Keeping up with the changing West

Now more than ever, our issues are intersectional and our fates are intertwined.


When I was young my dad often took me to the woods. He is a person who believes in hugging trees — and not in a metaphorical way. If a tree was too big to fully embrace, he’d stretch out his arms and press his body, head turned to one side, against the trunk of some old-growth behemoth. Other times he’d pause and administer a love pat and a greeting. Hello, old cedar. You’re a nice big tree. I grew up feeling that trees, and all of nature, were part of our family, that we were our best selves when we were among them.

A prescribed burn runs through the Salmon-Challis National Forest on a ridge above the town of Salmon, Idaho, in early May. Prescribed burns are one of the tools forest managers use to help ward off catastrophic wildfires.
In science class, I learned that we are actually related — that humans share genes with all living organisms on Earth — and that our fates are entwined. Humans depend on nature — physiologically and, I would argue, spiritually. This publication, now in its 51st year, was created in response to that insight, call it conservation, or practicing restraint: the idea that physical spaces and their nonhuman inhabitants need safeguarding, so that our love and appetites don’t spoil it for others, whether those here in the present moment or those still to come. HCN was created to celebrate those places, and also to expose misuse and wrongdoing, to hold those to account who don’t act in good faith.

One thing I’ve learned from years in journalism is that issues are always more complicated than they appear — rarely black-and-white, more often prismatic, accounting for a range of beliefs, orientations and experiences. We have a right to nature, but we who? And nature where? And what does that right entail? Many of us also believe that nature has its own rights, irrespective of human endeavors. These rights — both of and to nature — are intersectional and multicultural, extending to all humans and creatures and ecosystems. They exist in the tiny, out-of-the-way hamlets that dot the rural West as well as in its suburbs and cities.

As I assume editorship of this venerable publication, I want to assure readers that HCN will always be focused on the rich and varied open spaces of the Western U.S., and that it will continue to report on human health and the urban environment, on communities large and small trying to do right by the land. As a human and an ecological family, we face great challenges: megadroughts and megafires, global pandemics and localized cancer clusters, rooting out hate and navigating toward equity.

Jennifer Sahn, editor-in-chief
Here in the West, all these issues intermingle and intersect in ways both heartening and troubling. In this issue, you’ll hear about an Oregon hotel that’s become a refuge for people who lost homes to wildfires, and the challenges of mitigating fire in an Idaho national forest; about suburban Phoenix’s groundwater crisis, and an effort to enhance food security in Alaska Native communities.

I grew up in California and am now raising a son here. We have evacuated our small city twice in four years due to wildfires. Here, in the traditional territory of the Chumash peoples, our forests are threatened by a warming climate, and our water future is uncertain. Here, as elsewhere, the pace of change is accelerating. Now, more than ever, our fates are bound together, regardless of race or nationality, religion or creed, whether we’re two-legged or four-legged, winged or scaled, or glorious old-growth cedar. Here on Earth, here in the West, in our communities, wherever they may be, let’s walk with grace toward that future, taking care of each other and the land that sustains us.

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