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The eastern portion of the Coachella Valley struggles with poverty, bad air and water quality, high unemployment, high levels of asthma, a receding Salton Sea, high levels of arsenic in well water, pesticide-spraying—and the list goes on. It’s a far cry from the bright lights that shine over the golf courses to the west.

However, residents are trying to do something about these problems, and an environmental justice movement is growing in the eastern Coachella Valley. As part of that movement, the inaugural Environmental Health Leadership Summit took place at Thermal’s Desert Mirage High School on Saturday, Feb. 23.

The summit was organized by Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto and the Comite Civico del Valle, and had more than 30 sponsors. The focus of the summit was to promote health and environmental awareness, leadership, systems change and cultural and linguistic competency.

Environmental health was the main topic—specifically air and water quality, public health and the Salton Sea restoration.

Information was distributed about ways people could help clean the air, asthma management in children, and cleaning products that are safe to use in the home. There were keynotes, speeches and workshops.

I participated in the summit as a vendor, where I displayed my photographs and my book, Portraits and Voices of the Salton Sea. Other vendors and information providers included 350.org, Occupy Coachella, the county Economic Development Agency, Legacy of Clean cleaning products, California Rural Legal Assistance and Planned Parenthood. The high school sold drinks and food to raise money. It was great to see the different stallholders share the same vision of environmental health and equality.

I was also on a panel regarding Salton Sea restoration. It was my first time as a panelist.

We were on the stage hidden behind a curtain as Congressman Raul Ruiz was announcing us. Nervousness aside, it was an honor to voice my opinion and pass on what other members of the community had been passing on to me over the years.

Along with me were Doug Barnum, of the U.S. Geological Survey; Bruce Wilcox, of the Imperial Irrigation District; Paul Reisman, acting superintendent of the Salton Sea State Recreational Area; Jason Low, from the South Coast Air Quality Management District; and Phil Rosentrater of the Economic Development Agency. Jose Angel was the moderator, from the Regional Water Board.

After we each spoke, it was time for the questions from the moderator and the audience: What do we each think are the most pressing issues? What is the highest priority? If nothing is done, what is your biggest fear? What about the efforts to make a viable plan to restore the sea?

We spoke about how we need to prevent a toxic dust storm from becoming a reality; how we need to prevent another Big Stink; how we need to focus on health issues; and how it would be nice to have a thriving recreational area again, or at least a sea that will not turn into a toxic semi-dust bowl while emitting hydrogen sulfide burps that stink all the way to Los Angeles.

Barnum noted that there are many problems with restoration efforts, and one solution for one problem might be to the detriment of another. 

I mentioned that the focus has to be on “keeping the Salton Sea wet,” a quote from Norm Niver, a Salton Sea activist since 1974. There was mention of how geothermal, algae, solar, wind and other renewable-energy industries might be the key to finding the funding so essential to saving the sea. The Salton Sea area is second to none for potential renewable energy.

I spoke about the disconnect between the community and the agencies, and how there need to be more opportunities to work together.

This summit was a great start. Area residents often feel as if they do not have a voice. They have been complaining about health issues and high asthma rates for years, and have been fearing the demise of the Salton Sea for decades. So, to say that the residents are having a hard time trusting the local agencies is an understatement. The current representatives of these government agencies need to work really hard to earn back this trust.

A couple members of the audience shared this feeling of frustration and questioned the currently proposed restoration project. The project, as it stands, would start small, by building a few shallow water ponds at the southern end of the sea. This would keep those areas, which are already exposed playa, wet, and would serve as habitat for wildlife. As time goes on, and more funding comes in, further small-scale projects would be implemented.

In the meantime, the question remains: Where would the money will come from for a large-scale restoration project?

This is not good enough, said one member of the audience. What about a comprehensive plan? And how is it that after so many years, only a couple of small shallow water ponds are being built? How can we trust these agencies? Why is the community not being listened to? And why are there no answers? He spoke about the state oversight meeting on the day before, led in part by Coachella area state Assemblymember V. Manuel Perez, and how members of the public could come forward and voice their opinion—but they each had only a single minute to do so.

Not good enough.

My hope is that we can all work together. That the man in the audience gets the information he wants as to why the comprehensive plan will not be implemented. That there will be future summits like this one.

For more information on the summit, visit ejsummit.com. Organizers will add videos from workshops, keynotes and presentations in the coming weeks. There will also be updates on another summit, to be held in Imperial County, scheduled for the end of April 2013. Below: Fossil Fuel Not Cool is a campaign by Occupy Coachella and 350.org.

Published in Community Voices

President Obama’s nominee to head the Department of Interior, Sally Jewell, is historic––not for who she is, but for who she is not.

She is a mountaineer; an ultra-marathon runner; the CEO of REI, the outdoor-gear giant; and a former bank executive and oil company engineer. She appears to be some kind of archetypal über-woman of the Pacific Northwest, jogging up Mount Rainier on coffee breaks.

Jewell’s résumé is as richly complicated as the heady concept of “ecosystem management,” and it sounds like she has plenty of experience in both arenas. Those interested in “ecosystems” will look toward her years with REI and the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association; those leaning toward “management” will note her careers in the petroleum and banking industries.

Another Seattleite (former Mayor Richard Ballinger) has been interior secretary before (albeit 100 years ago), and so has a woman, Gale Norton. But what sets Jewell apart is that she is not, and has never been, a politician. For many decades, the Secretary of the Interior has been the plum post of the classic Western politician: men (usually) like Donald Hodel, Cecil Andrus, Harold Ickes, Ken Salazar, Stewart Udall, Bruce Babbitt and Dirk Kempthorne. All shared a background in politics, either as an elected official or by dint of holding some position high in the apparatus of government or partisan machines.

Interior is bloody political turf, because the stakes are so high, and the money is so big. Land is wealth, and the Interior Department manages millions of publicly owned acres, from sagebrush scablands to national treasures such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. The land includes oil and gas and wildlife and rivers and ski resorts and other precious resources. When folks compete to divvy that up, they do it with sharp knives.

The mere fact that Jewell is President Obama’s candidate shows that a more mature view could be emerging about the department’s role and mission. Jewell knows there is more than one way to wrest wealth from land. Yes, there’s a place for using the land to provide food, fuel and fiber. America needs all that.

But in the modern world, other values rise like cream to the surface as well. Jewell’s billion-dollar company, REI, is part of a much larger outdoor recreation industry. America’s great public landholdings are valuable not only for crude oil, natural gas and livestock feed, but also for providing scenic getaways for weary urbanites, fishing and hunting spots for blue-collar families, streams for salmon and a host of other species, and clean water for millions of people.

Plus, our public lands are increasingly understood to provide a priceless setting for business owners and other investors. Economists are getting better at putting dollar signs on that, but it still represents a shifting mindset. The glimmering chrome-and-fir-tree temple of REI in downtown Seattle is testimony to the fact that recreation and quality-of-life dollars add up to real money.

It’s hard to trace Jewell’s record to assess how she might approach natural resource disputes in our public lands. But clues point toward a mind that understands the value of consensus and fair solutions.

Jewell’s kneejerk critics, like Utah’s Republican Rep. Rob Bishop, will immediately scent an environmentalist conspiracy in anything that smells more like pine needles than gas fumes. That kind of thing gets him re-elected in Utah, but his views don’t represent the broader American experience.

In her home state of Washington, Jewell’s reputation is that of a pragmatist, not an ideologue. She’s supported efforts like the Yakima Basin Integrated Water Resource Management Plan, a classic example of centrist groups, representing both conservation and agriculture, getting down to brass tacks to compromise and solve serious problems. In consequence, local farmers will get the water they need for irrigation, and valuable runs of sockeye salmon will be restored.

Hard-core folks on both extremes throw rocks at solutions like the Yakima plan, which accept the need for collaborative conservation in order to get things done.

Can Jewell’s kind of professional experience survive—let alone accomplish good things—in today’s Washington? Is the fortitude that got her to the highest peak in Antarctica enough to help her endure the posturing and politics of Congress? A good guess is that Jewell’s appointment—a refreshing departure from the old politics—signals that Obama is setting the stage for a new kind of conservation legacy. And if she is confirmed, Ms. Jewell can count on one thing: She is headed for the adventure of a lifetime.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He lives in Kalispell, Mont.

Published in Community Voices

It's a brilliant Sunday morning in southeast Utah, and a hag mask hangs on the fence before me.

Gray hair askew, the mask gapes at red cliffs through dripping fake blood. The vandal who mounted the mask has also locked the gate to our campsite. No one can get in or out—a dangerous prospect, since most of the 50 or so folks here are senior citizens.

I'm about to photograph the scene, documenting what to me seems a gruesome tableau, when a voice pipes up: "She's kind of pretty, actually."

"Yeah, she looks wise," adds another.

"Like us!"

"Will you take my picture with her?"

Rose Chilcoat, the rosy-cheeked, energetic 54-year-old associate director of the Great Old Broads for Wilderness, mugs next to the mask as I snap away.

I'm startled by the Broads' calm response to this outrageous threat. The mask comes with an ominous note: "Get out of San Juan County. This is your last warning." But Chilcoat, whose group educates elders about public-lands issues in hopes of making them active stewards, seems unfazed.

Later on, in a more-serious moment, she muses: "I never thought little old ladies in tennis shoes would be seen as such a threat." But such extreme reactions to their activism have only encouraged Chilcoat and the Broads to hold fast to what might be called an essential tenet of "Broad-ness": Humor is more powerful than fear.

In a roundabout way, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, inspired the creation of the Broads in 1989. New Mexican Susan Tixier and some of her backpacking buddies in their 50s heard how Hatch had argued against wilderness designation, saying that prohibiting motorized access excludes the elderly from the backcountry. "We thought, 'Jeez, we are all old and we still hike!'" recalls Tixier. "So what better than to have old people, particularly old women, stand up for wilderness?

"We didn't really want to be 'ladies,' and 'women' seemed like kind of a weak noun," she adds. So Great Old Broads it became.

The brash name is a selling point to women of a particular type, notes Chilcoat. Broads enjoy joking as they protest; when they picketed against snowmobiles in Yellowstone, one wore a Winnie the Pooh costume with a sign reading, "I can't 'bear' the noise and pollution."

"When you get to a certain age, who cares?" she says.

By 2030, there will be about 30 million more senior citizens in the U.S. than there are now. But their growing numbers aren't the only reason to get them interested in public lands, says Chilcoat. Many are retired and have the time to get involved. And, "There's a certain credibility when elders speak, even in this day and age."

The fast-growing advocacy group has about 4,000 members and has opened 22 chapters, known as Broadbands, across the West—including a Southern California chapter, based in San Diego, and in places as far away as Florida. And while the group is unabashedly pro-wilderness, each Broadband has considerable latitude to choose what it works on. As former executive director Veronica Egan puts it: The Broads are "not anti-anything except poor land management."

Spending time with the group in Colorado and Utah, I met grandmothers who could hold forth in intimate detail on grazing policy and octogenarians who volunteer for the Bureau of Land Management, providing informed critiques of federal land-use plans and studies. How, I wondered, do the Broads transform their members from graying retirees into GPS-wielding, public-comment-making dynamos?

“We’re almost there,” shouts Liz Thomas. An attorney for the nonprofit Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Thomas leads a group of Broads—several women and a few men—over a small rise outside Canyonlands National Park, not far from where the Broads are camped. We're looking for an ATV right of way proposed by San Juan County. "It's not an open trail now," Thomas says. But we find faint treads where an ATV has tracked the route, and begin to follow.

Along the way, group members kneel to examine native grasses and are surprised to find blooming native flowers in late September. Russian thistle and other invasives, which Thomas showed us earlier at a heavily used off-road area, could swiftly take over if ATV traffic ramps up, Thomas explains. After learning that the Bureau of Land Management is still taking comments, a number of Broads vow to write in.

Later, we come across a trail sign defaced with a sticker reading: "Our land my ass." The Broads gather around, open-mouthed. Then, Broadness takes over, and one of the hikers pulls down his pants and moons for a photo, positioning his derriere next to the sticker.

Educational hikes like this one are regular fixtures of the four-day outings known as Broadwalks, held several times a year around the country. At Broadwalks, attendees also help with service projects, including trail construction and fence building, and spend nights around the campfire, listening to speakers and catching up with each other. They leave well-versed in federal land management and ready to engage in public-lands issues.

They also learn, as we just did, how passionately anti-wilderness some folks are. The vandalism came as the Broads joined other wilderness groups in a campaign for a new national monument surrounding Canyonlands, which could limit four-wheeling in sensitive areas, such as the one we hiked through. In 2007, the group's documentation of ATV damage at archaeological sites led to a trail closure to off-roaders in southeast Utah's Recapture Canyon—and made some enemies in the process. But many Broads also engage in a quieter, more-service-oriented activism, supporting often short-staffed government agencies as volunteers.

 

“So I am looking 300 degrees.” Janice Shepherd glances up from her compass to make a note in a small yellow book. Then, she photographs a spot where ATVs have widened a trail near Grand Junction, Colo., likely causing increased erosion and other damage. With her fanny pack, rucksack and a pouch dangling from her neck, the small, gray-haired woman looks like a dauntless explorer, off to map some distant clime.

It's a chilly winter morning, and Shepherd and Sherry Schenk, who leads the local Broadband, are following one of several BLM routes they monitor for damage like this. Later, Shepherd will enter her photos and notes into a database linked to a map, so the local BLM—which oversees 1.2 million acres—knows which trails need repair and can reference photographs of problem areas.

Alissa Leavitt-Reynolds, archaeologist for the agency's Grand Junction Field Office, credits Shepherd with documenting rock art the BLM didn't even know existed; she's also helped their recreation planner find and map new user-created rock-climbing routes. And Schenk's activities range from monitoring trails for dog-poop overload to stewarding archaeological sites and regularly documenting their condition.

In 2011, Schenk, a retired school psychologist, attended her first Broadwalk and was inspired to lead a Broadband. She attended Bootcamp, a four-day leadership training where she fumbled with GPS devices, learned online organizing tools and attended workshops on public-lands law. "It was," she laughs, "kind of overwhelming."

Yet Schenk persisted. Her Grand Junction Broadband, which now has about 30 active members, emphasizes volunteering and participating in agency land-management planning. Schenk and Shepherd spend so much time at the BLM office that an employee told me, "When I first started, I thought (Shepherd) worked here."

As the three of us start uphill in the warming air, a mountain biker rattles down the trail, and we leap out of the way. "Hey, Sherry! How's it going, Janice?" he calls. It's Mike Jones' day off, but Jones, who works on trails and recreation for the BLM, stops to chat and answer Shepherd's questions about work the route we're on might need. He agrees with her assessment, noting that if some volunteers could build up the trail's outside edge, the "water would run off of it."

As Jones prepares to wheel away, the Broads mention that I am with them to learn about the group's involvement with public lands.

He nods approvingly.

"Yup, these guys do a lot of work for us. A lot of work. So you got the right ones."

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

To snatch a moment from the wild and capture it in words that pulse with life is quite a feat. Stephen Grace, author of the 2004 novel Under Cottonwoods, makes it seem effortless. When he describes sandhill cranes rising from the wetlands of Montana’s Blackfoot Valley, the reader can almost hear the thunderous applause of their wings.

It takes an entirely different kind of gift to comprehend and then explain the tortured sophistry of the policies that are destroying those cranes for the sake of alfalfa farms, feedlots, casinos, suburban lawns and swimming pools. But Grace can do that, too. In his most recent book, Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future, Grace acts as both poet of Western wilderness and a knowledgeable translator of water policy.

It should be acknowledged that he does not accomplish this alone. Dam Nation's debt to Marc Reisner's 1986 classic Cadillac Desert is so heavy that Grace's passages on explorer John Wesley Powell, L.A. Aqueduct builder William Mulholland and Bureau of Reclamation dam-champion Floyd Dominy, among others, could be mistaken for Cadillac Desert's CliffsNotes. Yet, 12 years after Reisner's death, at a time when drought has cracked fundamental assumptions about the Colorado River's ability to keep the West in water, Grace's use of his predecessor's work seems less a case of larceny than of public service.

Grace sugars few pills as he describes how 19th-century mining law governs 21st-century water-sharing, illustrates how pork-barrel politics corrupt decision-making, provides a primer in groundwater-mining and takes short but appalling looks at the challenges posed by pollution and climate change.

But, unlike Reisner, Grace is not jaded. Twenty-six years ago, as then-President Ronald Reagan joked about taunting Mikhail Gorbachev with an aerial view of L.A.'s suburban spangle of private pools, Reisner's morbid wit seemed justified. Now that helicopters survey Southern California pools not to impress Soviet leaders, but to police breeding grounds for mosquitoes stagnating behind repossessed homes, nihilism is out. The times demand solutions rather than sarcasm.

Grace believes that drought and climate change won't necessarily condemn the West, offering as evidence gray-water and sewage-reclamation pilot programs, conservation easements, turf buy-back efforts, ag-to-city water markets and a handful of dam demolitions. Recent reports about temporary conservation easements designed to return small flows to the long-parched Colorado River Delta reinforce Grace's case for optimism.

But Grace sounds unconvinced—and is unconvincing—when he writes about the plunder of our aquifers: "Developing a system that manages groundwater in the West in a sustainable manner is as easy as standing blindfolded on a greased bowling ball while removing a straitjacket and solving differential equations. But it is something we must summon the will to do."

Grace is not a pundit; he is a poet. He introduces Dam Nation with this plaintive passage about a tributary of the South Platte River near his home in Denver:

"Between boulders big as houses and through slopes of scrambled talus, the little stream meanders down the mountains. It glides over beds of polished rocks and slips past pads of moss. In huddles of wind-twisted trees, it floods the gaps between roots. From other streams, it gathers volume until it is too wide for a person to leap across. Each riffle creates a small violence of water, and in curved and hollow places, the stilled flow deepens. Mayflies ride across its rippled skin. Among the forests that crowd its shores, owls open the soft fans of their wings and dippers dive from the trees. Ponderosa pines armored in bark that smells like vanilla reach their stiff limbs across the water. Children gather to swing from ropes above pools that darken to jade. Anglers cast flies into eddies, droplets of water flinging from the arcs of their lines in a bright scatter. Retirees with binoculars in hand scan the banks for birds. Adventurers craving jolts of adrenaline pilot tipsy boats through whitewater that lifts in leaping peaks and gnashes in scissoring waves. Denverites on the plains below drink from it and grow their grass with it and flush their toilets with it, and they head to the mountains seeking solace and adventure in its flow. This stream is in their bodies and homes and souls. It is everything, it is life itself. And it is not enough."

Twelve chapters later, the pressure on the West's limited water remains intolerable. But by intertwining poetry and policy, Grace redraws the line between engineered and wild places in a way that demands a clear respect for both.

This book review originally appeared in High Country News.

Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine its Future

By Stephen Grace

Globe Pequot

360 pages, 24.95

Published in Literature

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