Of moose and mandolins

  • Jeff Chen

AGE 30
HOMETOWN Broadview Heights, Ohio
OCCUPATION Environmental scientist with the EPA

Elaine Lai stopped by High Country News on a sunny day in early May. She works for the wastewater unit of the Environmental Protection Agency, and had driven over from her Denver office to write a permit for the federal fish hatchery in nearby Hotchkiss.

Lai -- who plays the banjo and speaks rapturously of bluegrass festivals -- still seems a bit surprised to find herself working for a federal agency. But after she earned a master's degree in public policy and environmental management from Duke University, the EPA made her an offer she couldn't refuse: two years on agency pay with an EPA partner in the continental U.S. or elsewhere. She chose "elsewhere," and took a position in the Alaskan Arctic with the World Wildlife Fund, where she helped coordinate a climate change witness program. In the Far North, Lai helped stimulate communication between scientists and indigenous people, who experience global warming not as a temperature trend line on a graph, but as rapidly changing natural patterns: shifting caribou and moose migrations, altered salmon runs, thawing tundra and river ice that breaks up earlier in the spring. 

Lai was deeply impressed by the Native communities she worked with: "They're such warm people," she says. "The communities are so tight-knit."

Lai came to Paonia expecting to spend the night camping out in her car. Instead, she temporarily joined another tight-knit community -- the HCN interns. Lai lingered in town long enough to co-host a show on the local radio station, KVNF, with interns Jeff Chen, Emily Underwood and Terray Sylvester. Then she slept on their couch. No comment on whether they made her play the banjo in exchange for the night's accommodation.

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