Claustrophilia: Do wide-open lands bring us closer together?

Cover essay and photographs from the September 15, 2015 High Country News Books and Essays issue:

I can see a spark of tired panic in Jo’s eyes as they meet mine. Our narrow Purgon — a Russian-made UAZ van that resembles a jacked-up VW bus — is bursting with people. The rigid seats, which face each other like those in a diner booth, are crammed with butts, and our knees interlock like a human zipper. In the back, where baggage and boxes of supplies serve as yet more seats, two weathered old men hunch below the ceiling. In the front passenger seat, a woman settles on the lap of the standby driver.

Dhuka reindeerAnd yet here we are, picking up another passenger. She looks like she weighs maybe 100 pounds soaking wet, but where will she fit? There’s a slim gap between Jo and her neighbor; the newcomer clambers over and wedges in sideways. Finally, finally, after six hours of waiting, the driver decides that we’re full. He grinds into gear and we chug free of Murun, Mongolia — capital of the country’s northernmost province — toward the remote village of Tsagaan Nuur, near the Russian border.

After 30 minutes of paved road, we veer abruptly onto a dirt two-track winding into the hills. Jo’s husband, Sean, who finished a Peace Corps assignment here in 2007, grins knowingly at Jo and me. “Jiiinkheeene,” he comments wryly, drawing out the Mongolian word. Jinkhene translates roughly as authentic, or old-school. But it can best be defined by what follows.

The Purgon bounces and shudders: The passengers brace arms against seats and each other’s knees, occasionally knocking heads. The Purgon grows steadily chillier: The passengers produce a laptop and memory stick and put together a compilation of Mongolian power ballads that the driver plays on repeat for the next 12 hours. The Purgon bogs in the mud: The passengers tumble out and push, sprinting in all directions when it lurches free at high speed. Through it all, everyone smiles, everyone laughs. There’s something almost tender about the ease with which strangers drowse on each others’ shoulders through the night. Shepherd slumps against meaty policeman; meaty policeman slumps against Sean; Sean, wincing, flattens his 6-foot-4-inch frame against the Purgon wall and my feet, which I had propped up to keep my knees from cramping.

The Mongolians are better at this than us.

In my early 20s, I was in a similar situation on a Greyhound bus between Kansas City and Denver. When the sleeping teenage girl next to me began drooling on my shoulder, I felt not tenderness but silent, half-homicidal rage.

Now, though, watching these strangers touch each other as casually as friends, I feel differently. Beyond the smeared windows stretches one of the most sparsely populated landscapes in the world. There are no fences, and little interrupts the gentle roll of the steppe besides patches of dark trees and congregations of plump sheep, yaks and horses. Felt roundhouses called gers — the traditional homes of pastoral nomads — appear now and then like white buttons stitched haphazardly onto rumpled green fabric. Sean has told us about the nomads’ generosity, how they will offer even unexpected visitors salted yak-milk tea, food, a bed. And I’ve read of the blizzards and subzero cold that pummel people here each winter. Maybe, I think, in all this beautiful, brutal vastness, a tiny enclosure that brings the world to a human scale is to be shared, not defended. How else would anyone survive in such a place? More…

Bird v. bird: The complicated relationship between sage grouse and their avian predators

This feature appears on p.17-19 of the summer, 2015 issue of Western Confluence magazine:

Rancher Truman Julian says he has “a place in his heart” for greater sage grouse. A former wildlife biologist who still works land his family homesteaded near Kemmerer, Wyoming, around the turn of the 19th century, Julian has piped spring water to troughs at the dry edges of his private ground that he says benefit both sage grouse and livestock, and has installed special ramped screens the birds can climb to escape drowning
should they fall in.

Sage grouse, best known for males’ elaborate chest sac-puffing mating displays, need all the help they can get. Though the species persists in 11 western states and two Canadian provinces, it occupies
less than half its historic range; its numbers have fallen from historic estimates in the millions to as few as 200,000 today. Environmentalists, ranchers, government officials, sportsmen, scientists, and others have been rushing to bolster sage grouse populations in advance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision this fall about whether the bird deserves special protections under the Endangered Species Act.

Because sage grouse declines stem from habitat fragmentation and loss, much of the recovery work has focused on protecting and restoring what’s left. But Julian wondered about another variable. “Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve built up a lot of ravens,” he says—whole fields black with them. “They raid everything. They kill our lambs. We had a rancher that lost five calves when ravens pecked into their hind-leg joints.” Local producers were increasingly calling on Wildlife Services—a federal agency tasked with managing human-wildlife conflicts—to poison ravens at calving and lambing time. Since ravens also gobble sage grouse eggs, Julian thought, why not ask researchers to look into whether the agency’s effort to protect livestock boosted local sage grouse as a side effect?

Jonathan Dinkins ended up with the project as a Utah State University PhD student in 2008. It’s normal for sage grouse to get eaten, says Dinkins, now a post-doc at University of Wyoming: they’re the natural prey of many different species, including ravens. But a raven boom could be contributing to a grouse bust. So in part, he would try to determine whether killing ravens actually helped more sage grouse nests succeed—that is, let more eggs hatch into chicks. It was a good opportunity, he says, “to look at management as it would occur.”

He also wanted to investigate whether avian predators in general—ravens and magpies as well as raptors that kill adult grouse—had broader impacts by affecting sage grouse behavior. Could they change how the birds used the landscape? Even make otherwise choice nesting and brooding habitat unusable by scaring sage grouse away?

In other words, could the mere threat of predation be eating away more of the habitat the already struggling grouse so desperately needed? More…

Searching for the sacrifice zone: Where can we say yes to oil and gas development?

This feature originally appeared in the Jan. 19 print edition of High Country News:

Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.
Oil and gas waste pits at Danish Flat, Utah, just across the Colorado border.

Kaye Fissinger collects Don Quixote.

I met the diminutive 70-year-old at her home in a quiet subdivision of Longmont, Colorado. Amid memorabilia from her work in musical theater, black-and-white portraits and an eye-popping snapshot of her body-builder daughter, the man of La Mancha stared from prints and paintings, posed in wooden statuettes and porcelain figurines.

“Why Quixote?” I asked.

She regarded me over gold-rimmed glasses, a smile quirking her mouth. “Because he tilts at windmills,” she said.

In a way, so does Fissinger, but hers are the oil-drilling rigs that have popped up lately in her area. She looked computer-tired, clad in a white turtleneck, her hair pulled into a ponytail. She led me upstairs to a cluttered home office, cleared a stack of documents from a chair and urged me to sit. When she came here from L.A. in 2006, she explained, she was worried about the separation of church and state.

She didn’t yet realize that the plains further to the northeast were pin-cushioned with tens of thousands of wells, many of them hydraulically fractured, or fracked — a process that involves firing water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground at incomprehensible pressures — or that the boom had intensified in recent years.

Then one day in 2011, an automated phone survey asked her an odd question: How would she feel if drilling took place on Longmont open space? “Radar, radar!” she exclaimed. A company, it turned out, had proposed drilling around a local reservoir. The more she learned, the more she worried. She thought of her great-grandkids. A lung cancer survivor, she thought of her respiratory health. She thought about the flat lot near her house that might be a perfect place for a rig.

And in 2012, she helped found the nonprofit Our Health, Our Future, Our Longmont, which spearheaded a ballot initiative that made the city the first in Colorado to ban fracking. The next fall, despite industry’s expensive counter-campaign, several other Front Range communities followed suit. Places across the West and the country have also joined in, from rural Mora County, New Mexico, in 2013, to, most recently and significantly, the state of New York, which overlays a booming shale gas formation.

Though many bans face long odds in court — Longmont’s and others have already been shot down and are headed for appeals — activists and local officials keep fighting. “We’re in it for the long haul,” Fissinger told me emphatically. “Fracking is a toxic, extreme energy extraction method. I don’t think it can be made safe.”

The prospect of a drill rig towering over one’s home would terrify just about anyone, me included. But I still felt conflicted: A near-term transition from oil and gas is profoundly unlikely. Natural gas is slowly supplanting coal as a primary electricity-generating fuel. Petroleum runs our planes, trains and automobiles. Both make it into a dizzying array of plastics and personal care products.

The corporate machine of hydrocarbon development contains a ghost. And the ghost in that machine is us. Until that changes, every fracking ban — Longmont’s, Mora County’s, New York’s — no matter how heroic and justified, simply pushes drilling somewhere else. I wanted to know: Where are we saying yes to such development, and how can we say it in a way 0that lessens impacts on landscapes and people?

I had one hunch. To see if it bore out, I rented a red Chevy Cruze, filled the tank, and got behind the wheel. “Remaining Oil Life: 97%” blinked on the dash. How appropriate, I thought, and drove west, toward Energy Country. More…(subscription required.)

The Odd Couple

This article on public lands grazing reform in Utah appeared in the February 14, 2014 issue of High Country News

If you had never heard them talk about one another, you might assume Mary O’Brien and Bill Hopkin were enemies.

Hopkin, a sturdy 68-year-old with a shock of white hair, grew up stringing fence and tending cows in conservative, pro-ranching northern Utah. Now the grazing management specialist for the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food, he says he’s still “at my best when I’m talking over the hood of a pickup.” Cattle, he fervently believes, can help rangelands thrive.

O’Brien, also 68, is elfish and unflinchingly direct, with a big laugh. She grew up in Los Angeles, devouring Willa Cather’s books and falling so in love with grasslands that she would later encourage ecology students to honor native plants by thinking of each as a person. Before joining the Grand Canyon Trust, she earned an anti-grazing reputation for arguing against introducing cows to areas formerly grazed by sheep in Hells Canyon, on the Idaho-Oregon border.

Last May, at Kanab’s Amazing Earthfest, O’Brien’s husband mentioned that they had been married for 45 years. “I am so sorry,” Hopkin cut in. But instead of spite, his tone revealed affection and respect developed working with O’Brien to improve public-lands grazing in Utah. More…

The Blue Window

This essay appeared in the August 14, 2013 issue of High Country News

IMG_3462“Buy this book and read it on the plane (!)”

This was David’s advice to me for our upcoming expedition to Alaska’s Harding Icefield, emailed along with a link to Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue.

I am no stranger to mountains, having grown up in Colorado and spent several seasons building trail, backpacking, doing biological research and writing in the state’s stretch of the Rockies. But glaciers were a mystery to me — and the Harding is the largest icefield in the United States. Together with the more than 30 glaciers that flow from it, it covers 700 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula and may be a mile thick in places. A Google search yielded pictures that were both alluring and bowel-watering, but no travel accounts. What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into when I agreed to accompany author Craig Childs, David Stevenson, John McInerney and adventure photographer James Q Martin on a research trip for Craig’s book exploring ancient human migration?

I wrote back to David, an experienced mountaineer: Should I do anything else to prepare? Probably not, he replied. Then, “Full disclosure: McInerney says that my default answer is, ‘It will be fine.’ When he hears me say that, he interprets it as, ‘Stevenson is a lunatic, who has a death wish.’ “

Great, I thought, and bought the book. More…

The Fossil Record: How my family found a home in the West

3-page feature from High Country News’ October 16, 2012 Books and Essays issue

IMG_1677When I was a kid, I sometimes wished that my family went on normal vacations.

Normal was what my elementary and middle-school classmates did over spring and summer break, flying to wave-kissed beaches or hitting flashy amusement parks. Not my family: My parents would load my two half-sisters, my brother and me into a big blue Dodge van with finicky air-conditioning and drive us hundreds of sweaty miles to exciting destinations like Lusk and New Castle, Wyo., Broadus and Miles City, Mont.

Amusement parks, as far as they were concerned, held nothing but crowds, noise and cheap gewgaws, and Mom, whose fair skin burned easily, was not fond of prancing about in a bathing suit. But the broad and sparsely populated reaches of eastern Wyoming and Montana offered clear, dry air, sweeping skies, and an intoxicating sense of freedom. Best of all, their badlands and breaks were scattered with the remains of the late Cretaceous — mineralized seashells that in life, 100 to 65 million years ago, cradled tentacled creatures in the dark of an inland sea.

Decked out in long-sleeved shirts and pants, broad-brimmed cloth hats and boxy over-the-spectacles sunglasses, Mom and Dad led us across this dry country, teaching us the difference between placenticeras and scaphites, baculites and didymoceras.

To sweeten the deal, they booked rooms in motels with swimming pools, and when we were older, allowed us to bring friends who were curious (or brave) enough to join us in the baking expanses. Even so, we kids stopped going in late high school, more thrilled by the prospect of a parent-free house. With barter and bribe no longer necessary, Mom and Dad could finally pursue their obsession untroubled by our demands for normalcy.

So when, at 31, I ask whether I might tag along on a weeklong fossil trip near Casper, Dad pauses.

“How long do you think you’ll join us for?” he asks.

“A day or two?” I suggest.

“Oh, good,” he says. “We wouldn’t want you to cramp our style.”

More…