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Last updateTue, 18 Sep 2018 1pm

Alex Honnold had a dream: to climb the face of Yosemite’s El Capitan without a rope. That’s a strange, crazy, psycho kind of dream, but he achieved it—and directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin captured it on film.

The movie Free Solo spends much of its time on the pre-climbing ritual of training and Honnold studying El Capitan while climbing it with ropes. That stuff is harrowing enough, but when Honnold jettisons his safety harness for a climb using just his fingers and toes, things get all-out nuts.

Peppered throughout the film are mentions of the deaths of other free-climbers around the world, some of whom die while Honnold is prepping for his big day. No matter—he just keeps on plugging, much to the amazement of the camera crew and Honnold’s girlfriend, Sanni McCandless, possibly the most patient and understanding woman in the world. The final climb is a knockout—one of the most amazing things you will ever see on film.

Honnold is a nut, and I honestly hope his daredevil days are behind him, and he lives a good life off the fame he’s achieved with this climb. But something tells me he has a little too much Evel Knievel in him, and doesn’t plant to stop.

Free Solo is now playing at the Palm Desert 10 Cinemas (72840 Highway 111, Palm Desert; 760-340-0033). It is also available via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in Reviews

What if I told you that a multibillion-dollar company had decided to trademark the name of one of America’s most prized national parks? And that the company then sued the United States to defend its purported trademark? And that to top it all off, that company has been invited into the inner circle of government by a now-indicted member of Congress, meeting in private with a Cabinet secretary and also sitting on a government advisory panel?

You’d probably reply that it all sounds outrageous, and that, if it’s true, it’s a genuinely shocking example of a corrupt presidential administration. Unfortunately, it’s true.

This story begins in 2015, when Delaware North, a New York-based hospitality and concessions business, lost the contract to run Yosemite National Park’s hotels, restaurants and gift shops. The company had held the contract for more than two decades, during which time it quietly trademarked names and images associated with iconic landmarks inside Yosemite, including the Ahwahnee Hotel, a national historic landmark; the likeness of Half Dome; and even the phrase “Yosemite National Park.”

Scott Gediman, the spokesman for Yosemite National Park, wasn’t happy with the name grab, telling The New York Times, “We feel strongly that the names belong to the American people.”

Rather than refocusing its expansive concessions business after losing the Yosemite contract, the company decided to take the U.S. government—and, by extension, the American public—to federal claims court, demanding $50 million for its surreptitiously acquired trademarks. The National Park Service, of course, maintains the trademarks aren’t valid. Even if they were, they would be worth no more than $3.5 million. A review of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office database indicates that Delaware North is unique among concessionaires in holding trademarks to America’s parks.

The litigation between the National Park Service and Delaware North remains far from resolved, but, in the meantime, the National Park Service was forced to rename historic landmarks inside the national park. Now the Calvin Coolidge-era Ahwahnee Hotel is the Majestic Yosemite Hotel; the Wawona Hotel is Big Trees Lodge; and Curry Village is Half Dome Village.

Despite Delaware North’s questionable business practices and the company’s ongoing legal fight with the U.S. government, it is no pariah in President Donald Trump’s Washington. The Trump administration has welcomed Delaware North with open arms, granting the company’s executives an audience at the highest levels of government. When Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke announced his “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee, included in the list of 15 members was Jerry Jacobs Jr., the billionaire co-CEO of Delaware North.

Jacobs joins a group of business executives and industry lobbyists tasked with expanding so-called public-private partnerships in national parks, monuments, wildlife refuges and other American publicly owned lands. Setting aside the important question of whether we should be privatizing park functions, it’s hard to defend an individual who has so blatantly abused the public’s trust.

Delaware North’s presence on the “Made in America” Outdoor Recreation Advisory Committee is not an isolated incident. Last month, CNN reported that Secretary Zinke held a private meeting with three executives from Delaware North, including Jacobs Jr., along with New York Republican Rep. Chris Collins. Collins, who federal prosecutors have charged with insider trading, counts Delaware North as his largest campaign contributor during his congressional career.

Likely realizing the unfortunate optics of the Zinke-Delaware North meeting, the Interior Department went to great lengths to conceal the names of the participants on the secretary’s official schedules. But when briefing materials of the meeting were released through a Freedom of Information Act request, the true purpose of the meeting was there in black and white. It was “for company executives to provide an overview from Delaware North regarding how the Park Service works with concessionaires.”

A company this greedy, whose founders are cashing in by fleecing American taxpayers and our prized public lands, should not be welcomed in the halls of power. But we have come to expect this kind of behavior from members of President Trump’s cabinet, Secretary Zinke included.

In less than two years on the job, Zinke has thrown open the doors to campaign donors, family business friends and the executives of the very corporations he is supposed to be regulating. All the while, he has consistently ignored input from the American public, as well as from pretty much anyone who isn’t a potential donor. Now under the cloud of more than a dozen investigations, Secretary Zinke might have become so besmirched that even President Trump finds him too much to stomach.

Greg Zimmerman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is the deputy director at the Center for Western Priorities, a public-lands policy organization based in Denver.

Published in Community Voices

The Rim Fire started small enough, on Aug. 17—a 200-acre blaze burning toward a place called Jawbone Ridge from a north-facing slope in the rugged Clavey River canyon, west of California’s Yosemite National Park.

The area was isolated, and no structures were immediately threatened.

By the 19th, local news sites were reporting 2,500 acres burned with evacuations advised for some neighboring communities. By the 22nd, the fire had exploded to more than 53,000 acres, and then it doubled in size the following day as it roared into Yosemite itself, making national headlines.

A video shot from a Channel Islands Air National Guard plane on Aug. 22 shows a towering mushroom cloud of smoke leaning all the way to the horizon, lit gold by flame and low-angle sun, and casting a dark shadow across forested hills. The pilots point out El Capitan, Half Dome and Bridalveil Fall off to the right, then more gravely observe how impressive the fire looks. As they bank towards the blaze, one says, “Wow… that’s kind of creepy.” As they close in to drop a load of fire retardant, with awe: “That is unreal.”

The word is apt for the dramatic flag of smoke and flame unfurling before the pilots’ eyes. And it certainly fits as of Tuesday afternoon (Aug. 27), with the Rim Fire’s footprint now at nearly 180,000 acres, at least 23 structures destroyed, various evacuations in effect, 3,752 people involved with fighting the blaze, well more than $20 million spent, and smoke billowing across the state line into Reno. And despite some progress towards containment (20 percent at last glance), Inciweb predicts continued “very large fire growth due to extremely dry fuels, strong winds and inaccessible terrain. Rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts.”

“This fire is burning unlike anything we've seen in this area historically,” U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Ashley Taylor told the Los Angeles Times. In the neighboring community of Groveland, the Times reported, people gathered in the middle of the two-lane highway to watch the smoke rise. Nearly all the businesses in town were closed due to the fire, save for the Iron Door Saloon, in operation since 1852, where, “on Friday afternoon, every bar stool was taken. Maps showing the perimeter of the fire were laid out like place mats. People jabbed their fingers at the maps, swapping updates: ‘His shed is gone. But the house is still there.’”

The damage has indirectly reached all the way to San Francisco, nearly 200 miles away. The fire is burning towards the city’s drinking water in Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, and has already disrupted its supply of hydroelectricity, reports the San Francisco Chronicle:

Two of three power production plants downriver from the reservoir had to shut down before the fire swept through, prompting the city to rely on reciprocal agreements with other utilities and to spend about $600,000 buying supplemental power to make up the shortfall. One of the closed plants was still too dangerous to reach, while crews assessed the damage on the other Sunday afternoon and hoped to have repairs completed Monday. It will not be brought online until transmission lines in the fire zone can be inspected.

So far, though, “Despite ash falling like snowflakes on the reservoir and a thick haze of smoke limiting visibility to 100 feet, the quality of the water (itself) is still good,” reports The Associated Press.

The news of the blaze comes as the U.S. Forest Service grapples with paying for firefighting efforts across the nation in a tight budget year. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than $1 billion has been spent so far on suppression efforts in 2013 (last year’s tab was $1.9 billion). And for the first time since 2008, on Aug. 20, the NIFC raised the nation’s fire preparedness to level 5, meaning that the vast majority of firefighting resources are already committed to blazes—and that additional help may be needed from the National Guard and others.

Just a few days before, U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell had ordered an immediate Forest Service spending freeze for restoration programs, employee travel, and other personnel costs to help funnel an additional $600 million into the agency’s suppression account, which had been bled down to a mere $50 million—about half of what’s typically needed to cover a single week at Level 5, reports E&E News (sub required). Such borrowing has happened six other times in the last decade, totaling $2.7 billion. Of that Congress eventually restored $2.3 billion, “but not without disruptions to important agency programs”—many of them the kind that could help lessen fire risks in the future.

The FLAME Act of 2009 was supposed to help head off that dynamic by creating a reserve fund for firefighting, but it doesn’t appear to be working, perhaps because of fluctuating appropriations.

Meanwhile, Tidwell also announced last week that, to meet the terms of the federal sequester, the Forest Service will withhold $18 million in Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act funds for habitat and restoration work, some of which could also potentially make ecosystems more resilient and resistant to megafires in the long run, reports the Associated Press:

Oregon stands to lose the most in the move, with nearly $4 million in reductions, (leaving) the state with about $3.4 million. (Those of us here in) California would lose nearly $2.2 million, leaving it with about $1 million. Idaho is set to lose $1.7 million, Montana nearly $1.3 million and Alaska, about $930,000—nearly half (its) allotment.

"This is a mess, as forecast," Chris Topik, who directs the Nature Conservancy's Restoring America's Forests program, told E&E News in response to the spending freeze. "It shows that we need to get serious about investing in the restoration work that reduces fire risk. We need to get serious about a new way of funding suppression.”

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor at High Country News, from which this was cross-posted.

Published in Environment