Putting plastic squares on a fence

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Lava Lake, Idaho
context: We spent a week on the property of Lava Lake Lamb, a sustainable sheep ranch that’s trying to do research on wildlife migration through their land. We had just come from Nevada, where we listened to anti-grazing activist Jon Marvel describe the problems fences pose for wildlife migration. He told us that anytime we saw a fence in the west, we should tear it down. But as part of our work for Lava Lake Lamb, we helped them make their fences more “wildlife-friendly”.
So we put up plastic squares along fences that Jon Marvel says shouldn’t be there to stop sage grouse that he wants listed as endangered from hitting them. I don’t mind fences out here—it all looks the same to me; fences are part of the landscape as I’ve come to see it. But fences keep wildlife from moving, and I realize I’ve stopped looking at sagebrush as wild and started assuming grazing when I see it. I worry about the plastic—so many biologically pervasive toxins in them, molecules that get inside you and stick, invisibly, until you try to reproduce or are diagnosed with cancer. But I doubt those small squares will disrupt many endocrine systems. Is this what it means to see landscapes whole? To see the scars too, to always have a rejoinder starting with, “But…” whenever a solution is proposed? Can I go back to Moab senior year, when I didn’t know cattle grazed on public lands and the desert was just beautiful, even at Hidden Splendor*? Driving in Nevada, I look out the window and I see Harry Reid, gold mining, Los Alamos, the Manhattan Project, Hiroshima in September 1945, Owens Valley, the Superfund site list, cyanide, cows and climate change. Is there an off switch for this vision? Will I ever be able to see a sunrise unaffected again?
Oh, hyperbole. And yet, with everything I know, it’s still beautiful out here. Finding beauty in a broken world…almost easier, in a way. The contrast is starker. Or maybe it’s that things seem more beautiful because they’re broken—imperfect, yet still present. You acknowledge the imperfection and you work to make it whole. You put tiny white plastic squares on barbed wire fences, and they shudder like tree leaves in the breeze.

*Hidden Splendor is a site in the middle of nowhere—the San Rafael Swell in southeastern Utah. It’s where much of the uranium for the Manhattan Project was extracted, and the old mine shafts are still there. It’s also possibly the most gorgeous place I’ve ever been.


Dispatch from the West

Our latest assignment is to write a dispatch from the West, 250 words or less on one of four topics: wolf at the door, aspen, incised channels or water out of place.

Incised Channels

We were raised by a generation that doesn’t know what a stream looks like. We were taken hiking and told: this is nature. We were lied to.

They’re spread out like scars across the dried skin of meadows and desert sagebrush. In summer, heat evaporates moisture and the skin cracks, but there is no blood. The channels run straight and dry, banks trampled by cattle, aspen eaten away by elk. The groundwater is thirsty, praying for rain, but it doesn’t rain in the desert. When the snow from distant mountains finally melts, the water runs quickly, hurried without sinuous curves that used to slow it down. The stream is our journey West, the frenzied rush to build railroads and conquer the continent. We called it Manifest Destiny, and it manifested itself in beaver pelts, smallpox blankets and dams. It’s been a long time since beaver ponds told the water to slow down, stay a while. When you’re trying to squeeze profit out of dry land, water gets squeezed out too. A cow pie, a solitary puddle at the bottom of a canyon and acres of cheatgrass: this is our destiny, manifested.

We see the lie. We walk across the scars under the heat of a desert sun and fall asleep dreaming of the breeze playing with a yellow aspen leaf as it falls onto the surface of a pond built by beavers, the only animal that has ever been successful in its efforts to bring more water to the desert.

Uncomfortable truths in Nevada

Las Vegas is still growing. Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert. Las Vegas is running out of water.

Cows graze on almost all the public lands in Nevada. Land grazed by cows is easy to spot, covered in invasive grasses, cowpies, stream banks cut deep and straight with muddy hoof prints all the way to the bottom. The cost to run a cow and calf for a month on these lands is $1.35. On the allotment we visited today, 15,000 cows graze and the Bureau of Land Management takes in about $22,000 per year from the permitee. A recently constructed irrigation trough and pipeline on this land cost $400,000, paid for by the BLM. It’s full of algae with a dead bird wing buried somewhere under the muck.

Las Vegas wants to build a pipeline to Spring Valley to pump water from an underground aquifer. This water will go to feed its green lawns and the rainforests built inside casinos.

Nevada has a Senate seat up for reelection this fall. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, will face off against Sharon Angle. Reid has consistently supported gold mining in Nevada, pushing hard against reform of the General Mining Act of 1872. Because of this act, prospective gold miners can acquire a claim for $5 an acre on federal lands. If gold is found, they pay no royalties to the government.

Between 1951 and 1992, there were a total of 1,021 test of nuclear weapons conducted at the Nevada Test Site. One hundred of these were above ground. The radioactive fallout blew downwind into Utah and southern Nevada. Some of it ended up in Spring Valley.

In the East, where is rains, you measure land in cows per acre. In the West, where there is a desert, you measure in acres per cow. The math will give a solution between 25 and 150 acres.

A dumptruck full of gold ore will yield about one ring’s worth of gold. To get it out of the rock, you use cyanide. The waste from this process sits in ponds, sometimes lined, sometimes not. If the original prospector goes broke or can’t be found, the government pays to clean up the mining waste.

If Las Vegas takes the water out of Spring Valley, the land will dry up. The soil will become dust and the dust will become airborne. The dust is volcanic soil and is full of a carcinogen as potent as asbestos. The dust blew into the valley as fallout from the Nevada Test Site. The dust is full of tiny particles which have a knack for working their way into the moist linings of human lungs and staying there.

Sharon Angle, the Republican challenging Harry Reid for Senate, has called the separation of church and state “unconstitutional.”

Cows need water to drink. Cows need hay to eat and hay needs water to grow. You get water in the West by damming rivers or pumping it out of the ground.

Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States. The Strip is covered in homeless men too resigned to ask for spare change. The neighborhoods outside feature fences topped with barbed wire and billboards advertising attorneys who can fight DUIs.

As climate change occurs, the West will become hotter and drier. Reservoirs will evaporate faster. River and stream flows will decrease because the glaciers on the mountains that feed them are disappearing.

About ninety percent of the population of Nevada lives in Clark County, where Las Vegas is located, or in Reno. You can’t get elected in Nevada unless you support what Clark County and Reno want. And right now, they want their pipeline.

Cows trample biotic soil crusts. These crusts are made of mosses, lichens and microorganisms. They hold soil together, retain moisture, increase the productivity of adjacent plants and fix nitrogen and carbon into the soil. Without them, the soils blow away and water evaporates faster. Without them, the land becomes more desert and less water. Cows need water. Las Vegas needs water. The people of Spring Valley need water.

Pando Clone and conservation

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Pando Clone, Fish Lake National Forest, Utah
context: The Pando Clone is a giant stand of genetically identical aspen trees, making it the largest organism on earth. It’s also declining steeply due to disease and climate change (warmer winters mean that parasitic organisms which used to be killed off survive the winter to prey on the trees). We were divided into two groups—art and science. As part of the art group, I spent half a day wandering around taking pictures of the trees.
Aspen trees are gorgeous, especially now when the leaves are starting to turn. I’m so glad I got to see and photograph that and spend a day relaxing somewhere so beautiful. Is it bad that seeing beauty like this makes me care more about restoration? It’s such a stark contrast with yesterday, where we saw trampled streams and cowpies everywhere. The healthy trees here are beautiful, striking, even worthy of a postage stamp. But sometimes, what’s right ecologically doesn’t look as impressive aesthetically. So many exotic species were introduced because someone thought they would look better. How can we get people to care about more than appearance? How can we fight for the endangered dung beetles and seaweeds of the world when everyone’s focused on polar bears and tigers? I’m biased towards those charismatic megafauna just as much as everyone else, but I’m not even sure about ecological roles. I suspect large mammals generally play fairly key ecological roles, so perhaps our focus on them isn’t entirely misguided. But I don’t know that for a fact. Either way, they need research and money and habitat and PR, so maybe a public concerned about baby polar bears is better than a public indifferent o eubacteria or rare Amazonian lichens. But I want to believe we have more options than that. I want to get people to care about everything and the whole ecosystem, more than the sum of its parts. I want them to care because these things matter, not because they’re beautiful or they have potential for pharmaceutical research. But isn’t any kind of caring better than apathy? I’m not even sure why I care anymore, except a vague notion that my life depends on a planet in balance. I’m starting to think that balance is more subjective than I thought. I see balance in enclosures, but not the whole forest. Balance in the US, but not Brazil. How much balance do we need? How many functioning ecosystems? Is it ok to sacrifice the rest once we get there? In August, I would have shouted, “NO!” Now, I say no quietly, a bit hesitant. So many things I don’t know…

Grazing: learning to see

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah
context: During this week, we were working with Mary O’Brien, an ecologist with the Grand Canyon Trust. Mary was one of several ecologists we met who believed that cattle grazing on Western public lands was an environmental nightmare and is working to reduce the amount of land that’s grazed. Today, we went out on an actual grazing allotment to count cows and see what the land looked like.
I think today, I get it. I’ve seen Suzanne cry and Mary rant about riparian habitat and grazing. I’ve seen cows and incised channels. But today, wandering across a few miles of moonscape covered in hoof marks and cowpies, I saw a bit of what they see. The fence, built perhaps to keep cows away from part of the stream and the juniper bushes, was in decent shape, but the cows had access to the stream on both sides because they’d managed to erode a path down into the gully. The water was muddy and trampled to death.
I’m still having trouble being angry about it. Maybe because it’s hard to pinpoint a source. I don’t fault the individual rancher trying to make a living, though I have no sympathy for absentee billionaires or giant corporations who run cattle. Cows are far too docile and placid to be the objects of anger. And the political and bureaucratic clusterfuck seems difficult to pin on any particular person, law or agency. It’s a beast of its own, independent of individual human desires, although a product of them.
But I know it needs to change. I’m not as strident as Mary, though I feel the truth in her statement that some jobs or lifestyles cannot be justified because the cost to the earth is too high. I know absolutely that a rancher should be able to graze fewer cattle than an allotment allows for and should be able to sell it for conservations purposes if both parties are willing. But beyond that, it’s so hard to untangle. I worry about imperialism and outsourcing of negative consequences. If we eliminate the 2-3% of beef grazed on public lands here (and 2-3% of American beef is still a ton of cows), demand won’t follow the drop in supply. So we’ll import from Argentina or Brazil and eat cows with a huge carbon footprint grazed on pasture that used to be Amazonian rainforest before it was clearcut. We’ll have our land back and some smug satisfaction or feeling of grand victory, but I worry we’ll just be outsourcing the problem. So what, ethically, should I be eating? If I add a no-public-grazing clause to my vegetarian meat-eating ethics, I might as well just go back to no meat at all. I want to be healthy, which means no more tofu if I can help it, and I’m not the kind of girl who can live off of lentils. I love dairy, but that’s a curtain I’ve barely started to pull back, and I know I won’t like what I find. Someday, I want a house in Seattle with a backyard big enough for chickens and a goat. But until then, I still think I’m doing better eating cheese, raw milk and Thundering Hooves beef.


As I mentioned the other day, we did a day excursion last week to Manzanar, one of about a dozen Japanese internment camps which were open during World War II. Manzanar is near the town of Lone Pine, California, in the shadow of the Sierra Nevadas. There’s a guard tower and some reconstructed barracks which are supposed to resemble the ones present in the 1940s. There is also a plaque describing the site, which, quite uncharacteristically for the National Park Service, describes internment clearly as a mistake and a demonstration of inhumanity. Because of this, the plaque has been cut with knives and shot multiple times, and another plaque has been posted on the private land directly behind it affirming the courage of American soldiers.

Seeing the site reminded me quite a bit of my visit to a slave fort in Cape Coast, Ghana. There, thousands of captive Africans waited packed like cattle in tiny, dark and filthy rooms, until they boarded a ship for a journey across the Atlantic which one-third of them would not survive. Japanese internment isn’t quite as unfathomable in its scale and inhumanity, but it still brought tears to my eyes to think about the things we’ve done to fellow people during the worst moments of our history. I read several pages of the visitor’s log, and there were several entries which said something like, “This is my first visit to Manzanar since I was released in 1945.” What really got to me was the exhibit about Japanese soldiers during World War II, including one man who dove on top of grenade to prevent it from killing his entire squad. He was killed and awarded a medal for valor, while his mother and the rest of his family was locked up in Manzanar.

I realized, walking around there, that so much of our history involves fencing away things we don’t like. The West especially has been defined and controlled by fences. Systematically murder Native Americans, then fence the once who survive in reservations. Dam rivers, fence them into reservoirs, so Los Angeles and Las Vegas can continue to grow. Put Japanese people in camps during the war because they might hurt the war effort. Anything contrary to growth, Manifest Destiny, war, America or God, we put inside a neat little fence and forget about. And now, it’s gotten to the point where we fence off the things we want to preserve. Fence the stream so cattle can’t trample the willow and aspen. Fence off the vegetation so it can keep growing undisturbed. Fence off Yellowstone and Yosemite to assuage our guilt as we mine uranium and clear cut forests everywhere else on our public lands.

I hope that we can take a lesson from history and never do this again, but our reactions to 9/11 suggest otherwise. Still, I hope next time we’re confronted with a crisis of national security, our first reaction isn’t to deprive people of their Constitutional rights.

The importance of water

This entry is part of my journal from Semester in the West. For all SITW journal entries, click here. For all SITW posts, including blog posts I wrote while on the program, click here. To learn more about the program, click here.

camp: Escalante, Utah

I feel like I’ve been so busy writing I haven’t had time to journal. I wish we had a longer segment on water, though I suspect it will come up again. Water and grazing seem to me to be the defining political issues of the West—almost everything else that gets people riled up can be tied back to one of those things.
I read books about dams—A Story That Stands Like a Dam over the summer, and now I’m starting Cadillac Desert. I find it so hard to imagine growing up in a world where there was no environmental conscience, yet I look at and listen to the Reclamation boys and politicians during the dam-building frenzy and I have to conclude they had no sense of looking at ecosystems or of seeing things in a way not tied to human industry and profit. Even the conservationists saw wildness and wilderness as spiritual refuge for men, a place not to be civilization, a place to calm our troubled and overworked souls. I don’t think the word salmon was mentioned once in the things I read, though I’m also not sure they live in the Colorado. But some other animal, plant, ecological function must have been imperiled when they closed the floodgates in Page. Why did no Rachel Carson spring up? Or if they did, why did history not remember them? I suppose the movement had to progress in a certain way. Maybe no one could conceive of ecology until we’d idolized wilderness as a spiritual refuge. Maybe no one thought to listen for the birds or count the salmon. But I have a hard time believing that’s the case. Native Americans, who fished the salmon, knew runs were declining precipitously, and so did other in the Northwest. And I don’t know enough about the ecology of Glen Canyon to say what anyone noticed when.
I’m worried about water, though. More than climate change, though of course they’re related. Some people somewhere will do just fine on a hotter planet, and because I’m among the rich and the privileged, because I live at 48˚N, I will be saved. Not that it’s not important to fight and mitigate, and not that we shouldn’t all be thinking about climate justice. But I’ve never felt that fear or panic that I’m supposed to. Where I get that fear is water, and once again I’m grateful to be on the west of the mountains. But Cali makes my food, and it does so artificially, pretending it’s not a desert by drawing on the Colorado and irreplaceable groundwater. When there’s not enough water to irrigate California, what do I eat? When we run out of topsoil from erosion, where will my food grow? These are the things that keep me up at night. Climate change will accelerate them, too. We can survive heat, tornadoes, hurricanes, cold winters. But we need water to live.