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Know the West

Dear Friends


Hello, uh, fire department

Pastures smudged with black ash, fast-rising billows of smoke visible from miles away, these are the signs that signal spring in this medium-altitude (5,600 feet) mountain valley.

"Burning ditch" is an annual rite here, followed in more than a few instances by emergency calls to a town's volunteer fire department (-Come quick! My grass fire's running away!') The culprits, locals will tell you, are an errant gust of wind, too short a hose, or the misguided belief that one or two people can run 10 places at once to pound out sparks with shovels.

Fire, we know from embarrassing experience, has a will of its own; it loves to sneak around and then flare up, usually in a neighbor's back yard or field. Runaway blazes this spring have been mostly contained, we hear, though the local public radio station, KVNF, lost one of its translators in March to a weed fire. Of course, the real question is why more of us don't learn to burn ditch safely. Could it be a pent-up need to get outdoors, once the snow melts off, to see what happened on the ground over winter? We can't answer the big questions about fire - although this issue's lead story makes a stab; all we can say for sure is that the weekend's coming up and there's a couple hundred feet of ditch to burn.

Staff updates

German radio producer Udo Zindel wasn't exactly staff here a few years ago; he was a "visiting journalist" who spent an active summer exploring Western issues and putting together a documentary about High Country News. It ran on German public radio, and now Udo tells us that the show, "aged like a good cheese, maturing but not spoiling," recently aired in Austria. We already knew that because a clipping from a Viennese newspaper somehow appeared in our office. It noted that HCN emanated from Paonia, a sleepy little town "at the end of the world." The review of Udo's work went on to say that the paper "documented the ecological awakening of a region we disdainfully call the "Wild West." "


A half-dozen staffers spent time with mapmaker Louis Jaffe recently as he showed some of his latest work detailing open space and land targeted for development in the San Francisco Bay area. Jaffe, who works with the nonprofit Greenbelt Alliance, came to Paonia with his wife, Kitty Whitman, to visit her twin sister, Nell, a seemingly tireless English and Spanish teacher at Paonia High School, and her husband Bob Santmeyer. He's a philosophy instructor at Mesa State College in Grand Junction. The twins just celebrated their 30th birthday.

Subscribers Lance and Jennifer Barker of Canyon City, Ore., dropped by en route to relatives in eastern Kansas. She's a seasonal employee of the Malheur National Forest, and he's a tree farmer who's trying to recreate an old-growth stand of ponderosa pine. Driving into Paonia in their brick-red, "68 Volkswagen bug, they were struck by several signs announcing "organic" fruit and vegetables. "No one at home would put out anything that mentions the "O" word," he says.

In other news

Larimer County manager Frank Lancaster tells us the helpful Code of the West for newcomers that we mentioned in a Bulletin Board March 18 is available, but he'd like people requesting it to use a computer to cut down on the cost of "snail mail." Commissioner John Clarke's code can be read by checking in to home page http://www.co.larimer.co.us.

John Caccia, of Ketchum, Idaho, tells us that longtime environmental activist Bill Chisholm was admitted to the Bannock County jail recently for refusing to pay an additional $1,200 fine for spilling red paint onto a container of spent nuclear fuel. At the time of his offense, the state of Idaho was trying in federal court to halt nuclear waste shipments into the state. "Despite his imprisonment," Caccia continues, "Bill has vowed to continue his mission of bringing about a nationwide debate addressing our country's nuclear waste policies. If you would like to help Bill get out of jail and reinforce his message, write "Free Bill Chisholm Campaign," Box 344, Buhl, ID 83316."

* Betsy Marston for the staff