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Monday, November 22, 2010

The shellacking of the West's public lands

By now we've all heard about the "shellacking" Obama and the Dems got in the last election. For Democrats it was almost universally grim, with some notable exceptions in the Western states (I wrote an overview of the situation for High Country News). And for every Harry Reid or Michael Bennet that managed to cling to his political career, there were several examples of extreme right-wingers winning House seats or even taking complete control of a state Legislature.

It's pretty clear, then, that the Democrats lost the 2010 midterm elections. The question is, who won?
The Western Caucus' Marlboro Man-esque cover for it's "War on Jobs" report
Yes, the Republicans took control of the House, and gained in the Senate. And, yes, many of the winners naturally had an "R" beside their names. But today's Republican party is, well, not really the Republican Party (it sure as hell isn't the party of Lincoln, let alone Teddy Roosevelt or even, for that matter, Nixon). It's more like a lost soul that has, for many years, been possessed by an extremist, shape-shifting parasite that wants to drag the party to the right (alienating the party's moderates). The Tea Party is merely the most recent incarnation of that parasite. And, yes, one might say the Tea Party won the election, except that the Tea Party doesn't really even know what it is. It may have been founded as an anti-tax and -spend movement, but it's now become home to all kinds of fringe factions, including the anti-immigrants, the Christian Right and more.

Really, the 2010 election will go down as the midterm in which the corporate interests secured an even tighter grip on power, at the expense of everyone else. It began back in January, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations have the same rights as people, and could therefore donate to political campaigns without restraint. The result was an unprecedented infusion of corporate cash into these elections -- Sharron Angle's Nevada campaign for Senate spent an estimated $97 per vote. Oil companies funded the anti-emissions cutting measure in California without inhibition (as well as donating millions to mostly Republican candidates). Angle and the California polluting prop. both lost, as did other beneficiaries of bundles of corporate cash. But the corporations won, nonetheless, ushering enough obstructionists into Congress to guarantee a brand of gridlock that will work to their favor.

But there was a quieter and perhaps even more significant power shift in Washington that could have big ramifications for the public lands in the West. A group known as the Congressional Western Congress, a posse of nouveau Sagebrush Rebel politicos, has seized control of many a House committee. That includes Rep. Darrell Issa of California, the wealthiest member of Congress, who will be heading up the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee; he'll be backed up by Western Caucus member Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a hard-right Republican from Utah. Arizona's Rep. Jeff Flake will be serving on the House Committee on Natural Resources. Wyoming's Rep. Cynthia Lummis -- who was a facilitator of the Bush assault on public lands in the name of energy independence -- sits on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources on the House Natural Resources Committee. And, most significantly, there's Rep. Doc Hastings of Washington, who will lead the House Committee on Natural Resources, and his ideological twin Rep. Rob Bishop, of Utah, ranking member of the National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee. (Hastings isn't listed on the Western Caucus' roster, but he should be; Bishop is chairman of the Caucus).
The Western Caucus is preparing to assault all regulations on federal land & mineral (shown in red).
Already, Hastings, Bishop and their gang are planning their attack. They're targeting the "de facto offshore drilling moratorium in the Gulf, potential new monument designations and plans to lock up vast portions of our oceans through an irrational zoning process.” And they're clearly in a position to at least push the Western Caucus' agenda, which will surely include killing new land protection proposals of any kind. In the meantime, they'll be waiting anxiously for the opportunity, after 2012, to bring back as many Bush-era policies as possible, and to go even further. (Update: These guys aren't only going after the public's lands, they're also going after the Constitution, itself).

The Caucus, predictably, touts so-called traditional economies and the need to protect jobs by tearing down regulations on public land. It's an old line, but an effective one, especially in times like these when jobs are so sparse. People would always rather blame the environmentalists and the government for their woes than the real culprits: An economic collapse caused by a lack of regulation on unscrupulous corporations, and simple greed on nearly everyone's part. From its Marlboro Man-like motif of a cowboy getting ready to rope a calf, to its report on Western "job killers," the Caucus takes it a step further, arguing that regulations also kill Western culture, and will be the demise of cowboys, miners and the like (strangely enough, they extend the argument to absurd lengths, suggesting that somehow by limiting ATV traffic in the Utah canyon country, for example, the feds are killing local, traditional economies). 

This false dichotomy appeals even to a greenie's sense of romance and it helps the Caucus project a populist image. Too bad the Western Caucus' wishful policies don't actually help people (unless, that is, you subscribe to the Supreme Court's idea of corporations as people). In its "War on Western Jobs" report, the Caucus argues that taxing oil and gas production is a "job killer" because it will drive the domestic energy producers out of business. We're talking about companies that have raked in record profits in recent years. They can afford to fork out a few more bucks in taxes, methinks, and they'll continue to hire the same workers, to whom they'll pay the same wages for doing the hard and treacherous work of drilling wells. A tax cut won't create more jobs, it will just up the company profits. The "Jobs" report -- the Caucus' manifesto -- takes aim at all types of environmental regulations, from "valuing species over people" to the possibility of the EPA classifying coal combustion waste as hazardous (currently the nasty, heavy metal-laden stuff, which coal plants kick out at a rate of millions of tons per year, is regulated like household garbage, and is a major environmental justice issue). If the Western Caucus really wants to help out the Western working man, it might consider pushing for more regulation of coal ash; but it doesn't and it won't.

In this way, the Western Caucus is a parallel to the Tea Party: Both paradoxically depend on their populist image to achieve their goals which (unwittingly or not) end up helping out the corporations who, both openly and secretly, bankroll the whole deal. It's a bizarre perversion of politics, not to mention logic.

And, you can bet your bolo tie that some of the extra profits that the new guard will facilitate will be going back to Western Caucus candidates in the next election. Hastings pulled in a handsome amount from the oil and gas industry, despite the fact that he really didn't need any help to win. Bishop's big donors include Energy Solutions -- the nuclear waste giant -- and the National Association of Realtors. The list goes on, without too many surprises. 

Two years ago, greens across the West celebrated the departure of the Bush administration and the arrival of a new guard. The celebration ended this November.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Burqas, immigration and assimilation, an Auslander's view

The phenomenon of immigration -- and the politics that grow up around it like mold on bread in Berlin -- has always interested me. This might have something to do with the fact that, among Americans and especially Westerners, I have been unusually non-migratory. The various branches of my family had come to the U.S., mostly from northern Europe (Sweden, Germany, England and some wild card that gave me my olive skin and dark hair), back in the 1800s or earlier, and had ended up in Colorado before 1900. When I was growing up in Durango, I had Hispanic friends whose families had come to the region long before mine, and Native American friends whose ancestors came long before theirs. Mine was a decidedly non-transitory childhood. (Though I do remember well the Latino workers on the Slades' ranch out on the Dryside, and the goat roasts the Slades' held each year for the county Democratic party).

When I lived and worked in Silverton, a tiny high-mountain mining town in southwestern Colorado, I started focusing on the immigrant roots of the town. Italian, Welsh and other European miners had flocked to the area in the late 1800s, and had left lasting impressions. Chinese immigrants had also created a community there, until the European-rooted populace turned on them and ran them out of town for good (a phenomenon that was common in Western communities in the early 1900s). In the 1990s and early 2000s, a new wave of immigrants was coming to Silverton to work the restaurants and hotels in the summer (my El Salvadoran intern at the Silverton Standard newspaper and I put together a special issue on immigration, in both Spanish and English). In 2006, I moved to Paonia to work for High Country News. There, I spearheaded a special issue on immigration, and continued to push it as a topic of coverage for the magazine.

Now, I'm experiencing immigration from a completely different perspective. On the one hand, I'm an immigrant myself, having relocated to Germany several months ago. But I'm also living among immigrants, in the Wedding district of Berlin, a neighborhood of Turkish, Arab and other immigrants from mostly Muslim countries. In the meantime, there's a big debate going on here about integration, and the alleged failure of these Muslim immigrants to integrate into German society and culture.

I'm guessing this will be a big topic for me as long as I'm here, and beyond. My first shot at writing about it in any serious way is now up on my gin & gelato blog. It's a bit of thinking out loud for me, but I hope it's kind of interesting. And I also hope that readers will respond with their own thoughts.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Southern Ute recall progresses (and why we should care)

Interesting news from the Old Country (as I like to call my home-region back in the U.S): Dissidents within the Southern Ute Indian Tribe appear to have successfully moved a recall effort to the next phase. When I wrote about the tribe this past spring, the recall effort, after a strong start, was foundering. Its leaders were passionate enough in their convictions to toss out the current tribal council, saying the council had mismanaged tribal money and become pawns of its white advisors. But they weren’t having much luck building a following, and the leaders of the effort – mostly elders – had their own personal concerns to contend with. Now, it appears that some new blood has entered the fray, and they’ve switched the focus of the effort a bit. According to the Durango Herald, the recall cabal is now accusing Tribal Chairman Matthew Box of “being less than transparent, dismantling the tribe's health program and denying members and employees an arena to air their complaints.”

The Herald plays the story pretty straight without going into much background. But read between the lines – and take a look at the readers’ comments that follow the story – and you quickly see the challenges that this sort of story brings for both the tribe, and the newspaper covering it. As is almost always the case with any story that has even a whiff of controversy attached, the Southern Ute leadership refused to comment. And, as is often the case, some commenters fretted over the fact that the non-tribal newspaper was airing the tribe’s dirty laundry.

Indeed, the tribe, being a sovereign nation, is not beholden to the non-tribal media, and so shouldn’t be compelled to give comments to the Durango Herald. And, since people outside of the tribe won’t be voting in any recall election, it makes sense that tribal members might want to keep this process secret from the outside world.

But the Southern Utes are perhaps the most influential entity in the Four Corners region. They were responsible, or partially so, for the construction of the Animas-La Plata project and the relocation of Mercy Medical Center from the center of Durango to its outskirts. The Mercy move, in turn, created an anchor for the Southern Ute-owned Three Springs “neighborhood,” which, when built out, will be as big as a small town. That, in turn, will pull Durango’s growth in that direction, encouraging yet more sprawl and possibly necessitating the construction of new roads through the Horse Gulch/Raiders Ridge area to make it easier for downtown Durangoans to access their new exurb (and only hospital). The Southern Ute tribe is the region’s biggest employer, providing more professional-level jobs, with salaries to match, than any other public or corporate entity. In one way or another, the tribe controls or has partial control over most of the oil and gas resources in southwestern Colorado.

So what happens with the Southern Ute also ripples out to the entire Four Corners community. And that makes those happenings of interest to all the residents of the region, Ute or not. As for the tribal government, it would behoove them to open up to the outside press. Or, at the very least, it should provide more information to the Southern Ute Drum and allow it to disseminate that information freely. That does not appear to be happening now. Because the Southern Ute Drum’s staff is employed by the tribe, it can’t be relied upon to dig up the truth. In fact, everything the Drum prints is potentially as tainted as any state-owned news organization anywhere. Which is to say, its credibility is rather weak.

But if we outsiders demand information from the tribe, then we’re also demanding some sort of accountability. We’re saying that we – those outside the tribe – should have some influence or say in how the tribe governs itself. But to have such a say is to diminish the tribe’s sovereignty, and it reeks of the same sort of paternalism that Native Americans in general have borne the weight of for more than a century. If the feds are called in to clean up the Southern Ute government, doesn’t it imply that the tribe is unable to govern itself?

So, on the one hand, this recall effort (and even the way outsiders may react to it) is no more than a group of people within a political entity doing their best to pursue democracy. On the other, it’s both a test and exercise of that elusive concept of tribal sovereignty. And what’s tribal sovereignty? Ask 10 lawyers, tribal leaders or academics what tribal sovereignty means, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. That’s in part because tribes in the U.S. are unusual entities with extremely complex and always changing relationships with state and federal governments. It doesn’t help that the bodies exercising sovereignty – tribal governments – were in many cases created or imposed upon the tribes by the federal government at a time when the feds would have been happy to just see the tribes vanish. There’s a historical component to all of this, in other words, and that component is neither pretty nor simple.

Complex as it is, tribal sovereignty is extremely important to the nation, but especially the West. It will become more important as more tribes follow the Southern Ute example. So, it’s worth following this recall effort very closely.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The political carnage in the U.S. -- my take

Perhaps the most closely watched and most expensive mid-term elections ever are right around the corner in the U.S. Election night will certainly be interesting in every state, but this year's contests, in my opinion, are especially significant in the West. Just two years ago, the Democrats celebrated a new dominance in the Interior West. And the West celebrated its own newfound influence in national politics.

Today, the West's influence holds: Probably no race has attracted more attention than Nevada's contest pitting Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid against Tea Partier Republican Sharron Angle. And other state races are also attracting oodles of outside money along with visits from the Obamas and Sarah Palin. The Democrats' influence is much more tenuous -- it's conceivable that we'll all wake up after Election Day to a much redder region.

Of course, that red will be tainted by whatever color one might consider the Tea Party, which has successfully knocked out a number of mainstream, relatively moderate Republican candidates, and replaced them with hard-liners and extremists. The new Tea Partiers run as Republicans but look significantly different than the G.O.P. of a decade ago, even. Also of note is the fact that the Tea Partiers have failed to win significant influence in some surprising states: Washington, Arizona, Oregon. And in Colorado, they've virtually succeeded in handing the Governor's office back to the Democrats.

All of that and more in High Country News' guide to the elections, written mostly by yours truly (senior editor Ray Ring edited the package and wrote about the Northern Rockies states). Read it. Comment. And keep it around for election night.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A special honor

I was surprised to find out not too long ago that a story I was reporting a year ago this month earned a special citation from Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism folks. I'm flattered to share the podium, so to speak, with this year's winner Lewis Kamb and the other special citation honoree Dawn Stover.

The story, for High Country News, was called Wind Resistance. It was about the huge boom in wind energy in Wyoming. More than that, though, it was about the oil and gas dominated culture of Wyoming politics, and how the wind boom was both affecting that culture, and being impacted by it. It was also about a guy named Diemer True, a wealthy Wyoming oilman who carries a lot of political weight in the state. True's an interesting character. His politics are libertarian, even Tea Party-esque; he's Dick Cheney's buddy; he has spent a good deal of his career lobbying to knock down environmental regulations in order to make it easier for the energy industry to access public lands.

Now, he's taken up a new cause: Fighting against wind farms in the Laramie Range, where he owns ranches. It's classic NIMBYism, sure, but it's also something more. After spending a bit of time with True, I became convinced that he generally cares about the Laramie Range; that, in some weird way, he's an environmentalist. I also learned that True was a really nice, gentle guy, in contrast to the angry, spittle-generating politics that he supports. Indeed, his tall, lanky physique, sun-burnished skin, close-cropped haircut, slow cowboy's drawl all kind of reminded me of my grandfather. Not only that, but the guy's a cowboy poet.

Throw in a sage grouse, conflicted environmental activists, and turbines as far as the eye can see, and you've got what I thought was a pretty interesting story. Apparently, the Knight-Risser folks agreed. Looking back, I'm just amazed that I was able to research, report and write the thing while I was also serving as editor-in-chief of the magazine. I must have been drinking more coffee back then.

The prize is based at Stanford and is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and co-sponsored by the Bill Lane Center for the American West (a very cool organization!).

Matt Jenkins -- whose writing I've always admired and with whom I've had the privilege of working many times -- won the award for High Country News back in 2006.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Berlin bikes, bureaucracy and a movie of our 'hood

I'm interested in just about everything. That can be distracting (if I had a brain-cam on just this morning's Web-surfing session, it would yield a pretty shaky, erratic movie). But it's also why I've pursued journalism: It allows me to indulge my curiosity and constantly learn about new things. When we moved to Berlin two months ago, it was like being dipped in a big vat of newness. Everything is new, and challenging, and worth exploring. So, as of late my journalistic explorations have been somewhat dormant, giving way to my more personal explorations, some of which can be found over at my other blogs: gin and gelato and Burning Sunflowers. I've even delved into a bit of video production. Feel free to check it out.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Talking about the Southern Utes

I consider myself a journalist/writer, which means I like to write my thoughts down, not talk about them. But at High Country News, I often found myself talking about my thoughts anyway, thanks to a variety of public radio stations that interviewed me about various stories we ran. Then, we started our own little audio interviews with High Country Views.

So on the one hand, it was kind of old hat when Colorado Public Radio interviewed me about my most recent HCN story. But it was also new. Instead of doing the interview from my HCN office, or the KVNF radio studios, I did it from our temporary apartment in Berlin. A great freelance radio journalist, Alexa Dvorson, came over and recorded me while I answered questions via Skype from CPR in Greeley. Woah.

Anyway, here's the interview. I enjoy these talks immensely, but make it a point never to listen to the finished project. I hope my answers are not too meandering.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Ute Parallax

The Southern Ute Indian Tribe, based on a tiny reservation in southwestern Colorado, is really rich. The 1,400 or so tribal members are, collectively, worth somewhere from $4 billion to $14 billion, making each one a millionaire, at least on paper. This isn't news to a lot of folks, everyone from the Denver Post to the Wall Street Journal has covered this part of the story. I wanted to go deeper; to understand and explain how the tribe got wealthy, and what it might mean for the tribe, the region and other tribes with rich energy resources across the West.

I was also curious about how tribal sovereignty plays into all of this, and how we might/should view a tribe like the Southern Utes, which has expanded its financial empire to far-flung places, including other reservations and to deepwater drilling rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.

The story has finally come out as a cover story for High Country News. It was a difficult story to write, in part because the subjects of the story -- the tribal government, administration, and employees -- refused to talk to me. That meant I had to do some directional drilling, if you will; getting underneath the surface by starting at the fringes. That took digging into all kinds of Congressional testimony, Mineral Management Service records, and interviewing a lot of outsiders (along with a few insiders on deep background), who are familiar with the tribe and how it works. I was also lucky enough to get an interview with Tom Shipps, the tribe's energy legal/policy guru for the past 30 years, before the tribe slammed its doors on me.

As always happens, the story was cut down significantly in the editing process, and it lost a lot of the context -- and some of the color -- that I was fond of. I also prefer the more opaque "The Ute Parallax" as a title, because it more accurately reflects one of the main concepts I was trying to get at: That depending on which angle you come from, the Southern Utes can look like either a corporation, or a tribe. And the distinction is very important. But the important stuff stayed in there, so please check it out on HCN. It also comes with a good infographic (click on the image multiple times to make it legible) that looks a lot better in the magazine than it does on the web. So subscribe.

I've included the long (okay, way too long) version, complete with exhaustive footnotes, here.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

No new national monuments?

Republican Calif. Rep. Devin Nune, who is no friend to the environment, has introduced a bill in Congress that would require congressional approval of any new national monument designations. It's an obvious reaction to the hoo ha that erupted when an internal Interior Department document was made public a while back, along with its list of places across the West that are worthy of protection. Even though the document emphasized that public input would be considered prior to any action, many a Western Republican lawmaker siezed on the opportunity to bash Obama/Salazar for trying to make an underhanded land grab. They saw in the document echoes of Bill Clinton's sweeping national monument designation run back in the 1990s, which perhaps most significantly made a remote, extraordinary chunk of canyon country into the Escalante Grand Staircases National Monument. I wrote about the list, etc., over at High Country News' Goat Blog.

While I have my own ambivalence when it comes to turning normal public land into national monuments (because I believe it increases the danger of commercialization of the land and surrounding towns), I'm still a big supporter in the presidential power to make such designations. That's because it's really one of the last possibilities of sweeping land protection; one of the last ways a special place can be set aside relatively quickly, protecting it from the impacts of extractive industries and motorized recreation, among other things.

In contrast, look at the wilderness designation process. Yes, Wilderness is a much higher order of protection than a monument, but it's also almost impossible to come by these days. Even the most carefully crafted, collaborative -- often watered down -- wilderness bills tend to linger in Congress for years, during which time they are watered down some more. Obstructionist lawmakers use procedural tricks to hold up the bills to make points about things like government spending. Etc.

Organizations such as the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance are admirably trying to get wilderness designation for big chunks of southeastern Utah's beleaguered canyon country. And they should continue the fight. But we should all acknowledge that the canyons' best bet is probably a series of sweeping national monument designations, done quickly. It might also be Obama's best bet for any kind of environmental legacy.

Of dogs and pneumonia in Germany

I guess I should mention that my non-journalistic (or maybe gonzo-personal-journalistic?) writing appears at my blog, gin & gelato. It started out being about martinis and ice cream, but I haven't written about that much lately. Now, it's mostly my zany experiences as an immigrant in Berlin, including shipping our dog from America, and getting pneumonia and not being able to say the word for pneumonia in the local language. It still sounds funny to say that I'm an immigrant, but I suspect that after I wade through the immigration bureaucracy, it won't sound funny at all.

After that, I hope to be able to recapture enough German to be able to start doing some real journalism. So much here to explore: energy policy, polluted urban water ways, is Germany really as green as we make it out to be? etc.

Also, my short fiction and some photography shows up at my Burning Sunflower blog. It hasn't been updated in a while, but I'm working on a new short story now: "They call me Herr Sagebrush." It should be up in the next week or so. Also in the next week or so, my latest, hopefully not last, cover story will appear in High Country News.