Last updateMon, 23 Mar 2020 12pm

Growing up on a farm outside Prescott, Arizona, writer and researcher Rafael de Grenade learned how to survive in rough country. At age 12, she dropped out of school to work on a nearby ranch; at 14, she began attending college classes at night.

Since then, de Grenade has traveled to more than 30 countries, worked on construction crews and fishing boats, worked as a field botanist, and earned a master’s degree in creative nonfiction writing and a doctorate in geography from the University of Arizona in Tucson. Her Fulbright Fellowship took her to Baja California, where she studied the cultural and conservation role of desert oases. At the Tucson Desert Oasis Initiative, she helped city and county government collaborate with nonprofits on projects to make Tucson a “model of sustainable desert living.”

Her memoir, Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback, was released in June, and traces her season on a cattle-mustering crew in a remote corner of Australia’s Outback.

“The place was as far as one could go without falling into the sea,” says de Grenade, “the ragtag and rugged crew almost a parody of the cowboy myth.” De Grenade examines how humans forge both communities and themselves in challenging landscapes—the way we push against land, and the land pushes back.

Kati Standefer caught up with de Grenade recently in her office at the University of Arizona’s Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy, where she is beginning post-doctoral research.

How did your upbringing in Arizona help you adapt to life on the other side of the world?

The American West is very similar in ways to Australia. I think the only reason I was able to make the transition over to Australia and the cattle station was because I had been raised in the American West and formed on a ranch in north-central Arizona. It was a mountainous, very rugged ranch, full of granite boulders and oak brush and wild cattle. We rode all day, every day, and we didn’t carry water, and we didn’t carry food, and I was treated as an adult. I learned how to shoe horses and pack salt on mules, to put in irrigation systems and fix fence and fix vehicles—the entire range of ranch work. We spent years, literally, in the saddle.

That kind of multifaceted ability to step into a problem and understand what’s going on and then use your mental and physical capacities to address the problem—that carried across easily to Australia. There’s almost no difference, in the sense that cattle cultures in one part of the world or another part of the world are based on the same animal. And animals have certain instincts and work in certain ways.

You write in Stilwater of the people you worked with: “Most of those Outback characters had a fighting sense still in them, born of wide spaces and the struggle for existence, a certain hardness built up in layers over time.” Do you think this sort of “hard” personality is inevitable as a way to adapt to a gritty, challenging landscape?

I think work shapes us, and places shape us. Being involved in work that is close to the land tends to erase the gap between romanticism and reality. The day-to-day experience of being involved in intense, physical work that was very dangerous didn’t allow much space for tenderness.

And yet tenderness emerged everywhere. Like the crew members that would take in orphaned calves. And though we all had some degree of callousness, one of the fascinating elements of this story is that we were all very compassionate beings. You see that in the complexities of peoples’ characters. It’s not on the surface. But perhaps working with animals, on a day-to-day basis, creates more tenderness than working in an office day-to-day. So even though you have to be very coarse on the outside, perhaps it fosters more compassion on the inside.

In addition to being a writer, you are a qualitative and quantitative researcher. How do you see these crafts working together?

For me, science and writing are not even two sides of the coin; they are just two different ways to know more about this place we live in. Writing is seeing and thinking and being creative—pondering, working with images, with ideas. Writing is a way of questioning, stepping into mystery. And science, at its basic level, requires some of the same elements. Science is a way of understanding mystery, and quantitative and qualitative methods within science are simply a structure by which one asks questions.

The level of creativity and imagination that writing can take is also a key to effective science. Science, I believe, sometimes is seen as more credible, and we do have millions of researchers around the world, and a system of peer review, where your work is always put out before other scientists, and they make sure that you’re staying on track. Perhaps there’s less of that feedback in writing, and so in a sense writing can be more daring, can be more dangerous.

Writing is a form of taking, and science can also be a form of taking. And we don’t necessarily compensate those from whom we take the data or from whom we take the stories. So both require tremendous sensitivity. I’m hoping that I can continue to pursue both equally. Science does pay better!

You’ve spent quite a bit of time studying how communities live in arid landscapes. As an Arizona native, has your work changed the way you view your home?

Living in the desert is a bit of a quandary. Cultures have lived in arid environments for millennia, and have done so brilliantly. They have not only survived, but thrived. And the innovation and creativity that people used to gather water, to collect water from remote sources and transport it to where there’s fertile soil—it’s kind of a positive-feedback mechanism. If you live in arid lands, water is everywhere. It’s in small quantities, and yet it can host tribes, villages, even cities.

The difference is that today, we can live in the desert and forget that we live in the desert. We use water as if we lived where it rained. We contaminate the water as if it were not a limited resource. I do think it’s possible to live in the desert in a sustainable manner. But at the scale of the urban areas that we have today, we’re going to need every solution that we can find. And that would include traditional techniques like water-harvesting and agriculture that uses desert-adapted varieties. It’s also going to have to incorporate science and technology.

The situation, especially in the context of global climate change, is going to be pressing. Already is. And yet we’ve been denying this to some degree. We are going to have to reallocate our water; we’re going to have to reprioritize what we need water for. Food is one of those. Drinking is another. Our sewer systems? I’m not so sure that that’s necessary. In the same way, growing crops which are shipped out of state, or growing food for animals—we’re going to have to re-think how we use this water.

Your new post-doctoral position involves studying “water towers” in the South American Andes. Why are these high-mountain water sources important to the conversation about global climate change,  and what does this mean for the American West?

Climate change never has a straightforward impact. The snowfall and glaciers in high-altitude mountains, like the Andes, supply rivers, and the river then supplies an entire series of communities on its way to the coast. Change at the top has great ramifications everywhere downstream. The mountains are complicated—they’re being affected in all these ways—and then you have these societal responses to the changing weather, changing water. You can look at how people are acting together, working with others—or not—on policy, all types of decision-making.

I think that parts of the Sierra Nevada and the Rockies could also be thought of as water towers, especially since many people in the American West depend on those faraway water sources. None of us are truly independent. And the greater that distance, the more vulnerable we are to disruptions, both environmental and social. I think both will be exacerbated in the future. Our hope really lies in focusing closer to home, while keeping an eye on global challenges.

How do we make decisions about the challenges we’re facing so we don’t continue to have this gap between rich and poor, people who will be more affected by climate change than others? Water towers, I think, are just one way of looking at these permutations of change. By shifting our focus to make sure that the water we drink, the food we eat, the people we interact with, and where we spend our money are closest to us, we can begin to take responsibility for our actions, and seek longer-lasting solutions.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Stilwater: Finding Wild Mercy in the Outback

By Rafael de Grenade


256 pages, $16

Published in Literature

On this week's delicious Independent comics page: Red Meat enjoys some food at camp; Jen Sorenson suggests changing the phrase "climate change" to "globola"; The K Chronicles joins a white riot; and This Modern World enters the Right-Wing House of Fear.

Published in Comics

On this week's heavily themed Independent comics page: The K Chronicles explores the primate change debate; This Modern World blames climate change on ISIS; Jen Sorenson marches for awareness; and Red Meat ponders a ransom demand.

Published in Comics

Last spring, Joshua trees put on a magnificent show in the Mojave Desert: Nearly all at once, nearly all of them bloomed, sprouting dense bouquets of waxy, creamy-green flowers from their Seussian tufts of spiky leaves.

The bloom was so sweeping and abundant—and such a contrast to the typical pattern, where only a small number of trees bloom in any given year—that it was called “a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.”

This spring, the bloom was far less flowery, and yet standing among the giant yuccas in late March, in the Tikaboo Valley north of Las Vegas, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Todd Esque still had the sense he was witnessing something historic.

This, he suspects, is the leading edge of the entire species—“leading,” because the trees appear to be marching in the same direction in which the climate that suits them is marching, with an old, established population of Joshua trees flinging out new recruits in a distinctly northern pattern.

That’s exactly what scientists believe the shaggy beasts need to do—quickly—to survive in a warming world.

The pattern is obvious to the naked eye here, because it’s occurring where the Mojave Desert gives way to the Great Basin, where stands of Joshua trees fade to sagebrush. ”I get chills when I look at that population,” says Esque. ”We know from the paleo record that plants and animals have moved north and south by hundreds of miles—if not more—in response to climate change. To see it in our lifetime, at a time when it really matters if they can move or not, it’s neat.”

The news about Joshua trees of late has mostly been gloomy, so much so that some people have begun to imagine a future in which Joshua Tree National Park is without Joshua trees. Fires carried by non-native grasses have been picking off the plants. There is evidence that in the hottest, driest spots it occupies, the trees are already plodding down the road to extinction by failing to reproduce. One study projected that 90 percent of their current habitat could be inhospitable by century’s end.

And so Joshua trees face the modern mandate familiar to so many species: move or die. The same study projecting a 90 percent reduction in habitat also cast doubt on Joshua trees’ ability to migrate far enough quickly enough to keep them on the map in significant numbers. It found evidence that the Shasta ground sloth was once one of the plant’s major seed-dispersers. The sloth, of course, is extinct, and the trees now mostly depend on smaller creatures—squirrels and kangaroo rats—to spread their seed. The sloths, large mammals that they were, are assumed to have dispersed the seeds over greater distances than the rodents now do, meaning Joshua trees might be able to make small steps to new territory, but not the great leaps that may be necessary.

But really, says Esque, we don’t know how quickly Joshua trees are capable of moving, or even if they can move at all. It’s possible the new trees in the Tikaboo Valley represent a “static front,” he explains, “where they keep casting out young trees, but every 30 years, there’s a drought that might kill them, so the population can never really move.”

Nor do we know for certain that sloths dispersed seed across great distances, because we don’t know how widely the animals actually ranged. “There are a lot of questions, probably way more than answers,” he says. Which is why it’s so exciting that he and his colleague Chris Smith, an evolutionary biologist, may have discovered the trees’ forward march. If they can confirm that it is the species’ leading edge, they can begin to gain greater insight into its potential mobility, and with that its prospects for the future.

In March, Esque, Smith and a group of citizen scientists spent four days collecting data to do just that, by mapping the distribution of old and young Joshua trees in the Tikaboo Valley. As it happens, the Tikaboo is the only place scientists know of where the distinct eastern and western populations of Joshua trees meet and mingle. So they took tissue samples from the burgeoning population, too, in hopes of identifying whether either the eastern or western trees, or their hybrids, were winning the “race north.”

“As you move northward (in the Tikaboo), the big Joshua trees thin out, they get shorter and shorter, younger and younger, then you get to a point where there aren’t any anymore,” Esque explains. The youngest, he believes, are less than a decade old. “That’s the edge of Joshua trees as we know them. The potential is right there for the species’ migration.”

Cally Carswell is a contributing editor of High Country News, where this article was initially published. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

Doug Peacock, author of Grizzly Years and Walking It Off, once walked point as a polar-bear guard on an Arctic expedition, armed with only a homemade spear. He still loves large predators and new territory, and in his latest outing, he asks us to accompany him on “the greatest adventure” ever—the peopling of the New World.

Roughly 20,000 years ago, scouts on a ridge in Beringia got their first glimpse of the “unending wild country that encompassed two continents uninhabited by humans.” Some 5,000 years later, at the very end of the Pleistocene, the climate changed; oceans rose; and the Bering land bridge flooded. The formerly ice-barred interior of the Americas opened, allowing passage south.

“I can’t think of a richer, wilder, more-perilous time to live,” Peacock writes.

There are parallels as well as vast differences between that time and ours, Peacock says. He is curious about how Homo sapiens perceives risk and how our species might survive and adapt to climate change—dealing with our own saber-toothed foe in the bush. The “bold migrations” of the past, he concedes, are “impossible in the 21st century” as a solution. But that original migration still offers us “challenging illustrations of courage and caution.”

Blending archaeology and paleontology with memories of childhood arrowhead-hunting, and evoking a keen sense of place, Peacock explores some of the colonists’ likely waypoints: Siberia’s tiger-tracked Amba River, the Yukon’s Bluefish Caves (one held a mammoth bone spear point), a 13,000-year-old burial site on the Yellowstone (yielding “10 five-gallon buckets of artifacts”), 10,000-year-old human teeth in British Columbia, and Baja California’s 8,000-year-old shell middens.

The book suffers from some sloppy editing and repetition, but Peacock’s accounts of archaeological finds ring with the excitement of discovery. His descriptions of dire wolves, lions on steroids, and leggy, short-faced bears—”monsters of the plains”—can raise the hairs on the back of your neck. “We evolved to deal with the predator,” he writes. And therein could lie the rub: “In comparison, present day ‘global warming’ seems distant, harmlessly incremental or something that happens to remote strangers.”

Still, Peacock seems confident that a species that overcame flesh-and-blood threats like dire wolves can somehow manage to confront this latter-day, more nebulous foe.

This article originally appeared in High Country News.

In the Shadow of the Sabertooth: A Renegade Naturalist Considers Global Warming, the First Americans and the Terrible Beasts of the Pleistocene

By Douglas Peacock

AK Press

200 pages, $15

Published in Literature

On this week's tasty Independent comics page: Jen Sorenson ponders the future of carbon-emissions technology; The K Chronicles deals with a bit of road rage; The City looks at deadly mayhem; and Red Meat enjoys a snack on the beach.

Published in Comics

The rains had been heavy on and off for weeks, soaking the ground, washing away the soil and undercutting our yard and those of our neighbors. This happened 45 years ago, when we lived on a steep mountain ridge in the Santa Ynez Mountains of Santa Barbara, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles.

Where once we had an ample yard, 15 feet of grass now separated our house from the precipitous edge of the slope. That led to anxious nights with images in my mind of our house sliding down the slope while I slept. Although our house never went over the edge, those feelings of anxiety sometimes recur during big storms.

A little research reveals that the worst storm ever recorded in California struck on Christmas Eve of 1861. The rains continued almost nonstop until February 1862, soaking California with almost four times its normal rainfall, and creating enormous brown lakes on the normally dry plains of Southern California. In the Sierra Nevada, the deluges filled rivers, transforming them into raging torrents that swept away entire communities and gold-mining settlements in the foothills.

In California’s enormous Central Valley—a region well more than 300 miles long and 20 miles wide—the floodwaters streaming from the Sierra produced an inland sea, covering farmlands and towns. Sacramento was submerged under 10 feet of brown, debris-laden water, forcing residents to move about the city by boat.

California wasn’t alone in its misery: Diary and newspaper accounts suggest that most of the West Coast, as well as inland areas in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, suffered their worst floods in history.

Then there’s drought. I recall living through the severest drought on record for many Western states, which happened during the winter of 1976-1977. In California, this period is known as “the year with no rain.”

I was a teenager, and for the first time, I had to confront the realization that water was a finite resource. My family had always used water liberally, with little thought about supply, but that year, every drop counted. Washing cars, watering lawns and taking baths or long showers were banned. These “sacrifices” paled in comparison to the far harsher impacts we heard about on the news, faced by farmers with little water, ski areas with no snow, and forests drying and burning.

This bipolar behavior of our Western climate left me wondering what a “normal” climate really was.

Today, I am one of a small cohort of scientists trying to answer that question, by searching for evidence of past droughts and floods, wildfires, periods of warmth and cold and so on, over the geologic past—the period before humans kept records in the West.

If we step back and view our climate history over a very long time period—say, hundreds to thousands of years—we begin to see the forest for the trees. We can pick out extreme events and how often they occur. This natural history is written not in paper and ink, but in the earth itself, in sediment, stone, trees and ice. Like investigators at a crime scene, we try to piece together seemingly random and unrelated clues about our past climate, and eventually, we begin to see patterns.

Our discoveries are occasionally surprising, sometimes unsettling, even anxiety-provoking. Evidence is mounting, for example, that two prolonged droughts, each lasting more than a century, gripped the Southwest during medieval times, about 650 to 1,100 years ago.

Decades-long droughts have also occurred more frequently and fairly regularly, telling us that these dry periods are a normal feature of our climate.

We have also found evidence of previous catastrophic floods in the region, suggesting that the “megaflood” in 1861-1862 was not a freak event. Our studies indicate that huge floods—much larger than we have experienced in the past century—occurred every 100 to 200 years over the past few thousand years.

It’s unsettling to think about the implications of extreme climate events—and the reality that global warming may make severe weather much more frequent and even more extreme. These days, of course, my adult mind can provide diversions, and some people are getting quite skillful at outright denial. This might alleviate unease in the short run, but I know that the best long-term solution is for scientists to prepare everyone living in our Western states for a future of unpredictable and extreme climate change.

B. Lynn Ingram is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She is a professor of earth science at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and other Climatic Clues Tell Us About Tomorrow.

Published in Community Voices

Editor’s Note: On July 26, the Independent published a piece on the Great American Adaptation Road Trip, a project by Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. The goal of their road trip was to examine how people across the country are adapting their lives due to climate change.

On July 21 and 22, Howard and Goldstein spent some time at Joshua Tree National Park. Here’s their story on the park.

To read about their entire summer-long journey, visit

The desert has much to teach us about the marvels of adaptation. Relentless sun, little water, and summer temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit can make a forbidding world for non-desert dwellers. Yet hundreds of species conserve moisture and beat the heat in fascinating ways.

—Joshua Tree National Park visitors’ map

Sweltering July is the off-season at Joshua Tree National Park, home to the unique ecological meeting point of the Colorado and Mojave Deserts. We entered the park’s south entrance and spent the night under a full moon at the nearly empty Cottonwood Spring campground.

We woke up at 5:30 a.m. for a morning hike, and atop Mastodon Peak, we gazed out over a landscape full of contractions: The desert is smooth yet angular, monochrome yet motley, barren yet overflowing. But it wasn’t until later that afternoon driving west to higher elevations that we encountered the park’s namesake and perhaps the most paradoxical fixture on the landscape: the Joshua tree.

Face-to-face with a Joshua tree, it’s hard to decide whether it’s beautiful or hideous. Either way, though, there is much more to the Joshua tree than meets the eye. In a children’s book published by the National Park Service as an educational tool, author L.S. Lange describes the keystone species role the Joshua tree plays. The Gambel’s quail eats its seeds; the Scott’s oriole nests in its leaves and feeds on its nectar; loggerhead spike birds spear their prey on its sharp leaves; Yucca moths hatch in its seed pods; and termites live in the decomposing trunks.

What would Joshua Tree National Park be without the Joshua tree? The Park Service is trying to prevent us from finding out.

The Everywhere-Nowhere Tree

When we had asked Ken Cole, a retired U.S. Geological Survey ecologist who studied the species, where we could find the best Joshua-tree forests, he told us, “There just aren’t that many Joshua trees in Joshua Tree National Park.”

According to Cole’s 2011 research, there probably were Joshua trees in the southern part of the park 11,700 years ago. Paleoclimatological records suggest that the tree’s range shrank by 90 percent when the climate warmed up four degrees Celsius over 50 years, marking the end of the Pleistocene and the start of the Holocene. With the warming, an important seed-dispersing Shasta ground sloth disappeared. Trees now only occupy the highest altitudes of that original range, where temperatures are cooler.

“Joshua trees are very picky. They tend to hang around at 3,500 to 5,000 foot elevation,” Park Association employee Lacy Ditto told us.

In certain parts of the park, though, the Joshua trees are ubiquitous. After easing our minivan up a 2,000-foot climb into the Mojave, scraggly Joshua trees of all different shapes and sizes surrounded us—and at 40 feet stood the tallest Joshua tree in the world. Others stooped, overloaded with branches. Old, dead Joshua trees lay defeated on the harsh desert floor. Many trees were teeming with the remnants of pods that, after a very rare full bloom this spring, were dropping millions of seeds to vie for germination below.

Whether this rare abundance is a sign of regeneration or impending decline is the latest mystery of the Joshua tree.

Kirsten Howard hugs the world's tallest Joshua tree, which stands 40 feet tall.Bounty, or Last Chance?

This year’s bloom in Joshua Tree National Park was the most bountiful in decades—40 percent bigger than the next best bloom in the past 25 years. And this could be a good thing, since the species has been having a difficult time reproducing lately. Reproduction has dropped by about 30 percent throughout the park, and in the hottest and driest areas, the Joshua tree hasn’t been regenerating at all. In many parts of the park, the death rate of its namesake has been outstripping the birth rate for decades.

Why the trouble in paradise? Some point to the warmer nights in the winter. Some think the tree needs a cold winter frost to damage its growing tips, which jolts it into flower production. The fertility challenges may also be linked to the Yucca moth, an important Joshua-tree pollinator that could be sensitive to higher temperatures. No one really knows for sure.

Experts also aren’t sure whether the recent flowery outpouring of the Joshua trees in the park is cause for celebration or alarm. According to Josh Hoines, a National Park Service vegetation specialist, several anecdotal theories exist as to why the trees flowered so successfully this year. One is that there was a cold snap and some snow this winter. Another is that more rainfall allowed for extra resource accumulation—especially after two years of drought.

Hoines described a third possible explanation: “The most recent theory I have seen is that the climate has moved to the edge of the physiologic tolerance for Joshua trees, and they are putting out one last-ditch effort before they die.”

Climate models suggest we can expect an increase in temperatures around four degrees Celsius in the next 60 to 90 years—a similar rate of change to 11,700 years ago. Using scenario-based modeling, Cole and his research team predict that the tree’s range will constrict to 10 percent of its current area as temperatures rise.

“We think the change with global warming will be similar in scale to the last major die-off. Ninety percent of the current range may disappear,” Cole said.

Keeping the Joshua Tree

Amid media hoopla about the future of the Joshua tree and speculation as to what the big bloom could mean, many researchers and Park Service specialists are taking action to protect the species despite imperfect information. While researchers work to fill in important science gaps about the Joshua tree, vegetation specialists like Hoines are implementing ‘no regrets’ strategies. They collect and store seeds in a bank and use them to re-vegetate sites that are degraded. The park also runs a nursery where specialists grow the temperature-sensitive seedlings in a controlled environment before they are restored to the park. Park employees monitor long-term plots to better understand how the trees respond to climate change.

Some researchers are beginning to think about a more-controversial solution: manually relocating the Joshua tree. Cole’s study identified new areas that could provide an appropriate climate for the Joshua tree as the climate changes. Of these areas, those that fall within two kilometers of current Joshua-tree populations could be suitable for natural migration, where seed-dispersers might move the populations naturally. But most of the future favorable climates fall further than two kilometers away from current Joshua tree populations, and would require managed relocation: people dispersing seed or planting seedlings. Many of these suitable areas are already federally protected, so the plan may be feasible.

Whether or not it is palatable for the Park Service and other federal agencies to intervene in this way is another question—and they’re certainly trying out other tools in the toolkit first.

While these quiet efforts to protect the Joshua tree don’t often make headlines, careful research and management may be what ultimately prevent the doomsday declarations from coming true. If the Joshua tree leaves the park, it won’t be without a fight.

“The Joshua tree is not going extinct. We’re not going to let that happen,” said Ditto.

Read the full version of this piece, with more photos and graphics, at

Published in Environment

There are all sorts of reasons to hit the highway this time of year. You might be trying to escape our recent extremes of desert heat, bound for cooler high country and the freezing plunge of alpine lakes, or bone-chilling swells along the Pacific Coast. Or, perhaps, you’re the sort whose perfect lark includes the world’s largest ball of twine or the International Banana Museum.

Kirsten Howard and Allie Goldstein, both recent graduates of the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment, had something different in mind when they embarked this June on their Great American Adaptation Road Trip. After earning master’s degrees in environmental policy, the young women hoped to see firsthand how people—from city planners to farmers to federal officials to neighbors—are adapting their lives and livelihoods to cope with climate change.

“We wanted to focus on what they’re doing to move past the conversation, that we find boring and not relevant, about whether climate change is actually happening or not,” says Goldstein.

Howard adds with a laugh: “And then, we really just wanted to go on a road trip.”

So it is that the pair is now looping the nation over three months, documenting various approaches and sharing them through written stories, videos, audio slideshows and more with the aim of getting the public engaged, spreading good ideas and helping inspire further innovations. (Here’s a map that shows where they’ve been and where they’re going.)

So far, they have stopped to check out everything from a solar power company on Long Island whose business is booming in the wake of Hurricane Sandy to Georgian farmers who are adapting more-efficient irrigation methods to ride out expected increases in drought.

The Western leg of the Adaptation Road Trip is now under way. Goldstein and Howard visited Santa Fe, where they learned about the confluence of factors fueling today’s Southwestern megafires. They caught up with Bill Armstrong, who was the fuels specialist program manager for the Santa Fe National Forest back when Jodi Peterson wrote for HCN about federal efforts to allow fire back into ecosystems thrown out of whack by nearly a century of fire suppression.

“He showed us the stark landscapes where the Cerro Grande and Los Conchas fires burned,” and explained how prescribed burns and careful thinning projects might help keep some forests from being burned beyond recovery, says Howard. “But it was a pretty depressing message that he had. He thought that the Forest Service was not doing enough prescribed burning to make any difference in the future.”

After spending some time talking to North Fork Valley, Colo., farmers about how they’re coping with late spring frosts killing early-blooming fruit crops, Howard and Goldstein headed next to Aspen to learn about how climate is affecting snowpack. Then they moved on to Denver to explore how local water authorities are collaborating with federal officials to protect the forests that surround watersheds. Tucson, Ariz., was next—and last weekend, they passed through our area, stopping at Joshua Tree National Park.

“In Joshua Tree!” they posted on Facebook on Saturday, July 20. “Newest lesson from the Southwest: There is a reason why environmentalists are called tree-huggers and not cactus-huggers. But we love cacti too!”

They’re now heading up the West Coast and through Glacier National Park to learn how officials there communicate with visitors about the disappearance of the park’s storied glaciers, and ultimately back to Ann Arbor by the end of August.

Between the interviewing, driving, writing, editing and traveling in just about every conveyance imaginable—four-wheeler, canoe, boat, paddleboard (accompanied by dolphins)—and sampling dried shrimp (basically the arthropod equivalent of beef jerky) and other delicacies along the way, Howard admits the pair has been getting minimal sleep. But it is, she assures us, enough to drive safely on.

To follow their trip, check out their Great American Adaptation Road Trip blog.

Sarah Gilman is the associate editor of High Country News, from which this was cross-posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

In 2004, Carl Pope, then-director of the Sierra Club, tangled publicly with Capt. Paul Watson, head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Pope was steering the club toward cooperative solutions to environmental problems, collaborating with large corporations instead of fighting them.

Watson, an advocate of direct action whose group blocked environmental despoilers with living bodies or ships, wasn't having it.

"I want the Sierra Club to … fight for what is left," wrote Watson in an open letter to Pope. "We need to get in the face of the destroyers … to force people to sit up and take notice that … our political, economic and cultural systems are laying waste to the entire planet.

"As things get worse," he concluded, "my approach will become more appealing."

When Pope stepped down in 2010, his legacy included an advertising campaign with Clorox and $25 million in donations from natural-gas companies. Watson is in exile at sea—both Costa Rica and Japan want him arrested for allegedly ramming and vandalizing whaling and shark-finning ships. Many in the environmental movement believe his extremism has not been helpful to the cause.

But his prediction has come true; conditions on the planet are measurably worse. The Mauna Loa Observatory recently logged an atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration of 394 parts per million, well above the safe upper limit, 350 ppm. Drought, wildfire and the devastation of Superstorm Sandy have made the consequences for the climate plain.

Yet even under a president who pledged his candidacy would mark the moment "when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," the United States is no nearer to solving the climate problem than in 1989, when a House energy bill to address the greenhouse effect was laughed out of committee.

Now, the U.S. State Department might allow completion of the Keystone XL pipeline to transport a particularly dirty form of oil south from Alberta's tar-sands. Current Sierra Club director Michael Brune calls the project "a climate disaster."

And Watson's approach—or at least a nondestructive version of it—has indeed become more appealing to some: The Sierra Club and climate activist groups and the Hip Hop Caucus planned the first act of civil disobedience the Sierra Club's board of directors has sanctioned in the group's 120-year history. On Feb. 13, Brune was arrested along with other activists after chaining himself to a White House fence. 

"A team of select leaders and prominent Sierra Club supporters face arrest to elevate discussion about a critical issue," Sierra Club board president Allison Chin elaborated in a video message. "The future of the planet demands no less."

Civil disobedience comes in many forms. One involves physically standing in the path of destruction—between the whale and a harpoon, for instance—"the classic Greenpeace action," says Celia Alario, a communications consultant specializing in grassroots groups that employ such tactics. Another is personal, like Henry David Thoreau refusing to pay taxes that would fund a war he opposed.

The participants in the Washington, D.C., protests intervened at the "point of decision," Alario explains, deliberately trespassing and saying, "'I will break this law, because a greater law is being broken.'"

Brune is deeply familiar with such methods. While he was executive director—or "chief troublemaker," as he called himself—at the Rainforest Action Network during the George W. Bush administration, his organization used pranks that skimmed the law to pressure Home Depot and Citigroup to give up forest-destroying practices; in one, RAN activists commandeered Home Depot loudspeakers to satirically promote old-growth wood for sale in the store. Brune also fought his way through clouds of tear gas during the 1999 demonstrations outside the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, an event that sparked a movement against global economic injustice.

Those protests stopped cold after Sept. 11, says John Sellers, who, along with Brune, was among the key players. The former director of a nonprofit activist-training group called the Ruckus Society, Sellers finds the resurgence of nonviolent direct action encouraging, and points to Wisconsin union supporters, Occupy Wall Street and the "DREAMers"—children of undocumented immigrants who've spent most or all of their lives in the U.S.—as groups that have used such methods to change the national conversation.

Pipeline opponents have long been after a similar shift in the debate. In August 2011, founder Bill McKibben and 70 others spent three nights in jail for trespassing on the White House steps; several agitators in Texas and Oklahoma have tried to block the construction of Keystone XL's southern leg with their bodies.

So far none of those actions have sufficiently dominated the news cycle. The Sierra Club's imprimatur could change that. Alario remembers the days when she lobbied California lawmakers on behalf of Humboldt County's ancient redwoods back in the 1990s. "They'd always ask, 'Where is the Sierra Club on this?'" … The Club "has the reputation of being the clear, reasonable voice that elected leaders turn to when issues get complicated. And now (the board members) have leveraged that reputational capital to say, 'We're willing to hold the line on this with our bodies.'"

Alario suspects Obama might actually be grateful for that. Two years ago, at a meeting with the Energy Action Coalition, Obama told the young activists, "You have to push me," Alario says. There's a way of seeing the Sierra Club's protest much like Brune has pitched it: Not as a protest against the administration so much as a boost to its expressed ideals.

Sellers isn't convinced Obama is listening, but he does believe the time has come to march in the streets. "Direct action gets people to realize they have power," he says. "The same kind of power that broke the back of Jim Crow in the Deep South. And there's been a long enough arc in the Obama presidency (for environmental groups) to say, 'I want action.'"

This article originally appeared in High Country News (

Published in Environment

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