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Friday, January 16, 2015

A tragic situation; a difficult story

Last summer, I got a call from an old friend from whom I hadn't heard in ages. He had a story idea for me, he said, a big deal. He has pretty close ties to someone who has very close ties to the energy industry, so I figured it was going to be some sort of insider's tip regarding oil and gas drilling. But no. His tip was about Colin Sutton, a ski patroller who was killed by a backcountry avalanche last March while on the job for Wolf Creek Ski Area. It turns out that Davey Pitcher, the CEO of Wolf Creek, didn't have a permit to be doing avalanche or any other sort of work on national forest land outside of the ski area boundaries. The government was pressing charges.

I remember getting a sort of sick feeling in my gut almost immediately. I really didn't want to do the story. It's not really up my alley, and not really up High Country News' alley, either. I felt awful for Doug Sutton, Colin's father, whom my friend had suggested I call to get the rest of the story. But I also felt bad for Pitcher, who's just a guy trying to run a small ski area in a horrendous drought -- he's not exactly a big, bad ski corporation throwing its employees into harms way in order to make a buck.

But I couldn't really walk away. After all, if Wolf Creek had been a drilling operation, or a coal mine, and someone had died on the rig or underground while doing unauthorized work on public land, we'd try to get to the bottom of it. Still, it was difficult to write; hard to be fair to everyone, to respect Colin and his father and his father's grief. And it kind of made me wish I was an accountant or something.

And so, the story. It's at High Country News, Website only. Read it if you wish.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Cops kill at a higher rate in the West than elsewhere


As darkness and a chill fell over northwestern New Mexico on a Friday in late November, two men flagged down a San Juan County Sheriff’s Deputy to report a scuffle, with at least one firearm involved. The altercation was going down in Spencerville, an ad-hoc collection of homes, beat up cars, and dust, that lies just off the highway that links up the towns of Aztec and Farmington. As the deputies responded, they heard gunshots, and called for backup. Three more deputies arrived, along with a New Mexico State trooper. 

As the five deputies approached the area from which the shots came, the trooper flanked off to one side, armed with an AR-15. He saw a “silhouette of a person raising a weapon,” according to a court document, and fired two shots. When a male voice screamed that the trooper had missed, he ran to another location, took aim and fired two more shots. The “silhouette,” a 27-year-old Navajo man named Myles Roughsurface, fell to the ground, dead. 

Roughsurface was the third person killed at the hands of law enforcement officers in San Juan County this year, and the tenth in New Mexico. As of early December, the cop-related death toll for 11 Western states was at least 181, based on a Wikipedia survey of media reports. National attention has, of late, been on the police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner in Missouri, Ohio and New York, respectively. But when it comes to the rate of police-related killings per capita, the West is the worst. Continue reading....

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Your car is a deadly weapon. Treat it that way.

I recently wrote a sort of opinion piece, okay, tirade, regarding motorists and their attitude towards cyclists. Basically, after venting a bit, I just ask all motorists to please remember that their vehicles are deadly weapons, and that therefore the rage they feel towards bicyclists who annoy them is also potentially deadly. Just be careful, I ask.

Well, they say to never read the comments. And I probably shouldn't have. High Country News posted the piece on Facebook, and a few dozen folks have commented thus far. It's not always pretty: Running through many of them is a current of animosity towards cyclists that doesn't exactly make me feel safer out there on the road. Anyway, read the original column here. And check out the comments on the link below. Yikes!


Thursday, September 4, 2014

Fracking O'Keeffe Country

The energy boom's coming back in the San Juan Basin. Only this time, instead of penetrating the earth in search of natural gas, the drill rigs are looking for oil, in the Gallup Sandstone/Mancos Shale formation. And they're apparently finding it. While drilling remains pretty slow in the old natural gas hotspots, it's ramping up further south, near Chaco Canyon, the Navajo communities of Lybrook and Nageezi and near the Black Place, a series of elephantine hills immortalized by Georgia O'Keeffe in some of her most famous paintings.

I wrote about it for High Country News.

These photos are from the badlands surrounding the Black Place.








Wednesday, August 27, 2014

On the militarization of small-town cops and rural county sheriffs

La Plata County, Colorado, where I live, is a fairly peaceful place. The population is a little over 50,000, mostly spread out over a lot of territory, and easily fits within the rural category, with the possible exception of quasi-urban Durango, the biggest town by far with 17,000 people... 

And yet, in recent years, local law enforcement agencies have stocked up on battlefield-tested gear, including: at least 100 bayonet knives, three ordnance- and explosive-disposal robots, 18 5.56 mm rifles (M16s), five 7.62 mm rifles (M14s), 15 .45 caliber pistols, 30 bipods for machine guns, four night vision sniper scopes, two exercise bikes and a Cat-1 MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle (MRAP).


What's going on? Read more here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Some things I've been working on and writing about this summer

A short piece on Denver's transit system, done while reporting on a much bigger picture project about the death of suburbia and the newfound Western urbanism: Last night as we passed through this stretch it didn’t seem terrifying at all — just another piece of suburbia, with its strip malls and car dealerships and parking lots. But we were in a car then. Now, on a warm and humid Monday morning in July, I’m on foot, and this particular streetscape seems downright hostile, designed to scare the unwitting pedestrian into a vehicle or perhaps the nearest Chick-Fil-A. Six lanes of traffic thrum by on the wide thoroughfare, inches and a text-while-driving away from hopping the curb and squashing me. The grocery store turns out to be on the other side of a vast expanse of pavement that would take too much time to traverse. Nothing is on the human scale here.

I’m making this mile-long trek, from my suburban hotel to the nearest light rail station, to test a recent headline from theAtlantic’s City Lab news site calling Denver “the most advanced transit city in the West."
 A backpack into the Weminuche Wilderness area on the Wilderness Act's 50th birthday:  

I’d like to say that my friend Gabe and I took a short backpacking trip in late June to celebrate the Wilderness Act’s 50th birthday, which is coming up in September, but that would be a lie. We just wanted to go somewhere kind of wild, where we could escape the round-the-clock pressure of our jobs and laptops and cell phones for a couple days, maybe scare the hell out of ourselves on some high ridge line and then drink some whiskey around the camp stove. Our last-minute choice of Colorado’s largest wilderness area as a destination was mostly random.
Payday-type lenders prey on Native Americans, and tribes get in on the game via online lending and invoke sovereign immunity to skirt state usury regulations: 

Mariah Tsosie* needed cash. She worked 32 hours per week for $11 an hour, but her ex-husband often failed to send child support, and Tsosie, who has three kids, fell behind on her bills. She lacked credit cards, and her friends and family were as strapped as she was.
But there were other options in Farmington, New Mexico, where she lived on the edge of the Navajo Nation: Dozens of modest storefronts emblazoned with colorful, beckoning signs – "FastBucks," "Quik Cash" or "Check 'N Go." These so-called "payday lenders" offer payday, short-term installment, car title or tax refund anticipation loans to tide folks over until their next paycheck.
Tsosie picked Cash Loans Now, where friendly staffers assured her that a $200 installment loan would cost her just a few dollars per day. A couple weeks later, she made the first of 25 biweekly payments of $90 each. Thanks to an annualized interest rate of 1,147 percent, about 100 times the average credit card rate, eventually she would have forked out $2,360 – nearly one-tenth of her yearly earnings – just for a tank of gas and some groceries.

Friday, June 13, 2014

San Juan County, Calvin Black and the new Sagebrush Rebels


Reluctant Rebellion in the Utah Desert



I have a deep and long-nurtured fondness for the landscape of San Juan County, Utah, in the far southeastern corner of the state. My parents often took me camping there when I was very young, and we hiked and slept under a river of stars in many a Cedar Mesa canyon -- Arch, Owl, Fish, Mule. Later, when I was a teenager and then even more when I was in my twenties, my friends and I backpacked as many canyons as we could. The vision of Comb Ridge, glowing in late afternoon sun, is burnt upon my brain. As is the memory of the Christmas-time backpack to a tributary of Owl, when a huge snowstorm arrived in the night, making the hike and drive out an epic adventure. After the car ended up in a ditch, far from any highway, and we hiked for hours through thigh-deep snowdrifts, a BLM ranger spotted us and gave us a ride to Blanding, where the fine folks at the Elk Ridge motel and cafe put us up for the night until my dad could come get us.

And because of this fondness, it really pisses me off when people like San Juan County Commissioner Phil Lyman make it their crusade to open up every inch of public land in the county to the ravages of motorized vehicles. Not only does driving the vehicles themselves wreck the fragile desert ecosystem and archaeological sites, but so does the increased access and crowds that comes with opening up so-called roads to motorized travel. That these so-called Sagebrush Rebels have made motorized travel their main ideology is simply absurd.

Yet I also have a certain sympathy for these folks: I know how frustrating it can be to have a piece of land that you considered to be your backyard shut off to access of one sort or another. It's especially maddening when the land is shut down by someone far away, whether it's an absentee landowner or a land manager in Salt Lake or Washington, D.C.

When I traveled to Blanding to observe an illegal ATV ride and protest into archaeologically rich Recapture Canyon that truly is in Blanding's backyard, I tried to keep both of those notions in mind. And then I wrote about it for High Country News. It was the type of story I really like to cover, one where I can get on the ground and be there for a particular event, but also bring a context to the story that others, from faraway locales, may miss.
A sampling of firearms seen at the protest.

This couple came from the Bundy Ranch to Blanding. They're from Provo, Utah.


The Silver Bullet: Top-notch, Sagebrush Rebellion-beat reporting vehicle.