Thursday, June 18, 2009

Four guiding precepts for environmentalists

Dave Foreman's recent "Around the Campfire" post starts a bit melancholy: He laments the passing of several noted environmental activists, including Congressman John Seiberling, deep ecologist Arne Naess, biologists Dave Maehr, river conservationist Pete Lavigne, and others.

Foreman saves his greatest eulogy, though, for Clif Merritt. "Clif is likely not well known to conservationists these days," Foreman says, "but I wouldn’t shy from putting him on the list of the top half-dozen wilderness heroes of the twentieth century."

Merritt, who passed at 89, was director of The Wilderness Society’s western regional office in Denver in the 1960s and through the 1970s, and was a formidable Wilderness advocate.

And Merritt was the one who taught Foreman four rules for environmentalists that Foreman says changed his life and his activism for ever. And stand as excellent guidelines for all of us who care about wildness and wilderness to be reminded of today.

Those four precepts, according to Foreman, are:
First is that the real work of conservation is to shield wild places with clear boundaries, solid rules, and enforcement. In the United States at least, Wilderness Area designation is the best way to do that.

Second is that the heart of conservation is made up of citizen conservationists. Conservation is a family of Nature lovers, not an assortment of institutions. Clif always told us Wilderness Society reps to strengthen independent local and state wilderness groups, to give credit to citizen volunteers and local groups, and to not elbow them out of the way to claim accomplishments for The Wilderness Society or any other big national group. We could lead but were not to hog the limelight.

Third is to ask for and work for what we want, what is needed, what is right, and not to accept what is offered us or what we are told is “reasonable” or “practical.” We are advocates for wild things; we are not politicians juggling interest groups with an eye to the next election. In the 1970s, Clif led against watered-down alternatives to Wilderness Areas such as “backcountry” and a lesser kind of wilderness for Eastern national forests.

Fourth is to have a vision. Since the days when he worked for passage of the Wilderness Act, Clif was carried along by vision. By looking ahead for the big picture, he was ready to head off on new paths that beckoned—for example, he jumped onto the idea of wildlife linkages between Wilderness Areas in 1993, just after The Wildlands Project began to push them. From a practical standpoint, we gain far more when we strive for a vision.
It's pretty easy to see, I think, how these compass bearings guided Foreman in his long career from Earth First!, to the Wildlands Project, and now with the Rewilding Project.

How might they live past Clif Merritt -- and even the Dave Foreman's of the world -- to guide the next guardians of the wild?

"The best way for us to honor this wise, dedicated, and charmingly odd man," concludes Foreman, "is to think about his four lessons, guide our work by them, and insist that conservation groups big and small get back to following them."

And to give those vision life in our own individual actions. And lives.


Read about Clif Merritt here.

Visit the Rewilding Project here.

Read and subscribe to Dave Foreman's "Around the Campfire" here.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Hanging with the Wild Hunters

I had the pleasure Friday night to sit around the campfire with some of my heroes: The hunters and fishermen who run the Colorado chapter of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers.

Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is a national organization founded in 2004 that has filled a void and closed a schism in the battle to protect wild country: It finally gives sportsmen and sportswomen a place to unite in the defense of wildness and wilderness, but in the name of hunting and fishing. Prior to this group, so-called "environmentalists" and wilderness defenders were perceived as being in opposition to sportsmen, and vice versa.

Even though hunters and fishermen standing up for wild habitat is a tradition that can be traced back to Teddy Roosevelt and earlier, for generations this natural alliance has been kept severed by the generally ideologically (an also illogically) anti-wilderness stance of traditional "sportsmen" groups. And traditional "environmental" groups maintained a leeriness of hunters and fishermen, largely because of the reactionary pro-motorized and mechanized "sporting" mindset maintained by those industry-backed so-called "sportsmen" groups.

Enter BHA. Here is a group that argues -- eloquently and fervently -- that hunting and fishing need big, healthy, roadless wilderness and wild country. And that it's needed not just for the wildlife that is the object of their woodsmen passions, but also for the health and spirit of those hunters and fishermen themselves.

The group, then, takes some surprising -- and welcome -- stances that stand in stark opposition to the industry-co-opted sportsmen organizations and publications:
  • That hunting and fishing are activities enjoyed by both men and women.
  • That non-motorized, human-powered, low-tech ways of getting around and doing that hunting and fishing is better and healthier for both the land and the people out on it.
  • That these places and traditions need to be preserved not just for today, but for future generations. Toward that end, BHA has a strong componnet of education and family that is meant to reintroduce the values of hunting and fishing to America's youth.
Good people doing good work.

And there was no better place to get to meet and talk with these good people than around a campfire and under the stars of a lovely San Juan Mountain night.

Below is a profile I wrote of the group when it first organized.
Solitude. Tradition. Challenge. Freedom. Health. Family.

Now there’s a list, eh? And how do you come by those good things?

By hunting and fishing in big, wild, open spaces, according to the vision of a new sort of environmental group. Or a new sort of hunting organization. Or a new kind of fishing advocacy club. Or whatever it is, for unlike any other kind of pro-wilderness coalition out there, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is all those things.

“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers is dedicated to quality and ethical hunting and fishing opportunities in the wildlands of North America, and the aggressive protection of wilderness and other backcountry habitat for fish and wildlife, upon which these great traditions depend,” states the group’s proclamation.

Their statement continues: “We are dedicated hunters and anglers who cherish the peace, solitude and challenge of the backcountry experience. As hunters and anglers, we know that our continued enjoyment of these traditions is dependent upon the protection and enhancement of a healthy environment.”

“At no other time in history have our traditions been threatened like they are today,” the message concludes.

Those “threats” to those traditions and the backcountry they require include the federal government’s recent rescission of protection for the country’s last 58 million acres of roadless land outside of Wilderness Areas. Roadless areas are vital habitat for large animals such as elk and bear, as well as providing essential native trout fisheries. The effects of roads -- even small logging roads and ATVs trails – and the access they cut into backcountry areas include increased human visitation and impacts, stress and altered natural behavior for wildlife, stream sedimentation, engine noise, access for poachers, and the spreading of noxious plants. Roads also disqualify areas from future Wilderness designation.

To counter those threats, BHA aggressively supports roadless area protection and Wilderness Area designation. It also, though, goes beyond these issues to also advocate for the reintroduction of predators such as wolves where viable, off-road vehicle restrictions, and minimizing technology for hunting and fishing -- all stances that stand in direct opposition to the messages conveyed in most modern mainstream hunting and fishing media, where wilderness “locks up” the land, roadless areas prohibit access to backcountry, predators steal “our” game, and ORVs and technology give you the edge up on those wily animals (while providing big advertising dollars in those glossy sportsman magazines).

It’s a radical approach, then, uniting hunters and anglers by promoting the protection of wild country and healthy ecosystems. The key rallying point is a shared valuing of tradition: renouncing motors and gadgets in favor of muscle and mind in pursuit of game. But it’s not a new philosophy, argues BCA co-founder and chairman Mike Beagle.

“It’s the freedom to hunt and fish in solitude, without urban excesses, and with challenge,” he explains. “It’s an old-fashioned way of doing things, that says it’s demeaning to wildlife to use technology to show our mastery over wildlife.”

Beagle, a former army officer, high school teacher, and football coach living in Oregon, refers back to Teddy Roosevelt when he talks about “the doctrine of the strenuous life”-- getting yourself in and out of the backcountry by your own power, and meeting your prey on their turf and level. All it requires is leaving the land alone, and leaving the toys at home. Which, of course, would also keep many of the motor-and-technology-dependent so-called hunters and fishermen at home, too. Like it used to be.

So that’s the solitude, tradition, challenge, and freedom parts. From that, the health and family benefits of low-tech adventuring in motor-free backcountry are gravy, says Beagle. “There’s also the added value of it being great for families. Real ‘family values.’ And it doesn’t cost like a theme park. All we have to do to get into it is sweat. We have to earn it. And even at a young age, kids understand the idea of earning it.”

“We just have to protect the solitude and challenging environments, by educating hunters and anglers about wild habitat,” he says, summarizing BHA’s approach. “We’re not against anything – we’re for things.”

Holly Endersby agrees.

“I joined because there wasn’t another organization out there that shared my values,” says Endersby, an Idaho-based outdoors writer, horsewoman, hunter, and angler. “All the rest were us-against-them groups.”

BHA, she says, appealed to her because of “their unique stress on protecting wild public country” and “a value that has lost its hold in the last few years – that killing should not be easy.”

“It’s important to me to get my own food,” explains Endersby, who also has become a member of the BHA board of directors. She says that she and her husband live on wild game, including elk, deer, bear, upland birds, and fish.

“It’s a privilege to hunt and take animals,” she says, “and when you work hard for something, you value it more.”

She and her husband frequently practice their traditional-style stalking in the nearby Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness, in Idaho. It is this place that also taught her that “our public lands are every citizen’s gift,” she says, adding that she considers it “a civic duty to take care of them.”

“Most other hunting groups don’t address that, or defend that,” she complains.

Endersby also defines that “killing should not be easy” edict as non-technological hunting and angling. But weapon-wise, what defines “technological” or what level of technology is too much is an issue that needs to be put aside here in favor of unifying over keeping the hunt itself as primitive as possible.

“It’s those senses – a consideration of the needs and honor of the animals, the land, and the hunt itself – that puts BHA in a category all by itself,” summarizes David Petersen, the Durango, Colo.-based author and hunting ethicist whose books inspired the group according to Beagle. “A group embodying the best of the middle ground of common sense, decency, intelligence, and respect. A group that’s not just about rights, but also is promoting respect, responsibility, and resource protection.”

“Backcountry Hunters and Anglers embodies all the things hunters and anglers should become,” he says. He then adds pointedly, “And all the things we must become in order to continue doing what we love.”
Learn more about Backcountry Hunters and Anglers here.

Learn about the Colorado chapter of BHA here.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Skiing that San Juan dirt-snow

Well all know about it: those crazy, hazy dust storms that swept across the Four Corners this spring. Seems that southern Utah and northern Arizona was scoured down with this Spring's winds, carried across the Colorado Plateau, and deposited on the spring snowpack sitting on the flanks of the Rockies -- and particularly the San Juan Mountains.

It also seems that these dark layers dusted over the snowpack -- we Westerners' alpine-stored water supply for the dry Summer months ahead -- also speeded up the snowmelt. By darkening the snowpack and lowering its albedo, the snowpack absorbed more solar radiation and so delivered its peak runoff weeks early.

And it seems the people who prognosticate on such things are predicting more of the same dirt-to-dust-to-snowmelt in the years ahead.

The New York Times ran a good article on the phenomenon a few weeks ago. The article, published May 14, says:

Snowpacks from the San Juan Mountains to the Front Range have either completely melted or will be gone within the next two weeks, said Tom Painter, director of the Snow Optics Laboratory at the University of Utah and a leading expert on snowmelt.

The rapid melting is linked to a spate of intense dust storms that kick up dirt and sand that in turn are deposited on snow-topped mountains. The dust darkens the snow, allowing the surface to absorb more heat from the sun. This warms the snow -- and the air above it -- significantly, studies show.

The problem has been particularly acute in the semiarid Colorado Plateau region encompassing parts of Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona. An unprecedented 12 large dust storms have occurred so far this year in the region, and at least two more are projected in the coming months, officials say.

The article also says there has already been twice as much dust generated this year than in the past six years.

That, to me -- even though I, too, recognized something weird going -- seems like a hard thing to quantify.

But, I must say, after a late-spring ski venture up into the San Juan high country recently, I am a convert to the idea that, this year at least, something truly peculiar hath descended upon our mountain domain.

As a side note, this trip was also my teen kids', and one of their friend's, first backcountry ski venture. (We're already getting them fired up for next year.) We headed up early one morning to Cinnamon Pass, east of Silverton. It was a great spot for their inaugural snowfield-skiing experience -- a quick 15-minute climb rewarded by a fast, fun, steep descent down. We got in two runs before the weird-as-the-dust-storms stormy weather moved in, packing its winds, cold, sleet, and lightning.

But two runs was enough to full hook these ski-bum kids.

And it was also enough to see first-hand the effects the Spring's dust storms had wreaked on the high-country snow. Looking out over the ragged ranges of peaks, both nearby and far away, you could clearly see -- startlingly see -- the line of red dust painting the snow-covered slopes, fading to a thinner pink as you got higher. It's a truly bizarre and dumbfounding sight.

And the effect was also clear close-at-hand: although our skiing was fast and fun, it was also across gritty, rust-colored corn snow.

If this is what's to come, then maybe it's time to turn those rock skis into dirt skis.

See more pics of both the ski and the dirty San Juans below.

Four days on the San Juan (at last)

It was about damn time. To get on the river, I mean.

Late, even: Last year we were on the Dolores in April and May, and the San Juan by late May. But this year, very little Dolores River, and no San Juan permit forthcoming on first application from the Bureau of Land Management (overseer of the San Juan in southeastern Utah).

But our friend Matt managed to snag a cancellation on the San Juan for the first week of June, and by then we were all damn near rabid to get on the river. Sure, it wasn't our usual week-ish run down the length of the lower San Juan, and instead was just a little 24-mile Bluff-to-Mexican Hat jaunt. But, hey, we'll take it. So we took it.

So we dragged our allotted river miles out over four days, and had a lot of beach time and hiking, checking out places we hadn't been for a while or ever: Riverhouse Ruin, Chinle Wash, wanderings around Eight Foot Rapid. A good pace: dead slow. And good company: lively and engaging.

And a good trip. And, as I said, as needed as an annual chimney sweep -- scrubbing away the mental ash and spiritual clogging from the working winter season.


-- This was JUNE? Cloudy and a gritty wind and chilly much of the time, and sunny and breezy and chilly the rest of the time.

-- Kids took their own boat. Start of things to come ... ?

See some pics below.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A happy Four Corners New Year!

Pardon me if I've been away, but I just got back from my New Year's celebration.

See, my New Year falls in mid-May, and lasts a little more than week. And every year its comprised of the same series of rituals plotted along the same itinerary: A circuit tour of the Four Corners, with some 25 or 30 people in tow, doing service work and visiting local landmarks while studying the region's past and present.

In my life, once a year this excursion is a sacred ceremony, a sort of walkabout by fifteen-passenger van. And it gives me a chance to set up my stance, my attitude, and to plot my approach and strategy and goals for the upcoming summer and year ahead.

I always leave this trip purged and redirected and revitalized. And exhausted.

Some background: The trip is organized by an education-travel company that does most of its trips in Latin America and overseas. This is one of their few domestic-travel programs, and it was put together specifically for a single group: A private school in San Francisco. Every year the graduating two-dozen or so from the 8th grade class, soon to be launched into a variety of high schools after many of them had been together for their entire scholastic careers, comes en masse to, sort of, well, travel abroad in their own county.

And every year it's a mind-expanding, eye-opening, spirit-spreading venture. For all of us.

The kids get a sort of smorgasbord sampling of the variety of people, places, and activities the Four Corners have to offer. They raft in Durango, wander Silverton, walk Cortez, and dance in the Bear Dance in Ignacio. They work with the Forest Service in the mountains and with Ute Mountain rangers in the backcountry of the Ute Mountain Tribal Park. They get talks from a Four Corners historian, BLM archaeologists, and Southern Ute tribal officers.

My role is part organizer, part regional public relations, and while the trip is on, full-time local guide. I get paid to do this trip, sure. But it's not the wage that makes me blot out a week each spring to cavort with 24 hormonal urban adolescents. I figure that, given it's 24/7 for seven days, plus prepping and wrap-up, I make only a few bucks and some odd cents per hour.

But for me it's the best below-minimum-wage job I've ever found.

Because for me, this foray into what's right around our home works as a pilgrimage into theme, into place, into my place and its people -- my personal passions. And it provides the space (even if it's often a rather loud, hectic, demanding space) to reassess my connection with those things, with how I'm doing my living in this place.

And the encounters I have on this excursion -- from river guides to retired miners to small-town business owners to federal land managers to tribal officials -- every time reminds me that there is a group here bonded beyond our familiar, hard, daily, civilized, socialized, acculturated borders. That there is a strong, long band of us that just plain share a love of this place, as a place, and for the place that it is.

And the great thing, too, is that most of those kids -- some who've never been above sea level, and some well-off enough to have already traveled the world -- see those things, too. And are touched by them. Even if only for a week.

I know, because they say so. And that's why I do this every year.

That, and because every year walking this personally sacred path -- okay, driving roads all over La Plata and Montezuma and San Juan counties with a rat-pack of rabid teens in tow -- is the place where I refind my place in this place.

A crazy ritual, perhaps. But, as this trip reminds me every time, the world is what you make it. And that's a message we all need to be reminded of. Regularly.