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Matt Rahn was about 200 feet away when flames started climbing up the side of the garage and creeping toward the car inside.

A wildfire researcher with California State University at San Marcos, Rahn was at the edge of a fire that would go on to burn 4,240 acres across California’s Amador and El Dorado counties. He was there to study the smoke rising off blackening shrubs and trees. Watching the garage burn, though, he realized that firefighters—fending off flames without any real lung protection—were inhaling more than airborne remnants of burnt plants.

“Think about the average home, all the chemicals and things that are in there, not to mention all the building materials and furniture,” said Rahn, who also is a member of Temecula’s city council. “That’s when we started really thinking about what happens. What’s in the smoke when you have all that complicated fuel being combusted at the same time?”

That was in 2014, when wildfires burned 568 buildings across the state. Fire season is not yet over this year, and the toll already is higher: three people dead and 732 buildings burned, as of this writing. And the state is still recovering from back-to-back years of catastrophic fires that killed 137 people and damaged or destroyed nearly 35,000 buildings.

As climate change primes the West to burn, and more people build closer to nature, the question of what’s in the smoke when fires tear through wilderness and homes alike is still far from being answered. Yet the health of those breathing the smoke—like the firefighters battling the flames—depends on real data.

“Right now, we’re trying to keep California from burning down,” said Michael McLaughlin, chief of the Cosumnes Fire Department and legislative director of the California Fire Chiefs Association. “But how do we put emphasis on those that we’re putting between the fire and the communities we’re trying to save?”

“On people’s radar.”

When a wildfire burns through grasslands, forests and chaparral, the blaze churns out fine airborne particles that can irritate the lungs and have been linked to heart and lung problems, as well as premature death. Deadly gases like carbon monoxide and irritating, potentially cancer-causing chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons mix into the smoke cloud as well. 

It’s a complex soup with ingredients that can change depending on the fuel and the ferocity of the fire. And as the chemicals stew in the atmosphere, they continue to react—breaking apart and joining together to create new ingredients to inhale.

Burning buildings and cars typically make up only a small proportion of wildfire smoke, according to Shawn Urbanski, a research physical scientist at the Missoula Fire Sciences Laboratory—but their contributions are starting to capture scientists’ attention. “With these recent fires, it’s really sort of gotten on people’s radar,” Urbanski said.

For folks inhaling smoke far from its source, toxic emissions from burning cars and houses are likely to pose less of a health risk as they’re diluted away. “All the way down in the Bay Area, probably the smoke from the Paradise Fire was pretty much just wood smoke,” said John Balmes, a professor at the University of California, San Francisco.

Of course, wood smoke isn’t benign; researchers as well as reporters at Reveal found increases in emergency-room visits for heart and breathing problems after exposure to wildfire smoke. But for people immediately downwind and for the firefighters battling the flames, the metals, carcinogens and toxic air pollutants rising from burning homes and cars could present an additional hazard. “It definitely is an occupational risk for the firefighters when they’re trying to save buildings, and for community exposures,” Balmes said. 

We do know that municipal firefighters battling structure fires in towns and cities can run into heavy metals as well as all kinds of cancer-causing chemicals, like formaldehyde, benzene, and asbestos.

They’re also more prone to getting cancer than the general population, according to a massive study of 30,000 firefighters in San Francisco, Chicago and Philadelphia. The paper, published in the journal Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reported an increase in certain cancers, including of the esophagus, lungs, mouth and throat, large intestine and kidney.

There haven’t been any similar long-term epidemiology studies of firefighters battling blazes in the wilderness, according to a deep dive into the scientific literature that was published in the journal Inhalation Toxicology in 2016.

Shorter-term studies, however, have reported small drops in lung function and increased inflammation among wildland firefighters exposed to smoke. Kathleen Navarro is a research industrial hygienist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health who has worked as a wildland firefighter. She estimated in a recent study published in Environmental Research that, based on their smoke exposures, wildland firefighters may be at a greater risk of dying from lung cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Wildland firefighters also tend to battle conflagrations without any lung protection beyond a bandana or a mask to filter out airborne particles—even when they’re working where wilderness and homes intersect, a junction known as the wildland urban interface.

For structure fires in towns or cities, firefighters typically use a breathing apparatus equipped with a clean air tank that lasts about 20 to 30 minutes, according to Cosumnes Fire Chief McLaughlin. That’s not feasible for wildland firefighters who can end up working long shifts, in treacherous terrain.

That’s why figuring out what’s in the smoke, and what it means for health, is so important, said Jesse Estrada, the department safety officer for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, also known as Cal Fire. “You get exposed to a lot of stuff over the years, and the body takes a beatdown,” he said. “We need to understand what the short-term and long-term effects are. The only way to know that is to let time pass as they do the research and truly see what we are facing.”

“It’s just a different landscape.”

One of the people driving this research is Aida Rodriguez, a master’s student working with Matt Rahn at CSU San Marcos. The day after the Kincade fire started in Sonoma County, Rodriguez hopped on a plane with a pink duffle bag full of pre-labeled glass vials, patches made out of the same Nomex material in firefighters’ uniforms, and fabric staplers. Airport security, Rodriguez said, “were concerned about everything in there.”

The next morning, under a reddish haze of smoke on the horizon and the faint smell of camp fires in the air, Rodriguez got to work. Balancing the vials and Nomex patches on the front of a fire engine at the base camp in Santa Rosa, she tacked the material to the outside and the inside of the firefighters’ gear. She was done in about 20 minutes. “I was fast and furiously going through it,” she said.

Twenty-four hours later, it was Rahn who was in charge of ripping the patches from the returning firefighters’ uniforms, pushing them into the glass vials, and mailing them to an independent lab in Ohio for testing. His team’s goal is to find out which chemicals settle on the outside of the firefighters’ uniforms while they’re fighting the flames, and which ones soak through.

“Are they harmful chemicals? Are they cancer-causing?” Rodriguez said. “If that’s something we can answer, then you can develop a decontamination protocol to mitigate the exposure to those chemicals.”

Scientists across the country are asking these questions. Amara Holder, a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is working with the U.S. Forest Service to review what we know—and what we don’t—about the air pollution from fires that burn homes and wilderness together.

The stakes are high for firefighters and other emergency responders, and for the people living close to a conflagration. “You’ve got smoke from a house, or a car, as well as trees,” Holder said. “It’s just a different landscape.”

Key will be measuring what’s in the smoke, and determining how far these pollutants travel—as some might dissipate before they reach nearby towns, and some might not. Figuring that out could help guide evacuations and determine when and where wildland firefighters need to wear protective equipment. “Then we’ll know what we need to do to protect people,” Holder said.

Navarro, the scientist who has worked as a wildland firefighter, is taking an even closer look at wildland firefighter health—by studying their bodily fluids. She and a team of researchers at the University of Miami and the University of Arizona are collecting blood and urine samples from firefighters battling fires at the interface between homes and nature. She’s looking for signs of metals, certain flame retardants, and a family of chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that’s known to include carcinogens.

In those environments, firefighters’ chemical exposures become much more complex, according to Navarro’s colleague, Kenneth Fent. “There are a lot more questions about their health risks even above and beyond other wildland firefighters, where it may be more vegetation exposure,” Fent said.

Fent is helming a voluntary National Fire Fighter Registry to track the long-term health of any firefighter who signs up. The goal is to understand the long-term cancer risk of firefighters across the field, from those rushing into burning buildings to those fighting to keep a wildfire from engulfing a nearby town.

For wildland firefighters in particular, he said, this is the kind of study that’s been missing. And identifying the risks is the first step for trying to prevent them. 

“This is an expensive consideration.”

Why don’t we know yet what long-term health problems might plague wildland firefighters? One reason is logistics: It’s tough for scientists to tag along with firefighters while they’re working in extreme conditions to save lives and homes. “To do my work, I became a firefighter,” Navarro said. Her training allows her to measure smoke exposures at active wildfires, and gives her insights into what the job as a wildland firefighter actually involves.

Another reason is that this research is expensive, according to CSU San Marcos’ Rahn. “The laboratory analysis costs us about $2,000 per firefighter,” he said. “This is an expensive consideration. That’s the hurdle we’re up against.”

And the money—which Rahn said includes a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and another from the Cal Fire Local 2881 union—is running out.

Researchers have struggled to find someone willing to pay to investigate the risks to wildland firefighters, he said.  “We have to convince these funding agencies, believe it or not, that the work we do here is not just a California issue —this is a national concern,” he said. “It’s a challenge every year to try to receive that funding.”

That’s why two years ago, Cal Fire Local 2881 pushed the state of California to fund the research, according to union President Tim Edwards. And a bill by Sen. Connie Leyva, a Democrat from Chino, would have tapped $5 million from the state’s general fund to pay for wildland firefighting research at California State University campuses.

Although the bill sailed through the Legislature, former Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed it, calling it a “well-intentioned and important proposal” that belonged in the budget, not legislation. Edwards, an engineer with Cal Fire and thyroid cancer survivor, said the veto was disappointing. “Being a state employee, and a state firefighter, I think that hurt me more than anything. It frustrated me more than anything,” he said.

Now, Edwards said the union is working to get the funding included in the state budget. H.D. Palmer, deputy director for external affairs at the California Department of Finance, wouldn’t say whether the union’s latest efforts will work. “I’ll respectfully decline to speculate on what will or will not be included in next year’s budget proposal,” he said.

What’s next?

There arestrategies to reduce wildland firefighters’ risks by removing them from the smoke when they’re off shift, and giving them a chance to clean up, Cal Fire’s Estrada said. “It doesn’t mean that when they go out in these environments that 100 percent of the time, every firefighter is completely immersed in the smoke for the duration,” he said.

Still, union president Edwards said, “We’re hoping to eventually find a breathing apparatus that will work at the wildland conditions.”

To that end, the Department of Homeland Security Science and Technology Directorate has contracted with a company called TDA Research to create a lightweight respirator that firefighters can use in the wildland for days to weeks. Since many wildland firefighters wear bandanas over their faces, the device is shaped like a scarf.

“We wanted to create something that was similar to what they use,” said Kimberli Jones-Holt, program manager with the DHS Science and Technology Directorate. Jones-Holt is optimistic that wildland firefighters could be using the device by 2021.

As for Rodriguez, the results aren’t back yet from the patches she sent into the smoke in Sonoma. But in the meantime, she has her glass vials and fabric staplers still packed in that pink duffle bag, ready for the next fire.

“It’s important for us to realize that fire season is year round,” she said. “I don’t really have the time to sit and wait.”

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

Published in Features

First came the bare human foot, somewhere in Africa. Then, in no particular order, came the moccasin, the shoe, the horse and saddle, boat and oar, the ski, the snowshoe—and so much more.

All of these came to the backcountry and helped to enrich our travels there. Sure, there’s been some grumbling about how some of the more recent inventions make modern life too easy, but over time, those tools and technologies have become accepted parts of our adventures in even the most remote places.

But … whoa! Along came the human-powered mountain bike, and although it’s quite similar to the contrivances that hardy souls have been pedaling and pushing through cities and the backcountry since the mid-19th century, some people now consider them to be so high-tech that they should be banned from wild landscapes.

Critics complain that nothing seems to say, “I can’t truly get away,” like the thought of encountering wheels on a trail. Ignoring the gears, cams, springs, levers, satellite communication tools and highly technological gadgets already filling their packs, these critics abhor the presence of bicycles in any federally designated wilderness.

It’s been suggested that the desire to allow bicycles in wilderness is an extremist campaign by a faction of off-road cyclists—people indifferent to the conservation goals of the 1964 Wilderness Act. But bicyclists treasure designated wilderness areas, which are already shared by a wide variety of recreationists, including through-hikers, day-trippers, hunters, equestrians, skiers, snowshoers, birdwatchers, climbers and boaters. And also, of course, cows.

Bills introduced in both the Senate and House of Representatives have renewed the conversation about whether it’s high time to lift the Forest Service’s 1984 blanket ban on bicycles in federally managed wilderness. The bills would allow federal land agencies to continue to maintain complete closures to bicycles if they thought it necessary, but the decision-making authority would move from centralized control in Washington, D.C., to local supervisors of wilderness lands.

For evidence of the cyclists’ purported extremism, some critics look to the supposedly mainstream International Mountain Bicycling Association, which is on record as opposing bicycles in wilderness. But many members and IMBA-affiliated clubs have protested IMBA’s position, and some have even canceled their memberships. IMBA does good work on many fronts, but its stance on wilderness access is increasingly seen as a timid and misguided abandonment of backcountry cyclists and a denial of cyclists’ legitimate role in the conservation community.

One of IMBA’s top three affiliated clubs is just down the road from there: The San Diego Mountain Biking Association called IMBA’s board “tone-deaf to the community” before severing its IMBA affiliation in early 2018. Three years earlier, the independent, 6,000-member New England Mountain Bike Association was already pleading, unsuccessfully, for IMBA to support wilderness access for mountain bikes.

In 2016, IMBA surveyed its ranks and determined that 51 percent of members felt that including access for mountain bikes in wilderness was a “very important issue.” That result was significantly more pronounced in the Western states, where wilderness areas are concentrated. Also in 2016, one of off-road cycling’s best-known online communities, SingleTracks.com, surveyed its readers and found that 96.2 percent wanted some level of wilderness access.

It seems that the bid for wilderness access has reached the mainstream, and that the tension is less among mountain bikers and more between mountain bikers and the IMBA board of directors. Meanwhile, some cyclists continue to resist proposals for designating new wilderness, because they would be barred from riding in it. As a result, wilderness proposals sometimes get abandoned or scaled back.

Andy Kerr, former executive director at Oregon Wild, recently lamented, “There are millions of acres of qualifying roadless land that could go into the wilderness system, but the prior existing use of mountain bikes politically prevents it.” In the same post, Kerr recommends “allow(ing) mountain bikes into new wilderness areas with conditions.”

This conflict is unfortunate and unnecessary, given the largely shared vision and goals of conservationists, cyclists and other wilderness users. Shouldn’t agencies be free to at least consider bicycles?

The Wilderness Act of 1964 prohibited “mechanical transport,” but how that is defined has become ever more contested as we uncover the historical record. Moreover, bicycle opponents forget the Wilderness Act’s overarching goals, which remain the preservation of wild lands and the promotion within them of rugged, self-reliant recreation. An intrepid backcountry cyclist fits within these criteria perfectly.

It’s time to recognize that many Americans have chosen to add bicycles to their backcountry equipment and would sometimes like to use their bikes to experience the wilderness, while honoring the spirit and purpose of the Wilderness Act.

Daniel Greenstadt is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is an environmental industry consultant and lives in Portland, Ore.

Published in Community Voices

The third applicant was “no gentleman,” the U.S. Forest Service ranger wrote to his boss, but would still make a first-class fire lookout in the remote Klamath National Forest.

He thought little of the first applicant’s abilities, and the second had poor eyesight, though that didn’t prevent him from frequently violating the local game laws. Yet the third candidate was so unusual, ranger M.H. McCarthy cautioned, “I hope your heart is strong enough to stand the shock.”

For the shocking third applicant was a woman, Hallie Morse Daggett, though McCarthy added that she “is absolutely devoid of the timidity which is ordinarily associated with her sex.”

McCarthy told his supervisor not to worry about being overrun by female applicants in the future, “since we can hardly expect these positions to ever become very popular with the Fair Sex.” What is telling in light of recent news about the systemic problem of discrimination throughout the Forest Service is that this was written 105 years ago.

Women—and minorities, too—have long struggled to be accepted as equals in the Forest Service, an agency traditionally led by white males at all management levels. Thirteen years ago, I wrote The Greatest Good and The Forest Service: A Centennial History, which included  about what women working in the Forest Service had achieved, and what obstacles they continued to face in the agency. If I were writing that chapter today, what I then called “New Faces, Changing Values” would now be titled “New Faces, Same Old Values.” It seems that all that has changed is the names of those involved in incidents, and not the misogynistic behavior.

There have always been notable exceptions, of course—women who made their way with the help of their male colleagues, as in the cases of the first female smokejumper, Deanne Shulman, and of Geraldine Bergen Larson, the first female forest supervisor.

Too often, though, it’s been like what their contemporary Gene Bernardi, a research sociologist in the California region, encountered in 1973. When a hiring manager preferred to wait for a male applicant to be available rather than hire her, she complained, garnering compensation—but not the job. Fed up, she and other women then filed a class-action lawsuit in California over sexual discrimination. In the end, after years of litigation and negotiation, the Forest Service consented to hire more women and minorities in the region.

Fifty years before that agreement in California, a group of Forest Service female employees met with agency leaders, including Chief William Greeley, to discuss how the agency could “make working conditions pleasant” for women. In 1924, they told leaders how to do so in no uncertain terms. According to the meeting minutes, a “Miss Peyton” observed:

The first summer after I came to the Service a group of freshly-graduated students arrived from one of the forest schools, painfully young, immature looking, and inexperienced, to such an extent indeed, as to cause quite a number of facetious remarks at their expense, one young forester going so far as to remark that they looked too young to be out without their mothers. That’s the way their fellow workers viewed them and gibed them. Then suddenly something else caught and held my attention. The heads of the Service evidently saw those boys from some different angle. The Service didn’t see mere boys. It saw potentialities. It was not looking at the present. It visioned the future.

In other words, don’t denigrate new employees for their lack of experience. Let them work to gain experience and judge them on ability. Asking that women be afforded the same treatment, she went on:

Their history might in fact be written to a large extent in four words: No responsibilities, no experience. And the result? … What has happened to them might easily be indicated in three fateful words: Unused faculties atrophy. Think of it — (they’re) retrograding instead of developing! … Now, reverse the picture, and thereby get a glimpse of these same women as an army of well-developed trained workers. How great the gain!

Ten years after Gene Bernardi filed suit, a Forest Service employee noted, “Given the Forest Service’s traditional values, it’s a big step to open up the organization to women and minorities. It’ll take time, but we’re getting there.”

Today, 35 years later—after Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke resigned in March amid charges of sexual misconduct, and with the agency’s employment practices once again deservedly under scrutiny—the agency appears far from “there.”

It’s time to heed the advice offered nearly a century ago by Miss Peyton: Look at people for their potentialities, not their gender or skin color. Vision this future.

James G. Lewis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. He is staff historian at the Forest History Society in Durham, N.C.

Published in Community Voices

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of the Forest Service as well as several agricultural and food-related research agencies, recently told its staffers to avoid using the term “climate change.” The business-as-usual term “weather extremes” was recommended instead.

While dropping the word “climate” may seem like a defeat for those of us who remain convinced that human influences are harming the global environment, this federal directive made in the spirit of changing the narrative might be good advice. Could it be that the term itself has failed us?

Suppose, for a moment, you are in a restaurant, and someone yells, “Help, she’s having a heart attack!” Being a good person, you would no doubt spring into action, call 9-1-1, look for aspirin or a defibrillator, and so on.

Suppose that same person had instead yelled, “Help, she’s having a myocardial infarction!” You would probably react the same way … but wouldn’t you perhaps pause for just a second? Unless you’re a medical professional, wouldn’t you first have to engage in some type of internal translation? I would. The ailing woman might get better care at a hospital with such detailed wording, but the immediate danger she faces in the restaurant hides behind the wrong language.

Here’s the problem: Although most Americans today say that climate change is a real and serious issue, most probably don’t understand what the term “climate” means. The difference between climate and weather, the moving target of climate averages, and the intangibility of climate experience all make “climate” a problematic word to rally around. I know the Northwest has a rainy climate, and because I experience getting wet frequently, I know in my bones that this is true. The same goes for Palm Springs: You have a warm climate. But, alas, the word “climate” can become jargon.

Yes, the climate is changing, but it is an acute global environmental crisis—global warming—that is touching the realities of daily life for millions of people around the world.

Houston just turned into a gigantic lake. Hurricane Irma, the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, is on the march across the Caribbean, one of three hurricanes in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico as of this writing. Furnace Creek, Calif., the hottest place on Earth, posted its hottest July on record. Unprecedented peat fires burn in Greenland. Extreme weather events across the globe abound, and they are tied not just to generalized climate change, but directly to heat. The term “global warming” comes with baggage stuffed full of 30 years of politics, but for now it is the best we have.

Both global warming and climate change been used to describe what’s happening to the planet since the 1970s. Conventionally, global warming refers specifically to the rise of average global temperatures, and climate change refers more broadly, to shifts in prevailing environmental conditions, including the odd spot that is getting colder.

As the 1990s and 2000s saw popular culture build concern for global warming, the issue got entangled in bitter politics. Because “global warming” was accused of sounding alarmist, some researchers hoped that the term “climate change” would sound more scientific.

But climate change has been the wrong phrase for the job, because it is too scientific. It has failed to provoke urgency and been easy to pooh-pooh. (It’s probably not a coincidence that a Republican political strategist recommended using the term “climate change,” because he said “it is less frightening than ‘global warming.’”)

“Change” is a neutral term that does not convey that humanity is the culprit behind what’s happening. After all, it is entirely correct that the climate is always changing—a frequent retort from climate-change deniers. Furthermore, many shifts caused by global warming are not climatic—think sea-level rise, ocean acidification and melting glaciers. This further confuses the terminology.

Al Gore has recently taken to talking instead about the “climate crisis.” While I find this a laudable step, there is still a challenge with the word climate—we just can’t touch the climate. “Global weirding” and “global environmental change” both offer alternatives, but both have failed to catch on.

If I look south outside my window, I can see a small patch of dirty blue ice on a mountain in Denali National Park. Just eight years ago, when I first came here, this patch was significantly larger and snow-white all summer long. Now there is a tan bathtub ring around what used to be a glacier. This change is personal, precise and experiential.

Words matter. Words invoke, connote and direct attention as we move through the world. Discouraging use of the term “climate change” might just turn out to be a good thing. As long as we continue to talk about the subject: Let’s stick with global warming.

Alex Lee is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He is an assistant professor of philosophy at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage.

Published in Community Voices

The more things change, the more those changes echo on into the future. Today, we need to listen more carefully than ever to a voice from the mid-20th century—that of writer and Western historian Bernard DeVoto.

At the recent Republican National Convention, the party faithful approved a platform that directs Congress to give “certain” public lands to the states. It’s an old strategy, trotted out like a broken-down show horse at a county fair.

In the mid-1940s, Western policymakers, mainly Republicans, sought to eliminate the federal Bureau of Land Management, remove grazing areas from Forest Service control, and put public land on the path to state control and private ownership. One privatization bill passed the House in 1946, and even enjoyed the support of Interior Secretary Julius Krug, a Democrat.

Sounding the alarm against these terrible proposals came DeVoto’s prescient voice from his “The Easy Chair” column in Harper’s magazine. His warnings are still relevant seven decades later.

The noted writer knew something of the West; he was born and raised in Ogden, Utah, and later wrote prize-winning regional histories. To DeVoto, the land-divestment scheme amounted to a full-frontal assault on the country’s entire conservation program. He was right: The naked power grab he warned us about continues today, with stockgrowers now joined by powerful oil and gas interests. They bristle at any restraints on their self-interests and argue that what they call “local control” is always the answer.

But DeVoto identified a deeper problem that had—and still has—the potential to eat away at democracy itself. In the summer of 1947, the House Subcommittee on Public Lands began holding hearings in picturesque Western towns. Its short-term objective was to stop the Forest Service from reducing the number of grazing permits on public lands, even though overgrazing had seriously compromised many of those rangelands.

The legislative hearings were stacked with sympathetic audiences who had been primed by stock-grower trade journals to believe the worst of any federal agency, and to disbelieve “long-haired scientists” who showed that overgrazing was a problem in the West. A slew of so-called experts, ranchers and their politicians made the case again and again for giving free reign to the stock industry. Conservationists and witnesses who agreed with the Forest Service were allotted 10 percent of the time for testimony.

Unfounded rumors that the agency planned to disallow all grazing were permitted without rebuttal. Entered into the record without clarifications or corrections, these fabrications circulated like crumpled dollar bills. Inflammatory rhetoric and showmanship overcame evidence, much as it does in our time. In trying to expose the plot and set the record straight, DeVoto demonstrated that public hearings—just like party conventions—work as political theater.

Back then, as now, national monuments were in the news. In the mid-1940s, Rep. Frank Barrett, a Wyoming Republican who chaired the traveling public-lands subcommittee, hoped to abolish the Jackson Hole National Monument, which is now mostly protected in Grand Teton National Park. Today, Rep. Rob Bishop, a Utah Republican who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, hopes to prevent the creation of the Bears Ears National Monument by establishing two national conservation areas instead, a designation that offers less protection from development.

Bishop and his supporters like to tout their Utah Public Lands Initiative, which includes an alternative that they call the Bear Ears National Conservation Area. The bill’s proponents like the collaborative process it enacts, yet the initiative in its flexible management plans clearly favors grazing and energy producers. The Nature Conservancy, long a partner in the process, recently announced that it cannot back this bill. In addition, the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, representing dozens of tribes, has declared that it wants the area protected by a national monument. Meanwhile, Bishop has proposed a “Partner Act” that would end the president’s power to use the 110-year-old Antiquities Act to create a national monument for the Bears Ears area.

DeVoto saw this coming. There is a clear line from those hearings in 1947 to the ones we’re seeing now, in 2016. The ultimate goal then was not just to stop grazing reductions or stymie national monuments; it was to discredit the federal government and its rightful concern for conservation. “The future of the West hinges on whether it can defend itself against itself,” DeVoto said.

During this presidential campaign, we can expect the Republican candidate and his followers to cite the party platform and offer yet more half-truths about public-lands management. As DeVoto showed 69 years ago, lies told often enough erode public discourse and weaken governance. “Against such psychology as this,” DeVoto implored, “only the force of the ballot can defend the public interest.”

Adam M. Sowards is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News, where this piece first appeared. He is an environmental historian at the University of Idaho.

Published in Community Voices

If you care about protecting clean water, endangered species and public health, then you might want to consider supporting the legalization of marijuana for recreational use.

That's because so much of the stuff is now being grown illegally on our public lands in places dubbed "trespass grows." These secretive and often well-guarded farms do enormous environmental damage and place a huge burden on federal agencies. In California in 2013, the Forest Service discovered about 1 million plants within public forests on nearly 400 sites. Thousands of trees had been logged to make way for marijuana plants.

Growers also divert millions of gallons of water from forest streams to pot plantations, drenching a single plant with as much as six gallons of water daily. Perhaps even more destructively, they dump untold amounts of pesticides into the watershed. In 2012, for example, at least 19,000 pounds of pesticides were confiscated from trespass grow sites here in California, which probably has the most illegal pot farms in the nation. For rare forest species like the Pacific fisher, a candidate for the endangered species list, pot farms can be killing farms. The animals are dying at alarming rates, many poisoned by growers employing illegal rodenticides.

Wayne Spencer of the Conservation Biology Institute, who develops management plans to protect fishers, recently announced that he personally supports legalization of marijuana, both for the sake of the forest and the fragile species that depend on natural areas.

Policing trespass grows also takes up a huge amount of federal agencies' time, energy and money. The California district of the U.S. Forest Service says the majority of its law enforcement workload is now trespass-grow investigations—"a major distraction for the mission of the Forest Service."

Rick Fleming, director of the High Sierra Volunteer Trail Crew, says that his volunteers have worked hundreds of trespass grow cleanups, the only type of volunteer work where they partner with law enforcement.

In a time when our culture is increasingly conscious of where our goods come from as well as of the impact of our consumer choices, marijuana is largely left out of the equation. We buy fair-trade-certified, rainforest-safe coffee, because it benefits both ecosystems and coffee farmers. We demand organic food because we want fewer pesticides on the land and in our bodies. We seek local produce to support local farmers. Shouldn't we have the same concerns about marijuana?

Unfortunately, the prevailing attitude still seems to be stuck in the 1970s: That any marijuana from California is clean, green and hippie-grown. But as Mother Jones magazine recently pointed out, the reality is that the industrial farming of pot is probably closer to the dirty days of the meatpacking industry, as described in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. As trail crew leader Fleming puts it, Illegal pot growers "don't give a damn about anything. They either eat it, kill it or poison it."

Spencer describes a recent outreach event on trespass grows that ended with a well meaning person asking, "Can't we just educate illegal growers?" Fleming's response: "These are bad men. They will kill anything that gets between them and their profits."

Legalizing marijuana at the federal level could nip all this in the bud. A high-profit criminal industry would be washed away by a flood of small farmers willing to try their hand at growing cannabis and selling it on a regulated market. Of course, that requires delisting marijuana as a Schedule I substance, as 18 members of Congress recently petitioned President Obama to do

It's nonsensical that pot continues to be treated as if it's more dangerous than methamphetamines or cocaine. Washington and Colorado are already regulating marijuana for recreational use at the state level. They allow companies to grow and sell marijuana at retail, effectively removing smokers' motivation to source it illegally, and capturing state revenues from the market—roughly $2 million in tax revenue in the first month of sales in Colorado alone.

At least Attorney General Eric Holder has said he won't prosecute Coloradans and Washingtonians who comply with their states' marijuana regulations, even though they conflict with federal law. More recently, he reassured banks that his office plans to make it safe for them to open accounts with state-approved marijuana suppliers. But Holder has given no more than his word that smokers, growers and bankers won't be prosecuted; meanwhile, the GOP-controlled House passed a bill recently to pressure the attorney general into cracking down. This has happened before: In 2011, in Mendocino County, Calif., the federal Drug Enforcement Agency closed down a model program that monitored legal marijuana cultivation and used revenues to fight trespass grows.

This contradictory, irrational policy needs to end. Our public lands need a break from ruthless industrialization, and the West's wild creatures need their home back.

Christi Turner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.

Published in Community Voices

Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s controversial secretary of Agriculture, was a profane man known for his hair-trigger temper and his rough handling of subordinates. So when the chief of the Forest Service stood him up for a meeting, Butz unloaded in response: “There are four branches of government,” he reportedly snarled, “the executive, legislative, judicial and the Gawd-damn U.S. Forest Service.”

Although current Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack might have worded it differently, he probably appreciates the sentiment now: He recently discovered how ornery the powerful Forest Service can be.

At issue was one of Vilsack’s pet projects—an attempt to reshape the image of the entire $132 billion Agriculture Department, which oversees everything from plant and animal inspections, food safety and ending hunger to the health and productivity of national forests. Dubbed “One Brand,” this graphic facelift has engaged Agriculture Department officials overseeing the agency’s 20 departments for the past three years. One Brand’s goal has been to strip each organization of its historic symbols and insignias, replacing them with a generic logo symbolizing the mother ship—the Agriculture Department. All that would remain visually would be the individual agencies’ initials set in much smaller type centered beneath the Agriculture Department’s dominant initials.

It was appropriate that this homogenizing directive was embedded in an innocuous-sounding document called the Visual Standards Guide. It detailed the items that One Brand would cover and announced the establishment of an oversight office within the Agriculture Department—the delightfully named Brand, Events, Exhibits, and Editorial Review Division, acronym BEEERD. Its reach would be broad and deep, extending from the appearance of social-media platforms such as Facebook sites, Twitter feeds and websites, to all signage, vehicles, uniforms, letterheads and envelopes, decals and PowerPoint presentations, right down to the “Hello, My Name Is …” adhesive name tags.

The directive, however, unleashed a firestorm of protest. But the outrage did not come from within the affected agencies, for few staffers knew anything about the impending airbrushing. Instead, it was Forest Service retirees who learned—to their considerable dismay—that longtime agency logos were being phased out and replaced with “a standardized signature model to be adopted by all USDA agencies.” That meant that the Forest Service’s distinctive pine-tree shield ––worn by men and women for well more than a century––would cease to exist.

Infuriated but organized through the National Association of Forest Service Retirees, the critics bombarded the agriculture secretary’s office with phone calls, emails and letters, sending copies to the beleaguered head of BEEERD as well. Protesters also reached out to their congressional delegations, called local talk radio shows, and contacted newspapers and other media.

Their opposition took on the air of a revival meeting. They talked about the emblematic power of the logo to bind them to one another and to the land they helped steward. The evocative shield and the uniform to which it was pinned testified to their devoted public service, they said. Shedding these symbols, and the emotional attachments they held, seemed like a deliberate attack on their collective history. These defenders proved a potent collective, and so overwhelming was their opposition that it forced the Agriculture Department’s hand.

In a one-sentence release on April 4, the department granted the Forest Service an exemption to its One Brand directive. You could hear the hosannas from agency retirees and staffers a mile off.

Every other department in agriculture, however, has had to submit to the exorcizing of their respective insignias, causing blows to their staff’s morale. In British Columbia, Canada, public-land managers in the provincial forest service, learning of their American counterparts’ successful pushback, regretted that they had not had generated as forceful of a reaction when their home department obliterated their own century-old pine-tree emblem in favor of yet another bland, generic symbol.

What this Forest Service protest reveals is a deep uneasiness with the growing, corporate-style flattening of difference and identity within governmental bureaucracies. To their credit, Forest Service defenders showed an alert wariness toward lockstep representation and uniform thought.

Rebranding consultants, like the ones the Agriculture Department hired to guide its efforts, probably promoted this strategy as a positive way to harness a company’s disparate personnel. But the Department of Agriculture is not a business, and its subagencies’ varied missions and different objectives cannot be, and should not have been, unilaterally reined in.

As the dustup with the Forest Service suggests, a proud institutional history is a sustaining source of workplace identity and individual satisfaction. That’s a core value even Earl Butz might have respected.

Char Miller is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. He directs the Environmental Analysis program at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif., and is the author of the just-released On the Edge: Water, Immigration and Politics in the Southwest.

Published in Community Voices