall dam turned 50 this May, the Colorado River rushing toward it again failed to plump up the azure-blue reservoir. Thanks to a Western drought that began in the fall of 1999, the reservoir seems stuck at about 49 percent of capacity, reports the Bureau of Reclamation. For kayakers, the diminished water means there are new, twisting canyons to explore in silence, with nobody chugging past in a houseboat. But a hundred feet above, white against the sandstone cliffs, a bathtub ring startles boaters. It's a reminder of Lake Powell in its prime, when the sediment-rich Colorado River flowed like no tomorrow, and the Bureau of Reclamation could boast at the end of a summer that the reservoir stood at "full pool."


Acronyms can be embarrassing, especially when they're used to twit local government for failing to listen to residents. When city officials asked residents of Seattle's South Lake Union neighborhood what they really needed, reports The Oregonian, they answered "affordable housing." What they got instead was a trolley, though officially it's being called a streetcar. Hence the name South Lake Union Streetcar, or SLUS for short. That name may never find acceptance. A local coffeehouse called Kapow! has already sold hundreds of T-shirts that defiantly keep "trolley" in the acronym; the shirts read "Ride the SLUT."


Who do you call for help if you want to move 1,100 trains - each hauling more than 100 cars loaded with coal - as fast as possible through the bottleneck that's the Southern Powder River Basin? An auto-racing pit crew, that's who. Tips in rapid refueling, maintenance and inspection from a pit crew helped Union Pacific haul a record 17.2 millions tons of coal through Wyoming during the month of August, reports the Omaha World-Record. Another innovation speeding up train traffic is a forklift that allows rail crews to change out wheels on a train while the coal-filled cars stay put. That alone reduces the time it takes to repair and return a railroad car to service from 12 days to just 15 minutes.


Lawmakers in Oregon have proposed a bill that would make it illegal to sell or possess Salvia divonorum, Latin for "sage of the seers," reports The Associated Press. The plant has been used for centuries by shamans, or healers, in Oaxaca, Mexico, and is thought to be increasingly popular among young people in this country. One can't help wondering why: A study in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology found that users reported feeling as though they'd been turned into bizarre objects, including "yellow plaid French fries," "fresh paint," "a drawer" and "a pant leg." Another experimenter said "the room I was in turned into an accordion and I couldn't move." Blake Harrison, a criminal justice specialist at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said he'd heard that ingesting the drug was not very fun - "more like a cough-syrup trip." In any case, lawmakers in at least nine other states, including Utah, California and North Dakota, are considering a ban. The plant is controlled in Finland, Denmark, Australia and Italy.


There's yet another downside to global climate change: Itching. If you're susceptible to poison ivy, keep a sharp eye out for those bushes with shiny green leaves in groups of three. Lewis Ziska, a federal plant expert, said in the journal Weed Science that rising carbon dioxide levels are exactly what the plant prefers: They cause it to grow faster, become hardier and have bigger leaves that will "produce oil that is more irritating to human skin compared to plants growing in the wild several decades ago."


Forests have so much to put up with - from drought to development - and now there's an underground tree killer that the Forest Service calls the "humongous fungus." It's a root-rot infestation that underlies 2,200 acres - the size of 1,600 football fields - in eastern Oregon's Blue Mountains. Called Armillaria ostoyae, it is just one organism, making it the biggest living thing on Earth, and it may well be the oldest, at 8,000 years old, reports The Oregonian. The "fungiform Methuselah" grows by sending out tentacles that wrap around tree roots, eventually killing some trees in dense, closed canopy forests.

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.