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Know the West

You can’t take politics out of the West

Our editor-in-chief responds to recent criticism.


Since last year’s presidential campaign and election, I’ve received a number of letters from readers angered by what they call the “political” content in the magazine. Stick to the West’s core issues, they say, topics like timber and grazing, and leave our nation’s divisive politics out. Unfortunately, that just isn’t possible. The American West has had a complicated relationship with politics and the federal government from the get-go, and under the current administration, that relationship is feeling a new strain.

President Donald Trump seems to have little regard for the kinds of federally funded programs that make life in this region better. The latest White House budget seeks significant cuts to the departments of Education and Energy, and absurdly deep cuts to the departments of Interior, Commerce and Agriculture. Taken together, the cuts represent a huge chunk of funding for federal agencies that play essential, interlocking roles in keeping the American West economically and ecologically healthy. Some agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, do the basic research concerning our land, air and water that we need to fill in the considerable gaps in our understanding of the place we live.This issue’s cover story, by award-winning contributor Douglas Fox, provides a timely example, as early-season wildfires are already sweeping parts of the West. Fox takes us into the towering plumes of smoke to follow the work of researchers — often helped by federal funding — as they advance the science of wildfires. His story reminds us of the destructive nature of both fire and humanity: The early fire research done by the U.S. military was designed to help the Allies more efficiently firebomb German cities in World War II. New research is uncovering how intense wildfires create their own weather and move across the land — knowledge that could save lives. If Trump’s budget cuts hobble that research, it will harm, not strengthen, the West’s security.


National politics play out in other stories, too. Correspondent Krista Langlois describes the problem of aging dams, like California’s Oroville, as researchers warn of potential super-floods. And correspondent Josh Zaffos describes the anxieties of refugees and undocumented workers in northern Colorado — people who are as much a part of our region as our loggers and ranchers. The West is as bound to national politics as anywhere else. There is no way to separate the defunding of science from the xenophobic policies of our current president, nor those policies from the ecological destruction we continue to inflict on the region. For readers who wish it were otherwise, I apologize. But if you see these issues as part of a larger story, the story of the West, and thereby of the United States, then read on.