The big issues facing the West

In midst of the hard news, there’s hope and humanity.


I think of this issue as a sort of progress report on three of the biggest issues facing the Western United States: climate change, homelessness and the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.

Barely a week into his administration, President Joe Biden hit pause on selling leases for oil and gas drilling on public lands. Of course, as Carl Segerstrom tells us, old hands in the West are fully aware that doesn’t mean the drilling will stop. It does, however, signal a welcome shift in policy.

Balbir Singh drives a tractor in Karm Baim’s orchard in Gridley, California, where Punjabi American people have farmed for more than a century.
It’s a change that comes not a moment too soon. In February, for the first time ever, the drought plan for the Colorado River Basin was triggered for the Upper Basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico. One official who spoke to writer Nick Bowlin had two words to describe what this means for the millions of people who rely on the river and its reservoirs: “red alert.”

American farmers of Punjabi origin in California’s Central Valley don’t need an alert. Some of them are already losing their farms. Wufei Yu profiles a vibrant community that has survived for over a century despite discrimination, only to now face possible defeat by drought.

Correspondent Leah Sottile examines how we criminalize being unhoused through the story of the life and death of an Oregon man caught in a cycle of homelessness and persecuted by the police. What started out as a traffic stop ended in a tasing death. Why did James Plymell have to die?

Katherine Lanpher, interim editor-in-chief
Jessica Kutz brings us a story about the border wall that offers something new: hope. As part of a series High Country News did with Arizona Public Media, Kutz chronicles the human rights and environmental advocates who dream of what the Borderlands could look like in this new world. (Read the rest of the series.) These activists, she writes, hope to make it “a place of restoration instead of destruction, a place of refuge instead of fear.”

In this issue’s Facts & Figures department, Jonathan Thompson breaks down the numbers on the border wall, contrasting what was promised to what is there now. Meanwhile, Arizona Poet Laureate Alberto Ríos reminds us that the Borderlands are about much more than a wall. There’s humor and humanity there, too. And that’s always a good thing to remember.

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