For most of us, birthdays are happy occasions, when friends and family pay fond attention, lavishing us with gifts to prove that we are loved and valued. For one day, our foibles are accepted with a smile—or at least diplomatically ignored.
The National Park Service’s 100th birthday this August has been less joyful. In fact, anyone paying attention to the news might think that the proud agency, which oversees 412 units across more than 80 million acres, has had its centennial celebration ruined by a series of uncomfortable revelations.
In January, the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General released a report detailing two decades of sexual harassment by boatmen in the Grand Canyon’s river district and the failure of senior officials to adequately respond. In March, the agency abolished the river district and announced that it would increase sexual-harassment training and conduct an agency-wide survey to ascertain how widespread the problem is.
Then, in February, Chief Jon Jarvis was reprimanded by his bosses at Interior for publishing a book on the parks through a private company without federal approval.
Meanwhile, the Park Service remains hobbled by byzantine bureaucratic policies that have contributed to its struggle to hire a workforce that reflects the nation’s racial diversity, despite decades of “we’re-on-it” rhetoric. Today, 83 percent of its 23,000 employees are white—no more racially diverse than it was a decade ago.
The agency also lacks an adequate funding base, not only to maintain current operations, but to address the crumbling, neglected infrastructure at parks around the country. Annual appropriations from Congress, which make up about 88 percent of the Park Service’s roughly $3 billion budget, declined 8 percent between 2005 and 2014 after adjusting for inflation, according to a December report from the Government Accountability Office. The funding crisis is so bad that the agency is considering corporate sponsorships, a move that has some worried that “America’s Best Idea” will end up auctioned off to the highest bidder: Arches National Park brought to you by McDonald’s.
It's enough bad news that some park officials probably wish that they’d planned a low-key event at some remote park in, say, South Dakota, rather than the yearlong media-saturated, Subaru-sponsored celebration that is keeping the agency in the public eye.
But I’m glad the Park Service went big on its centennial—and I’m even glad that its dirty laundry is getting an airing. After all, birthdays are more than just celebrations; they’re also a time for reflection and redirection. The fact that we are having such deep, passionate discussions about our national parks and their problems is proof that they are loved and that they matter.
Besides, there are some bright spots: The agency continues to lead the way in helping us understand how climate change effects ecological systems; over the past five years, its new climate response program has studied climate change impacts on national parks from Acadia in Maine to American Samoa in the Pacific. Director Jarvis has also convened a panel of independent scientists, who, in a report called Revisiting Leopold, urge the agency to stop trying to preserve each park as a “vignette of primitive America” and “act immediately, boldly and decisively” to prepare for volatile conditions, including severe wet seasons and deep droughts. That is forward-thinking all land agencies need to embrace.
The Park Service has expanded its vision beyond protecting gorgeous landscapes to embracing parks and monuments, some brand new, that spotlight America’s unique cultural heritage in all its remarkable, complex and occasionally ugly glory—places like Cesar Chavez National Monument in California’s Central Valley and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park in Maryland.
The centennial may not go down as the Park Service’s happiest birthday celebration ever, but hopefully it will be the most memorable and transformative one. We can all raise a glass to that.
Paul Larmer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.
Community Voices: Soldiers Organized Services (SOS) Offers Rides and Other Needed Assistance to Members of the Military, VeteransWritten by John DiViggiano
Soldiers Organized Services, known to locals as SOS, has provided free airport transportation for more than 100,000 of America’s heroes since 2007—saving active-duty military personnel, as well as their loved ones, in excess of $15 million.
The mission is funded through the generous donations of corporations, philanthropic organizations and patriotic individuals from all over the Coachella Valley.
Explosive growth has created new challenges for this Palm Desert nonprofit—and its new Veterans Communications Center is playing a key role in the expansion.
SOS plans to offer free transportation for area veterans to the Veterans Affairs Hospital at Loma Linda, and help with that mission came from Desert Adventures, operators of the popular Red Jeep Tours, which was about to retire a 1994 Dodge Ram minivan. It had some good years left, so with the help of local businesses and donors, it has been restored and donated to SOS.
“The van needed repair, and I was trying to decide whether to fix it or junk it when I saw a news report about SOS,” says Bob Schneider, of Desert Adventures. “I have always liked what that organization did for our Marines from the Twentynine Palms Marine Base. So I approached my mechanic and several local organizations to come on board for the donation.”
Schneider approached Erica Stone, founding director of SOS, about the donation, and she was thrilled with the idea. “It needed about $4,000 in repairs to make it reliable enough for freeway travel, so with the help of the Palm Springs Hospitality Association, The Rotary Club of Palm Springs, and Palms to Pines Automotive, the van is now in tip-top shape.
“Bob was tireless in seeking out collaboration for this project, and thanks to his efforts, and the time, money and expertise from the other benefactors, we can now safely transport our valley veterans to important appointments.”
All of SOS’ services—including free transportation, the Resale Boutique, and the Veterans Communications Center—are offered by local volunteers. These men and women, some retired and some still working, offer their time and talents to make life easier for our brave men and women of the United States Marine Corps, and now all valley veterans, through the efforts of the new Veterans Communications Center, and the Resale Boutique.
The SOS Resale Boutique, 77851 Las Montanas Road in Palm Desert, not only offers a wide range of gently used clothing; it also offers an abundance of household items, including appliances and furniture. All proceeds from the sale of these items go to support the mission of SOS to provide active-duty military personnel transportation to and from the Palm Springs and Ontario international airports. Now, with so many elderly veterans living longer, and needing more assistance, the boutique has found a new mission. Just recently, with recommendations from the Veterans Communication Center staff, SOS was able to furnish an entire apartment for a veteran in need—from bedroom furniture to living room furniture, with everything in between. Needless to say, that proud veteran was shown how much his fellow countrymen and women value his service.
The Veterans Communication Center is expanding its offerings. In addition to free transportation to the VA Hospital, the center will continue to be a clearinghouse of information regarding benefits—federal, state and local, for all honorably discharged service men and women. Adult-education classes will also be held at the center, on topics such as remedial banking, computer literacy training and household budgeting. Erica Stone talked about an elderly veteran, widowed after more than 50 years of marriage, who was unable to write a simple bank check, let alone balance a checkbook. His beloved wife handled all of their monetary affairs. With the help of volunteers at the center, that man can now write his own checks and be sure his bills are paid on time.
These are just a few examples of the community outreach SOS provides to a segment of the population that is too often overlooked: Men and women who have served their country with honor and bravery, perhaps decades ago, are somehow forgotten.
“They’re easy to spot,” Stone says. “Go to any parade, and watch to see who stands up and salutes the flag, sometimes out of a wheelchair, while the youngsters simply ignore it. They have paid their dues, and did their duty, and never forgot why. For that reason alone, we owe them our deepest gratitude.
As with most charitable organizations, SOS and its subsidiaries are in constant need of volunteers to help fulfill its many missions. Not only does SOS need a steady army of daily drivers; the organization is also looking for people to do office work, serve as sales and stocking clerks for the boutique, reach out to the community, assist with public relations and teach the adult-education classes.
For volunteer information, or to donate, visit www.sosride.org, or call 760-200-2345.
John DiViggiano is a volunteer driver and offers public-relations support for SOS.
The more things change, the more those changes echo on into the future. Today, we need to listen more carefully than ever to a voice from the mid-20th century—that of writer and Western historian Bernard DeVoto.
At the recent Republican National Convention, the party faithful approved a platform that directs Congress to give “certain” public lands to the states. It’s an old strategy, trotted out like a broken-down show horse at a county fair.
In the mid-1940s, Western policymakers, mainly Republicans, sought to eliminate the federal Bureau of Land Management, remove grazing areas from Forest Service control, and put public land on the path to state control and private ownership. One privatization bill passed the House in 1946, and even enjoyed the support of Interior Secretary Julius Krug, a Democrat.
Sounding the alarm against these terrible proposals came DeVoto’s prescient voice from his “The Easy Chair” column in Harper’s magazine. His warnings are still relevant seven decades later.
The noted writer knew something of the West; he was born and raised in Ogden, Utah, and later wrote prize-winning regional histories. To DeVoto, the land-divestment scheme amounted to a full-frontal assault on the country’s entire conservation program. He was right: The naked power grab he warned us about continues today, with stockgrowers now joined by powerful oil and gas interests. They bristle at any restraints on their self-interests and argue that what they call “local control” is always the answer.
But DeVoto identified a deeper problem that had—and still has—the potential to eat away at democracy itself. In the summer of 1947, the House Subcommittee on Public Lands began holding hearings in picturesque Western towns. Its short-term objective was to stop the Forest Service from reducing the number of grazing permits on public lands, even though overgrazing had seriously compromised many of those rangelands.
The legislative hearings were stacked with sympathetic audiences who had been primed by stock-grower trade journals to believe the worst of any federal agency, and to disbelieve “long-haired scientists” who showed that overgrazing was a problem in the West. A slew of so-called experts, ranchers and their politicians made the case again and again for giving free reign to the stock industry. Conservationists and witnesses who agreed with the Forest Service were allotted 10 percent of the time for testimony.
Unfounded rumors that the agency planned to disallow all grazing were permitted without rebuttal. Entered into the record without clarifications or corrections, these fabrications circulated like crumpled dollar bills. Inflammatory rhetoric and showmanship overcame evidence, much as it does in our time. In trying to expose the plot and set the record straight, DeVoto demonstrated that public hearings—just like party conventions—work as political theater.
Back then, as now, national monuments were in the news. In the mid-1940s, Rep. Frank Barrett, a Wyoming Republican who chaired the traveling public-lands subcommittee, hoped to abolish the Jackson Hole National Monument, which is now mostly protected in Grand Teton National Park. Today, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, hopes to prevent the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument by establishing two national conservation areas instead, a designation that offers less protection from development.
Bishop and his supporters like to tout their Utah Public Lands Initiative, which includes an alternative that they call the Bear Ears National Conservation Area. The bill’s proponents like the collaborative process it enacts, yet the initiative in its flexible management plans clearly favors grazing and energy producers. The Nature Conservancy, long a partner in the process, recently announced that it cannot back this bill. In addition, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, representing dozens of tribes, has declared that it wants the area protected by a national monument. Meanwhile, Bishop has proposed a “Partner Act” that would end the president’s power to use the 110-year-old Antiquities Act to create a national monument for the Bears Ears area.
DeVoto saw this coming. There is a clear line from those hearings in 1947 to the ones we’re seeing now, in 2016. The ultimate goal then was not just to stop grazing reductions or stymie national monuments; it was to discredit the federal government and its rightful concern for conservation. “The future of the West hinges on whether it can defend itself against itself,” DeVoto said.
During this presidential campaign, we can expect the Republican candidate and his followers to cite the party platform and offer yet more half-truths about public-lands management. As DeVoto showed 69 years ago, lies told often enough erode public discourse and weaken governance. “Against such psychology as this,” DeVoto implored, “only the force of the ballot can defend the public interest.”
Adam M. Sowards is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. He is an environmental historian at the University of Idaho.
When we decided to put a story about police-involved killings on the cover of our July print edition, we had no idea that the month would be dominated by news about police-involved killings—and the killings of police.
Yet that’s exactly what happened. The deaths of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minn., sparked yet more outrage about the excessive use of force by law-enforcement officers. The country watched in horror as Micah Johnson mowed down police officers who were watching over a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas, killing five officers and injuring nine other officers and two bystanders. Then came the murder of three law enforcement officers, and the wounding of three others, again in Baton Rouge, La., by Gavin Long.
These terrible deaths prove, yet again, that our country has some deep and serious problems. Way, way too many people are dying at the hands of law enforcement. On the flip side, while the vast majority of police officers in this country are fantastic, some troubled souls view all cops as being bad. And, of course, systemic racism is alive and well.
None of these problems will be solved overnight—especially considering the fact that one of this country’s two major parties is pushing an agenda that marginalizes LGBT Americans, Mexican immigrants, Muslims and many others. Sadly, more blood will be spilled before things get better.
That’s not to say there’s no reason for optimism. That aforementioned July cover story was about the fact that for the first time ever, the country has access to the fairly complete Fatal Encounters database of law-enforcement-related deaths—and that data can be analyzed and used to create better public policy.
It’s also important to note that violent-crime rates are much, much lower today—about two-thirds lower, in fact—than they were in the early 1990s. So even though it may not seem like it at times, our society today is way safer than it used to be.
Finally, despite all of the political rancor, many amazing people are working hard to unite us and develop understanding. For example, there’s Tizoc DeAztlan, a young local Democrat who’s working with his friend Hugh Van Horn, former president of the Coachella Valley Young Republicans, to hold a series of “Perspectives” discussion groups. Anita Rufus recently wrote about him in her Know Your Neighbors column; read that here.
You can also read Anita’s column in the August 2016 print edition of the Coachella Valley Independent, which is being distributed across the valley and High Desert this week. Enjoy, please, and drop me a line if you have any questions or comments.
He was one of nature’s biggest gifts, and the country owes him thanks. —Charles M. Russell, 1925
The bald eagle has been the national symbol since 1782, but the Western artist Charlie Russell was right: The buffalo was far more important to the story of the American West.
Congress agrees on very little these days, but this May, it successfully passed a bill that was quickly signed by President Obama. The National Bison Legacy Act designates the American bison, most often called the buffalo, as our first national mammal. What’s more, the bill enjoyed the support of a wide array of ranchers, environmentalists, zoos, outdoorsmen and Native Americans. As the Wildlife Conservation Society put it, the animal “is an icon that represents the highest ideals of America.”
The story of the buffalo, once roaming in immense herds, also touches on some of the lowest points in American history. As settlers and gold-seekers pushed toward California throughout the course of the 19th century, tragedy often followed in their wake, including the brutal repression and massacre of the American Indian, the wide-scale exploitation of wildlife resources, and the near-extinction of North America’s largest land animal, the buffalo.
With notable candor, the National Bison Association’s Dave Carter says “the fact that we almost screwed it up” back then did not prevent diverse and sometimes conflicting groups from agreeing on a united effort to help restore the buffalo. The end goal: everything from sustainable commercial meat production to Indian spiritual revitalization.
In the early 1800s, there were more than 30 million buffalo in North America, ranging in massive herds from Alaska to Mexico. By 1890, only about 500 animals were left. By the early 1900s, there were only about 30 genetically pure animals surviving in isolated areas, such as private ranches and the Yellowstone caldera.
In his book Last Stand, Montana author Michael Punke depicted the collapse of the buffalo in a sad telling of historical events. This included the scourge of hide hunters, who sent 1.5 million hides back East in the winter of 1872-1873, leaving carcasses to rot on the plains. In 1874, the Sharps Company issued the Sharps Old Reliable, “the rifle to end all rifles.” Hunter Frank Mayer used one to kill 269 buffalo in a single hunt, shooting from 300 yards away.
Railroads sponsored buffalo-killing expeditions, during which one Kansas man is said to have shot 120 animals in 40 minutes. Passenger trains on the newly minted transcontinental railroads would stop for hours while a single herd passed—and sportsmen took aim. And the rail workers had to be fed. A young man who came to be known as “Buffalo Bill” Cody wrote in his diary that he killed 4,280 buffalo in 18 months to feed construction workers for the Kansas Pacific Railroad.
Mercilessly, the U.S. Army participated in wholesale slaughter of the buffalo. Author Larry Barsness, in Heads, Hides and Horns, chronicles the relationship of the buffalo to North American Indians, and why the Army worked to wipe them out: “Either the buffalo or the Indian must go. Only when the Indian becomes absolutely dependent on us for his every need will we be able to handle him. If we kill the buffalo, we conquer the Indian.”
Yet thankfully, the buffalo survives, and Native Americans have a big role in the animal’s restoration. The InterTribal Buffalo Council represents 63 tribes engaging in, or planning, management to restore buffalo culture, and in some cases to manage herds for commercial ventures, which in turn will aid Indian communities. Executive director Jim Stone says the new national animal designation is a vehicle that will allow tribes to be “buffalo-centric” again.
People talk about oil and gas as the new buffalo, or gaming as the new buffalo. “There’s still the old buffalo,” Stone says. Stone, a Yankton Sioux, says his South Dakota tribe harvested its last buffalo in 1886. It wasn’t until 1993—107 years later—that the tribe could conduct another ceremonial slaughter of a buffalo. Stone believes a national buffalo designation resembles the effort to put the image of Harriet Tubman, the Underground Railroad “conductor,” on the $20 bill.
Buffalo, you’re the national mammal. You deserve no less.
Gaynell Terrell is a contributing writer to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News.
Editor’s Note: On March 8, the Independent published an opinion piece titled “Community Voices: It’s a Terrible Waste of Time to Argue for Bikes in Wilderness.” Here’s a piece that takes the opposite viewpoint.
It hasn’t happened yet, but one day, bicycles and baby strollers will be welcome in wilderness.
That’s the goal of the nonprofit Sustainable Trails Coalition, which seeks to permit forms of human-powered trail travel—beyond walking—in wilderness areas.
Congress never prohibited biking or pushing a baby carriage in wilderness. Both are banned by outmoded decisions that federal agencies made in the 1970s and 1980s. Over time, those decisions became frozen into place by lethargy and inertia.
It is true that the Wilderness Act forbids “mechanical transport.” By this, however, Congress meant people being moved around by machines, not people moving themselves with mechanical assistance. Now that wilderness acreage is larger than California and Maryland combined—vastly larger than when the walk-only rules were imposed—there is a pressing need to restore Congress’ original vision.
In 1977, renowned conservationists Sen. Frank Church of Idaho and Arizona Rep. Morris Udall explained what they thought Congress’ intentions were. Church said, “Agencies are applying provisions of the Wilderness Act too strictly and thus misconstruing the intent of Congress as to how these areas should be managed.” Udall warned against “stringent ‘purity’ criteria” that have “led to public opposition to wilderness proposals based on what is, and what is not, perceived to be … permissible in wilderness areas.” As early as 1964, some Forest Service staff wanted to ban even rowboats.
The Sustainable Trails Coalition’s proposal is modest. It would not permit mountain biking or walking with a baby stroller everywhere. Instead, local land managers would be given the discretion to allow forms of human-powered travel where they believe it’s appropriate. The United States has 765 wilderness areas, each one managed by officials who know the terrain.
Opposition to the coalition’s proposed bill apparently rests partly on unjustified fears that federal employees can’t manage land. Another argument is that where bicycles go, motorcycles and ATVs will soon follow. But members of the coalition have talked with staffers at many congressional offices, and none of them show any interest in using our proposed bill as a stalking-horse for motorized uses that, unlike bicycles, have never been allowed in wilderness.
We suspect that our opponents’ real fear is not that reform will fail, but that it will succeed. If we cease limiting wilderness travel to methods available in biblical times and thereby achieve better-managed wilderness, the previous cries of “wolf” will look foolish.
Some opponents accuse us of being pawns of giant bicycle companies with large cash reserves and a thirst to get bicycles back into wilderness. But the coalition is a grassroots effort, funded by individuals and a few small businesses.
Opponents of biking in wilderness are like pen-and-ink types opposing manual typewriters: It might be comical if the effects weren’t so grave, disconnecting more people from the outdoors and increasing their indifference to conservation.
Some people also worry that bicycles would “shrink” wilderness, and argue that we already have enough places to ride. But backpacking technology allows for more invasive intrusions into wilderness than bicycles. Most bicyclists leave the wilderness at dusk and don’t camp.
As for the call for us to “go somewhere else,” we would never patronize these critics by saying they’re not welcome in wilderness unless they travel by bicycle. We prefer to bicycle, but we don’t insist that everyone else has to ride. Bicycling is clean and environmentally benign, and has that wonderful quality of “flow,” which the human psyche rejoices in experiencing. Mountain biking may be richer in flow than any other recreational endeavor—that’s one reason so many of us prize it.
There’s a grim backdrop to the struggle over wilderness that this quarrel only worsens. In the 52 years since Congress passed the Wilderness Act of 1964, national forest wilderness has fallen victim to a number of contradictions that have warped the original vision. Some areas are overrun and loved to death, like the Maroon Bells in Colorado. Others are no longer managed and seldom visited, and marijuana growers reportedly have filled the vacuum, as in California’s Yolla Bolly. Still others, including the Pasayten in Washington, are despoiled by pack outfitters, whose abuses are ignored by many wilderness activists and the government.
Fixing these problems will take a generation, lots of money and new leadership. Cyclists can’t do it alone, but we can help, if we’re accepted as partners, and not treated as interlopers into the wilderness private club.
The Sustainable Trails Coalition loves wilderness and thinks Congress got the law right in 1964. Now, we seek restoration of the original vision. There is nothing to fear about granting federal employees the discretionary authority the coalition proposes.
Ted Stroll is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. He is an attorney and president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition in California.
I shouldn’t be writing this, and you shouldn’t be reading it. Far more pressing issues face our public lands—but a vocal minority is drudging up the long-resolved question of mountain biking in wilderness.
They have even drafted a bill for somebody to introduce in Congress—the Human-Powered Wildlands Travel Management Act—that would open wilderness to biking. That means we have to pause and rehash the facts.
First, no legal argument supports biking in wilderness. Unambiguously, the 1964 Wilderness Act states there shall be no “form of mechanical transport” in wilderness areas. The discussion should end there, but a few claim that “mechanical transport” somehow does not include bicycles. They allege that the law unintentionally excluded an activity that emerged after it was enacted. Or they tout an early Forest Service misinterpretation of the law, which initially allowed bicycles in wilderness but was corrected more than 30 years ago.
The arguments have no legal merit. Worse, they ignore the historical context and foresight of the Wilderness Act, one of our foundational environmental laws. In doing so, they distract people from truly understanding our public lands. That’s not good for people or the land.
We should remember that the Wilderness Act grew from a half-century of public-lands battles, fought by America’s most influential conservation thinkers, including Aldo Leopold, Bob Marshall, Olaus Murie, and the indefatigable Mardy Murie, among others. Theirs was a multigenerational struggle to safeguard a vestige of the nation’s public lands from the advances of population and technology.
The technology part is important. The framers of the Wilderness Act knew human ingenuity was not somehow petering out in 1964. In fact, they lived in an era of fantastic invention. Forms of transport being tested at the time included jetpacks, gliders, aerocycles and various new wagons, boats and bicycles.
That the law anticipated future invention is indisputable, but it benefits us much more to know why it does. The reason was most concisely expressed by the bill’s principal author, Howard Zahniser, who, in 1956 defined wilderness as a place where we stand without the “mechanisms that make us immediate masters over our environment.”
Zahniser was a Thoreauvian pacifist deeply troubled by the Holocaust and other horrific events during his lifetime. In wilderness, he saw a suite of biophysical and social values that carried the potential to make us better people. But to fulfill its promise in modern times, by offering an opportunity for raw challenge, humility and solitude, wilderness had to remain a place of human restraint. For eight years, Zahniser worked with Congress to ensure that the law enshrined that ideal, with clear limits on acceptable activities in wilderness.
Some pressing for bikes in wilderness conveniently ignore this central principle. Instead, they focus on issues of trail erosion or impacts to visitors and wildlife, where they front overly rosy claims. In diminishing the purpose of wilderness, they hawk a dumbed-down version of the public estate.
Similarly, it is unhealthy to conflate the ban on bikes with a ban on a certain group of people. That tactic may stir emotion, but it undermines serious public-lands discourse. Nevertheless, some are using the trick, including Bike Magazine editor Vernon Felton, whose recent video casts bikes in wilderness as a civil rights issue. That’s an affront to anyone who has worked for voting rights, fair housing, protection against hate crimes or other actual civil rights.
Felton and others also oversimplify prohibitions on bikes in wilderness study areas, calling them overreach by conservationists or the feds. But such bans are essential to the purpose of these study areas, which must be carefully managed to preserve their eligibility as wilderness pending congressional action.
Another claim is that banning bikes turns people against wilderness, or even broader conservation issues. But I think those misrepresenting the facts are the ones driving a wedge. Either way, diminished support for wilderness is not good news. But nor is it new. The historical trajectory toward better land stewardship has always been the fight of the few.
One last thing to consider is the issue’s scale. The wilderness system is limited to roughly 53 million acres outside of Alaska. Smaller than Colorado, that portion is scattered across 43 states. And while most of the land is in the West, most of it is also rugged and unbikable. Meanwhile, hundreds of millions of acres remain open to biking.
Still, some will demand that bikes be permitted in wilderness. And they will join logging, mining, off-roading and other interests in whittling away at the boundaries of pending wilderness proposals. At a time when so many more serious issues confront our lands—climate change, ocean acidification, plastics pollution, sprawl and much more—it seems a misguided use of energy.
Tim Lydon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News, where this piece originally appeared.
My father’s recent death was not beautiful, and neither were any of the other deaths I’ve witnessed of late. This has left me wondering about a better path.
Death is not easy, to be sure, but these were made particularly painful by medical interventions—or perhaps I witnessed the confusion between saving a life and prolonging the process of dying.
So I threw a party. Or rather, I held my first Death Café—and it turned out to be a lively, invigorating affair.
In Europe, there’s a tradition of gathering to discuss important subjects—a café philo, for a philosophical café, or café scientifique, a scientific café. Now there are café mortel, or death cafés. A death café isn’t an actual place; it’s a temporary event in various locations, such as my home, complete with decorations and, for example, a cake with DEATH: THE FINAL FRONTIER scrawled on top.
My gathering included spunky friends, all in our middle years, all of us healthy. As it turns out, this is the segment of population that most seems to care about shaping the end of a life. A Pew Research Center study found that less than half of people older than 75 had given much thought to the end of their lives, and incredibly, only 22 percent of them had written down wishes for medical treatment. The same study, though, found a sharp increase in all adults putting something in writing (six of 10 of us), which indicates that percentage-wise, it’s the slightly younger folks who are preparing for their inevitable deaths.
This does not surprise me. For the last 14 years, I’ve been one of the 28 million Americans currently watching as someone dies. Baby Boomers and GenXers are caught in an unprecedented tide of taking care of both children and parents (not to mention ourselves and our own aging bodies); we are the first generation to be caught in this particular kind of care-giving-and-slow-death crisis. With medical intervention and technological wizardry, we’re forced to make decisions about procedures and medicines and ethics as never before. And we find ourselves without much guidance in a culture that’s conflicted and confused about dying.
Which is why we’re willing to talk. At my Death Café, I encouraged us not to focus on the deaths we had witnessed in the past, but instead to speak of the deaths that we want for ourselves in the future. Various results emerged. Half were afraid of the suffering that can precede death; half were afraid of death itself. A few of us had practiced death (“pretend this next breath is your last; what does that feel like?”), but all of us were convinced that doing so would only intensify and enlarge our lives.
The zeitgeist of this new movement is just now gaining momentum, but I can feel its strength and power. An unprecedented 66 percent of Americans now think there are instances in which doctors should allow a patient to die instead of doing everything possible to save that patient’s life. People would like to die—and sometimes would like others to die—and this doesn’t make us morbid or crazy or unethical or mean. No. We are merciful and kind. We are as moral as we are mortal. We just want to know how to gracefully do that is going to happen anyway.
What lies ahead is unexplored territory, much like death itself, really. Here in California, “Death With Dignity” legislation recently became law, and the state representative in my Colorado hometown is reintroducing a similar bill in that state. Don’t get me wrong; I am all for funding research, finding cures, and offering respite to caregivers. But it’s also our ethical duty to try for a chin-up, heart-steady end.
My father contracted pneumonia after 14 years of suffering with Alzheimer’s. He was given antibiotics; I was not in a legal position to object, but I’d have asked for comfort care only—not because I didn’t love him, but because I loved him enough to want him to have as natural and relaxed a death as possible. Instead, I saw him grimace in pain and fear. I saw tubes and syringes and the sores on his body. I saw the family he’d worked so hard to create break apart under the pressure. I saw his blue eyes fade, and they taught me well: This could happen to you, too.
Death is perhaps the greatest mystery we face, and the actual act of dying is the last physical act of our lives. We can strive to do it our way and to do it well. If anything deserves preparation, or some renewed clarity, death might be it. Which is why I suggest throwing a lively party.
Laura Pritchett is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News. Her novel Stars Go Blue is based on her experience with her father.
What I say will not make me a popular person, but here it is: For excellent reasons, dogs should not be—and usually aren’t—allowed in the backcountry of national parks.
Dogs, being predators, bother wildlife even when they’re leashed. Then there’s canine fecal matter, which carries a number of diseases and parasites that may be passed on to wildlife.
Perhaps surprisingly, a lot of dogs are not good hikers; their paws become lacerated, and since they sweat through their feet, it is easy for them to overheat. If a dog gets lost or injured, search-and-rescue volunteers may have to risk their lives to aid the animal. This year, off-leash dogs had to be rescued from Volcanoes, Acadia, Kenai Fjords and Yellowstone national parks.
There seem to be many people who cannot bear to be away from their fuzzy loved one for the length of a hike in the wilderness, so they bring their dog along—even when it is prohibited. How do they get away with that, you may ask? Easy: They just say it is a “service” or “therapy” dog.
Bingo. No one can question the service dog. Websites selling service-dog vests, collars and even bandanas brag you can “Take your dog anywhere.” Then they add that they sincerely hope no one is gaming the system by registering a service dog that is not, in fact, a service dog. Right.
In 2011, the National Service Animal Registry signed up 2,400 emotional support animals. Last year, it registered 11,000. No paperwork required; this is on the honor system. Public employees such as park rangers may ask whether the dog in question is a service dog, but they may not ask about the manner of a person’s disability. One is allowed to ask what the dog is trained to react to and what, as a caring professional, one should do upon that occasion. Websites promoting pseudo-service dogs warn that one should have the answer memorized so “it flows smoothly.” If the question evokes a blank stare from those who have not rehearsed their smooth response, one can, if one is in a snarky mood and out of uniform, mention that “liars go to hell.”
Those protected under the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act are not pleased. Some say they are concerned that the rights of those with disabilities will be undermined by those who want Fido along and are willing to lie to achieve that goal. Although passing a dog off as a service animal is a federal offense, perpetrators figure they won’t get caught.
This is becoming enough of a problem on and off trails that municipalities such as Prescott, Ariz., are passing or proposing laws penalizing the pseudo-service dog. Meanwhile, national parks are allowed to close an area to service animals if it is determined that the animal poses a threat to the health or safety of people or wildlife. Grand Canyon and Yellowstone national parks both require that service dogs be registered with the backcountry office. The owner is schooled on trail etiquette, and search-and-rescue is alerted.
Rangers say that they never used to see dogs; now they deal with them 20 to 30 percent of the time. A dog owner may be ticketed if the dog is off-leash, barking or defecating on the trail—but not for lying about the dog’s status.
Mule wranglers at Grand Canyon say mules will attack a dog. On a narrow trail with a cliff on one side, this is not a good scenario. One wrangler says the half-dozen dog owners she has met cooperated in moving their dog out of sight; still, they’re a hazard.
Make no mistake: There are those for whom having their dog along can be a matter of life and death. When a legitimate service dog is on the trail, the owner usually sets a realistic itinerary and avoids extreme temperatures. But they often leave the dog home, because they do not want their animal exposed to danger or put under stress.
So what, you might ask, is the harm to a national park if a true or faux service dog is well-behaved while it’s there? Badly behaved teenagers surely do more damage to the wilderness than dogs; after all, dogs don’t spray paint their name on the rocks.
For me, it’s the lack of respect for a park’s rules that gets my goat—the notion that rules apply to other people, but not to me.
Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared.
We Americans have been spoiled by low costs for so long that we have started acting as if low costs were our birthright, which explains why our government leaders have never been in any real hurry to do anything significant about our southern borders. Now, many spoiled, control-freak Americans are throwing temper tantrums over this issue, without thinking ahead. Careful; sometimes you WILL get what you ask for, only to end up wishing you’d just kept your greedy, selfish little mouth shut.
Surely someone has done a legitimate impact study of the volume and variety of the lowered costs we Americans enjoy on a daily basis due to our government’s playing the “indulgent uncle” on the issue of illegals from Mexico.
Conservative, but Not Crazy
Dear Gabacho: Oh, there are as many studies about the impact of undocumented folks on the economy as there are Mexicans who say their grandpa rode with Pancho Villa. Of course, almost all of those reports are biased bullshit, whether from the left (anything produced by Latino congressmen) or the right. (I’m looking at you, o hateful Federation for American Immigration Reform—was it someone from your crew or another of your Know Nothing ilk who, after a Vietnamese-American woman was tragically killed by a Mexican-American woman, wanted to know if the perp was an “illegal alien savage”?)
The only group hewing to the middle ground, alas, is the feds: They say that if we don’t legalize undocumented folks, we’ll lose $80 billion in unrealized gains by 2023; deficits will increase by $50 billion; and Social Security won’t get the $50 billion illegals could contribute if only they were legal. Of course, a Communist Kenyan runs the White House, so that report is also invalid.
So the truthful answer? What your humble Mexican says: #fuckthehaters.
Why are Mexicans so afraid of earthquakes? (George Lopez’s television show even based an episode around this topic.) Don’t you people know that here in the USA, we have something called “building standards” (unlike the adobe and Play-Doh used in Mexico for construction)? After the last big Northridge quake, you panochas were so afraid of being indoors that you made the local parks look like a Mexican-Woodstock!
Panocha Lover in Huntington Beach
Dear Gabacho: Pendejo, can we start with you using panocha (“pussy,” for those who don’t habla) as a slur? You had a great question that I won’t answer because of your stupidity. Anyone who uses the word as a synonym for cowardice obviously can’t get any. You want to call a Mexican a coward? Call him “Enrique Peña Nieto” or “Donald Trump”—or, better yet, “Panocho Lover in Huntington Beach.”
BORDERTOWN PREMIERE DATE!
Gentle cabrones: Am excited to announce that Bordertown—the animated FOX show that’s like a Mexican second-cousin marriage of Family Guy and Bob’s Burgers and on which I served as consulting producer—will have its debut Jan. 3 at 9:30 p.m.! Make sure to watch live, DVR it—and please DO NOT pirate the show … until Season 4, at least. Tune in, and join the #televisionreconquista!