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Know the West

The persistent trampling of the West

Environmental laws are one way to force people to consider their actions.


As yet another storm spun into western Colorado in late March, turning my hopes for a hike to mud, my friend Coby mused, ”Well, at least there’s going to be an amazing super bloom this year.”

Devils Hole pupfish, an original digital illustration by John Ivie.

No doubt: In heavy precipitation years, even the austere hills outside of town can glow with the subtle beauty of blooming cactus, vetch and other species. Still, nothing equals the super bloom that turned parts of Southern California into gold, with poppies so bright and abundant that they appeared on satellite images. The flowers, however, were almost eclipsed by the people who pursued them.

In Lake Elsinore, an epic human tide trampled and Instagrammed its way across the Walker Canyon poppy fields, until town officials had to temporarily close off access. Someone even landed a helicopter in the middle of a field for an illegal hike, roaring off minutes before law enforcement arrived, according to the LA Times.

The West has a long tradition of people doing ignorant things with little regard for the natural world. On the macro level, that includes clear-cutting most of the Pacific Northwest’s native forests, allowing millions of livestock to denude and simplify our desert ecosystems, and digging countless mines in the mountains with no thought for the subsequent pollution. But there are oodles of smaller atrocities, such as the unfortunate endangered species case painstakingly documented in this issue by Assistant Editor Paige Blankenbuehler.

The three drunken men who ended up at the pool in Death Valley National Park that is the only home of the Devils Hole pupfish didn’t know that they were caught on camera, or that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would throw the book at them for killing a fish, however accidentally. As Blankenbuehler notes, trespassing has long been a threat to the pupfish, whose population currently is 136. But this was the first time it resulted in a conviction that led to jail time, and, apparently and surprisingly, true contrition from the offender.

Paul Larmer, executive director/publisher
Brooke Warren/High Country News

It’s refreshing to see the Endangered Species Act so effectively enforced at a time when the Trump administration is so intent on gutting it. Environmental laws are one way we force ourselves to consider the impact of our actions and show restraint. Another way can be found in our second fish tale. In Dutch Harbor, Alaska, writer Ben Goldfarb discovers a high-tech commercial fishing operation that takes seriously the idea that fish feel pain and therefore deserve a respectful death before they end up on our plates. Let’s hope that Blue North Fisheries is on the edge of an industry-wide ethical revolution.

Under a strengthening April sun last weekend, I headed out in search of a super bloom. But someone had beaten me to it. On the hills above the Gunnison River, hundreds of sheep grazed off the early green growth, leaving hoof-churned soil, like a rototilled garden, in their hungry wake.