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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.