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Wednesday, March 31st, 2021

Bushwhacked!

Monday, March 1st, 2021: Hikes, Little Dry, Mogollon Mountains, Southwest New Mexico.

Last night, I’d tried to come up with a plan for today’s hike and failed. The snow on all our regional mountains was melting fast, but I knew from my midweek hike that it was still deep on north slopes. There were few trails within a 2-hour drive that had southern exposure, and I’d done two of them, with the corresponding 4-hour round-trip drives, in the past two weeks. I didn’t want to make another long drive.

I got up this morning with little hope or motivation, and considered taking a break from my Sunday hikes. It’d been over three months since I’d taken a break and it wouldn’t hurt my conditioning

Then during breakfast, scanning the list of hikes I’ve compiled, I suddenly realized that the Little Dry Creek trail climbs south-facing slopes. I hadn’t thought of it at first because it’s not one of my favorites hikes, and anyway, I’d already done it three weeks ago. I don’t like to duplicate hikes that frequently…but what the hell. It would get me out into nature.

After an hour’s drive, I arrived at the extremely remote trailhead, parked, shouldered my pack, and started laboriously picking my way up the difficult early stretch lined with big loose rocks. After a half mile or so it climbs above the canyon bottom and you get a view of the peaks ahead. And I suddenly had a brainstorm.

Last fall, after finally getting close to the 10,000′ crest, I’d tracked down a recent online trip log for this trail. My destination here has always been the 10,663′ summit of Sacaton, one of the iconic peaks of this range. But the trail is just too long and blocked with too much deadfall from the 2012 wildfire.

The online trip log was from a young Arizona woman, a “peakbagger”, who left the trail after the first mile and bushwhacked up the right-hand ridge. That ridge eventually connects to the Sacaton massif, so she took it all the way, traversing all the intermediate peaks. I couldn’t recall her exact route, but I knew it connected with an old mine road not far from this canyon bottom. She took the mine road a short distance then bushwhacked up to the main ridge. What the hell, I thought. I’ll try to replicate her route, and see how far I can get.

The whole peakbagger thing is a turn-off for me – mountains are sacred, and the idea of “bagging” them to add to your life list is another sad byproduct of our hypercompetitive European culture. But before reading the young woman’s account and scanning her photos, I wouldn’t have believed it was possible to bushwhack in these mountains with their loose, crumbly volcanic rock, especially through burn scars blocked by mazes of deadfall and choked with thickets that I believed to be virtually impassable. I admired her toughness, but I figured if she could do it, I probably could too.

Heading deeper into the canyon, with progressive vantage points out, I saw the right-hand ridge started low, only a few hundred feet above the creek, and there seemed to be a gap, a side drainage, before it connected to the high ridge. A mile up the trail, I found where the side drainage joined the creek. It was dry and narrow, but I turned off and started climbing. This must be where she left the trail…and if I followed this side canyon to its head, maybe I’d connect with the old mine road.

As I’d expected, bushwhacking was incredibly hard. The right-hand slope was in shade and covered with snow, so I climbed the sunny, snow-bare left slope. But it was steep and alternated between loose rock and dense shrubs: oak, manzanita, mountain mahogany, and occasionally thorny catclaw. I had to cut my own switchbacks, slipping and sliding the whole way, scratching my hands and clothes.

Eventually I climbed high enough to see the head of the canyon. Its sides were completely choked with chaparral, as was the continuation of the ridge above. But now that I could see the destination, I had to keep going.

High above the head of the canyon, rounding a rocky corner, I suddenly came upon a cleared patch and an apparently bottomless hole – a mine pit. I remembered there was an old mine farther up the main canyon. I must be near the road. I thought I could see another cleared spot a few hundred yards ahead.

Heading that way, I ended up on an old trail, which took me to the mine road. I kept following it around the foot of the high ridge, and eventually came to a junction. The main road from below continued higher, through pine forest, and I could see it climbing around a small peak ahead. It was trending away from the main ridge, but I figured it would circle back and probably get me higher and farther along.

Traversing below the little peak I came upon a big gash in the mountainside, with a pile of rock obscuring a mine entrance. I set my pack down and climbed over the rock pile. There was a heavy steel door, partly open. I squeezed past it and walked into the mine, but it quickly became too dark, so I went back out and put on my headlamp.

I love being underground! And the colors of rock in this mine, while subtle, were really pretty. It had several junctions and branches, and whoever worked it had left some valuable equipment back there. Some of the lumber looked very recent.

The first branch led to a chamber, partly blocked by an air compressor, where there was a steel platform over a vertical shaft with cables leading down out of sight. It was so deep my headlamp wouldn’t penetrate it. Beyond this chamber, a rockfall blocked the tunnel, but I could see it led farther into the mountain.

Back in the light of day, I continued up the road, around the little conical peak. Eventually I came to a broad saddle where I could see east into another big canyon system directly below Sacaton. And forming a gate across this canyon were the two most spectacular rock formations I’d ever seen in this area. They both had arches like the sandstone canyons of southeast Utah. Could there really be sandstone in these volcanic mountains, or was it an anomalous volcanic formation?

The ridge leading to Sacaton was my destination, and the rock formations didn’t lead there, but I figured I’d head in that direction and see how close I could get before climbing higher. First I had to traverse another steep slope of loose rock and dense chaparral. After a few hundred yards fighting my way through that, I came to a deep canyon, forested on this side, with patches of deep snow. To get a better view of the rock formations I’d have to cross this canyon. I could see a large clearing, like a saddle, on the opposite side. I descended a few hundred feet in snow to a stream running across bare rock, then fought my up through the shrubs on the opposite slope, finally reaching the clearing. Now I could see that a much deeper and wider side canyon separated me from the rock formations. But from the clearing I was in, a ridge led upward toward the main ridge and the foot of the 10,000′ peak that began the Sacaton massif. From below, I couldn’t tell if this was a good route, but I’d give it a shot.

Here the real work began. Climbing this ridge was some of the hardest bushwhacking I’ve ever done. I began to doubt that the young woman had really completed this hike in one day. Yeah, there were a few small patches of bare ground, and a few sporadic stretches of bunchgrass between thickets, but most of the way I had to stop and scout gaps in the vegetation, zigzagging constantly back and forth, finding dead ends, turning back and trying other routes. It was incredibly slow, but I kept trying.

This outlying ridge climbed in steps of a few hundred feet at a time. Each time I crested a step I stopped and tried to scout ahead. Eventually I reached a forested stretch below the top. Here it was much easier, and I found a game trail. I continued for a quarter mile or so, and reached a little peak before the saddle just below the high peak.

I stood there in about 10″ of snow and checked my watch. It’d taken me four hours to get this far, and I figured I was only about a third of the way. The peak above required another 1,500′ climb that would take me at least another hour, and past that were three or four miles and probably another 2,000′ of up and down climbing, most of it on loose rock through dense scrub. How could that girl have done this all in a day? It seemed a near-mythical feat.

But on the way down, I discovered something. I got so tired of rerouting around masses of shrubs that I decided to just force my way straight through them. It was murder on my expensive REI and Patagonia outerwear, but it turned out to be doable, and a little faster than zigzagging through the maze. The shrubs had interlacing branches, and I still had to zigzag between the cores of individual shrubs, but the outer branches in the gaps between them gave way to brute force.

Unfortunately, because the descent of the ridge went a little faster than the ascent, I overshot the clearing where I’d climbed out of the side canyon. By over a hundred yards, but I didn’t know that yet.

When bushwhacking like this, I always stop every few hundred yards, look back, and memorize landmarks so I can retrace my route. I’d memorized the shape of the snow slope I’d descended across this side canyon, but now that I’d overshot, it didn’t have that shape. I couldn’t tell if it was the same one – I didn’t know if I’d gone too far, or not far enough. And I was in the midst of a seemingly endless thicket.

I fought my way down into the side canyon. I figured I’d climb the stream bed to the nearest snow patch, and if I couldn’t find my footprints, I’d turn and go downstream until I found the right place.

The upstream patch was the right one. My footprints were right there. I followed them up out of the canyon, onto the slope that traversed back to the mine road. I took the road to the trail that led to the bottomless pit, and then began bushwhacking back down the side of the shallow canyon that led to Little Dry Creek. Downclimbing here was much harder than ascending. I stumbled, slipped, and slid constantly in the loose dirt and rocks, thrown off balance as invisible branches and roots grabbed my ankles, in between fighting through thorny thickets. It got steeper and harder toward the bottom, to the point where it was downright scary. But, obviously, I made it.

It’d taken me 3-1/2 hours to reach the high ridge, and 3-1/4 hours to get back down. When I got home and checked the Arizona peakbagger’s data online, I discovered she’d taken an almost completely different route. Instead of the logical path up the side canyon, she’d cut off the main trail earlier and climbed straight up the right slope to the peak of that low ridge. There, she’d hit the mine road, and used it much farther than I had, which enabled her to go much faster during that stretch.

Then, just past the mine entrance, she’d again climbed straight up the little conical peak, and from there, continued following the ridgeline all the way to Sacaton. She said the bushwhacking wasn’t bad, but I could see it was. Apparently peakbaggers are just habituated to forcing their way through thickets. Their goal is to bag as many peaks as possible in their lifetime, and most peaks don’t have trails.

I could also see that the end point of my hike was actually the halfway point for her hike. By reaching Sacaton, she’d logged over 16 miles round-trip. So my total distance was about 8 miles, and after subtracting the time I’d spent exploring the mine, it took me almost 7 hours – more than twice as long as it would take me on clear ground. She’d also saved time on the way back by leaving the high ridge and dropping from the head of Little Dry Creek back into the main canyon, where she reconnected with the trail so she wouldn’t have to bushwhack back.

I was proud of how hard I’d worked, but it’s not the kind of hike I’d choose to do again. I’m in great shape, but hiking in steep loose rock is the hardest thing possible on my vulnerable foot. I could go faster on a healthy foot, but would I even want to?

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Return to the Peaks

Monday, March 22nd, 2021: Chiricahuas, Hikes, Southeast Arizona.

I’d taken last Sunday off, to break the pattern and give my troubled foot a rest. On my last Sunday hike I’d encountered a two-foot-deep snowfield at 9,500′ in our local mountains, but since then we’d had two weeks of warm weather. I figured that farther south, in the lower-elevation Chiricahuas, I could return to my favorite trail and climb to one of the peaks of the range. That trail goes through the “cold canyon” where snow accumulates deeper than anywhere else, and lingers longer. It’d been three months since I’d done that hike – in the winter, snow prevents me from doing the longer hikes with higher elevation, and I worry about losing conditioning.

But as soon as I crossed the pass south of town and got a view of the distant range, I could see there was still a lot of snow on the north slopes above 8,000′. I decided to change plans and hike to the “bleak saddle” instead. It’d be a long, hard hike, but with southeast exposure it should be snow-free, and if my energy lasted to the saddle, I might be able to continue up the nearby peak I hadn’t been able to reach last fall.

The forecast called for overcast skies and mild temperatures. From a distance, it looked like low clouds over the range were trying to drop some rain. But by the time I got to the trailhead, the sky had cleared, with only wisps of cloud.

I climbed the steep trail steadily, shedding outerwear, until midway along the 3-mile traverse, it was so warm I had to unbutton my shirt. It was probably in the 60s, and intermittantly gusty. Small black flying insects kept flushing out of my way, but the wind whipped them away so I couldn’t tell what they were.

Approaching the saddle I was feeling pretty sore and exhausted, and nearing the compression zone of strong wind that streams through saddles. I had to stop and squeeze into my sweater, and decided to put on my shell as well. The sky was now almost completely overcast, and the wind was so fierce and cold I had to pull up the hood immediately.

Despite being worn out, when I reached the trail junction on the bleak saddle, I decided to try the trail to the peak. It looked like the peak was close, a quarter mile and a few hundred feet above. I might not make it, but it would be more interesting than this bare, windy saddle.

There was actually no trail on the bare lower slope, only sporadic cairns and fallen logs placed as directional markers. The wind was so strong I was almost blown down at times. But after a few hundred yards, I found a distinct trail that had recently been cleared.

Then suddenly the cleared part ended. I could see the trail continuing ahead, but a thicket of aspen had been growing on it for at least five years, to a height of 8 or 10 feet.

Later, back home, I discovered the Chiricahua Trails website lists this trail as in “terrible” condition – the worst condition possible. But now that I’ve had plenty of experience bushwhacking and climbing over blowdown, I just kept going, pushing through the thickets, re-finding the trail on the other side.

As so often happens, the peak I’d seen from below turned out not to be the actual peak. Dozens of switchbacks, blocked by thickets or deadfall, led to a ridge that continued east for another half mile. Whereas the surrounding slopes had burned in the 2012 wildfire, a pocket of beautiful alpine forest had survived on this ridge. Otherwise I might’ve given up and turned back, especially when I reached an extensive blowdown blocking the trail 3/4 of the way along the ridge.

Past that, I finally saw the actual peak, a little hump at the far end of the ridge, where I flushed a white-tail buck that briefly stood, silhouetted, before dropping out of sight down the slope.

I expected the forest would block views from the peak, but it turned out I had good views due east and south. Making it all the way here, despite the way I’d felt at the saddle, seemed to recharge my energy. I started paying more attention to the beautiful forest.

This range crests a thousand feet lower than our mountains at home. It has only six peaks above 9,500′, five of them named – I’ve now climbed three of them. But it’s a Sky Island, and those peaks host tiny pockets, like this, of alpine spruce-fir forest like you find much farther north. With a warming climate, how much longer will they last?

According to the GPS data on Chiricahua Trails, this would be a 12-mile round-trip hike, with barely 4,000′ of accumulated elevation gain. But it took me nearly 8 hours – longer than any 14 to 16 mile hike I’ve done. That’s partly explained by the difficulties I had on the peak trail. But I still wonder about the accuracy of these GPS distances, especially older data like this.

On the way down I finally got a better look at the flying insects – they were small black butterflies with banded wings. Millions of them had recently metamorphosed in this range, despite the cool weather of early spring. They were having a hard time in the wind.

I was 1-1/4 hours late returning to the vehicle, but the time change gives me an extra hour of daylight. From the near-freezing wind chill of the high traverse, it got steadily warmer as I circled back and dropped into the dense oak forest of the trailhead canyon, where it felt like the mid-70s. Happily, despite the long day and the two-hour drive home, I got back just before dark.

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Fire, Part 6: Government and Wildfire

Wednesday, March 24th, 2021: Fire, Nature, Problems & Solutions, Society, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Wildfire Revelations

The Political Cycle

The political polarization we’re all seeing now – a society divided between liberals and conservatives – is nothing new. I was aware of it long ago, in childhood, growing up in small, rural communities far off the beaten path. Society was split into opposing but roughly equal halves, and since we were a democracy, electing leaders every four years, leadership alternated, back and forth between political parties, from the local to the national level, in a four-to-eight-year cycle.

But to a kid, those were the mysterious affairs of adults. My family was not politically engaged or active, and I entered adolescence at a time when young people were rebelling against the Establishment – all the established institutions of our society and culture.

The Vietnam War had been started by Kennedy, the cherished martyr, and was escalated by Johnson. Both were Democrats, but they were followed by Nixon, a Republican, who pursued it further, ordering the bombing of Cambodia, a country we hadn’t even declared war on. The older people who became my mentors, and continue to inspire me decades later, urged me to think critically, and to question all authority, regardless of what party or tradition it came from.

That became a mantra of the Counterculture, which launched a sweeping critique of our society, showing how the schools had indoctrinated us in a false view of history. We learned how our government engaged in global imperialism, our capitalist economy exploited and oppressed both humans and nature, science and technology served the military-industrial complex, and corporate media sold us a false view of the world. We began to explore and investigate alternatives, better ways to live – other cultures, past and present.

Howard Zinn summarized many of these revelations in his A People’s History of the United States, published in 1980. Jimmy Carter, a Democrat, was president at the time, but his leadership had failed miserably when faced with both national and global crises, so the cyclical system followed up with Reagan, a Republican.

To my generation, Zinn’s book was redundant. The subsequent election of a third-rate movie star as national leader was nothing more than a cruel joke. We already knew our society was failing and our culture was bankrupt. We turned our backs on both and tried to invent something new, in our own backyard – the DIY underground arts scene of San Francisco. Punk music was our first inspiration. The nihilism of the Sex Pistols encouraged us to tear everything down and start over.

Now, decades later, mired in the capitalist economy and burdened with family responsibilities, most of my peers have abandoned the ideals of the Counterculture. They’ve joined the Establishment, chosing sides in the two-party system, in which both sides believe passionately in their country, but fear that the other is trying to destroy it. Liberals fear conservatives will establish fascism, rape the environment, and persecute minorities. Conservatives fear liberals will establish communism, restrict individual freedom, and take away their precious guns.

For various reasons, both sides tend to settle in enclaves where they become isolated from the opposing side. Each side gets its information from targeted national media – and social media communities – which present the world from their point of view. Urban liberals never interact with rural conservatives, so they may imagine they don’t exist, or are an irrelevant minority. Since both sides are ignorant of the other, they develop all sorts of misconceptions.

When the political cycle turns, and leadership flips from your side to the other, you become even more committed. Both sides send their children to private schools that present the world from their point of view. From generation to generation, the divide deepens and both sides become more entrenched.

The Romance of Fire Towers

In the early 1970s – the heyday of the Counterculture – I was in college, but hadn’t formally declared a major subject. I was working hard in the University of Chicago’s tiny studio art program and had applied to prominent art schools. But the economy was in a recession, and I was desperately poor and needed a career that would free me from dependence on the limited resources of my family.

My dad, who had moved to California after the divorce, started sending me applications to take a summer job as a fire lookout for the Forest Service somewhere in the West. Like me, he’d aspired to be an artist and musician. The high point of his life had been in grad school in the late 1940s, when he’d immersed himself in the postwar urban jazz scene during the invention of bebop by icons like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.

But he knew I also shared his love of nature, and I think he hoped that the solitude and responsibilities of a fire lookout would help me make my decision – hopefully away from the temptations of the urban arts scene, which could only lead to the insecurity of an artist’s life.

Jack Kerouac, an aspiring writer, was a contemporary of my dad in the postwar jazz scene. While Dad was jamming onstage and capturing it in paintings afterward, Kerouac was working on a new style of writing inspired by bebop. While my dad moved on to start a career in science and raise a family, Kerouac hung in there, discovering Buddhism and yearning for a connection with nature.

After finishing On the Road, his first experiment in writing-as-free-improvisation, Kerouac got a job as a fire lookout in a remote Forest Service tower in Washington State. He hoped to use the solitude of the wilderness as an opportunity to advance his writing, to integrate Buddhism’s contemplation of nature with the urban music scene that inspired him, but the contrast was too jarring, and the solitude failed to stimulate his creative juices. He wasn’t able to write about the experience until long after he left the fire tower, in Dharma Bums and Desolation Angels.

But Kerouac became such a youth-culture icon that his brief gig as a government fire lookout helped romanticize the job for generations of young people. Forest Service fire towers have become linked with the Buddhist practice of pursuing enlightenment through passive contemplation of nature. This is especially attractive to writers, who need to sit still for hours, free of distractions, to do their work. But at the age of 19, solitary contemplation was the last thing I needed. I needed to immerse myself in society, not to withdraw from it.

Like Kerouac, my dad was an eloquent writer, and his letters and Forest Service job applications went into my archives, where they were destroyed last year along with thousands of other irreplaceable keepsakes, in the house fire that inspired this series of Dispatches.

Politics and Profit in the Desert

Eventually, after two decades of immersion in urban culture, my own search for connection with nature led me to a field office of the Bureau of Land Management in the California desert. The BLM is an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior, which claims its mission is to “manage and sustain America’s lands, water, wildlife, and energy resources, honor our nation’s responsibilities to tribal nations, and advocate for America’s island communities.” I spent days in that office squinting at old microfilm records and talking to staffers about mineral rights, easements, and other arcane interests shared by rural landowners and federal agencies.

The land I ended up buying fell within a Wilderness Study Area, and friends notified me that the BLM had invited a group of “stakeholders” to meet and contribute to a Resource Management Plan for the area. The plan was not the government’s idea – it was demanded by conservationists concerned about the endangered desert tortoise and bighorn sheep, whose populations were barely hanging on in this and neighboring mountain ranges. Private landowners within the area were not considered stakeholders, so I just showed up and started adding my two cents from the peanut gallery.

Who did the BLM consider stakeholders in public land? The ranching community turned out to be the most important component. The area included only one vast grazing allotment, with one permit holder, but he came supported by members of his large family and a slick city politician, president of a coalition that had been thrown together to protect desert ranchers from environmental regulation.

In those meetings I learned how the U.S. government, through its agencies the BLM and the Forest Service, subsidizes private-sector ranching, by charging grazing fees far below market rates and relieving ranchers of most of the financial and management burden for the damage done to natural habitat by livestock. Subsidized ranching has persisted since the 19th century because of the long-standing, high-level connections maintained between ranching families and both political parties.

I also learned that the leaders of government agencies are political appointees, both in Washington and at the regional level, so local policy swings back and forth between pro-conservation and pro-development. At the time of the Wilderness Plan meetings, we were in the Republican phase of the cycle. George H. W. Bush was President, and our local BLM office manager was a pro-development conservative.

The BLM office administering the wilderness surrounding my land had only two rangers to patrol and enforce regulations on an area larger than some states. The rest of the staff was office-based, and as regulations expand, more bureaucracy is needed, increasing the disparity between field and office staff. When the BLM attempted to enforce environmental regulations against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy in the early 1990s, he successfully resisted, mounting an armed uprising in 2014, which he won. Now an intimidated BLM allows him to operate outside the law.

The other commercial stakeholders in these desert mountains are miners. Like ranching, the business of mining is subsidized and largely unregulated. The government, again through its agencies BLM and Forest Service, allows mining companies to keep all the profit they take from public lands, with little or no responsibility for conservation or cleanup. The public land surrounding my place in the desert is littered with mine ruins, equipment, and materials abandoned by private businesses over the past century and a half.

The only other stakeholders invited to the meetings were the conservationists who’d requested the plan – represented by the Sierra Club – and off-roaders, who contribute to local economies through their purchase of permits, machines, fuel, camping gear, restaurant meals, and hotel stays. Of course, off-roaders are passionately opposed to environmental regulation, so conservationists were outnumbered three to one.

BLM had scientists on staff – botanists to monitor forage plants on cattle range, mineral experts to review mining claims. But when it came to the tortoise and the bighorn, the state had jurisdiction. Just as the federal government manages rocks and plants as commercial resources, the state manages wildlife, so wildlife biologists were brought in as consultants, from the California Department of Fish and Game. Privately, they referred to the BLM as the “Bureau of Livestock and Mining.”

Government agencies always claim that commercial users of public land are important because they pay fees which can then be used for conservation. A friend studying endangered desert bighorn sheep invited me to a trophy hunt once, almost 30 years ago. Sheep tags were going for $80,000 back then – probably at least 5 times that now – and rich surgeons and tech CEOs arrived in camp from all over the country. It was a big, multi-day event that began at sunset with huge steaks sizzling on a giant campfire grill at the base of the mountains. The next day, I was allowed onboard a helicopter for a preliminary survey of the range, trying to spot where to send the hunters for the best chance at a trophy.

In the popular rhetoric and public discourse, mining companies contribute to local economies, and ranchers are seen to represent a precious, dying way of life preserving traditional values like self-reliance, responsibility, hard work, honesty and integrity. Likewise, hunters have long been praised as the original conservationists. In my Indiana hometown, the Conservation Club was a group of hunters that protected habitat for deer, pheasants, ducks, and other game species.

But just as our educational system largely ignores the role of capitalism and imperialism in our history, the mythology of mining, ranching, and hunting whitewashes reality. Mining companies destroy natural habitat and pollute local air, soil, and water, and rarely are required restore, clean up, or compensate local communities for the damage. Minerals they take from local habitats are sold as commodities on global markets, where profits go to distant shareholders.

In the desert, the government allows ranchers to run cattle in wilderness areas, trampling soils, spreading invasive plants, spreading disease to wildlife, and fouling native water sources. Whereas in traditional subsistence cultures, livestock are kept to feed and clothe the local community, in capitalist society, they’re sold as commodities in regional markets, for the sole profit of the rancher. And our society provides ample evidence that capitalist markets produce gross inequality, poverty, and conflict.

Rather than taking a holistic, ecosystem approach to conservation, hunters typically work to promote a single game species. Quail hunters in the desert build and maintain concrete “guzzlers” to collect and store rainwater runoff, which can then be accessed only by quail. Likewise, the rich hunters who can afford a bighorn tag use helicopters to install water tanks and piping deep in wilderness areas to artificially sustain sheep populations in drought years.

Since scientists are hired by government agencies as specialists supporting these commercial resources, they generally consider mining, ranching, and hunting as necessary evils – they’re just happy to be paid to collect and study data in their fields of study. But most of the agency scientists I met inspired me with their love of the desert, its natural habitats and wildlife, and how incredibly hard they worked to protect them.

My curiosity led me to meet many more conservation scientists over the following decades, to the point where they now make up as much as half of my friends. I’ve spent dozens of days and nights with them in the field, climbing rugged, trackless mountains under the blistering summer sun, trudging thigh-deep through wetlands in the middle of the night, collecting data essential for groundbreaking studies to protect endangered species. All these scientists believe in what they do, while conducting a running battle against “democracy” – the political cycle – and the extractive focus of their powerful commercial constituencies.

All of the land administered by BLM in the desert had been taken by force or fraud from indigenous people. There were still plenty of those people living in the desert, but none were represented on the BLM staff or in the scientific community. Nor were there any Hispanic BLM staffers or scientists, although Hispanics made up at least a quarter of the local population. Segregation and tacit discrimination were typical in California as a whole, so none of my new agency contacts or scientist friends seemed aware of, let alone concerned about, the disparity.

Politics and Profit in the Southwestern Forests

California’s desert mountains, administered by the BLM, are largely unforested. But the taller and wetter mountains surrounding my new home in the Southwest provide habitat for large stands of evergreen conifers and their deciduous allies, so my weekly hikes follow trails through land managed by Jack Kerouac’s old employer, the United States Forest Service.

In contrast with BLM and Interior, USFS is an agency of the Department of Agriculture, which claims its mission is to “to provide economic opportunity through innovation, helping rural America to thrive; to promote agriculture production that better nourishes Americans while also helping feed others throughout the world; and to preserve our Nation’s natural resources through conservation, restored forests, improved watersheds, and healthy private working lands.” Note how Ag’s rhetoric is more honest than Interior’s, putting economic values up front. And anyone should be able to infer that as part of Ag, USFS is likely to treat forests as crops.

In contrast with the white-administered California desert, the southwest New Mexico Forest Service more closely reflects our local demographics in its inclusion of Hispanic staffers. Latinos are avid users of the forest: campers, hunters, fishermen, and woodcutters. The same can’t be said of Native Americans – the Apaches resident here before the American invasion were all driven away to distant reservations, and I’m not aware of any native involvement in USFS. Now that we’ve put them out of sight, natives are out of mind.

I’ve met and talked to USFS staff regularly and frequently since I moved here. In fact, our whole community is actively involved with the Forest Service, from ranchers who run cattle on public land, to commercial logging operations, to hunters, fishermen, campers, and hikers who use Forest Service roads, campgrounds, and trails, homeowners who live in the forest, and businesspeople who benefit from tourist revenue.

My interactions primarily involve reporting invasive plants and the abuse or violation of regulations that I’ve encountered while hiking, like the cattle that regularly trespass into wilderness areas, and the rogue woodcutters that vandalize trails so they can illegally take motor vehicles deep into roadless areas, where they illegally harvest live trees in response to the voracious public demand for firewood. I also, rarely, run into trail maintenance crews. Contrary to popular belief, the federal government provides almost no funding for trail maintenance, and most trail work is done not by the Forest Service but by citizen volunteers from local non-profit groups.

Like in the desert, the U.S. government allows ranchers to run cattle all over our local wilderness areas, and ranchers are never held responsible for trespass or damage to protected habitats. By law, the Forest Service, not private ranchers, is responsible for fencing and repairing damage caused by livestock. But of course, the federal government doesn’t provide adequate funding for that. So laws and regulations are only enforced sporadically when private non-profit groups like the Center for Biological Diversity take the government to court and force compliance.

Forest Service staff dutifully note my reports on invasive plants and tresspass cattle, but admit that because of underfunding and understaffing, there’s generally nothing they can do. When I report illegal or abusive activity by commercial users like ranchers, woodcutters, or hunting guides, I’m consistently treated as an annoying troublemaker. Impatient Forest Service staff point out that commercial users are high-value – they pay fees that go directly into Forest Service salaries – but as a mere hiker and taxpayer I’m so far down the scale that I don’t count.

During those early meetings with BLM in the desert, and in the three decades since, I’ve gotten to know both government agencies and their constituencies pretty well. The old desert rancher and his family, decent people with values, knowledge, and skill that I respect. Agency staff who are typically friendly and hard-working, but frustrated by the short terms and high turnover in political jobs. Scientists who are passionate about conservation. Hunters who work hard to maintain native habitat.

In a society increasingly divided between liberals and conservatives, the majority rule of “democracy” perennially flips back and forth between opposing camps. Government agencies, led by political appointees, function cyclically, each new administration trying to reverse the “damage” of the previous cycle.

In our capitalist culture, with its worship of free enterprise, everything is measured by its economic value. Natural resources on public land are seen primarily as commodities to be extracted and sold for private profit. Taxpayer-funded government agencies support private businesses. Significant conservation is only achieved under legal pressure from private non-profit groups.

Heroic Firefighters, Romantic Lookouts

As I described in Part 5, our wildfire season starts during the pre-monsoon months of May and June. I moved here at the beginning of May 2006 and began spending several evenings per week with new friends at downtown watering holes – the corner bar and grill and the wine bar across the street. The stars of both scenes were Forest Service firefighters who’d just arrived from all over the country and would be stationed here for the season. They were young, athletic men, daredevil adrenaline junkies, and our women, young and old, clustered around them and hung on their every word.

Shortly after arriving, I started commuting out of our tiny local airport. The Forest Service has a permanent fire station there, where firefighters are based, and I saw how fleets of planes, helicopters, and trucks, as well as busloads of personnel, accumulate every season. Our monsoon was late that year, but it started with a big storm that turned the gully cutting through downtown into a raging orange river. And the hunkiest of that season’s firefighters was captured on the front page of our newspaper as he kayaked on that dangerous flood, all the way out of town to where it finally spread and dissipated miles out on the alluvial plain. The women swooned.

Five years later, a woman I was interested in took me to a talk, a book launch, by a local author, Philip Connors. Connors was a handsome former copy editor on the Wall Street Journal. Stuck in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, he’d fallen for the romance of the Forest Service fire tower. He’d followed Kerouac’s example, getting a job with the Forest Service as a fire lookout in a tower on a high peak just east of my new hometown, where he hoped to gain enlightenment, and a marketable story, through the contemplation of nature.

He’d spent several seasons there, and one of the big East Coast publishing houses had just released his memoir, Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout. It was getting rave reviews in the national press, and would go on to win the National Outdoor Book Award. Connors was our new local hero.

But not much of a public speaker. Facing a devoted crowd of young people and retirees, he struggled to enliven the months he spent in that tower – attempting to protect government trees from wildfire, reflecting on his limited life experience, occasionally spotting bears and other wildlife. Connors was no Kerouac, but he seemed like a nice guy. I could see how working on Wall Street could make you long for a different view out your window.

But I never romanticized fire lookouts in the first place – mountains should be sacred, and it saddens me when people violate their peaks with towers and antennae. And Connors’s experience as a solitary, passive observer compared poorly with the decades I’d already spent busting ass all over the desert with conservation biologists, learning about ecology, helping to save endangered species, and working to restore natural habitats.

Connors’s book begins by repeating the official gospel of contemporary wildfire management, a story of past mistakes being steadily corrected by science. From its inception until the most recent generation, the Forest Service tried to prevent or suppress all wildfires, in order to protect the natural resources – the trees – as well as the recreational features, private property, and businesses within or adjacent to its boundaries. Then, during the past four decades, there was a gradual shift.

New science claimed that forests evolved with fire and needed it to maintain diversity and productivity. Agency policy abandoned prevention and suppression and refocused on reducing built-up fuels and restoring natural fire regimes in fire-adapted habitats. More evidence of Progress: thanks to science, European culture was learning from its past mistakes, and the future would be a better place.

In our area, as in most fire-adapted habitat throughout the West, land users, homeowners, and media are regularly notified of “prescribed burns” planned by federal agencies in pursuit of the new management policy. And in remote rural areas like my new backyard, wildfires are sometimes allowed to burn without intervention when they don’t directly threaten human lives or property. Thus, environmentally-concerned city dwellers are reassured that the new policy is being successfully implemented.

But at the same time, ever larger, apocalyptic mega-wildfires occur, often near big cities, at what has come to be called the wildland-urban interface. A century of fire prevention and suppression resulted in widespread accumulation of fuels, while cities were sprawling and urban refugees were building farther and farther into fuel-rich forests. So that now, despite the official policy, most wildfires threaten lives, property, and the respiratory health of city-dwellers. The new policy of fuel reduction and prescribed burning requires little manpower, equipment, and expenditure, while the old romantic, military model of firefighting continues to expand, deploying billions of dollars worth of “assets” – armies of heroic firefighters, bulldozers, trucks, helicopters, and airplanes.

Throughout the fire season, we watch the hotshot caravans passing, the helicopters beating overhead, dipping to siphon water out of the giant plastic “pumpkin” tanks temporarily set up along rural roads. Somewhere out of sight in the backcountry, bulldozers cut fire breaks across natural habitat, lines of suited firefighters light backfires with gas-filled driptorches, aircraft dump water and bright red chemical fire retardant on native forests.

Marketing the Military Model

My desert friends and I subscribe to the annual BLM California calendar and the weekly BLM California News.Bytes newsletter. The calendar features beautiful landscape photography, and the newsletter keeps us abreast of events on public land in the desert.

But while Trump was president, the BLM newsletter bragged about his contributions to both the economy and conservation. And now, only two months into the Biden presidency, News.Bytes brags about overturning Trump’s legacy and employing the “best available science” to advance conservation. Regardless of the party in power, information we get from the government can’t be entirely trusted. It’s always going to function partly as PR – as advertising for the current administration.

In July 2017, a wildfire in California’s Sierra Nevada threatened the hometown of one of my favorite families – ironically, an ecologist, his botanist wife, and their kids. Home and business owners threatened directly by a wildfire rely on emergency phone alerts and daily public briefings by the law enforcement types who lead the military-style firefighting response. But I’d spent quality time at my friends’ place and was desperate for up-to-date information, so I turned to to InciWeb, the website maintained by government agencies involved with wildfire.

Government response to a wildfire starts when the agency with local jurisdiction names the “incident” (usually after a nearby landmark) and assigns an Incident Commander, who then puts together a team. Information – news, announcements, maps, photos, and videos – starts appearing under the new incident page of InciWeb.

My friends’ home escaped the fire, but I became an InciWeb addict, tuning in every morning during each year’s wildfire season to see what was burning in my region and my friends’ regions. I learned the idiosyncracies of the bureaucratic systems. In the bilingual Southwest, incident commanders routinely misspelled the Anglo place names that are assigned to new fires, and those misspelled names became the permanent incident titles in the public record: Brigham became Bringham, Vicks Peak became Vics. Information on InciWeb was good PR for the agencies – they could impress the public with how hard they were working for those tax dollars – but some incident teams did a better job than others.

After a serious wildfire erupted in a popular wilderness area near me last summer, the original incident team uploaded almost nothing to InciWeb for several weeks. Then they were suddenly replaced by a completely different team, which immediately started uploading a torrent of updates, maps, photos, and videos.

What kind of picture did all this government information portray about the actual fire? Sure, there were detailed maps of the perimeter, but as we saw in previous Dispatches of this series, a wildfire boundary is largely meaningless.

Most of the photos posted on InciWeb are of firefighters and equipment, bureaucrats briefing the public, or dramatic sunsets seen through smoke. Most of the videos are of aircraft dropping water and chemicals. Heroic firefighters, our tax dollars hard at work, and a bit of entertainment to hook the audience. Almost nothing about the unfolding, localized ecological interactions of the fire with habitat and wildlife, the natural adaptations and responses.

War on Wildfire

Aggression and violent conflict are so fundamental and essential to our society and culture that most people believe them to be universal human traits, just as they accept the polarization of society as a necessary evil of the democratic process.

But human societies don’t universally frame every problem as an enemy to be battled and conquered, the way we do, in our War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Crime, War on Cancer, War on Obesity, and most recently, the Battle Against Climate Change.

European history, the history we were taught in school, is a 2,000 year series of wars, revolutions, city-states, nations, and empires, one following the other. Europeans fought so many wars no one can keep track of them. The need to compete, to dominate others and the earth, is so fundamental to European culture that few of us are even aware of it. In media and the public discourse, people in our society are always said to be “fighting” one thing or another.

Conflict and violence are so fundamental to our culture that they bias our view of others. We romanticize indigenous people as brave warriors, overlooking examples of peaceful cooperation and coexistence. But anthropological research has uncovered many societies, throughout history and around the world, that prevent or manage conflict without violence. These societies don’t respond to challenges like climate change by fighting or waging war – they cooperate, resolve differences peacefully, and adapt to changing conditions.

It’s now widely acknowledged that the War on Drugs was a mistake. We’ve obviously never won the War on Poverty, the War on Cancer, or the War on Obesity. The War on Crime has resulted in mass incarceration of dark-skinned minorities. Does anyone really believe the War on Climate Change will be more successful?

And what about the War on Wildfire? We’re clearly not winning that one. According to official policy, we’re not even supposed to be fighting it. The Forest Service is supposed to be managing forests sustainably, but it’s clearly not working. As in all our wars, our rhetoric is not matching our accomplishments.

Maybe it’s time for a closer look at how we reached this state of crisis between our society and its environment, and this level of denial between rhetoric and reality.

Next: Americans and Wildfire

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Cave Climbing

Monday, March 29th, 2021: Hikes, Mogollon Mountains, Sacaton, Southwest New Mexico.

I’d had my first COVID shot on Friday, suffering only a sore arm. Online research suggested a hike on Sunday would be fine. We’d had snow, sleet, and rain in the past few days, so I was anxious to check out the 300′ waterfall I’d read about, up the canyon with the cave and arch I’d seen from a distance on my first bushwhack. I was afraid if I waited much longer, the last snow would melt and the waterfall would dry up.

It was supposed to be a six mile one-way with 2,000′ of elevation gain, which normally wouldn’t be enough to challenge me, but with my immune system off balance I should probably take it easy anyway. And I had no idea what I’d find in that canyon. There had originally been a trail, but after the 2012 wildfire it hadn’t been cleared. If it turned out to be an easy hike, I might be able to bushwhack up to the 10,000′ ridge above. It the canyon turned out to be blocked with debris and deadfall, I might not even reach the waterfall. In any event, there was the cave and the arch, halfway up. I was sure I could reach those at minimum.

The turnoff from the highway is at a ranch gate – the biggest and fanciest ranch gate in this area, with an expensive sign advertising their rodeo wins. The ranch itself is one of the biggest private properties in the state – 40,000 acres or 62.5 square miles. The road cuts straight up through the middle of it toward the mountains where they get their water, still rimmed with snow. Along the way you pass the sprawling ranch headquarters, big corrals and an auction yard, and a series of large stock ponds at different levels of the vast plateau.

Toward the head of the plateau, the gravel road joins a narrow irrigation ditch, made of four-foot pre-cast concrete sections, and enters the pinyon-juniper-oak forest. Water was flowing briskly down the ditch. The gravel road ends at the mouth of the canyon, where a dam feeds the ditch. A 4wd road leads onward into the riparian forest, but I could tell it wasn’t likely to be drivable so I parked in the clearing outside.

This riparian forest was pretty impressive – it’d mostly escaped the wildfire, and tall old-growth ponderosas shaded the floodplain. The 4wd road had been cleared in places, but was blocked by deadfall or erosion at intervals. As it crossed back and forth across the creek, I could sometimes see all-terrain tire tracks but couldn’t tell how old they were.

The creek was flowing strong, and the rocks were covered with brilliant green algae. I reached a cattle gate, beyond which the road had been completely washed out. But it continued on the other side, until eventually it became a single track trail, still in the shaded floodplain. It crossed the creek again and I came to the cabin. Unlike the other cabins I’ve encountered in these canyons, this one used absolutely no milled lumber – it was made entirely out of rough-cut native timber, with shake siding. It looks like it could fall down any minute, but from experience I know it could keep standing for decades.

Past the cabin, the trail disappears in thorny thickets with lots of deadfall. I saw the cave rock looming ahead through the trees and crossed the creek, traversing a little ways up the north slope to avoid the floodplain thickets. From where I’d first seen the cave, it looked like the best approach would be from the left side, where I might be able to skirt the bottom of the cliff all the way to the cave. But that way might just as likely be blocked by boulders. The base of the cliff was almost 400′ above me, and there were intervening gullies that might slow me down a lot. So I kept going until I was almost directly under the cave. Then I started climbing the slope, which was at least 30 degrees, alternating between grass, bare rock, and thickets.

It was slow going – I had to zigzag back and forth to avoid obstacles and maintain traction. I could see pines above and hoped for more open ground, but it was a struggle all the way up.

The cave itself was protected by a lower skirt of vertical cliffs, but I eventually saw a narrow crack through the cliffs, directly below the cave, that appeared to have trees growing out of it. I was hoping that would be my way up, but I would need a lot of luck.

Finally, forcing my way past thickets that choked the base of the cliffs, I reached the crack. It was narrow and lined with oaks, but I couldn’t see the end of it, so I just started climbing.

That crack was really an amazing formation. It got narrower toward the top, but the ground was firm so it was fairly easy climbing. Then it curved to the left and the way was blocked with boulders, with only a tiny space between them.

I found that the gap between the boulders was big enough for my body, but I had to take my pack off and push it through first. Then I was able to lever myself up through the gap, using a small branch below as a foothold.

I emerged in a small patch of gravel at the base of the final cliff that led to the cave. There was a vertical crack leading up the cliff, and on its left was a near-vertical rock surface uneven enough to provide holds. I liked the look of the cliff better than the crack, so I tried to climb it, but found the rock too crumbly.

I discovered that these rocks, which look like sandstone from a distance, are the “Gila conglomerate” – the same rock that formed the cliff dwellings north of town. After the ancient volcanism that created these mountains, this rock formed when clasts of harder country rock became embedded in the relatively soft white tuff from the eruptions – kind of like “rocky road” ice cream.

Unlike most conglomerate, it fractures along spherical planes, forming the vaulted arches and caves prehistoric people used as shelter. But it’s really unstable rock, not good for climbing.

I stood there, my spine tingling as I realized I would have to find a way up. I couldn’t get this far and turn back. But I hadn’t done a climb this dangerous in 20 years, my skills were super rusty, and all the recent disabilities had sapped my confidence and made me feel vulnerable. And I knew the climb down would be MUCH harder and scarier.

I took a deep breath and started up the crack, using it for footholds and exploring the rough rock of the cliff on my left for handholds. About half the ones I tried immediately broke off, but I kept breathing and stayed calm until I could find one that seemed solid.

Eventually the convex surface of the cliff ensured that the slope became less vertical, and I emerged onto a surface I could stand on. The cave arched above me, and at its back, the dark, raised alcove I’d seen from a distance.

I looked down and immediately saw a prehistoric corn cob! I couldn’t see any evidence of stone construction inside the arch, but the ancient Mimbrenos must’ve had a secret granary up here.

My spine was still tingling – where the rock was bare, it sloped downwards, and the inside of the arch was littered with slabs fallen from above. It was an exposed place I didn’t feel comfortable spending much time in. I saw that the raised alcove was actually open to the sky on the other side of the giant formation. I shouted and a clear echo came back.

I looked around and realized the way I’d come, through that steep, narrow crack in the cliff, was the only way up here. I’d been very lucky with my routefinding and guessing. If I’d tried to climb earlier and traverse the base of the cliffs I’d have had to backtrack a long distance on very rough ground to reach this point.

I found a relatively level spot in the sun and sat down on the bare rock for a snack and a drink of water. Then, of course, a canyon wren began calling from somewhere above. The arch returned sound so effectively it was impossible to tell where the bird was, but another responded immediately.

Facing me across the canyon and a little farther upstream was the other arch. I could see a natural stone bridge at its right, with forest underneath. I figured that could be explored another day – the scary climb to this cave was enough for now.

I was starting to feel a little queasy, probably from the strenuous climb and lingering effects of the vaccine. I was frankly not sure about the climb back down the crack, and wanted to get it over with. A fall would either kill me or injure me severely. The longer I put it off, the more likely I would just succumb to panic and freeze up.

The only option was to back down, reversing the moves I’d made coming up. I just kept breathing and took it slow, and it turned out to be not as hard as I’d expected. All the same holds worked going down, and it was over before I knew it.

I was hoping to keep hiking up the canyon, so I looked for ways to traverse that direction on the descent. But that slope was too steep and choked with scrub, so I had to go straight down, forcing my way through to the more open ponderosa forest of the floodplain.

The canyon bottom was still choked with thorns and deadfall, and there was no sign of a trail, but I found abundant elk scat and cattle sign and began following segments of game trails that led upward along the north slope. I wasn’t sure I should be climbing, but the canyon bottom just didn’t look like a viable path.

I was also starting to feel sick. I’d felt a sore throat starting, up in the cave, and now I just felt unwell – a little dizzy, a little queasy. But I kept going.

Ahead, the canyon was blocked by boulders the size of apartment buildings. It was obvious why the game trails were climbing – they had to get around the boulders. In places I came upon remnants of the original hiking trail, but these were short and scarce.

Using the game trails – one time I was grateful for the presence of cattle – I got around the boulder blockage, and the trails led back into the canyon bottom. I was now below the opposing arch.

I kept following game trails, and again they led up the slope. It was really hard going with a lot of loose ground, thickets, and deadfall. And after another mile or so, I suddenly found myself at the edge of a cliff. It was like a big bite had been taken out of the canyon side. Above the bite was dense undergrowth – to get around it I’d have to climb down into the canyon. I was feeling pretty bad, so I decided to turn back. Farther ahead I could see the canyon narrowing and curving out of sight to the north. Above in the distance was the high snowy ridge, lined with aspens, banded with talus. I could see a huge outcrop of cliffs where I figured the waterfall might be.

Working my way back down the canyon, I began to notice tall alders standing up from the floodplain. But I’d seen no sycamores – I wondered why?

Despite the many obstacles, due to my landscape memory I was able to nearly retrace my steps. When I reached the canyon bottom, below the opposing arch, I was feeling a little better. I looked up, and thought I could see a direct path up the steep slope, between boulders and deadfall. I decided to try it.

It turned out to be much steeper than the climb to the cave, in loose dirt still wet from yesterday’s rain. But I took it slow, and eventually discovered it was a much longer climb than expected. About halfway I found game trails that switchbacked, making it an easier climb. Then I reached a dense forest of oak below the arch that was tough going.

Finally I emerged from the oak thicket at the base of the arch.

This arch was shallower, longer, and deeper than the other, and north-facing so it was almost entirely in shade. I found nothing prehistoric, but because this arch was much easier to climb to, there was plenty of historical graffiti.

I climbed down the same way I’d climbed up, and resumed my retreat down the canyon.

I was feeling really good by the time I reached the vehicle. It’d turned into a warm spring day, but I’d had the sound of rushing water around me all through it, and the frequent sight of snow high above. I’d done a couple of serious climbs, one of them that I’d never forget. And on the way out, I noticed this enigmatic old adobe standing off to the side of the irrigation ditch.

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Fire, Part 7: Americans and Wildfire

Wednesday, March 31st, 2021: Fire, Nature, Problems & Solutions, Society, Wildfire.

All images by Max unless otherwise credited.

Previous: Government and Wildfire

Go West, Young Man!

Why is it so hard for our government to walk the talk, to do what it says it’s doing – to work with fire instead of against it? Why are wildfires getting bigger, and more destructive, reducing suburban neighborhoods and sometimes entire towns to ash, killing dozens of rural citizens, choking millions of city dwellers with dense clouds of smoke, requiring more and more massive paramilitary efforts to control?

It might help to take a fresh look at our history.

In school, I learned about the European Age of Discovery, in which brave explorers like Columbus and Magellan set out in wooden ships to cross oceans and discover new lands. I learned about the first settlement of North America by Pilgrims, English refugees fleeing religious persecution. I learned about the gradual colonization of eastern North America by the English, as part of the growing British Empire. The American Revolution, in which the colonists rejected British rule and established a democratic nation, the United States, based on the sanctity of individual freedom.

I learned that the United States began a new era of democratic nations, an era of freedom and democracy that gradually replaced the old European empires, all over the world. We were no longer English – from now on, we were Americans, a free people who had left the Old World behind. We went on to develop our own culture, with our own heroes and institutions.

I was born and started school in the upper Ohio River valley, in the foothills of the western Appalachians, surrounded by deciduous hardwood forest, where I spent most of my free time outdoors exploring nature. Our town was the first U.S. settlement west of the Appalachians, founded by George Washington’s senior officers in the wake of the American Revolution, capital of the new “Northwest Territory”.

But they’d built the town around prehistoric Indian mounds, an extensive ceremonial complex of the vanished “Hopewell” culture. My dad gave me his collection of arrowheads found by our farming ancestors, and even before I started school I was pulling fossils out of the banks of the creek behind our house. So from earliest childhood I was not only steeped in American history, I had abundant exposure to deep time, and a passionate curiosity that came from direct personal experience, not from books or classrooms.

One of our family vacations took me to North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains, deep in the Appalachian spruce-fir forest, where I met Cherokee Indians and toured the mammoth Fontana Dam and hydroelectric generating station, which destroyed a vast area of natural riparian habitat as part of liberal President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Another trip took me farther east to the nation’s capital, colonial landmarks like Williamsburg, and the decisive Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg.

As described in Part 1 of this series, we moved west to Indiana after I turned 8. Away from the dark, forested eastern mountains, to the flat, open cropfields of the Midwest. I learned about the Indian Wars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, after which this region was settled by my ancestors, and the forests cleared for farms and towns. I looked for Indian mounds in remnants of forest that survived beside the small, serpentine rivers, but the indigenous presence had been completely erased here.

Nevertheless everything seemed old. Many of our buildings, even new ones, copied the East Coast Colonial style, with brick walls and white columns. Government buildings echoed the neo-Classical styles from ancient Greece and Rome that were popular throughout the eastern U.S. My new hometown’s heyday had been the Victorian period of the late 19th century, so our downtown, and many of our biggest homes, consisted of brick and stone buildings in the English Victorian style.

We’d been taught that we were Americans, and our country represented a dramatic break from the Old World and a fresh start in the New, but actually I was living in a European Colonial town, surrounded by a landscape that had been tranformed to look like the English Midlands.

My formal education in ecology began under Mr. Carrigan, my high school biology teacher. He cultivated a special relationship with me, introducing me to soils, soil fauna, and pollination, encouraging my fascination with snakes, intermediaries between the surface world and the hidden, mysterious underground. I spent my last summer in that place living on an ancestral farm, falling in love with the wild forest and river that bordered it.

I started college at the University of Chicago, which was modelled on Oxford University in England. The U of C’s undergraduate curriculum was based on the Great Books of Western Civilization, so I became even more mired in our European cultural legacy. The U of C was not that unique – all of what we call higher education is European in origin, structure, and practice.

But from there I was catapulted far west, to northern California, echoing the 19th century mass migration that settled our West Coast. That move west was seminal for me – it began my cultural awakening, my growth away from the European legacy, the baggage burdening the eastern U.S., which always looks eastward to the Old World for its history and validation. Despite my thorough indoctrination in European culture, the mentors of my youth had rebelled against the system, encouraging me to question authority and think critically, and I was more than ready to unlearn the propaganda from those many years of school and replace it with accurate knowledge about the world.

I’d known since early childhood that there was a deep, rich, non-European past underlying this entire continent, but in the West it was closer to the surface. Colonists had not transformed the landscape the way they had back east, and large populations of Native Americans survived here and there, in places like the Southwest that were exotic, beautiful, and deeply intriguing to me.

The California desert was the place that quickly captured my heart. As I described in Parts 2 and 3, I encountered natural desert habitats that at first seemed to be pristine wilderness, but turned out to be littered with ancient potsherds, fragments of stone tools, petroglyphs and pictographs that tapped into my childhood curiosity about deep time and fired my artist’s imagination. I met desert rats and field scientists and learned about prehistoric tribes, desert ecology, the history of mining and ranching, the damage to desert habitats caused by cattle grazing, military operations and motorized recreation, the spread of invasive plants, and wildfire.

I spent a lot of time in and around Las Vegas, assisting a friend with wildlife research and conservation, experiencing firsthand the uncontrolled development, growth, and consumption resulting from our society’s founding belief in personal freedom and free enterprise. The rapid destruction of natural habitat by urban and industrial sprawl, the massive solar plants consuming multiple square miles of nature every year.

I met Native Americans and heard their stories, which contradicted much of what I’d learned from Anglo archaeologists. I studied aboriginal survival skills to get a firsthand sense of how indigenous people had lived in the arid Southwest. I lived and worked on ecological preserves, learning about regional ecology and the ecosystem services provided by native habitats and wildlife. I started my Pictures of Knowledge project – titled by biologist friends – to develop a more accurate understanding of humans in nature.

I revisited Mr. Carrigan – my old high school biology teacher, now retired – and saw his eyes light up with enthusiasm as he described how he had directed an engineering effort that dredged and channelized the river bordering our old family farm, to reduce flooding of crop fields. Dozens of miles of precious riparian habitat had escaped destruction throughout seven generations of European culture, only to be wiped out virtually overnight, in the interest of commercial efficiency and profit.

I listened to a radio interview with Elizabeth Kolbert, the New Yorker staff writer and author of The Sixth Extinction. She was emerging as a national authority on climate change and species extinction, but when asked why we should care about these things, she was stumped. She couldn’t explain why humans need wild habitats and ecosystems. After an awkward silence, all she could offer was “well, um, nature is beautiful, it has spiritual value, to lose it would be a tragic loss”.

And in 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, after a decade of catastrophic wildfires all over the West, I encountered well-educated, liberal city dwellers from California and other affluent states, driving Priuses up 4wd roads, deep into our fire-adapted local forests, looking for remote cabins, rural properties where they could “get away from it all”.

They’d watched forested suburbs going up in flames on TV, they’d read magazine articles about why forests need to burn, and they’d listened to Forest Service authorities explaining why fire suppression had to end. But they were still moving into fire-adapted forests, and they still expected the government to protect them.

As cognitive scientists have pointed out, people can think critically, exercise reason and logic, share and compare observations and ideas with their peers in the public discourse – but in the long run, it may make little difference what we think and say, because most of our behavior is involuntary. We imitate family, friends, teachers, and celebrity heroes, we act on unconscious urges, we fall prey to habits and addictions we know are bad for us.

Fouling Their Nest

As I described above, for me, moving west was also moving away from our European Colonial legacy. Not to forget or deny it, but to peel back the layer of “American” colonial culture superimposed on this continent, to expose the rich legacy of indigenous cultures underlying ours. To put the imported colonial culture in a broader context, to compare it to cultures that are truly native to this land.

What kind of ecological culture did Europeans bring with them to this continent – how had they treated their habitats back home?

Much of Europe had already been ecologically degraded centuries before, its wildlands deforested, mined, and overgrazed by goats, sheep, and cattle. (M. Kat Anderson, Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources)

According to Josh Davis at London’s Natural History Museum:

Centuries of farming, building and industry have made the UK one of the most nature-depleted countries in Europe. Extensive agricultural lands and road networks, in combination with other factors, have reduced the wildlife in the UK to a point hardly seen elsewhere.

A new analysis looking into how much biodiversity is left in different countries around the world has shown that the UK has some of the lowest amounts of biodiversity remaining.

Before the Industrial Revolution, forests covered much more of the UK than they do now. Large areas of wilderness were home to animals and plants which are now a rare sight, or gone completely. Red squirrels, beavers, wolves and bears were once common in the British Isles.

The advent of mass farming, factories, roads, trainlines and urban sprawl has been a death knell for wild places, and it was accelerated by the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century.

This was our ancestors’ cultural legacy. What did they find waiting for them in the “New World”?

Discovering a Virgin Land

Around the arrival of Columbus, “it’s said that squirrels could travel from tree to tree from the Northeast to the Mississippi without ever having to touch the ground,” said Chris Roddick, chief arborist at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York. “In the old growth forests in the Northeast, you had hemlock that were six or seven feet in diameter, chestnut trees 200 feet tall.”

But we all know North America wasn’t an empty wilderness. Like Europe, it was filled with people, hundreds of local and regional indigenous tribes that had interacted with nature for thousands of years. The Eastern Seaboard of what’s now the U.S. was dotted with native villages surrounded by cropfields. Centuries later, records are poor and data is sparse, but it stands to reason that instead of continuous forest, eastern North America was a mosaic of habitats cultivated in part by Native Americans. And we’re now rediscovering that one of their tools was fire.

The early European settlers found that much of the East was already being fired on a frequent basis by Indians…These settlers gradually displaced the Indians, but continued their use of fire for many of the same reasons, i.e., to clear the woods of underbrush, to expose nuts, to clear agricultural fields, etc. Frequent fires occurred over large areas of the eastern landscape into the early decades of the 20th century. (D. H. Van Lear and R. F. Harlow, Fire in the Eastern United States: Influence on Wildlife Habitat, U.S. Forest Service)

Developing a Healthy Economy

Lear and Harlow say settlers “displaced” the Indians, suggesting they were just gently nudged aside. That’s a fine euphemism for the genocide we know occurred, and it hints at the unconscious anti-indigenous racism inherent to our culture, including science and academia. North American wasn’t settled, it was violently conquered and colonized. Native Americans were either decimated by the diseases we imported, cheated out of their habitat in unfair trade, slaughtered for their land and resources, or violently driven westward ahead of our invasion.

European colonization of the Americas resulted in the killing of so many native people that it transformed the environment and caused the Earth’s climate to cool down, new research has found…This “large-scale depopulation” resulted in vast tracts of agricultural land being left untended, researchers say, allowing the land to become overgrown with trees and other new vegetation…“The great dying of the indigenous peoples of the Americas resulted in a human-driven global impact on the Earth system in the two centuries prior to the Industrial Revolution,” wrote the UCL team of Alexander Koch, Chris Brierley, Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis. (Oliver Milman, The Guardian)

Reviewing the Forest Service maps I included in Part 2, comparing pre-conquest forest cover to that in the early 20th century, we can see far beyond Lear and Harlow’s observations. The European colonists didn’t just use fire to clear a few fields, so they could feed their families. They were part of a global empire with a capitalist consumer economy that would transform much of the world into corporate plantations, producing highly profitable addictive substances like tobacco, coffee, tea, sugar, rum, whiskey, and opium, alongside emerging consumer staples like cotton and palm oil.

To establish these commodity crops and plantations, European colonists employed advanced technology developed by their scientists and engineers to broadly eliminate natural habitat which had been tended by indigenous societies for millenia, across most of the U.S. east of the Mississippi.

Using steel axes, saws, shovels, chains, winches, mule teams, and eventually steam-powered and gas-powered tractors, bulldozers, excavators, and other heavy equipment, European colonists cleared forests, drained and filled wetlands, dammed rivers, and dug canals. Most of the eastern indigenous subsistence mosaic was replaced by plowed fields planted with commercial crops – imported from Europe or appropriated from natives – including pastures for European livestock. Hidden in soil clinging to these imported crops, invasive Eurasian earthworms reached North America, where like human colonists, they’ve conquered and displaced natives, spreading westward, reducing biodiversity in native soils, ultimately transforming and impoverishing native habitats.

Colonial exploitation of North America’s natural resources began the accumulation of wealth that would eventually enable the U.S. to build a global political, military, economic, industrial, and cultural empire. But the indigenous practices that colonists replaced – controlled burning and many other forms of tending documented in recent studies – had provided ecosystem services in cooperation with nature – nutrient cycling, soil renewal, water purification, fuel reduction, etc. Under the new regime, white elites gained wealth and power, but in the long term, everyone – colonists, surviving natives, and wildlife – suffered unforseen consequences, losing many of the ecosystem services provided by the original mosaic. Including climate regulation.

The very essence of the frontier experience lies in the extent of its resources, and when resources are boundless, why conserve them or even utilise them efficiently? The principal goal is to exploit them as quickly as possible, then move on. It is this frontier attitude to resource utilisation that lies at the heart of much capitalism, and which presents such a challenge to conservationists today. (Tim Flannery, The Eternal Frontier: An Ecological History of North America and Its Peoples)

Land of Liberty

The first European ventures in the Western Hemisphere were combined military, commercial, and religious expeditions – from Spain and Portugal – to dominate native populations, claim their land for the empire, exploit their labor and natural resources for profit, and convert them to Christianity.

But with colonial settlement, religious oppression, and commercial exploitation, European diseases and brutality began to depopulate the New World, and accounts of the richness of indigenous habitats gradually reached the “common people” back in Europe. Many Europeans, like the English Pilgrims and my Scottish ancestors, suffered from the oppression of empire at home, and the first European colonists in eastern North America were refugees seeking the freedom to practice religions unpopular or illegal in Europe.

This freedom from religious persecution became one of the founding values of colonial society. But the land-owning and business-owning classes in the colonies – minor aristocracy and the urban middle class that was becoming known in Europe as the bourgeoisie – had more secular concerns. They wanted freedom from taxes and other forms of imperial control imposed from Europe. They romanticized and sanctified this broader, more secular form of freedom in the term “liberty”.

The European culture they inherited was intensely individualistic and competitive, and their Judeo-Christian religious tradition had granted them dominion over nature. They eventually formed a nation – the United States – based on individual freedom, private property, and free enterprise.

As white Europeans pushed westward, replacing indigenous communal subsistence ecologies and habitat with capitalist consumer economies, cropfields and pastures, they corralled surviving native communities into less economically desirable fragments called reservations. Eventually, in the late 19th century, with most of the continent transformed, romantic activists like the Scotsman John Muir warned white citizens that surviving fragments of native habitat with “scenic” value to Europeans were in danger of being lost to settlement and commercial development.

In the words of Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society in the early twentieth century, ‘nowhere is Nature being destroyed so rapidly as in the United States…an earthly paradise is being turned into an earthly Hades; and it is not savages or primitive men who are doing this, but men and women who boast of their civilization’. This is the sad story of the economic machine that ate the life of a continent, and it was not just animals that were fed into its maw, but people and cultures too. (Flannery, The Eternal Frontier)

These fragments of surviving habitat had provided final refuge for indigenous communities which had so far escaped European conquest; in response to white concern over the loss of “wild nature,” these indigenous refuges were confiscated and native people were driven off. This became a model for European colonial “conservation” worldwide. Indigenous people were driven off, their land was now called “public” – meaning it was for the use of white colonists – and the former indigenous refuges were now “preserved for future generations” of white colonists as National (and State) Parks and Preserves. This racist policy has been acclaimed in our own time as “America’s Best Idea”.

Managing Resources

Gifford Pinchot and a handful of his contemporaries…went to Europe to study the relatively new profession of forestry…In Europe, forestry practices were developed to reforest lands that had long ago been denuded by the large rural population to provide timber, charcoal, firewood, and pasture…Under Pinchot’s leadership, the Forest Service claimed fire control as its compelling mission…The Forest Service used zealous promotion and propaganda to build an aggressive national program for suppressing forest fires in all forests…People who suggested that fire be used or sometimes be allowed to burn were ignored or put down. (Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno, Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree)

Not until the early 1900s were there serious efforts to exclude fire as an ecological process in eastern North America. In 1910, an outbreak of wildfires in the western United States–concentrated in Idaho and Montana, burned millions of acres, much of which was on national forests, and killed 78 firefighters…These events occurred just after the Forest Service had made fire control a top priority on the nation’s national forests and caused the public to become concerned about the sustainability of the nation’s natural resources. (Lear and Harlow, USFS)

Led by the Forest Service and the state forestry commissions, the public began to see fire as an enemy to be suppressed at all costs. An era of fire suppression began that created different environments from those that had existed for millennia, often to the detriment of many wildlife species. (Lear and Harlow, USFS)

Thus federal agencies’ policy of fire suppression emerged in collaboration with media and public opinion – just as now, sensational media stories of wildfire trigger emotional reactions and demands for political action on climate change – actions which will have unforseen consequences far in the future, beyond our leaders’ brief terms of office, beyond our own lifetimes.

Government fire suppression didn’t just apply to the parks and preserves set aside for white people. Government fire suppression furthered our founding values of free enterprise and private property, enabling private individuals and businesses to expand further into fire-adapted natural habitat.

In the 1930s, liberal President Franklin Roosevelt implemented the New Deal, a program which dammed hundreds of rivers, damaging or destroying aquatic and riparian ecosystems and habitats nationwide. This program is celebrated today by liberals as the inspiration for the proposed Green New Deal, their weapon in the War on Climate Change.

The destruction of North America’s waterways is arguably the greatest blow ever struck by the European Americans at the continent’s biodiversity, for it blasted the oldest and most distinctive biological element on the continent. (Flannery, The Eternal Frontier)

Roosevelt’s program accelerated the development of the massive infrastructure our modern civilization depends on, which we now take for granted and expect government and industry to maintain for us in perpetuity. Dams – which are still promoted as clean energy – mines, factories, refineries, railroads, highways, pipelines, solar plants, wind farms, powerlines, and aquaducts all destroy natural habitat and endanger wild plant and animal populations.

By the 1950’s North Americans had eliminated about four-fifths of the continent’s wildlife, cut more than half its timber, all but destroyed its native cultures, dammed most of its rivers, destroyed its most productive freshwater fisheries and depleted a good proportion of its soils. (Flannery, The Eternal Frontier)

As the innovations of science and technology enabled population growth, cities, farms, and factories continued to expand and consume natural habitat, until, in the Postwar Boom of the mid-20th century, prosperity and advances in transportation technology gave us a global trade empire, introducing new waves of invasive plants and animals, which domestic air travel and conservative President Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway System rapidly dispersed from coast to coast – including the invasive plants which are now fueling high-intensity wildfire in the desert.

At the same time, our science achieved a quantum leap in environmental destruction through the “miracle products” of chemistry like plastics, chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and pharmaceuticals, and the nuclear radiation unleashed by physicists in weapons development, medicine, and electric power generation. Whereas before, urban and industrial development had consumed and replaced discrete patches of rural habitat, these new toxins spread continuously through air, water, soil, and living populations, both urban and rural, resulting in more unforseen consequences far into the future.

We’re all familiar with the revelations of these dangers in the early 1960s and the subsequent Environmental Movement, the establishment of the EPA, the Clean Air and Water Acts, and the Endangered Species act. But despite these brief flurries of public opinion and legislation, the chemical industry continued to churn out plastics and other pollutants, and fire suppression and individual freedom ensured that natural habitat continued to be consumed as cities, homes, and businesses moved deeper into rural land.

Getting Away From It All

Eventually, in recent decades, just as science was beginning to discover the role of fire in ecosystems and government agencies were struggling to overhaul fire management policy, both scientists and agencies identified a fly in the ointment, another unforseen consequence of our culture – the newly-christened wildland-urban interface, the physical boundary between nature and human dwellings and businesses.

Just as we belatedly recognized the need for wildfire to maintain natural habitat and ecosystem services, we discovered that our policy of fire suppression had made wildfire nearly impossible to restore to the system – because there were people, buildings, pets, and equipment already established there, throughout fire-adapted habitats. Private property and free enterprise are fundamental to our culture, but ecological sustainability appears nowhere in the Constitution or other founding documents, because it was not part of our European legacy.

At the same time the environmental movement was burgeoning and timber sales were being appealed, people were moving into homes and developments located in forests beyond the traditional suburbs. It became feasible to extend power and phone lines into the woods and maybe even to obtain a conventional mortgage loan. Comfortable four-wheel-drive vehicles and pickup-mounted snowplows were now available, allowing year-round access…

By the late 1980s a few million people had moved into the western forests…The new residents often resisted suggestions to thin their own forest, yet most had fire insurance and expected the rural fire department to come to their aid if a fire came near…

Television news and movies feature heroic images of brave firefighters and their impressive technology battling destructive fires…These superheroes had a record of defeated wildfires, and most forest residents felt confident that the fire department could protect them…Exurban housing in ponderosa pine forests threatens wildlands like national forests, national parks, and other preserves, because it prevents managers from using prescribed burning or allowing natural fires to burn to maintain the ecosystem. (Carl E. Fiedler and Stephen F. Arno, Ponderosa: People, Fire, and the West’s Most Iconic Tree)

Climate Change

We’ve seen how, during the early 20th century, public opinion in our ecologically ignorant and environmentally destructive culture was manipulated by science, government, and media to demand wildfire suppression. Government propaganda promoting this policy – the Smokey Bear campaign – continued through my childhood and youth. And the unforseen consequences of this cultural manipulation, misguided public opinion, and political action accumulated for more than a century, resulting in our current wildfire crisis.

Now science and liberal media are urging us to demand political action on climate change, which is presented as the cause of all our pressing environmental problems, including destructive wildfire.

Yes, average temperatures are rising globally. Average precipitation is decreasing in many areas, and natural habitats are drying out, increasing fuel loads for wildfire. Climate change can make wildfire worse, but it’s not the root cause. Wildfire is a problem for us because our culture denies its value and its necessity. Wildfire is a natural creative force – our culture is what’s destructive.

Wildfires are getting bigger and more damaging because from the very beginning, European colonists unleashed a plague of livestock, invasive plants and animals, and Eurasian diseases to disrupt and replace native ecosystems. European colonists deforested the Eastern U.S., dammed rivers, drained and filled wetlands, replacing natural habitat with cities, factories, and industrial commodity farms, eliminating natural ecosystem services, enabling an unsustainable population explosion and causing damage that has yet to be repaired.

Wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive because in the early 20th century, white Americans reacted to sensational news stories and urgent warnings from science and media, building a groundswell of public opinion that forced government and industry to take major short-term actions – fire suppression – with unforseen consequences unfolding far into the future. We suppressed the wildfires the forest needed, and the longer we suppressed fires, the more desperately they were needed.

Wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive because our industrial civilization denies nature and her cycles. Clinging to the hallowed principles of liberty, private property, and free enterprise that our colonial founders lived and died for, we fight to maintain homes, businesses, and infrastructure in fire-starved habitats. But worst of all, wildfires are getting bigger and more destructive because we slaughtered and drove off the natives who sustainably tended fire-adapted habitats.

Climate change isn’t causing destructive wildfires – we should’ve been having frequent wildfire all along, and our culture, our entire civilized way of life, is responsible for making it worse now. Climate change is only one of many unforseen consequences of industrial civilization. And the actions we take now, in a desperate effort to save that civilization, will have more far-reaching unforseen consequences, just like the fire suppression we demanded over a century ago.

I mentioned above that Native Americans lived with wildfire, using it as a tool to increase productivity of natural habitats. Is there anything we can learn from them?

Next: Native Americans and Wildfire

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