Monthly Archives: August 2011

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The Problem With Wilderness

This is not a call to weaken wilderness protection in law or management policy, to remove any land from consideration for wilderness protection, or to criticize efforts to protect land as wilderness except as specified. This is a call for strengthening and broadening land protection, making habitat protection law not only more powerful but more accurate and based in better science.

Wilderness is a crucial legal tool for protecting habitat, but it’s become clear that it is a deeply flawed tool as well. The environmental movement as a whole subscribes to a hierarchy of protected statuses for ecologically important land, with increasing restrictions on activity on that land as you travel up the hierarchy. This is as it should be. The problem is that Capital-W Wilderness has been placed at the top of the protection hierarchy, but Wilderness characteristics, as we will see, are the wrong metric to use in determining which lands deserve the greatest protection.

And yet increasing numbers of activists would use Wilderness as their sole tool to determine whether land is worthy of strong protection, even going so far as to offer to loosen protection for “non-wildernessy” lands in exchange for Wilderness designation in other places. These deals sometimes go so far as to weaken wilderness protection on the land designated as wilderness as a trade-off for mere designation. These so-called “quid pro quo” Wilderness deals have been eagerly adopted by the resource extraction industries and their servants in Washington, DC. (For more on quid pro quo wilderness deals see Western Lands Project’s position paper on the topic.)

This is not a new criticism. Many environmentalists have long bemoaned the “rock and ice” quality of old-school Wilderness, chosen for remote scenic grandeur rather than biological importance. In the meantime, landscapes with crucial habitat value go unprotected due to visible evidence of human occupation or exploitation. Witness the broad acquiescence by environmentalists to the sacrifice of what was likely the best remaining habitat for the desert tortoise in the Mojave Desert to build the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System — whose footprint was also habitat for rare and endangered plant species, including the majority of the California population of the Mojave milkweed — for the most part because the site was in clear view of an Interstate highway and a recreational development on the Nevada state line. Wilderness the Ivanpah site was not. It offered little chance for complete solitude for recreational enthusiasts. It was merely of crucial ecological importance.

As our environment unravels and our scientific techniques improve dramatically, we can ill-afford to rely solely on an outdated, inaccurate tool to determine which lands are most worthy of the greatest protection.

Wilderness Is a Recreational Zoning Designation, not an Ecological Status

The United States’ federal wilderness law, the Wilderness Act of 1964, includes the canonical definition of Wilderness:

A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain. An area of wilderness is further defined to mean in this Act an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence, without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions and which (1) generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable; (2) has outstanding opportunities for solitude or a primitive and unconfined type of recreation; (3) has at least five thousand acres of land or is of sufficient size as to make practicable its preservation and use in an unimpaired condition; and (4) may also contain ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.

Though the legal definition has been altered and nuanced somewhat since 1964 — notably by the Eastern Wilderness Act of 1975, which allowed protection of notably altered land if that land could be returned to a “primeval condition,” — the Wilderness Act definition still basically holds both in the minds of environmental advocates and in the policies of land managers. It’s worth noting, for example,  this questionnaire used in 2010 by the Bureau of Land Management to assess wilderness characteristics in Utah. Its questions:

  1. Is the unit [of land being assessed] of sufficient size?
  2. Is the unit in a natural condition?
  3. Does the unit have outstanding opportunities for solitude?
  4. Does the unit have outstanding opportunities for primitive and unconfined recreation?
  5. Does the unit have supplemental values?

All the discussion of the land’s ecological value, its biotic intactness, the presence of endemic species, important breeding or migrating habitat values, or any other environmental value outside the land’s aesthetic or recreational value is confined to that vague fifth question, of less importance than whether the land could be considered a good place to hike.

Wilderness Is Based At Its Core On a Racist Assumption

The concept of land in its “natural condition” is less straightforward than it may seem at first glance. In the contiguous United States, a vanishingly small percentage of land — including the broad, sublime Western landscapes that gave rise to the modern Wilderness movement — was unaffected by human beings at the time of White contact. With the exception of a few places held as holy by local people — the summit of Mount Shasta, for example — human beings have been interacting with, managing and occupying the North American “wilderness” for millennia. Pre-contact Native land management techniques were necessarily non-mechanized, but they were by no means uniformly subtle or light-handed. Agricultural practices made use of plowing and slash-burn land clearing techniques. Wildfire was harnessed to clear land of encroaching brush. Many current Wilderness areas hold extensive archaeological evidence of intensive land use, including settlement, mining of flint, pipestone and other mineral resources, or large-scale harvesting of plant materials for food and fiber.

While it does no one good to romanticize the Native way of life by assuming Native land management was sustainable by definition, it does often turn out to be the case that Native land management techniques increased biodiversity, and that removal of Native people using traditional practices from the land was followed by a degradation of that land’s habitat value. The author Gary Nabhan has written about the Sonoran Desert oasis Quitobaquito, once a thriving Tohono O’odham settlement, now part of Organ Pipe National Monument a literal stone’s throw from the US-Mexico line. When the Tohono O’odham lived there, the spring-fed pond was a spectacularly diverse assemblage of bird and plant life. Under the protection of the National Park Service, biodiversity has declined dramatically. A similar oasis across the line in Mexico, still fringed by small O’odham family farm plots, still bears diversity like that Quitobaquito once hosted.

One can argue over whether Native techniques fostered biodiversity in general. One cannot honestly argue, however, over whether they existed. The evidence is incontrovertible. As Kat Anderson’s book Tending The Wild documents thoroughly, for instance, California’s “wild” landscapes were in fact the result of intensive human management. Few seriously dispute this these days: the facts are simply ignored. Native manipulation of the landscape is not counted as a “human impact” for purposes of determining Wilderness status whether the topic is individual visually prominent artifacts such as grinding rocks or artistic sites, or a broader landscape type that still bears the marks of intensive management — as an example, the “open-parklike forests” lauded by Nineteenth Century explorers that were the result of regular burning by local Native people. Indeed, the very concept of “primeval character and influence” essentially rewrites the environmental history of the landscape to exclude those human beings that may well have created that character of the landscape.

The upshot is that the Wilderness definition of “human influence” excludes Native people, especially historic Native people, from full membership in the human species. In most social contexts such exclusion is lately considered anathema. In Wilderness law, it is canon.

This is not meant to suggest that if a canyon full of ancient petroglyphs won’t exclude a landscape from Wilderness designation, neither should a modern religious billboard that fulfills essentially the same function. Nor is it meant to suggest that all human activity is necessarily as promotive of biotic diversity as certain old Native land management techniques. People do constitute a major source of damage to any particular landscape’s biotic integrity. But if the emphasis on “primeval character” enshrined in US Wilderness law turns out on examination to be based on historic racist assumptions about land management practices and the competence or savagery of Native people, then it is unlikely to be an appropriate or accurate way of measuring the biotic health of a landscape.

Wilderness Is Steampunk Inside-Out: The obsolescence of Wilderness’s definition of “human impact.”

For all that the Wilderness concept is based on inaccurate assumptions about old technology, the practices it does assume are inappropriate technological intervention in “wild” lands are themselves increasingly out of date. According to the Wilderness ethic, the kinds of modern technology that are properly barred from Wilderness all essentially existed in the late 19th Century: motorized vehicles and other machinery, fuel-or human-powered.

This definition of human technology was already obsolete at the time the Wilderness Act passed in 1964, and technological change has increased at an exponential rate. And yet whole sectors of human technology are never considered for exclusion from Wilderness. During the 1990s there was brief controversy in Wilderness recreationist circles over the use of mobile phones in the backcountry, including in Wilderness areas. That controversy is now well and truly dead. If Wilderness areas are excluded from phone coverage, it is through remoteness rather than by design. Few places in Wilderness are out of satellite phone coverage areas. Remote sensing allows close, detailed and consistent examination of Wilderness areas: while this is undoubtedly helpful from a management perspective, and undeniably a boon to science, it does illustrate that technological incursion into wilderness areas is only selectively prohibited.

Wilderness law also ignores biotechnology, in both the gene-spicing and old-fashioned selective breeding senses. Take for example the US Department of Agriculture’s attempts to breed a cold-hardy strain of Pennisetum ciliare as a range fodder crop. The species Pennisetum ciliare, aka buffelgrass, is a dangerous invasive plant in warmer areas. Though the cold-resistant strains thus far show lower seed production than the species, a successful and seed-productive strain would almost certainly spread into Wilderness areas in the Great Basin and western mountain ranges. Were Wildernesses set up to preserve the biotic diversity and stability of the lands involved, such biotech applications would almost certainly be seen as far more potentially disruptive of those landscapes than, say, riding a mountain bike along a trail.

Grazing has attracted the ire of many Wilderness activists, but it remains technically legal in Wilderness subject to management decisions. Again, this points up the solely aesthetic underpinnings of Wilderness policy, with little or no consideration of ecological benefit. If one cannot use a chainsaw to remove invasive trees from Wilderness, then logically removing native plants for private profit should be even more frowned upon, even if you do so using an imported biological grazing “machine.”

As in the example of invasive crop plants, the most pervasive human impact on Wilderness areas comes from activities conducted outside the Wilderness. From atmospheric pollutants changing soil pH in remote forests to invasive species transported across oceans to carbon-driven climate change melting ice in the old-school “rock and ice” Wildernesses, the majority of the deleterious human impacts on Wilderness come from many miles away.

In sum, impacts that are invisible to the naked eye, or which to the non-ecologically aware seem more or less “natural,” are not considered as dire as the immediate threat posed by a machine, even though the latter may be local and temporary while the former is often chronic and pervasive.

Wilderness: A Religious Ideology

Before the 19th Century the prevalent European-American attitudes toward wild lands was that they were morally suspect places that required taming through intervention by human effort. With the advent of the Romantic movement and its artistic and cultural offspring, which took seeds planted by Montaigne and his cohort and nourished them, this view was inverted. Wilderness became the source of the highest form of beauty, and human industry — especially in the wake of the Industrial Revolution — was “dark” and “satanic.”  Nothing of substance had changed in the dichotomy: it had simply been turned upside down.

Even the language of the Wilderness Act, penned a century after the painters of the Hudson River School popularized the Romantic conception of the landscape for Americans, contains this dichotomy, covering land “where man himself [sic] is a visitor who does not remain,” and “which… generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”

This is essentially a religious ideology about the relationship between human beings and Nature. It is not by accident that Wilderness activists talk about sublime places in religiously charged terms. Wilderness forests are “cathedrals,” deserts are “sacred,” solitudinous places offer the possibility of pilgrimage, reflection, and personal growth, and the rest of the world is profane in the original sense. To be honest, this is a religious ideology that I mostly share, at least on an emotional level. I would be devastated by the loss of the places the Wilderness Act tries so inaccurately to describe.

But we cannot confuse religious beliefs with science. A conception of land that is defined by the absence of humans is still centered on humans, as opposed to by the ecological integrity of the place, the biotic richness, the rarity of the species — or communities of species — therein, or the ecological importance of the place to wildlife and plants whose ranges may spread over thousands of miles of unprotected land — breeding and migration stopover habitat, genetic connectivity links, and the like.

Such issues are often crucially important to individual wilderness activists, many of whom will invoke ecological values of the land they want to protect as reasons why the land should be protected.

But they’re using a tool that’s ill-suited to the job. “Wilderness characteristics” as defined by the Wilderness Act” exclude the majority of vulnerable ecologically important land deserving of protection. A casino five miles distant may be all but invisible to an endangered desert tortoise in the Ivanpah Valley, but that same casino seemingly blinds Wilderness activists to the ecological value of the land.

Fortunately, activists have other tools at their disposal. The system of National Wildlife Refuges, the provisions of the Endangered Species Act relating to Critical Habitat, and other ecologically based land management policies and institutions show that we can actually work to protect land based on its biotic value and characteristics.

We need more initiatives like these, based on promotion of the landscape’s ecological health. Where they exist they should be strengthened, expanded, and broadened. Wilderness protection should be a part of those initiatives. But it cannot supersede them. To sacrifice healthy landscapes with rich biodiversity because they fail to meet human-centered criteria about solitude, “natural” appearance and opportunities for outdoor recreation is no more defensible than sacrificing them for their mineral wealth or timber.

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Rhett S. Daniels, thuggish Internet crackpot

About ten years ago a Usenet crank by the name of Michael Vandeman took offense to a short response I made to something he wrote — I believe my response was, in its entirety, “Ha!” — and wrote complaints to my employers about my conduct online. Said employers were Gar Smith, then-editor of Earth Island Journal; his boss David Phillips; and EII’s founder Dave Brower.

I was lucky. For one thing, Vandeman graduated from sending harassing emails to committing criminal assault.  For another, my employers responded to Vandeman’s barrage of complaints merely by asking that I be sure to use my own personal email. Dave P. tends to take pissing off the whackoes as a mark of successfully making a difference in the world, which came in handy a few years later when a corrupt former CITES official who was pocketing ivory trade money sued Earth Island over an article I printed. For Dave Brower’s part, when I mentioned Vandeman’s name he rolled his eyes harder than was probably advisable for a man of his then-advanced years.

But not everyone has employers as supportive. For instance, Vandeman targeted another person with whom he’d argued under Sierra Club auspices by harassing that person’s employers, and that went less well. More recently, the popular public health blogger EpiRen was asked by his employers to stop blogging — even under a pseudonym — when said employers were contacted with a stream of threatening email from one Rhett S. Daniels, a self-described “owner of 11 pharmaceutical companies” who objected to EpiRen’s defense of vaccinations.

You can read the increasingly bizarre threats leveled by Daniels at Liz Ditz’s place, and there’s some good commentary by Orac’s and PZ’s blogs as well.

I don’t have much to add except for a little bit of Google juice to cement Rhett S. Daniels’ reputation as an anti-intellectual thug who uses threats and harassment to prevail where his arguments cannot possibly do so. But having been more or less there, I have to say something.

Local man declares hiking hiatus over

Chilopsis

It’s been in the triple digits every day since I dunno, the 1970s, and by triple digits I mean above 110 more often than not. And so, given my reluctance most days to die of heatstroke, it has been a very long time since I have wandered out the door and gone for a hike in the local hills. Weeks. Probably months.

But there’s this peculiarity to the landscape in my neighborhood, in that while our house is at about 400 feet above Mean Sea Level, there is a nearly 11,000-foot mountain summit eight miles due west of our living room, and the mountain that is the owner of that summit has a significant flanking ridge of some 4,000 feet less than two miles from that same living room, and this means that on a typical summer day the sun goes behind the earth some hours before the sky actually gets dark. When this happens it is much easier to go outside. Even if the temperature is still a respectable 108F post-eclipse, the lack of direct exposure to the giant ball of fusion in the sky makes a difference in how it feels to be out in the out of doors.

Get away from the parking lots and bank buildings that surround our place and it’s even nicer. This afternoon, that meant a cool and refreshing 105 degrees. I wasn’t the only one who noticed the lack of bursting into flame. The Gambels quail were gamboling along Ramon Drive, and the Costa’s hummingbirds were accosting passing mosquitoes, and the Audubon’s cottontails were, um, du-ing the bon-ny hop in the overgrown palo verde hedge at roadside. I saw a California kingsnake, even, my first in town. The California kingsnake might be my favorite snake: harmless to humans and relatively shy, but eats rattlesnakes. This one seemed four feet long so according to the law of what I usually call crotalid linear folkloric inflation (because it usually happens with crotalids, aka rattlesnakes) let’s say it was two feet long, Pretty though, bright black and white bands, and I would have a blurry picture of it if I hadn’t discarded the blurry picture to take a better one which I couldn’t do because the snake ran away.

After a few moments I got to the base of the mountain, which was as far as I had planned to go, and I got impatient with myself having not hiked in yonks and kept going. 105 felt good, and yet because the trail is kinda steep at first I kept myself to a saunter. A few switchbacks, no more, and though I was soaked with sweat I felt really good, hiking in the company of my animal friends. It brought to mind the scene in Cinderella where the birds and mice and squirrels are dressing her, except that for me it was cottontails and quail breaking trail in front of me, and hummingbirds sewing up my hiking shorts with their little needly beaks, the kingsnake tying itself into a knotted belay line for my convenience and mosquitoes en masse sinking their pokynoses into my skin, hoisting me and carrying me effortlessly up the trail as they all whistled a happy little tune about hiking in perilously hot weather.  Though I may have imagined the whistling. No, not hallucinated. Imagined.

Anyway, it was nothing I couldn’t do longer with a Camelbak of ice water in my backpack and more icewater in my veins, so it looks like the Summer No-Hiking Interlude is starting to be over. Unless it gets back above 115. I’m not stupid.

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Why I’m not voting for Obama in 2012

Or at least not unless he changes from who he is today.

The first time I voted in a Presidential election was in 1980. I wasn’t going to. Carter had disappointed me, responding to criticism that he wasn’t warlike enough by ramping up the sabre-rattling. Four months before the election he’d signed Presidential Proclamation 4771, which reinstated registration for the draft. All men born January 1, 1960 or after had to register. I was born just a few days after that cutoff. Carter made me choose between disobeying the dictates of my conscience and becoming a felon. I chose the latter, and the resultant damage to my education and subsequent career unfolds to this day.

But my housemates were heading to the polls as I was heading home from work, and they said the unthinkable: that Reagan was actually winning. Shocked at the unbelievable idiocy of our countrypeople — who would vote for a psychotic monster like Reagan? — we trooped off to the polls to lend our support to Carter getting his share of New York Electoral votes. The historical record shows that we needn’t have bothered: Reagan carried New York rather handily. But I did cast my vote for Carter.

So I am capable of strategic voting even when I am thereby voting against certain of my own direct interests. Just so you know.

I haven’t always voted for the lesser of evils. I mean, I did vote for Mondale in ‘84, Dukakis in ‘88, and Kerry in 2004. But when it’s been prudent to do so — for instance, when my adopted state of California was not in play — I voted my conscience, or or at least I did as closely as I could. I voted for Nader in 1992, ‘96 and even 2000. I might have voted differently in 2000 if I hadn’t been living in a state where Gore got a 12-point lead. I don’t know. Despite the reflexive bleats of Democratic diehards when this topic comes up, NAder didn’t cheat Gore of Florida’s electoral votes nearly as handily as Gore did himself. More than 200,000 registered Florida Democrats voted for Bush in 2000. Gore didn’t even carry his home state of Tennessee. Nader was far from the biggest reason Gore didn’t become President.

In any event, I’ve voted for Democratic Presidential candidates throughout my life when I thought my vote would make a difference. Every time I’ve done so it has been out of fear that if the Democrat lost, things would get worse.

And as it turns out they’ve gotten worse consistently anyway.

When I first started paying attention to national politics in any kind of systematic, critical way, Nixon was President.  He was, of course, Evil Personified, an imperialist, reactionary, conniving, amoral, disingenuous, Machiavellian, rabid sweaty weasel in a cheap pinstriped suit. Now I wish I could vote for the 1972 Nixon instead of any of the choices we have now. It took a while to realize that with the exception of Carter, every single President we’ve had since has been to Nixon’s right. Nixon who signed — and more importantly, fought for — the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act. Nixon, who in between waging undeclared wars in three countries brokered peace with China and detente with the Soviet Union. Nixon, who tried to get universal health care enacted. If not for Watergate, we might have had socialized medicine in the US.

I celebrated when Obama was elected, in part because Bush was such a nightmare and in part because of the historic importance of the US’s First Black President. But Obama, derided by the Know-Nothing Sector of the US electorate as a “Socialist,” who holds Reagan as the former President he most admires, is emphatically to Nixon’s right.

Obama’s administration has continued some of the most heinous practices of the Bush administration, especially with regard to torture. Despite Obama’s pledge to withdraw from Iraq within 18 months of his ascension, 31 months into the Obama administration we still have troops in Iraq and likely will in 2012. With new wars in Libya and Yemen, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama has taken Bush’s two wars and doubled the total.

In environmental matters, the arena I know best, Obama is demonstrably worse than Bush. He talks a better game about climate change, but has nonetheless continued to do the bidding of the oil and coal companies, flogging “clean coal” (which does not exist except in coal company PR strategies), pushing to allow Canadian tar sands extractors to pipe their superpolluting oil into the US, and vowing to increase offshore oil drilling even while the BP Deepwater Horizon spill was in progress, on which matter his administration utterly screwed the pooch.

In the realm of endangered species, Obama falls short of Bush as well. As near as I can determine in a short survey of the news, the Obama administration has protected 66 species under the Endangered Species Act in the two and a half years since the inauguration. Of those, 48 are Kauai endemics cleared for listing by the Bush administration for which the Obama administration gets credit due merely to the timing of the paperwork, and six are birds not native to the United States that were listed a few months back so as to streamline enforcement of international trade violations. Listing of domestic species, which is the main point of the ESA and the main irritant to American businesses, ground to a halt in the last two years.

Obama’s one big environmental initiative, a huge program of subsidies for developers of “alternative” energy sources, in fact constitutes one of the largest Federal pushes for de facto privatization of Western public lands in the last 100 years. millions of acres of the West, and of eastern National Forests and shorelines as well, have been put on the auction block for energy developers to choose among. While such a policy might be understandable in the context of a 180-degree U-turn away from fossil fuel development, no such U-turn is happening. Big Solar and Big Wind aren’t replacing anything: they’ve merely become one additional way for business to extract value from public lands while the coal mining and oil drilling and natural gas fracking go on as scheduled.

I’ve been tracking environmental assaults on the western landscape since the late 1980s. Obama’s energy policy is, for the California deserts and a number of other places, pretty much the Apocalypse. We’re talking about the complete industrialization of many millions of acres of public land — your land and my land, as the song has it — on a scale Bush never would have been able to get away with.

On a scale Bush never would have been able to get away with. Why? Because this is what happens in America: Republicans take the White House and progressives and liberals get outraged, we get scared, we band together (in between petty internecine squabbling) and we mostly work to forestall the worst excesses of the GOP. We organize. We harness the better impulses of the American people and make some changes in the names listed on the White House stationery.

And when a Democrat takes the White House, four fifths of that liberal coalition goes to fucking sleep. It happened after Clinton got in, and after Carter got in, and it’s happening now with a vengeance. The Democratic rank and file figures their guy’sin power and they can go back to watching So You Think You Can Dance. Angry progressive blogs that savaged the right wing in 2000-2008 for making the Iraq war happen now seem to have had that same war largely swept from their list of concerns, even though it is now apparently endless and has three siblings.

There are differences between the two parties. Despite the usual straw man, no one — except college students new to leftism and maybe Alexander Cockburn — ever really says there’s no difference between the parties except as the most shortened of shorthand. In point of fact, there’s as much difference between the parties as there is between clockwise and counterclockwise on a ratchet wrench turning a bolt. Turning rightward tightens the bolt. But you don’t want to break the handle by pushing too hard, so you relax and turn the handle back to the left. The wrench loosens a bit, if ineffectually — the bolt doesn’t move, but the pressure eases up. And then comes the next push to the right, tightening the bolt still further. Each cycle has its new status quo, its period of tightening up and release, and the result in the end? The leftward relaxation has merely made the rightward clampdown possible.

Democratic loyalists point out that if we don’t vote for their guy, the worse guy gets in. This is clearly true. But it also manifestly creates conditions by which the lesser evil will, over time, get more and more evil. We see this now in that we’re likely to be asked to vote for a man who has us involved in four concurrent wars, continues torture and rendition and denial of habeas corpus, offers up Medicare and Social Security for cuts as a compromise (another victory Bush could have only dreamed of), and would preside over the largest paving of the deserts in history — simply because his likely opponent is fucking batshit insane.

It’s a worse choice every single time. Every single time the difference is clear, and every single time both candidates are more loathsome than their counterparts four years previous. How many people reading this wouldn’t vote for 1972 Nixon in a heartbeat as the Democratic candidate in 2012? How much worse will it have to get before we say “enough!” How many more cranks of the ratchet wrench do we want to go through before we look in the box for a better tool?

A few days ago on Google+ I posted a preliminary list of qualifications a candidate for office must have before my conscience would even consider letting me vote for him or her. It was incomplete and I’m still working on it, thinking that someone out there might care.

In order for me to vote for any candidate for office, that candidate:

  • must neither openly nor tacitly support the use of torture in any circumstance.
  • must pledge to defend women’s access to abortion against any threatened limitation, whether that obstruction be political, religious or economic.
  • must pledge to oppose the enshrining in law of social discrimination against any group of people based on gender, ethnicity, sexuality, language, religious belief or lack thereof, disability, social class, or other arbitrary division.
  • must agree that the rich – who have after all profited most from the country’s natural wealth, infrastructure and financial policy – ought to pay their fair share of taxes.
  • must at least hold as an aspiration the provision of a tolerable standard of living to all people in the US, including shelter, food, clothing, education, health care and access to communication, regardless of the individual’s ability to pay.
  • must support the continued existence of labor unions.
  • must pledge not to punish individual migrants for the failures of the country’s immigration policy.
  • must at least pledge to value the ecological integrity of the United States’ landscapes over the possibility that profit might be extracted from them.
  • must possess at least a high-school level understanding of science, especially regarding but not limited to crucial topics such as climate change and evolutionary biology.
  • must oppose any interference in the routine and proper teaching of science in our public schools by religious groups.
  • must abide by the War Powers Resolution of 1973.

On completing the first draft of this list I had two simultaneous and equally disheartening feelings.

1) This really is an insultingly low bar for my conscience to insist on.
2) There are very few politicians who could satisfy a majority of the conditions set out here, and almost none — maybe Grijalva — who could meet them all.

But we have to start somewhere, because this road goes nowhere good.

Pinto Basin

Moon

A few preliminary updates before I start:

Preliminary Update the First: I’m on Google Plus, and the few minutes a day I spend these days conversing online are likely to be spent there rather than in Twitter/Facebook, which have increasingly become more work-only kinda places. Let me know if you would like a G+ invite. It’s so much easier to toss a short piece off there than it is here that It will likely be significantly quieter around here until Google releases an API which allows some one-click kinda coordination.

Preliminary Update the Second: The Zeke Book is in the Apple iBookstore book store. Those of you with eyePads and eyeFones and eyePods can now go crazy. Don’t forget to give the book some stars.

Preliminary Update the Third: I continue to write at KCET. This gig, which is a serious boon financially (though as the hero of the book mentioned above used to say to me on long hikes, we’re not out of the woods yet) has bumped up to two pieces a week. So far this onehas my favorite title. It does both me and KCET a favor if you hit the appropriate “like” “tweet” “buzz” “florp” or “zot” buttons for pieces you read, if you like them.

Preliminary Update the Fourth: I’ve resigned from the Mojave National Preserve Conservancy’s board of directors because what with my work search I have neither time nor funds necessary to provide the level of commitment a non-profit ought to require of its Board members. I still support their work and so should you. Here’s their Facebook page.

Preliminary Update the Last: I have some T-shirts with my very own designs on them for sale here. Check ‘em out. They’re desertpoliticalicious.

So.

Out last night to try to see some of the Perseid meteor shower, Annette and I pulled folding chairs into the middle of the desert off of Pinto Basin Road in Joshua Tree NP. It wasn’t the best night for meteor-watching. The moon was full and up early, and though the skies were clear there was a bit of a haze in the air, a percentage point or two more humidity than usual. Off near Landers giant thunderheads slowly dissolved — they’re back again today — and the moonlight refracted and reflected everywhere. I saw one shooting star all night. Annette saw a dozen or so, she claims.

The moon was bright enough that one could see almost well enough to walk barefoot through the desert, not that I tried, precisely. We talked of shadows cast by the moon and I remembered the first one I noticed, my own moon-shadow at age five or so, in the not-well-lit small town of Ovid, NY. We lived there for two years in a rented house across the street from my mother’s parents. It has been a long time since I’ve been there. My mother’s youngest sister, born two months after I was, still lives in town. She became a grandmother last month. That sank in a little more last night. Two generations along and I still relearn that the moon casts shadows.

I have been sad lately, phenomenally so at times, frustrated with the destruction in the desert and at the utter inconsequence my own efforts to slow that down, worried about what happens when Annette’s unemployment runs out, feeling the loss of an entire community of environmentalists as the landscape I love gets thrown under the bus, frustrated at my inability to find more work. I understand a couple large environmental groups have openings for which I am more or less qualified, helping to guide gigantic industrial solar project developers to sites that the four or five organizations that constitute Gang Green won’t object to privatizing and paving. If only I could stand to betray the tortoises, sell out the woodrats, I could get my teeth fixed and fill my prescriptions. I find myself sympathizing with the biologists who hate the projects, but survey the sites for tortoises anyway. Fifty an hour would come in handy right now. I haven’t been back to Ivanpah since they started construction. I couldn’t stand it.  I find a creeping reluctance to get out of the house, a reluctance to learn to love yet another piece of the world lest they pave it too, all the financial advantage going to those who would hold the door open for the ecosociopaths.

But last night — an occasional car passing on the two-lane, evocative far-off engine noise fading — last night was good. Even the invaded sky, two unblinking satellites passing overhead in an hour, was good. A bat strafed us as we sat there. Somewhere in the moonlight a barn owl howled. I told Annette stories. The story of the time Zeke was a good boy and listened attentively to the campfire program at Lava Beds. The story of the time some years before that when the Medicine Lake volcano erupted and created the lava tubes. The time I gave up on any more rides coming and bedded down in the weeds outside Cheyenne, Wyoming. The time I saw my shadow in the moonlight.

By eleven o’clock the temperature had dropped below 80 and chilly, we got in the car and headed for the low desert part of the park. It was warmer in the Pinto Basin. and the moon glinted happily off the chollas. Three years ago we had an adventure in this spot. Annette remembered it well, but I told her the story anyway.

Mountains encircle the Pinto Basin, and a car radio set to “scan” will circle the FM bands until you tell it to stop. Delighted, I hit the “AM” button. Among a thousand fuzzy signals we found one clear one: a country station from the Navajo rez. It used to be like this everywhere n the West, I thought to myself. The station never played “I’m My Own Grandpa,” but it should have.