William deBuys

Welcome to the Pyrocene

William deBuys, Welcome to the Pyrocene

In case you hadn’t been paying attention, it’s hot on this planet. I mean, really hot. And I’m not just thinking about Europe’s worst heat wave in at least 200 years. There, fires in Spain, Portugal, and France rage, barely checked. Nor do I have in mind the devastating repeated spring heat waves in South Asia or the disastrous drought in the Horn of Africa. It’s burning right here!

Scarcely noticed in the rest of the country (or in national news coverage), the American Southwest and parts of the West are in a megadrought of historic proportions. And parts of New Mexico, as naturalist and TomDispatch regular William deBuys describes so vividly today, have been burning in jaw-dropping fashion. (As a poor state, its fires don’t get the attention that those in wealthier southern California might.)

And yet, right now in what Noam Chomsky recently suggested could be “the last stage in human history,” the question is: When it comes to climate change, who’s really paying attention? As the Yale Program on Climate Communication discovered recently, “Of 29 issues we asked about, registered voters overall indicated that global warming is the 24th most highly ranked voting issue.” (Admittedly, it was number three among liberal Democrats, but either 28th or 29th among Republicans.) Meanwhile, coal baron Joe Manchin has just taken climate-change legislation of any sort off the Democratic congressional agenda for the imaginable future with the likelihood that, in the November elections, climate-denying Republicans could take full control of Congress.

And don’t think it’s just voters not fully focused on climate change either. Given my age (and force of habit), I still read a paper copy of the New York Times daily and, just last week, I noticed a front-page piece of news analysis written by Max Fisher with the headline, “In Many Ways, the World Is Getting Better. It Also Feels Broken.” Climate change is mentioned only in a passing phrase in its second paragraph as Fisher describes how our world is “generally becoming better off” than any of us imagine. And mind you, that was on a day when the first major article inside that paper was headlined “Growing Drought Imperils Northern Italy’s Rice Harvest” and focused on the drying up of the Po River at a moment of global warming-induced “extreme drought” there. At the bottom of the very next page was another piece, “Heat Wave Grips China’s South and East” (“Roofs melted, roads cracked, and some residents sought relief in underground air-raid shelters.”) — offering yet more evidence of “frequent episodes of extreme weather driven by climate change” globally.

In short, our world is all too weird in what it focuses on — and doesn’t. With that in mind, why don’t you head directly into the flames with William deBuys (whose most recent must-read book is The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss). Tom

New Mexico’s Megafires Mark a Turning Point: For People, Land, and the Forest Service

Firefighters don’t normally allude to early English epics, but in a briefing on the massive Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico, a top field chief said, “It’s like Beowulf: it’s not the thing you fear, it is the mother of the thing you fear.” He meant that the flames you face may be terrifying, but scarier yet are the conditions that spawned them, perhaps enabling new flames to erupt behind you with no escape possible. The lesson is a good one and can be taken further. If tinder-dry forests and high winds are the mother of the thing we fear, then climate change is the grandmother.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire blazed across 534 square miles of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the southernmost extension of the Rockies. Although the fire was the largest in New Mexico’s history, it had competition even as it burned. This spring, the Black Fire, a megafire of nearly equal size, devoured forests in the southern part of the state. The combined area of the two fires is roughly equal to that of Rhode Island, the American standard for landscape disasters on a colossal scale.

Records amassed by the Forest Service indicate that, at the fire’s peak, 27,562 people were evacuated from their homes. Four hundred and thirty-three of those homes were destroyed and more damaged, while an even greater number of barns, garages, sheds, and other outbuildings were also lost. The unquantified property damage, including destroyed power lines, water systems, and other infrastructure, will surely exceed the nearly billion dollars in damages arising from the Cerro Grande fire of 2000, which torched more than 200 residential structures in the city of Los Alamos. Meanwhile, the heartbreak resulting not just from destroyed homes but lost landscapes — arenas of work, play, and spiritual renewal, home in the broadest sense — is immeasurable.

The Hermits Peak fire began April 6th with the escape of a prescribed fire ignited by the U.S. Forest Service in the mountains immediately west of Las Vegas, New Mexico. A few days later and not far away, a second, “sleeper” fire, which the Forest Service had originally ignited in January to burn waste wood from a forest-thinning operation, sprang back to life. It had smoldered undetected through successive snowfalls and the coldest weather of the year. This was the Calf Canyon fire. Driven by unprecedented winds, the two fires soon merged into a single cauldron of flame, which stormed through settled valleys and wild forests alike, sometimes consuming 30,000 acres a day.

The blaze marks a turning point in the lives of all who experienced the fire. It also marks a transformative change in the ecological character of the region and in the turbulent history of the alternately inept and valiant federal agency that both started and fought it.

The Turning of a Climate Tide

Two and a half decades ago, a long-running wet spell came to an end in the Southwest. Reservoirs were full, rivers were meeting water needs, and skiers and irrigators alike gazed with satisfaction on deep mountain snowpacks. The region’s forests were stable, if overgrown.

Then came a dry winter and, on April 26, 1996, an unextinguished campfire in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains flared into a major conflagration that came to be known as the Dome Fire. I vividly remember the startling whiteness of its mushroom-shaped smoke plume surging into the sky, a sight all the more unnerving because the fire was burning within rifle shot of Los Alamos National Lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.

It engulfed much of Bandelier National Monument and stunned observers in two ways. The first surprise was that it erupted so early in the year, before fire season should properly have begun. The second was that it grew to what was then considered immense size: 16,516 acres. How times have changed.

The outbreak of the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, weeks earlier than the Dome, shows yet again that fire season is much longer than it used to be. The size of the burned area speaks for itself. A day when the combined fire consumed only as much land as the Dome did in its entirety sometimes felt like a good day.

Meanwhile, the news on water here in the Southwest is hardly less worrisome. Arizona’s Lake Mead, the nation’s largest reservoir, was full in 2000. Today, it’s at 27% of capacity, as is its younger and slightly smaller sibling, Lake Powell, which is also on the Colorado River. Plummeting water levels jeopardize the capacity of both lakes to produce hydroelectricity, which bodes ill for the region’s electrical grid.

On the Rio Grande in New Mexico, Elephant Butte reservoir, the state’s largest, is down to 10% of capacity and New Mexico’s inability to meet its water delivery obligations to Texas reveals the absurdity of interstate water compacts based on outdated assumptions about streamflow.

Then came the Hermits Peak and Calf Canyon fires, both sparked by Forest Service land treatments intended, ironically enough, to reduce the risk of rampant wildfire. Both projects were executed in accordance with the existing management rulebook, but the rules are rooted in a past more stable than the bone-dry, wind-fickle, and imperious present.

Chief Forester Randy Moore, who ordered a review of all actions relating to the prescribed fire that exploded into the Hermits Peak disaster, captured the essence of his agency’s failure this way: “Climate change is leading to conditions on the ground we have never encountered… Fires are outpacing our models, and… we need to better understand how megadrought and climate change are affecting our actions.”

To say that macro conditions have rendered the Forest Service’s procedures obsolete should not obscure the issue of human fallibility. The chief’s review uncovered a host of minor bungles (80 pages worth, in fact) that cumulatively unleashed the catastrophe. The bottom line: setting prescriptive fires is inherently dangerous, and the extremes of heat, dryness, and wind brought on by climate change leave only a razor-thin margin for error.

Being behind the curve of change this time around has been a replay of the agency’s formerly nearsighted view of fire itself. The Forest Service was born in fire. It was a young, struggling agency until the heroics of fighting the “Big Blowup” of 1910 in the northern Rockies established its identity in the national consciousness. PR campaigns exploiting the anti-fire icon of Smokey Bear helped complete its branding.

The agency’s fierce stance against fire in all forms crystallized its identity and mission, while also blinding it to important ecological realities. Many forest systems require periodic doses of “light fire” that burns along the ground consuming underbrush, seedlings, and saplings. In its absence, the forest becomes overcrowded, choked with fuel, and vulnerable to a potentially disastrous “crown fire” that storms through the treetops, killing the entire stand. The ponderosa and “mixed conifer” forests that dominated a large part of the area consumed by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire were overstocked in exactly that way. The Forest Service rightly deserves criticism for more than a century of all-out fire suppression, which led to unnaturally dense, fuel-heavy forests.

But that’s just one part of the story. Climate change is writing the rest.

The Fire Service

The Southwest is now in the midst of its second-worst drought in the last 1,200 years. Less publicized is the news that, were it not for greenhouse-gas pollution, the current dry spell would be rather ordinary. Nor is the forecast encouraging: given the warming of the regional climate, by perhaps 2050, coniferous forests in the Southwest — the majestic stands of ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, Englemann spruce, and subalpine fir that clothe the region’s blue mountains — will be, if not extinct, then rare indeed.

Fire, insects, drought, and outright heat, all driven by rising temperatures, will deliver a flurry of blows to doom the forests. However, it is (if, under the circumstances, I can even use the term) cold comfort to realize that, along the way, the ecological impact of the Forest Service’s misconceived ideology of all-out fire suppression will be — and already is being — erased by the implacable dynamics of a changing climate.

Having recognized its error on fire and having also been weaned by endless litigation from its post-World War II subservience to the timber industry, the Forest Service has attempted to recast itself as the nation’s premier steward of our wild lands. The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, unleashed by the Forest Service itself, appears to have brought that process of reinvention to an inglorious conclusion.

But all is not lost, for the Forest Service is actually two agencies, and only one of them has failed. The portion of the Forest Service committed to day-to-day custodianship of the national forest system may be underfunded, uninspired, and (despite many outstanding individuals in its workforce) poorly led, but its fire-fighting sibling is thriving. Some people call this portion of the agency the Fire Service.

In an era of global warming, fire-fighting is a growth industry and the Fire Service has managed to outfit itself accordingly. It sports the organizational coherence and high morale of a crack military outfit, while possessing equipment and funding to match its mission. Its infantry consists of fire crews recruited across the West that rotate in and out of action like combat troops.

The “armor” of the Fire Service consists of bulldozers, pumper trucks, masticators (that grind trees to pulp), feller-bunchers (that cut and stack trees), and other heavy equipment that clear fire lines scores of miles long. For air support, it commands not just spotter planes, slurry bombers (which douse fires with retardant), and bucket-wielding helicopters, but drones and state-of-the-art “Super Scoopers” that can skim the surface of a lake to fill their capacious cargo tanks with thousands of gallons of water. Then they head for the burning edge of the fire and, assisted by infrared guidance systems, drop their loads where the heat is fiercest.

Like any modern military unit, the Fire Service also uses satellite imagery, advanced communications, and specialists in logistics and intelligence (who predict fire behavior). Against the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, it deployed more than 3,000 personnel around a 648-mile fire periphery. For a time, the nation’s entire fleet of eight Super Scoopers was based at the Santa Fe airport.

You Don’t Need a Weatherman

The trouble with low-altitude air support is that bad weather can keep planes, choppers, and even drones on the ground. In fire-fighting parlance, it’s a “red-flag day” when the weather service issues a red-flag warning (RFW) signaling that winds are strong enough to produce explosive fire behavior. Such a warning also leaves the Fire Service’s air fleet grounded.

In April and May, in the area of our recent fires, more than half the days — 32, to be exact — warranted red flags, a record since such warnings were first counted in 2006. That included nine straight days of RFWs — April 9th to 17th — when the fire-fighting air force was largely grounded and the flames raged.

I remember those blustery days. I live in a village on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. The fire was on the east side. Most afternoons, I climbed a ridge to watch its immense smoke plumes boil into the sky. A fire volatilizes the water in the trees and other vegetation it combusts, dry though they may be. The vapor ascends the smoke column, crystallizing to ice as it reaches the frosty altitudes where jetliners fly. There, it condenses into blinding white cottony clouds that dwarf the mountains below them. A terrible sight to behold, those pyrocumulus clouds embody the energy released when our oxygen planet flaunts its power.

Wind may be the most neglected subject in the science of climate change. Nevertheless, it appears that the strength and distribution of wind phenomena may be changing. For example, derechos — massive, dust-filled weather fronts of violent wind — are now materializing in places where they were once little known. In their vehemence and duration, the gales that drove the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire seem to have been no less unusual.

Making People Whole

In multiethnic New Mexico, history and culture color every calamity. The vast majority of the people evacuated from the path of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire were Hispanic, most of them descendants of families that settled the region prior to its conquest by the United States in the war against Mexico of 1846 to 1848.

The Forest Service arrived relatively late on the scene as the colonizing arm of an Anglo-Protestant government centered 2,000 miles away. It assumed control of mountain expanses that had previously functioned as a de facto commons vital to local farmers and ranchers. Some of the commons were de jure as well, consisting of Spanish and Mexican land grants that were spirited away from their rightful heirs by unscrupulous land speculators, most of them Anglo.

The Forest Service may not have wrenched those lands from the people who owned them, but because many such lands were later incorporated into national forests, the agency inherited the animosity that such dispossession engendered. Restrictions the Forest Service subsequently imposed on grazing, logging, and other uses of the land only added to those bad feelings.

The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon catastrophe has understandably rekindled old resentments. Many of those who lost their homes or other property lacked insurance. (A typical house had been in the family for generations, was never mortgaged, and relied on wood stoves for heat.) Compensation, if it materializes, will have to come from Congress or, failing that, a class-action lawsuit which would grind on for years.

So far, the federal government has provided funding for emergency supplies, shelters, and public safety, but nothing to reimburse individuals for lost property. The four Democrats in New Mexico’s congressional delegation — a fifth member is Republican — have jointly introduced legislation to help the fire’s victims, but its prospects are, at best, unclear and expectations are low since, to state the obvious, the willingness of the Senate to conduct the people’s business is ever more in doubt.

Given that this country has so far done little to protect its citizens from the dangers of climate change, the damage and suffering in northern New Mexico will now show whether it is willing to take the next step and care for the victims of that growing nightmare.

If the Thunder Don’t Getcha…

We prayed for rain to stop the fire and ease the record-breaking dryness. When the rain finally came, it filled us with dread as much as gratitude. Severe burns produce “hydrophobic” soils, which absorb a downpour no better than a parking lot. The resulting floods can be orders of magnitude greater than normal runoff. In addition, sometimes the detritus of the fire — downed trees, mud, ash, and unmoored boulders — mixes into a “debris flow,” a sort of gooey, fast-moving landslide.

Thousands of people living below the fire’s charred slopes now worry for their safety. Already, following a recent cloudburst, the village of Rociada (which means “dew-laden”) was inundated by a flow of hail and ash two feet deep. Like their neighbors throughout the burned area, its residents are likely to be living behind sandbags for years. Many others beyond the fire’s periphery, including the 13,000 residents of Las Vegas, New Mexico, depend on water drawn from valleys now choked with ash. The taste of the fire, both literally and metaphorically, will be with us indefinitely.

And thanks to climate change, there will be plenty more fire. Our dawning new age, shaped by human-wrought conditions, has been called the Anthropocene, but historian Steve Pyne offers yet another name: the Pyrocene, the epoch of fire. This year, it was New Mexico’s turn to burn. Last year, an entire Greek island combusted, along with swaths of Italy, Turkey and large chunks of the Pacific Northwest and California. Fires in Siberia, meanwhile, consumed more forest than all the other areas combined. When it comes to ever more powerful fires, we New Mexicans are hardly alone.

On my side of the mountains, the county sheriff ordered us to prepare to evacuate. Fortunately, the flames halted a few miles away. We never had to leave. But packing our “go” bags and securing our houses now seems to have been a useful dress rehearsal. The drought and winds will be back. A bolt of lightning, a fool with a cigarette, a downed power line, or… goodness knows… the ham-fisted Forest Service will eventually provide the necessary spark, and then our oxygen planet, warmer and drier than ever, will strut its stuff again.

My neighbors and I know that this time we were lucky. We also know our luck can’t last forever. We may have dodged a bullet, but climate change has unlimited ammo.

We ignored the harbingers of doom at high altitudes — and now the woes have arrived for us all

Thirteen thousand feet high on the far side of the Himalaya mountains, we have entered the past and the future at the same time. We are a medical expedition and also a pilgrimage, consisting of doctors, nurses, Buddhist clerics, supernumeraries like me, and a large staff of guides, muleteers, and camp tenders. We are bound for the isolated villages of Upper Dolpo, a remote region of northwestern Nepal, land of the snow leopard — both the actual animal and The Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen's nonfiction classic. We are traveling the same trails Matthiessen walked in 1973.

As a medical mission, our purpose is to provide primary health care to people who rarely, if ever, see a clinician. As pilgrims, our purposes are as varied as our individual identities. Mine is to make peace with the anger and grief that have dogged me since finishing a pair of books, one on climate change, the other on extinction. They left me heartsick. My delight in the beauty of the world had been joined to sorrow at its destruction, and the two emotions were like cellmates who refused to get along. Their ceaseless argument soured the taste of life. I hoped that a long walk — about 150 miles in this case — might cure the resultant moral ache. (The story of that walk provides the backbone of my new book, The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss.)

The trails we followed led us into the past in the sense that the high Himalayan world — Sanskrit's "abode of snow" — is a relic of the Pleistocene, a land of glaciers, vast spaces, stony rubble, and frigid rivers. Its cynosure animal is less the snow leopard than the yak, a source of food, fiber, hide, bone tools, transport, and tractor power more essential to the Tibetan settlers of the region than even the bison was to America's Cheyenne or Sioux. Yaks enabled people to inhabit the wintry attic of the world, where today an Ice Age climate still lingers, even as it begins to fade away.

As much as we were entering the past, however, we were also plunging into the future. Lands at these high elevations appear to be warming two to three times faster than those lower down. The reasons for this are only partly understood. Changes in albedo — the reflectance of the land — are part of the answer: as snow packs shrink and glacial ice retreats, the newly bared and darker earth absorbs more solar energy than the white blanket that had covered it. The absorbed energy, in turn, warms the land and accelerates the melting of yet more nearby snow and ice. Windblown soot and dust, often set loose by human activities, can also darken the white, high-altitude world, yielding a similar effect.

From 1962 to 2006 the glaciers of the Himalaya appear to have lost more than a fifth of their ice. They did not all shrink at the same rate. In fact, some glaciers haven't shrunk at all, but measurements of the overall trend in the Sikkim-Nepal region put the average loss at seven inches of depth every year across the whole extent of ice. And, of course, the melting continues.

We used to say that climate disruption at high altitude presaged the changes that were soon to arrive in the rest of the world, that the cascade of broken balances exhibited by melting glaciers, erratic seasons, and unpredictable rivers was a harbinger of woes bound for environments closer to home. Sadly, such changes are harbingers no longer, for the woes have arrived.

Last summer saw nearly an entire Greek island combusted, significant swaths of Italy and Turkey turned to ash, giant expanses of the American Pacific Northwest set ablaze, and another full season of California flambé. Meanwhile, wildfires in Siberia consumed forested areas greater than all the rest combined, while floods in Belgium and western Germany drowned towns and villages that had never seen the like before. Then came an Atlantic hurricane season that has rivaled or surpassed the previous record-setting year in multiple categories. The future about which scientists and activists have warned us for more than 30 years is no longer on our doorstep. It's in the house.

Nowadays, the far Himalaya is less a model for the future than a mirror for the present. You see the same controversies over grazing and the same mistrust of land "managers" that preoccupy the American West. You see patterns of rural-to-urban migration that are common throughout the world, with young people leaving the family farmstead to seek their fortunes in the city. You also see the increased mobility of humanity expressed in legions of outsiders flooding into formerly isolated districts, much to the consternation of longtime residents.

In the case of Dolpo, the vast majority of outsiders invading the region are hunters of a weird fungus, yarza gunbu, that invades the head of a particular caterpillar soon after it hatches in the tundra grasslands. The fungus then consumes the unlucky caterpillar and erupts through the thin soil to produce a miniature tower, only a centimeter or two high, that (with a certain amount of imagination) can be seen to resemble an erect penis. As the snow recedes in the spring, yarza hunters pour by the thousands into the high country. Crawling on their hands and knees or shuffling stooped across the damp heights, they stare intently at the ground, straining to spot the phallic structure of their quarry. Gathered and dried, these rather unappetizing avatars of the male principle sell at cocaine prices as a remedy for impotence and a general tonic for health. Their market includes a large swath of Asia, especially China. Some call it "Himalayan Viagra."

Many Nepalis, especially urban youth, look to science to explain the perplexities of climate change, but in Dolpo and similar regions, yarza gunbu hunters often get blamed for the disturbed weather and chaotic hydrology afflicting the region. The newcomers, so the thinking goes, break unwritten laws, abuse pastureland, pollute streams, and cut shrubs and trees where none should be cut. Such behavior is said to upset the spirits of place. As a result, brutal winters now alternate with ones that are too warm, while avalanches fall where avalanches never fell before. The rains also seem to be affected. They start too early or end too late. Or they don't come at all. And the traditional rituals that people counted on to restore order when things slipped out of balance are proving inadequate to overcome such a high level of disturbance.

The Third Force: Stupidity

If opinion as to the cause of climate change is divided in Nepal, the division is generally benign. Not so in the United States, where it used to be said that, when things got bad enough, the nation's doubters and deniers would come around. Well, things have been bad enough for quite a while, as attested by the incineration of Paradise, California, in 2018, and Greenville, California this summer, the steady diminishment of the Colorado River, and so many other grim indicators. Rather than allow the light of realism to penetrate their thinking, the rightwing cheerleaders of America's culture wars, many of whom serve in Congress, persist in denying, dodging, or twisting the facts of global warming in ways that please their base and their corporate sponsors. Garret Keizer, writing in Harper's Magazine, theorizes that the problem goes deeper than the inevitable tension between liberals and conservatives. He argues that there is "a third force seeking hegemony over this world: stupidity."

Powered by social media, bullshit now travels at the speed of light. A Facebook algorithm is always available to help you segue from funny cat videos to anxiety-inducing clips about QAnon and chem trails. The main objective for Facebook and its advertisers is to keep viewers amused and aroused, to keep them plugged in. For many Internet users, real threats like global warming just can't compete with the loony ones.

The immoral and potentially fatal inability of the United States to take meaningful action on global warming means that Americans share more in common with rural Nepalis than they might imagine. Even through the pall of pollution that hangs over that country's capital, Kathmandu, people there can see that their climatic future will be determined by the billowing smokestacks of the United States, China, India, and Europe. They know that they have little agency on the world stage, little ability to influence events. This is not something new. Nepal is squeezed between the jealous powers of India and China. Each plays a different tune; Nepal dances, but it cannot dance to both at once. With two quarreling neighbors to appease, Nepal is far from being the master of its fate.

We Americans don't see ourselves as subject to the will of others. Since the early days of the republic, our autonomy has been a point of national pride. We chart our own path and we've long believed that, if something isn't right, we can fix it. If something needs doing, we will do it. We fought a world war in two hemispheres and came out victors. We rebuilt Europe. We walked on the moon. We won the Cold War and extended our economic reach around the world, exporting not just manufactured goods but our taste in music, film, fast food, and clothes. We spurred a Green Revolution in agriculture that vastly expanded the human carrying capacity of the globe, and we vanquished smallpox and polio. We were the good guys.

Today those attitudes and that pride seem so… well, twentieth century. Our scientists still develop vaccines, but the rest of us can't agree on using them. Our research institutions still pioneer the science of epidemics and climate change, but the general population can't agree on their underlying reality.

Implementing policies to control a public health crisis that has killed more than 700,000 fellow citizens or mitigating a shift in the global environmental equilibrium that threatens the future of civilization — these "big lifts" now exceed our strength. We can't even agree on a measure as simple as mask-wearing. More concerning yet, fidelity to the basic tenets of our electoral system, once the backbone of our democracy, now seems a relic of the past. Tens of millions of voters reject the clearly documented outcome of our last presidential election, and so do hundreds, maybe thousands, of public officials elected by that very system.

In times of stress, America has sought reassurance in the exploits of its vaunted military, but lately that hasn't worked out too well. Washington's 20-year war in Afghanistan bore a gloomy resemblance to its catastrophic effort to "save" Vietnam from communism, and not just in the way it ended. Imperial hubris, ignorance of local realities, and soaring civilian casualties are just a few of the dismal parallels to the earlier war. And we need hardly speak of Iraq: our invasion there produced an out-and-out disaster premised on out-and-out lies.

Which brings us back to agency. As Americans, we now confront a striking new reality: we don't have the clout we once thought we did. White America now shares its humbled condition with people who live on the farther side of the Himalaya, as well as with Native Americans, Blacks, and many other fellow citizens. America's minorities have long understood the loneliness and vulnerability of not being in command, of having to struggle against a hostile and disordered world. Now, the fractured American majority is getting a taste of how that feels. For want of cohesion and agreement, the United States is failing to address the biggest and most complex problems that confront it. Given how we've used our military since World War II, that reduced capability may not be an entirely bad thing. But where climate change is concerned, it's tragic.

Climate change requires comprehensive, systematic, and immediate action. Again and again at the national level, we've shown that we don't have what it takes. Diagnosis: inadequate agency. Responding to the climate crisis has become a race against time and our government still dawdles at the starting line.

Gratitude, Resilience, and Hope

At 13,000 feet on the farther side of the Himalaya, the world becomes lunar. The tallest vegetation can't hide a golf ball. Nothing is screened from view. What's there is there, as naked as sunlit boulders, as clear as mountain streams. As our expedition meandered from village to village, traversing passes higher than 17,000 feet, we wondered how so stark and spartan an environment might shape the people dwelling in it. In our clinics, we got a partial answer.

The gratitude and resilience of our Dolpo patients impressed us all deeply. One doctor spoke for many of us when he said,

"They come in with joint pain, a blown-out knee, GI distress, a horrible rash, whatever, and maybe we can't help them. 'Sorry,' we say. 'Wish we could do something for you.' And they get up and smile. They say, 'That's fine. Thanks anyway.' And off they go, as cheerfully as they came in. Patients back in my clinic [in the U.S.] are so different. Whatever hurts them becomes so much bigger a thing. And we give them meds for blood pressure or pain, but they really seem to want us to fix something bigger than that, something we don't have meds for. They want us to fix the pain that is in their minds or in their souls. My Nepali patients have lots of problems, but not that one."

The cheerful stoicism of our hosts inspired us. I had joined the expedition carrying much anger at my country's refusal to face its environmental responsibilities and frustration at witnessing the worsening results of its fecklessness. The long walk helped quite a bit. My fellow travelers, the patients we treated, and the spectacular land through which we traveled imparted many lessons. Perhaps the most important involved a rekindling of hope.

Hope is different from optimism and also different from the simple desire for things to turn out well. True hope demands faith in "not-knowing," in trusting the uncertainty of the future. The people of Dolpo seemed to possess that faith. In realms more familiar to westerners, such culture heroes as Czech dissident and later president Vaclav Havel and South African liberator Nelson Mandela also possessed it. Neither Havel nor Mandela knew if the Soviet Union or apartheid would be dismantled in their lifetime.

Nevertheless, through long periods of darkness, each of them cultivated a resilient hope that had two vital components. The first was a commitment to the intrinsic value of right action, irrespective of whether it resulted in the desired outcome. In Havel's words, they did what "makes sense," no matter whether their efforts might ultimately fail. Many philosophies distinguish between "instrumental good," which is realized when an action achieves its goal, and "intrinsic good," which is realized irrespective of result. Havel and Mandela pursued intrinsic good.

Second, they believed in surprise — that sometimes big, consequential things happen with virtually no warning. An earthquake, the fall of the Soviet Union, or a coronavirus epidemic are all good examples. There is no guarantee that the consequences of surprise will be beneficial. That's where true hopefulness and doing what "makes sense" come in — they sustain you through the long wait for surprise. In Czechoslovakia and South Africa when the long-desired surprises arrived, both Havel and Mandela seized their moment and made them as beneficial as possible. The essence of their preparation was that they never lost hope. Neither should we.

Copyright 2021 William deBuys

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel, Songlands (the final one in his Splinterlands series), Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

William deBuys is the author of 10 books, including A Great Aridness and The Last Unicorn, which compose a trilogy that culminates with The Trail to Kanjiroba: Rediscovering Earth in an Age of Loss, just published.

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Gas Prospectors Exploit Public Lands




The sign at the edge of town makes you wonder what a sorehead up in the dry, windblown heart of New Mexico's San Juan basin might be sore about. Other signs that compete for attention along the same mile of highway provide a possible hint: WILLIAMS EXPLORATION AND PRODUCTION, DESERT POWER, SIERRA CHEMICALS, XTO ENERGY, UNDERGROUND SPECIALISTS, and on they go. A drilling derrick four stories tall looms above the sprawl of pipe and machinery at Aztec Well Servicing. These businesses, being so numerous, must belong to the friendlies.

If anybody in Aztec qualifies as a sorehead, Tweeti Blancett and her husband Linn would have to top the list. At first impulse, you might not take someone named Tweeti seriously, but that would be a mistake. Tweeti, whose blond hair spills from beneath her cowboy hat, ran George W. Bush's campaign in San Juan County in 2000, and she has similarly headed various of Republican Senator Pete Domenici's re-election efforts. Tweeti herself has served in New Mexico's House of Representatives. She is affable, energetic, capable, and extremely persistent. And because of what coal bed methane has done to her land, she is a certifiable sorehead.

Her duties last Memorial Day helped remind her what she is sore about. She took three "huge" tubs of flowers to the Aztec cemetery, and "it nearly wasn't enough." The cemetery lies at the end of a little ridge that used to be lonely, but nowadays so-called ranch houses crowd the hills around it. Downslope to the west run the Animas River and the ever-droning highway to Durango. Off to the north, jagged peaks in Colorado etch a blue horizon. Tweeti and Linn have buried two sons in the cemetery, lost to accident and illness, and there are lots of other Blancetts to keep them company: Myrtle, M. Linn and Violet, Robert Linn, Matilda, Edward, Marcellus, Golda, George L., and Caddie, to name a few. Inside the gate under an old cedar lie Moses and Lucinda, born in 1833 and 1834, respectively. There are also kin from the four families who came with the Blancetts to the San Juan country in the 1870s, even before it was legal for whites to settle, and into whose lines the Blancetts married. Altogether, Tweeti distributed her flowers among six generations of relatives.

Reprint Notice:
This article appears in the November-December 2006 issue of Orion magazine, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 888/909-6568, ($35/year for 6 issues). See Orion's website at www.orionmagazine.org.

The Blancetts are quintessentially the kind of people Wallace Stegner called "stickers," a class he distinguished from the itinerant waves of "boomers and busters" who swarmed after the West's mining strikes, land and timber rushes, reclamation projects, military contracts, and construction booms. The stickers sought to find their homes first, fortunes second. They were out to make a living, not a killing. If the West were ever to develop "a society to match the scenery," Stegner said, the stickers would have to prevail. Without them, the West risked becoming a soulless, ransacked nowhere.

The first wave of the San Juan basin oil and gas boom came in the 1950s, and Linn Blancett's parents welcomed it. The oil and gas boys put money in the ranchers' pockets, and they opened roads into the backcountry that increased access to water and eased the hard work of tending and gathering cattle. The exploration drillers of that era sought petroleum and "sweet" gas, which is high-quality natural gas found in large reservoirs. The wells were widely scattered. The crews and pipelines were few. People like the Blancetts adapted and got along.

Coal bed methane (CBM), which became a regional obsession in the late 1990s, changed everything. Every coal formation harbors a quantity of methane, the primary component of natural gas, but because the coal is dense and the seams and cavities in which the gas collects are small, each well taps a relatively small volume of the formation.

It takes a lot of wells to pull the gas from a coal bed efficiently. In the canyons north and west of Aztec the wells go in on a grid so tight you can't stand at one and not see another -- even in broken country. It is the kind of density that in New York City would put about fifteen wells in Central Park, none much more than a quarter mile from its neighbors. And each well has to have a road and a pipeline, plus a compressor, probably a sump for the foul liquids that the drilling generates, plus maybe a pump jack, a dehydrator to separate gas from water, and a tank for still more foul liquids that come from the dehydrator once the well is producing.

Before long, the sagebrush flats and junipered mesas of the San Juan basin groaned day and night with the rumbleroar of innumerable engines. The same region that bred the stoicism of the old-time Navajos and Utes had become a vast factory spread over hundreds of square miles, an industrialized wildland, no longer wild, producing hundreds of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars of pipeline gas. Amid the seeming prosperity, however, the hemophilic soil eroded from bulldozed drill pads and road cuts, antifreeze dripped and lubricating oil pooled, and the chemicals and effluents of the drilling trade stained the earth.

Most of the bad stuff, most of the time, was trucked off, but not all of it, not always. So when the rain finally fell the way a rancher had to pray it would, the contaminants drained with the good water into puddles where the cattle drank, and a rancher like Linn Blancett or his neighbor Chris Velasquez might check on his livestock and find that some had aborted or gotten sick or lost their hair or, in some cases, just dropped dead. And meanwhile the mule deer, elk, jack rabbits, coyotes, and other critters were drinking the same toxic brews.

"The good part," says Tweeti, "is that the other places with oil and gas that the energy companies are just now breaking into can at least see what's going to happen to them. The bad part is that the ranch is gone. We can't run anything up there anymore. All you would do is turn them out and they would die." For the better part of 40 years, the Blancetts ran 250 head of mother cows on 32,000 acres, 95 percent of which was public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). For the last few they fought with the agency and the energy companies spill by spill and permit by permit, seeking enforcement of existing regulations as well as new protections. Although they won a share of battles, they lost the war. When wells on their allotment outnumbered cattle by almost three to one, with more being drilled every month, they sold the cattle. But they haven't sold their grazing permits: they are still fighting.

Chris Velasquez has made a similar retreat. Like Linn Blancett, he comes from a long line of stickers, counting back five generations to his ancestors' first toehold on the Río de San Juan a few dozen miles upstream of its confluence with the Animas. Fifteen years ago Chris and his wife, Kay, hocked everything they owned to buy permits to graze two hundred head for six months of the year on the thirty-thousand-acre Rosa allotment. Once there, they set aside a third of the allotment for wildlife and grazed the rest. That act of altruism, plus the cooperation he showed toward the BLM and its energy company clients, won Chris a statewide award for excellence in range management in 1995. His contacts at the BLM had nominated him for the honor, but the mutual affection didn't last. By 2000, CBM development had reached a frenzy on the Rosa, and the innumerable meetings he attended "to work things out" failed either to reverse the decline in his calves' weaning weights or to prevent a fair number from being poisoned. Six years later, after constant argument and confrontation, the five hundredth well went in on the Rosa, and Chris sold his permits. In a moment of rare candor, a BLM manager told him, "I feel sorry for you, but you are in a sacrifice zone."

That kind of language hearkens to the 1970s, when government officials spoke openly about the necessity of accepting "national sacrifice areas" so that the United States might secure its energy independence. The strip mines of the Four Corners region and the Powder River Basin in Wyoming and Montana, the continued despoliation of Appalachia, and the disgorgement of oil shale from Colorado's Western Slope, it was said, would be the lamentable but necessary price of national security. Since then, many strip mines have been torn open; beleaguered Appalachia, thanks to the relatively recent innovation of "mountaintop removal mining," is more cursed than ever; and oil shale development is again attracting investment. But sacrifices notwithstanding, the nation's dependence on foreign oil has doubled since 1982 (to 56 percent of total consumption), and in the same period U.S. dependence on foreign gas has tripled to almost 15 percent. And no one speaks publicly about sacrifice.

On County Road 2770 in Hart Canyon where the Blancetts used to run their cattle, the Bureau of Land Management has erected the area's most ironic welcoming sign. It says:



My public lands? You talkin' to me?

A visitor to Hart Canyon has to wonder whose land Hart Canyon really is. The Blancetts used to think it was theirs. They used it, tended it, knew it. It was their partner, not for a few months or a year, but lifelong, or so they thought. Yet they recognized that others also had a right to it: hunters mainly, and the sweet gas people. Nobody else was much interested. Hart Canyon is neither particularly scenic nor especially productive in a biological sense. It is homely, unspectacular land, like most of the West, like most of the world, the kind of land a cynical outsider might say "mainly keeps hell from shining through." But if you, or anyone, depend on land and struggle with it and worry about it and study it through all weathers and whole stages of your life, and if you have a heart that beats, that land is land you come to love. More than that, or maybe it is the same thing, the land gets into your bones and becomes part of you.

And so for the Blancetts when the land turned poisonous and hostile, as though a golem had materialized from its subterranean gases and waged a war against them, "It was," says Tweeti, "other than losing our boys, the most devastating thing we have had to accept."

Law and custom have teased land ownership in the West into as many parts as the land can offer. One person or entity might own the "fee," which is the surface of the land; another might hold the grazing rights, and others the rights to the water or the timber. Still others might separately own the surface minerals (sand and gravel) or the subsurface (everything else). In theory everything gets an owner, and in practice a single owner rarely gets everything. A corollary quirk in the law, born of the nineteenth-century notion that the West's best hope for economic prosperity lay with mining, holds that mineral rights generally trump all other rights, including ownership of the fee. This means that if the minerals under the pretty little ranch you just plowed your life savings into belong to somebody else, you might one day see the land you thought was "yours" erupt with the drill rigs and heavy equipment of the coal bed methane industry. It's the old story of "if one guy gets the mine, somebody else gets the shaft."

The ultimate dissection of the land into its constituent uses implies, oddly enough, that the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts. It is a kind of reductivism on steroids. The intent is to increase the velocity of economic growth by maximizing the number of things that can be bought and sold, and it is a strategy that has always favored boomers over stickers.

The federal government has tried to ameliorate the fragmentation of interests on public lands by pursuing an official policy of "multiple use." At times the strategy has worked, but only when guided by an ethic of restraint and supervised by honest referees. The plain fact, clear to all but selectively denied according to self-interest, is that coarse uses, if unchecked, drive out the fine. Backcountry skiing dies where snowmobilers swarm like hornets. Hiking and fishing become joyless in a cow-burnt meadow, and nothing gets along with cut-and-run logging.

Money, invariably, trumps restraint because it buys the rules and referees that its possessors need, and in coal bed methane development, where a million-dollar well can pay for itself in a matter of weeks and then exhale profit ever after, there is no shortage of money. Which means coal bed methane is as compatible with multiple use as a clearcut or a crown fire.

In Hart Canyon the dust from trucks hardly ever settles. Tankers haul foul water to reinjection wells that pump the waste back into the ground. Semis pull flatbeds bearing bulldozers, backhoes, trenchers, derricks, engines, well casing, compressors, everything the vast horizontal factory needs. And fleets of tool-laden white pickups, each flying a jaunty red pennant (for visibility), scurry up and down the roads like tenders in a busy harbor. If possession is nine-tenths of the law, the interests that command those vehicles own Hart Canyon, the Rosa allotment, and nearly all the land between and around them, notwithstanding the sign that says your public lands. Those same interests will continue to own the land until they go away, which one day, in the obligate manner of all boomers, they must. At that point, the fate of the land becomes an interesting question. Tweeti remembers how Linn put it when he told her their long fight was useless: "He said, 'Tweeti, there is no way we can reclaim this land in our lifetime. If that's all we did, and there was no more drilling, there was no more traffic, no more wells, no more pipelines, we can't repair it within our lifetime.'"

But CBM won't be leaving soon. In 2003, the BLM adopted a management plan for its Farmington, New Mexico, resource area that predicted approval over the next ten years of an additional 9,942 gas wells on federal lands across a major swath of the San Juan basin, encompassing Hart Canyon, the Rosa, and much else, where 18,000 oil and gas wells were already active.

Everybody knows that we Americans guzzle the world's largest shares of gas and oil. Everybody knows that each additional ruined canyon will have a negligible effect on the nation's voracious appetites. Everybody knows that you can still floor it when your gas tank is a half-pint short of empty.

Jack O'Neal, sunburned, gruff, and squinting under a white hard hat, has worked in the drilling fields for almost thirty years. He's been cavitating CBM wells for the last five. That means he and his crew set a drill rig over a well where production has begun to taper off -- it only takes them half a day -- and then they reopen the well and pump various liquids into it under tremendous pressure. The idea is to pulverize the coal at the bottom of the well and create a cavity where gas will more easily collect. It is a little like shaking a bottle of soda pop, except that when the shaker's thumb comes off the bottle mouth, the release of pressure roars like a jet engine for up to fifteen minutes. O'Neal repeats the process three or four times and then pulls his rig away to cavitate another well. What he and his crew do is difficult and sometimes dangerous. But they are good at it. They work hard and efficiently, and the companies that employ them make money. But years from now they'll be making their money somewhere else, which is one of the things that galls Chris Velasquez.

"If they make this much mess on the surface, what do you think it is like down below?" he asks. "What do you think is happening to the water my kids and grandkids are going to be drinking?" In October 2005 Chris and Tweeti watched as a long-boomed excavator systematically tore the lining from a collection pit and then used its bucket to mix the toxic waters with the underlying soils. They called their contacts at BLM, who came at once, expressed regret, and explained that they were powerless to act since the sump, which ostensibly existed in order to prevent mixing of its contents with the soil, was on private land. They said this in spite of the fact that at least a portion of the underlying minerals being developed at the site belonged to the federal government. The site lay less than two hundred yards from the Animas River.

Chris Velasquez knows what it is to be displaced. The small farm at the confluence of the Río de los Pinos and the Río de San Juan, where he grew up, now lies beneath waters impounded by Navajo Dam, which the Bureau of Reclamation built in the 1960s. "They drowned me out once, and maybe now they'll kill me with chemicals, but I am not going anywhere." Asked how it felt to lose his grasp on the land and have it turn against him, he says, "It was painless at first, and then by the time it began to hurt, we'd already had the full injection."

His metaphor is apt. Even the president has acknowledged the nation's addiction to foreign oil. George W. Bush would have made a stronger, truer point if he had said we were addicted to fossil fuels in general. What no one, least of all the president, talks about is how our lives compare to those of addicts. Most people think of junkies as perpetrators of crime, forgetting that they are also violent crime's most frequent victims. Their needs make them vulnerable. Down on the street, it is no big thing to roll a junkie. Up on the mesas and in the canyons of the West and in the hills and hollows of Appalachia, something similar is happening, and the victims are not just the Blancetts, the Velasquezes, or the mountaineers of West Virginia. As a nation and as a people, we are being shaken down all the way to the bottom. And we are taking much of the rest of the world with us.

Says Tweeti, who now travels far and wide in the United States and Canada to talk about CBM and energy development, "The thing that bothers me -- and I don't know that it bothers Linn as much as the loss of who and what he was -- but what bothers me is, people don't stand up and say anything. They just seem to take it."

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