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Know the West


The West is the new frontier, for ideas


Editor's note: This is the second part of a three-part package online; the first part is here and the third part is here. The entire package was published in the March 16, 2009 print edition of High Country News.

'Positivity' for Native students

On the thickly forested Yurok Reservation in Klamath, Calif., in the back of a dilapidated building that once housed a liquor store and tackle shop, three makeshift classrooms now hold a handful of Native students and their teachers. The overhead heater shrieks like a banshee. Nevertheless, "there's something beautiful about an abandoned liquor store becoming a school on the rez," says Geneva Wiki, the energetic 31-year-old director of the Klamath River Early College of the Redwoods.

When these students graduate, they'll have a high school diploma and up to two years of college credit. That's a big boost for a kid from California's largest and poorest tribe, in which alcohol and drug use are common but college attendance is not. Nationwide, only about half of American Indian students finish high school, and less than 4 percent earn a bachelor's degree. "When we started, none of the kids could pass (a college-level English exam). Now our (graduating) students are at a 90 to 100 percent pass rate," says Wiki, who founded the school in 2005.

There are 11 similar schools for Native students scattered across California, Oregon and Washington, but Wiki's is unique in two respects. It's the only one that requires its students to demonstrate mastery of a set of skills and knowledge -- at the equivalent of a B- or better -- before they graduate. And Wiki believes in involving community members in every facet of her students' education.

A tribal brainstorming session helped the school decide which subjects to offer  –– not just math and science, but also cultural traditions and language. Students work in small groups with Yurok leaders to complete hands-on projects such as a community vegetable garden and a teen court system based on tribal law. At the end of every trimester, students present their work at a community celebration and tribal members score the projects.

"Research shows that, for Native students, there's a direct correlation between the level of community involvement and student success," Wiki says. Although the school gets government funding, most of its money comes from private donors, including Antioch University's Center for Native Education. And Wiki recently secured a grant from the Walton Family Foundation to help other tribes establish similar schools.

Wiki credits her ability to "model positivity and compassion and hope" for her students to her family, a long line of tribal leaders and activists. She's earned degrees in public administration and policy, and has been an administrator, teacher and policy analyst for various Native education projects. Some of her motivation comes from knowing that "in my family's history, we had bright, talented members that didn't make it through public education."

Wiki hopes that, within a couple of years, she'll find a permanent home for the school and increase the number of students from 25 to 100. As more graduate, their success may help overcome the perception of some tribal members that "if we're doing it ourselves, it must not be good," she says. She strives to show the students they can overcome obstacles and make different -- and better -- choices than their parents and peers. "Every day, they have to make the choice to do the right thing."

--Jodi Peterson,HCN managing editor

Innovator tidbit: Xcel Energy and some partners are installing the nation's first completely smart electricity grid in Boulder, Colo. -- residents will easily monitor all their energy use and make better decisions.

Green detective

Justin Hayes, one of the Idaho Conservation League's top staffers, first heard about the fish problem  in Salmon Falls reservoir in 2004, when Idaho's health agency posted warnings that they carried elevated levels of toxic mercury.

With Stanford degrees in human biology and earth systems, a wife who's a doctor and two kids young enough to be highly sensitive to pollution, Hayes decided his group should look into the problem. "We started asking questions," he recalls, "and surprisingly, nobody had any answers" as to why the isolated reservoir near the Nevada border was a mercury "hot spot."

So Hayes took matters into his own hands. He traveled upwind to Nevada, and then to San Francisco, Seattle and Salt Lake City. He peeled back layers of obfuscation by agencies and industry to help discover a potential mercury source: a couple dozen Nevada gold mines whose ore contains sulfur. When this ore is heated to extract the gold, large quantities of mercury can be released into the air.

The Nevada Division of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency encouraged the companies to monitor and report their mercury emissions. But it wasn't required. And there were no limits on the emissions. The reporting was spotty, and many companies pretended they emitted no mercury.Hayes and his group, working with the Advocates for the West law firm, applied pressure in late 2004, threatening to sue unless the Nevada agency and the feds took a tougher approach. Hayes also got a mercury detector -- about the size of a saxophone case, with a tube that inhaled air -- and made road trips around Nevada, setting up downwind of mines and analyzing air samples. "People would drive by staring at me," he says.

He found dangerously high mercury levels. "We were the first people ever to go downwind of these facilities and collect data," Hayes says. "We 'outed' them, showing that their voluntary program was a sham."

Finally, in 2006, the Nevada agency imposed a mandatory program. It still feels loose: Companies must now monitor and report mercury emissions, with the goal of achieving reductions, but the deadline for installing the equipment is 2013, and the agencies still haven't set an emissions limit that all mines must meet. (Instead, each mine's limit is adjusted for the mine's technology.) Meanwhile, Hayes says, partly "because of our pushing it," many companies are now installing equipment to reduce mercury emissions. They've also calculated how much they emitted in the past -- a move that heads off prosecution for any fraudulent reporting.

Thus, Hayes says, it's now known that in 2000, Nevada's mines emitted about 20,000 pounds of mercury -- the equivalent of the emissions of 160 average coal-fired power plants. That probably helps explain why the heavy metal has been found in risky levels in many Idaho lakes and in Utah's Great Salt Lake. The companies have reduced their emissions to about 3,000 pounds a year, but Hayes' group still uses the mercury detector, because "we have to keep pointing out the flaws (in the emissions-control technology) and pounding on" the agencies to set a tough limit. Hayes, 40, has advice for other activists who might want to act like detectives: "Be curious and follow your nose."

--Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Innovator tidbit: Tackling poverty, corporate sexism and teenage-driver text-messaging -- Santa Barbara's Miller-McCune magazine and website distill academic papers on such topics for mainstream readers (motto: "Turning Research into Solutions").

Healthcare for the hard-up

A $40,000 hysterectomy: only $700.

Basic X-ray: only $10.

Dental cleaning: $45. Intensive care unit: $600 per day.

The Access to Healthcare Network's prices sound like a doctor's bill from the 1950s or '60s. So it's not surprising that the Reno-based nonprofit -- which provides affordable, comprehensive healthcare to the uninsured working poor in Washoe County, Nev. -- has seen its membership swell to more than 2,500 people since it opened in 2007. Director Sherri Rice expects another 2,500 to join by the end of this year.

"We are in such a healthcare crisis in our country," Rice says. "Hospitals and the uninsured want to look for a new way."

The Access Network operates on one basic principle: shared responsibility. Its roots go back to 2004, when a group of local stakeholders, including two big hospitals and the county and state health departments, began looking for a sustainable way to provide service to some of the community's poorest people. According to Rice, they weren't interested in "another entitlement program" such as Medicaid, which relies on federal and state funding and doesn't require patients to put much money or effort into their own care.

Now, the two hospitals and more than 450 other healthcare providers have agreed to offer their services at low fixed rates. In exchange, the Access Network guarantees that its members will pay cash at the time of service. It pairs each member with a "care counselor" who ensures that medical appointments and follow-up care will be handled responsibly.

It's a good deal for the providers -- which range from pharmacies to acupuncturists, optometrists to cardiologists -- because it allows them to serve needy people with the assurance they'll get some payment without a protracted collection effort. The hospitals are also able to cut down on their charity expenses. (Patients who can't afford specialty services or coherent care often end up in emergency rooms, and hospitals are frequently stuck with the bills.)

"We put structure to a structureless population," says Rice. "We have proved that people at poverty line can pay."

Nevada residents who earn between 100 percent and 250 percent of the federal poverty level are eligible. Aside from the fixed rates they pay to providers, they pay a monthly fee to the Access Network: $45 for an individual, $90 for a family. Some small-business owners help employees by paying a portion of the fees.

Rice has only expelled 10 members for failing to pay. No one, she says, has asked for free service. "They ask to pay what they can according to income. They ask for their dignity. We give them both."

--Terray Sylvester, freelancer

Developing to stop development

In 2001, Ted Harrison, working for the Trust for Public Land, acquired 1,400 acres of rabbitbrush and petroglyph-etched basalt boulders as open space for Santa Fe County, N.M. Nice accomplishment, but Harrison was frustrated: It was just a sliver of the more than 14,000-acre Thornton Ranch, which lies right in the path of Santa Fe's sprawl. And the Trust and the county couldn't afford to buy the entire ranch.

They did their best "to preserve discrete parcels," Harrison says, but "the real estate industry was washing away a lot of the effects."

So Harrison left the Trust and started the nonprofit Commonweal Conservancy. His group is now buying the remaining 13,222 acres of the Thornton Ranch south of Santa Fe, where it plans to create the Galisteo Basin Preserve: About 1,000 homes built on just 427 acres, with the rest set aside as open space.

Other developments in the West preserve more land, but typically they emphasize exclusivity and their open space becomes a "private refuge," Harrison says. Galisteo Basin Preserve is inclusive: No gates allowed, no golf courses and no country clubs -- and 10,000 acres of the open space will be open to the general public.

Ninety-five percent of the houses will be clustered in a 300-acre "village" that includes 30 percent county-approved affordable housing. There will be an environmentally oriented charter school and a commercial area to reduce the need for driving. Outside the village, some of the largest, most expensive lots are off-the-grid; their sales will help fund the rest of the land purchase. The village plan includes community gardens and a centralized rainwater-catchment and graywater-recycling center. Construction is slated to begin in 2010; a hundred-tree orchard has already been planted.

Harrison had to appease the residents of nearby Galisteo, who worried that the development would impact their water supply. He also reached out to include other nonprofits, from the Earthworks Institute, which is restoring arroyos, to the Quivira Coalition, which is fashioning a sustainable grazing strategy.

"Coming at this from a nonprofit perspective, part of the fun and craziness here is to see how many things we can fit together and really push the envelope," Harrison says. "If your goal is wealth maximization for a small group of investors, then these other social welfare ideas are not on the table."

Those ideas include a "memorial landscape" or environmentally friendly cemetery. "If we don't accommodate that," says Harrison, "well, of course, it's not a whole community."

--Jonathan Thompson, HCN senior editor

Innovator tidbit: St. George, Utah, is building a community-owned solar PV field on city land -- homeowners make a one-time payment (less than rooftop solar) and agree to buy the electricity for 19 years.

Saving journalism by 'crowdfunding'

Imagine you live in a place dominated by a single industry: oil-and-gas drilling, say, or real estate, or a university, or just single-minded, intolerant politics. You see unfairness or corruption and think that a hard-hitting investigation might lead to improvements. The local news operations tend to favor the status quo because they rely on advertising from the dominant industry or aren't equipped to investigate.

So you go to a Web site and propose the investigation you have in mind. You figure it could be done for $2,000, which would cover a journalist's time and expenses. You use your credit card to pledge $50 toward the total. You tell other people, and they tell others. Eventually, enough people make pledges to cover the full $2,000.

Then the Web site boss hires the right journalist, who does the story –– and blows the lid off whatever injustice you targeted.

Sound far-fetched? A year ago, it was. But today it's possible, thanks to a 26-year-old San Francisco innovator named David Cohn.

"I'm very passionate about journalism," Cohn says, especially "the concept of participatory journalism, or how the public can be engaged."

He invented www.Spot.us to engage the public. He launched it about five months ago, with $340,000 from the Miami-based Knight Foundation News Challenge program, which funds "media innovators" across the country.

Spot.us is one of many signs that journalism is changing. Daily newspapers, magazines and broadcast news shows are struggling financially as more people get their news online. But online news operations typically lack the staff or money for news-gathering.

Cohn grew up in California and got a master's degree at the Columbia University Journalism School in New York City. He worked as a researcher for Jeff Howe, a Wired editor who champions the idea of using "crowds" to fund different enterprises.

Cohn runs the site from the apartment he shares with his girlfriend and a cat, and from coffee shops with his notebook computer. The public has funded about a dozen Spot.us stories so far -- pitched by both journalists and ordinary citizens -- including investigations of the Oakland police and the problems of homeless people.

The focus is on the Bay Area, because the Knight award is for local journalism. But Cohn wants the idea to spread. He built Spot.us on an "open-source platform" -- anyone can modify the software to start doing journalism elsewhere. Asked how much time he's dedicating to it, he says, "It's basically if I'm not eating or sleeping. …"

--Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Low-carb(on) brews

New Belgium Brewing makes at least 18 kinds of beer in Fort Collins, Colo., ranging from its famous Fat Tire Ale to whimsical seasonals such as Skinny Dip (only 114 calories per glass). By conventional standards, the company is the nation's third-largest craft brewer. It's also one of the most environmentally conscious companies on the planet, a path it pioneered beginning 18 years ago.

New Belgium buys all of its electricity from renewable sources, chiefly windmills, except for what it makes by burning methane from its own wastewater. The brewmaster boils his wort in an uber-efficient kettle imported from Germany, the first of its kind in this country. To trim the environmental costs of transporting and making cardboard, the company recently reduced the packaging material in each 12-pack; that alone cut yearly cardboard demand by 150 tons and shaved 174 metric tons from the estimated annual greenhouse gas emissions caused by the brewery's operations.

New Belgium has lowered its rate of water use with a new, technologically advanced bottling plant. To foster low-impact transportation, it gives bicycles to employees after they've been with the company for a year, and keeps a collection of loaner bikes on the property for lunch-break excursions. It also pays a bike courier to gather brown bottles from downtown bars and restaurants, because the city doesn't offer commercial recycling. It then ships those bottles, along with its own stream of waste glass, to the nearby Rocky Mountain Glass plant, where Coors bottles are born.

The company is working to brew more of its beer from organic ingredients, but has had trouble finding high-quality organic ingredients in the local market. So it's donated $20,000 to Colorado State University to spur research into Colorado's organic growing conditions.

Before bringing their first batch of beer to market in 1991, co-founders Jeff Lebesch and Kim Jordan hiked in the mountains to brainstorm a few basic sustainability principles for their company. They committed to "kindling social, environmental, and cultural change as a role model of a sustainable business." Ever since then, they and their staff have discarded the idea that profit-making conflicts with a commitment to the common good.

New Belgium believes that its green image underpins its brand strength. "We don't calculate the cost of doing something unsustainably and then more sustainably and figure out the difference," says New Belgium's sustainability director, Jenn Orgolini. "We're always looking for the next thing."

--Terray Sylvester, freelancer

Innovator tidbit: Headwaters Economics in Bozeman, Mont., invents software to uncover the hidden costs of community decisions, such as allowing new houses in wildfire zones or committing to a mining economy.