Yosemite Finally Reckons with Its Discriminatory Past

24 Aug

In 1977, Yosemite National Park employees Jay Johnson and Les James had an unusual request: They wanted their employer to rebuild the homes that park staff had destroyed eight years prior. This was more than a pitch for employee housing. Johnson and James are Miwuk, and their ancestors inhabited the Yosemite Valley—or the Ahwahnee Valley, as it was originally known—for thousands of years. Even after Yosemite was designated a national park in 1890, about 15 families continued living in their homes on the land.

The small village housed mostly Miwuk and Paiute Native Americans who also worked in the park. Their homes were seen as employee lodging, so the Park Service allowed the buildings to remain. But as the majority of Native residents stopped working for the park or its concessionaires, Yosemite staff decided to raze the village in 1969, forcing people out of their ancestral homes. “During that time, we had no voice. We were just individuals, and we were always afraid of what the government could do to us,” says James, 83. “They could fire us or throw us out for any kind of reason, and we were always afraid of that.”

A year after the village was leveled, some of the local Miwuk founded the American Indian Council of Mariposa County. (The Southern Sierra band of Miwuks, descendants of Yosemite’s original inhabitants, lacks federal recognition.) In 1977, with the council’s backing, James and Johnson requested their village be returned. “Since that time, we’ve been working on it,” James says.

After decades of negotiations, a breakthrough was made this summer. An agreement struck with the park guarantees Southern Sierra Miwuks greater access to their homeland and to cultural practices that were upended almost 170 years ago.

The first white settlers to enter Yosemite Valley were led in 1851 by a gold-rush merchant named James Savage. During a conflict between Native Americans and miners, Savage’s trading post was attacked, and he led a group of men into the Valley for revenge, hanging some members of the Ahwahneechee Tribe, one of four Native groups in the Miwuk family, and shooting a chief’s son in the back. After Savage’s attack, most of the Ahwahneechee ended up on a reservation in the San Joaquin Valley, although a small band remained in Yosemite.

It was into this vacuum that famed naturalist John Muir emerged. He, too, had little care for the indigenous population. While waxing poetic about the Valley’s ecology and geology, Muir found its residents “most ugly, and some of them altogether hideous.”

Muir’s people-free preservation ideal eventually became national park policy. And as America’s greatest idea caught on, the National Park Service and Bureau of Indian Affairs would together separate Native Americans from landscapes they cherished. As 19th-century Oglala Sioux luminary Black Elk noted, the agencies “made little islands for us and other little islands for the [animals]” with the simultaneous establishment of reservations and national parks.

The narrative put forth by the Park Service has always been one of Native acquiescence, though in reality, historian Philip Burnham writes, that was far from the truth. For instance, the Ute Mountain Utes didn’t willingly swap reservation land to expand Mesa Verde National Park in 1911. Rather, the feds threatened to withhold appropriations. The Blackfeet Tribe sold the western portion of its reservation, which would later be added to Glacier National Park, to the United States in 1895 only after a severe winter had starved many of its members.

“The idea that these parks were ‘gifted’ by Indians or other owners, a myth born in the era of later philanthropists such as John D. Rockefeller, was anything but true for Native people,” Burnham wrote in an email.

While Native Americans were being forced off the land in national parks across the country, in Yosemite, James’ and Johnson’s ancestors remained—even becoming integral pieces of the Yosemite economy. From the park’s earliest days, the small band of local Native Americans served as laborers and attractions. The park held annual Indian Field Days, during which park administrators would dress locals in Plains Indian regalia to perform before tourists. A replica village was built in the park, but Miwuk people still had to ask permission to use it.

For decades, Johnson, James, and other Miwuk members had been negotiating the return of their village, always running into problems with politics or leadership change. The first agreement was struck in 2008, but that plan was derailed when then-superintendent Don Neubacher said the indigenous construction methods would pose a liability. Then, this June, the Miwuk gained a powerful ally. Michael Reynolds became the park’s new superintendent. Shortly after arriving in his post, Reynolds signed a 30-year agreement that would allow the local American Indian Council of Mariposa County to build and use a wahhoga, the Miwuk word for village. A roundhouse is scheduled to be completed in 2019, and multiple umachas—lodges sheathed in cedar bark—will be built as well. The buildings will be constructed using traditional methods and materials and will serve as a focal point for Native American cultural and religious ceremonies.

Announcing the latest agreement, Reynolds, who grew up near Yosemite, struck a reparative tone. “I, along with many, often struggle to find a better and more complete understanding of the difficulties that our people have caused to the lives and cultures of the Native peoples of this land,” he said in a video of the event posted by the Fresno Bee. “Perhaps today we are restarting this conversation.”

Though nobody will live in the wahhoga, the agreement is nonetheless a watershed moment in the park’s relationship with local Native Americans, who have long sought to reestablish their cultural and subsistence connection with the park. The wahhoga could also function as an example for other NPS units, nearly all of which were created following forcible or coerced removal of the Native population. “Our ancestors used to live there, and we always felt that what was available to our ancestors should’ve been available to us,” James says.

James, who chairs the Wahhoga Committee, sees this as one more step toward indigenous tribes reconnecting with their ancestral homeland. Next on the docket, he plans to start programs that teach Native youth about traditional plant and animal harvesting. As James says, “This is about our survival.”

BLM Wants Grand Staircase-Escalante Open for Business

16 Aug

Under a new plan released Wednesday by the Bureau of Land Management, most of the land President Trump excised from Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument would become available to oil, gas, and coal companies. Under the same plan, Bears Ears National Monument would be managed in a way that “provides more flexibility” for uses like mining, timber harvest, grazing, and off-road vehicles. This, despite promises from Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke that the quest for energy dominance had nothing to do with their decisions to drastically shrink both monuments last year.

And the plans come even though the fate of these monuments is far from settled. After President Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by 1.15 million acres and Grand Staircase by 900,000 acres, conservation and tribal groups promptly filed five lawsuits arguing that the Antiquities Act, which Trump invoked, allows a president to create, not shrink, national monuments.

With litigation pending, monument proponents say any change to management plans is premature. “It’s an entire waste of time,” Steve Bloch, legal director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s clear that they are trying to race ahead and do as much damage as they can in the shortest time possible.”

The documents identify four management alternatives for both monuments, and in both instances the agencies identified the least-restrictive option as their preferred way forward. While both management plans are a major departure from the protections afforded monuments, the changes proposed for Grand Staircase-Escalante are notably stark. Under BLM’s preferred plan, nearly 700,000 acres of the original monument would be open for extraction. (BLM included a report detailing the potential for coal, oil, and natural gas development.) No areas in the monument would be managed as wilderness.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, in defending his department’s call to shrink the monuments, has said over and over that “not one square inch” of land is being removed from the federal estate, but BLM’s plan would sell off 1,610 acres of Grand Staircase.

“The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument already has a plan that should remain in place, continuing to protect the priceless antiquities within its borders, at least until a court rules on the legality of the Trump reduction,” Nicole Croft, executive director of the conservation nonprofit Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, said in a statement.

In Bears Ears, where the mineral potential is far less, the greatest risk is to the Native American cultural artifacts that prompted the original monument designation. It’s estimated that over 100,000 cultural sites exist within the original monument boundary, an area that was subject to extensive looting in recent decades.

“It’s time that Native voices, as the original peoples of the Bears Ears region, are heard and the sovereign rights of Native Nations to protect their sacred places are recognized,” Honor Keeler, assistant director of Utah Diné Bikéyah, said in a release. “The Bears Ears region is a sacred place that cannot be chopped up into pieces, for it is a sacred place in its entirety that has been used for thousands of years by the Indigenous Peoples of these lands.”

The proposed Bears Ears plan calls for an American Indian Tribal Collaboration Framework to incorporate tribes in management decisions, but elected tribal officials have told Congress and the administration that such overtures are more demeaning than cooperative, given they asked for monument protection in the first place.

The draft plans dovetail with broader efforts, led by Republicans, to minimize protection of cultural artifacts and wildlife on public land. For instance, the preferred management plan for Bears Ears “emphasizes resource uses and reduces constraints while ... maintaining compliance with existing laws and regulations,” but Republican attacks on bedrock environmental laws such as the Clean Air Act, Endangered Species Act, and National Environmental Policy Act would make compliance much easier for polluting industries.

Attorneys suing the Trump administration have told Outside they would request an injunction to any change in management plans, which would add yet more time and money to an already drawn-out and expensive battle over national monuments. “By the BLM’s own estimate, the Grand Staircase plan alone has already cost American taxpayers $1,160,004,” Croft wrote. “That’s money desperately needed to improve hiking trails, hunting grounds, and law enforcement.”

Trump’s Pardon Condones Western Rebellion

12 Jul

On Wednesday, Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven, walked out of a federal prison in Southern California, joined oil magnate Forrest Lucas aboard his private jet, and flew home to Burns, Oregon. A day prior, President Donald Trump had pardoned them, wiping away convictions of felony arson on public land. In Oregon, a crowd of well-wishers greeted the Hammonds like heroes of a mythic Western range war. “I’m here to convey that the community, Americans out there ... love you,” one woman said during an impromptu press conference. “I have no questions. Just that you’re loved.”

The Hammonds were virtually unknown outside eastern Oregon ranching circles before 2016. Had that remained the case this pardon might have even been widely seen as merciful. In 2012, a jury found the Hammonds guilty of setting two fires that blazed onto public land; Dwight was sentenced to three months (he was involved only in the first fire) and Steven one year in prison. Then in 2015, federal prosecutors appealed and the 9th U.S. Circuit Court ruled that the men must each serve five years, the mandatory for that crime. In Oregon, plenty of people felt the Hammonds’ sentences—mandated by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996—were excessive. The judge who handed down the original punishments, advocates routinely note, said five years would “shock the conscience.” The Oregonian’s editorial board wrote that “the president should consider granting” clemency; the Bend Bulletin called for a full pardon.

“The Hammonds are devoted family men, respected contributors to their local community, and have widespread support from their neighbors, local law enforcement, and farmers and ranchers across the West,” the White House statement read.

But whether or not the feds were too harsh on the Hammonds has almost become irrelevant, because as soon as their case caught the attention of Ammon Bundy and his militant followers, their name became entwined with the Bundy cause.  

In 2016, fresh off his father’s standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, Bundy instigated the Malheur takeover, where Dwight had for decades grazed his cattle (and threatened staffers when said grazing was restricted). Bundy and his followers stayed 41 days, and supporter LaVoy Finicum was killed by authorities. While many in the community sympathize with the Hammonds, most locals wanted the Bundys out. Even the Hammonds—no strangers to hostility with the feds—have distanced themselves from the occupation up to this day. Back in Burns on Wednesday, a reporter asked Steven Hammond to share his feelings about the occupation he once declined to support. Behind him were three men on horseback carrying huge American flags—an image portrayed relentlessly during the takeover. “I wasn’t—I don’t want to comment on it today particularly,” Hammond said. He paused for about five seconds before continuing: “There was a lotta people that did a lotta things, maybe things that are trying to define what a patriot is today.”

Though they claimed to be champions of ranchers, the Bundys’ allies were mostly armed members of fringe militias who vehemently oppose the federal government—Cliven, who wasn’t present in Oregon, and LaVoy Finicum were among the only actual ranchers in the crew.

It’s not entirely clear if the Bundy occupation of Malheur laid the groundwork for this pardon. It was, after all, Oregon Representative Greg Walden, not Ammon Bundy, who had the president’s ear. But it’s clear that Bundy’s movement feels as though their ideology has been validated, because the occupation made the Hammonds synonymous with a small militant wing of extremists in the West. And now that President Trump has pardoned them, he has granted that fringe group validation from the most powerful office in the world, raising them up like the victims of an insidious system.

The Hammonds may have been dealt with too harshly—or maybe they got the sentence they deserved. Either way, Trump's pardon is an endorsement of the right-wing, gun-toting, lawbreaking militia that follows the Bundys. It’s unclear whether Trump’s hat-tip to the Bundy militia will empower more anti-government displays with the potential for bloodshed, but the Hammonds’ freedom is a momentous coup for that movement.

“Today shows that, hey, we were right,” Ryan Bundy, Ammon’s brother and Nevada gubernatorial candidate, told NPR Tuesday. “We went there for a good reason, and our efforts have finally come to fruition.”

The logic is clear: We fought, and we won. 

Trump Cut Wages for Outdoor Guides—and That’s Fine

11 Jun

When the Obama administration, in 2014, mandated that all guides operating on federal land be paid $10.10 per hour—a nearly $3 bump—plus overtime, the outfitting industry was contemplating its demise. “Implementation of this would basically put me out of business,” an owner of a Wyoming backpacking company told a House subcommittee in 2015. The logic was pretty simple: Once overtime pay was factored in, wages for guides were going to double or triple with the new requirements, and outfitters wouldn’t be able to handle the cost. As you may have noticed, there wasn’t a mass die-off of fishing, hunting, and rafting companies over the past four years.

Even so, last week President Donald Trump signed an executive order that reversed the minimum wage requirements for guides; in doing so, he actually cleared up some regulatory confusion. The reason? Based on multiple interviews with outfitters and guiding associations, it seems that pretty much nobody complied with the rule anyway.

The outfitters I interviewed called Obama’s policy a hasty decision that lacked follow-through. (The business owners I interviewed spoke only on condition of anonymity due to their noncompliance with regulations.) The administration provided little, if any, guidance on how companies should treat these matters, so they determined how to pay guides under the new rules on a case-by-case basis.

Other public land concessionaires, like those working in lodging or food services, must still meet minimum wage requirements (now at $10.35). But after Trump’s order, the increase won’t apply to the folks who lead rafting trips down Grand Canyon or backpacking tours in Yellowstone. If you think of what their average day looks like, it begins to make more sense. Unlike other service industry employees swept up by the minimum wage requirements, guides work odd hours that are challenging to regulate. Does a guide’s day end when she finishes setting up camp? When she goes to sleep? Or is she on the clock 24 hours?

“I don’t know of anybody who pays an hourly wage,” says John Dillon, executive director of the Grand Canyon River Outfitters Association. “We haven’t done that in our industry’s history, I’m told, ever. All of these multiday trips are generally paid per trip or per day.”

The industry struggled with Obama’s order for many reasons, one of them being that the wage requirements arrived in fits. They were supposed be implemented smoothly, but after Congress issued a short-term exemption in a 2016 appropriations bill, which gave outfitters a free pass, the same exemption wasn’t included in 2017. So, all of a sudden, this year the National Park Service contracts began requiring compliance, which triggered a dozen western lawmakers—including Republican representatives Doug LaMalfa from California and Rob Bishop from Utah—to ask Trump for a permanent exemption in February. “While most federal agencies are not implementing the provision into contracts with small outfitter and guides,” the legislators wrote, “the National Park Service is.”

The NPS requirements went into effect in December, well after companies had booked trips. “Many had already sold out at the previous wage range,” says David Brown, vice president of government affairs for the America Outdoors Association. “So they couldn’t pass those costs on.”

Another reason the wage increase flopped, outfitters told me, was because there was no enforcement. “Everybody has struggled to be 100 percent compliant,” the Arizona outfitter says. Some firms continued business as usual, while others got creative with their accounting. The owner of a Utah company says he pays guides a monthly salary to avoid the overtime. “It’s hourly on paper—we just make it work.”

“My personal politics are more in line with the previous administration than this one,” an Arizona outfitter tells me, “but this is a good thing.”

Guides won’t necessarily be getting a pay cut after Trump’s rule, though. The Arizona outfitter told me that in an attempt to stay aboveboard, he started paying his staff an hourly wage. It led to a pay raise for most employees, especially entry-level workers who started at $10.50 an hour, higher than Arizona’s minimum. But he said most multiday guides understand they probably won’t be getting paid full overtime rates. So, in reality, Trump’s exemption won’t change much. Mostly it will eliminate the need for outfitters to get creative with their accounting, and it also allows outfitters to more clearly—and legally—negotiate wages with their guides.

It’s So Dry, Forests Across the Southwest Are Closing

7 Jun

Last weekend, one of the biggest chunks of public land in the Southwest closed to the public. Citing wildfire danger and the chance that people would ignore campfire bans, officials closed New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest—all 1.6 million acres of it—until further notice.

“Under current conditions, one abandoned campfire could cause a catastrophic wildfire,” supervisor James Melonas said in a statement, “and we are not willing to take that chance.”

Thanks to abysmal snowfall, nearly two-thirds of New Mexico is experiencing extreme drought. It’s a similar story across the entire Southwest. As a result, forests across the region are being closed pending rain.

In Arizona, where 74 percent of the state is under extreme drought conditions, Flagstaff residents are unable to bike the San Francisco peaks until Coconino National Forest lifts its closure; the Four Peaks Wilderness in Tonto National Forest needs precip before any hikers can explore it. Chunks of Prescott, Kaibab, and Apache-Sitgreaves forests are also off-limits. Stage two bans (no fires, fireworks, chainsaws, welding, and, for the love of God, explosives) are in effect across much of the Southwest, including forests in southern Utah and Colorado.

Drought wasn’t the lone impetus for closing the Santa Fe Forest, located near the state’s capital, in the northern part of New Mexico. There was a fire ban in the area for all of May, but despite this, Forest Service workers say they had to extinguish 83 unattended campfires.

The Forest Service doesn’t track closures nationally, so it’s hard to know how this year stands compared to past years. Arizona hasn’t had such widespread closures since 2006, when the public was shut out of the entire Coconino National Forest. The Santa Fe National Forest last closed in 2013, the year the Thompson Ridge and Tres Lagunas wildfires scorched 34,000 acres. This year’s closure is mostly preventative, say forest officials, but at the moment, nine wildfires are burning in New Mexico and Arizona, including the Ute Park Fire, which after five days had burned 37,000 acres and forced the town of Cimarron, New Mexico, to evacuate.

Sadly, these closures will likely become more common. Climate change has dramatically increased the odds of conflagrations. According to the federal government’s National Climate Assessment, hot and dry conditions caused a sixfold increase in acres burned between 1970 and 2003. The warming climate—experts predict the Southwest could get ten degrees warmer by 2100—means less precipitation will fall as snow, and already fickle monsoons could become less reliable. When trees do burn, they might never return, replaced forever by shrubs.

The other major problem is that a century of fire suppression has loaded American forests with dense underbrush that stokes more intense fires. Ellis Margolis, a U.S. Geological Survey fire ecologist who lives in Santa Fe, says his tree-ring examinations show that fires used to burn local forests about once a decade—enough to clear out the forests but not enough to kill mature trees. “These places used to burn all the time, but they haven’t for a century or more,” Margolis says. “We can’t exclude fire anymore—we have to learn to live with it. Do we want to do it on our watch, with managed and prescribed fires, or do we want to have wildfires? I think the latter is not the ideal choice for society.”

Those needed changes may save us years or decades from now. But as for this summer and those in the near future? Get used to forests closing more often.

NPS Report—Gasp!—Acknowledges Climate Change

24 May

Sea level rise, caused primarily by human-induced climate change, will pose a challenge to national parks on America’s coasts.

After months of controversy, the National Park Service last week finally released a report that said as much. To many, that’s an unenjoyable but logical statement. But in the age of Trump, getting that “human-induced” part into a government report was a hard-won battle. Though the report’s conclusions might not be shocking, its very publication is groundbreaking in an administration that has routinely denied climate change exists, let alone that it’s caused by our own actions.

Here’s why the report—both what it did and didn’t say—is important.

Some 'Reveal'-ing Background

In 2013, NPS hired University of Colorado Boulder scientist Maria Caffrey to lead a report detailing coastal parks’ vulnerability to sea level rise. The goal was to equip park managers with the latest data, but the innocuous paper turned contentious when President Trump took office in 2017.

As the investigative website Reveal first reported in April, release of the sea level report was delayed at least ten months while NPS officials combed out any mention of human-caused climate change. The revelation was a bombshell given the fact that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, just weeks earlier, said in a Senate hearing that censoring scientific reports was not taking place. “There is no incident, no incident at all that I know that we ever changed a comma on a document itself,” Zinke said at the time. “And I challenge you, any member, to find a document that we’ve actually changed on a report.”

Alas, the truth emerged. Documents obtained by Reveal showed such phrases as “anthropogenic climate change” being axed by NPS officials. Zinke claimed in a subsequent House hearing that he had no idea about the edits, but Democratic politicians were incensed; an inspector general investigation is pending. The censorship aligns with myriad Trump administration efforts, mostly in the Interior Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, to discredit mainstream climate science. But, at least in this instance, science won out.

“The fight probably destroyed my career with the [National Park Service],” Caffrey told Reveal, “but it will be worth it if we can uphold the truth and ensure that scientific integrity of other scientists won’t be challenged so easily in the future.”

Kiss the Coasts Goodbye

The report examined how rising oceans will affect 118 park units, and it’s clear that low-lying East Coast and Gulf of Mexico parks will be most affected. Unless efforts to curtail greenhouse gases take place, coasts outside the nation’s capital will see a 2.6-foot rise in sea levels by 2100, high enough that storm surges could flood the National Mall. Waters surrounding Wright Brothers National Memorial, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, will see a 2.7-foot increase. At that level, a Category 2 hurricane would leave the park “almost completely flooded,” the report says. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad, Cape Hatteras, and numerous others could see waters rise 2.5 feet. Like Wright Brothers, a Category 2 storm surge would flood pretty much all of Everglades National Park.

What the report’s predictions don’t consider, the authors note, is that much of America’s East Coast is slowly lowering into the sea, which magnifies the effect of rising waters. Using rough calculations, the authors figured that Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve, in Louisiana, could experience a relative sea level rise of nearly five feet by 2100.

Wait, Itll Cost How Much?

National parks out west preserve scenery; back east, they mostly preserve history. Peppered in the report are historical battlefields, forts, famous-person residences, and other structures we’ve deemed important to keep intact for future generations. Flooding, of course, is incompatible with preservation.

Structures like Fort Jefferson, in Dry Tortugas National Park, sit literally at sea level. But even inland parks are threatened by storm surges if they lie along inlets or coastal rivers. This is problematic for a department that, as Zinke routinely reminds us, has a $12 billion maintenance backlog.

Failure to prepare for rising seas could be prohibitively expensive for NPS. In a report published in 2015 (back when it was safe to talk about climate change), researchers examined 40 coastal parks to see which were at risk if the sea level rose one meter. The cumulative value of roads, trails, buildings, campgrounds, and other at-risk structures surpassed $40 billion. But even before that study was published, its authors figured they had lowballed estimates. The immense damage wrought by Hurricane Sandy in 2012, they wrote, “suggests that we have been conservative in labeling an asset as high exposure. In other words, the assets identified in this study as being vulnerable are most certainly vulnerable, and the total is likely to be an underestimate.”

Zinke Could Make It All Worse

Zinke supports legislation that would tie park maintenance to energy receipts. Pending an unforeseen boom in wind and solar development, that means oil, gas, and coal receipts would fund repairs to the damage that burning oil, gas, and coal has wrought.

One might argue that slowing hydrocarbon production on public lands wouldn’t do much to stem the advance of global warming, but recent research suggests otherwise. If the federal government were to halt energy leases, one study found, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions would diminish 5 percent by 2030.

Acknowledging the human impact of climate change in this study was undeniably a win—it’s critical that government-sponsored scientists are able to report findings unvarnished by politics—but it’s probably not going to start a revolution of thought in the current administration. Drilling will continue apace. At least we now have an idea of which national parks will be underwater as a consequence.

No Teen Should Have to Pay a $36 Million Wildfire Fine

23 May

Vast and often remote, public land makes a good setting for youthful mischief. A teenager in possession of fireworks and boredom is wont to ditch city limits, drive beyond the reach of law enforcement, and do what teenagers do.

That’s what happened on September 2, 2017, when a 15-year-old known in Oregon court documents only as “A.B.” lobbed a smoke bomb into Eagle Creek Canyon, located in Mount Hood National Forest. It wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but it could have easily ended harmlessly: The firework falls into the creek; kids laugh and drive home. But on this particular day, the fireworks ignited the Eagle Creek Fire, which swelled to 48,000 acres. Ash from the smoke spread nearly to the Canadian border, and the costs associated with fighting the blaze reached $40 million.

On Monday, a judge ruled that the teen, whose name has been withheld because of his age, should pay $36.6 million in restitution. It’s an enormous penalty, one that Hood River County Circuit Judge John A. Olson acknowledged the teen can’t possibly pay. Instead, the judge said that if A.B. completes 1,900 hours of community service and serves five years probation, he’ll be eligible to stop making payments after ten years.

Obviously, what the kid did was stupid—there was a burn ban in effect at the time. But does the punishment fit the crime?

In Case You Forgot…

It was a busy fire season last year, so you’d be forgiven if you forgot this one. A burn ban was in effect last summer in Mount Hood. Conflagrations are rare in the Columbia River Gorge, but a dry summer combined with high winds turned the Eagle Creek Fire into an expensive and dangerous task for firefighters.

The surrounding stretch of Interstate 84, the main east–west highway out of Portland, was closed for ten days. Numerous hiking trails were closed, and nearby tourist towns were devoid of visitors during what is normally the busiest season. The iconic Multnomah Falls Lodge was nearly destroyed. No fatalities resulted, but 153 hikers were stranded by the fire. It took nearly three months to fully contain the blaze.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment?

In a February trial, the teenager admitted to starting the fire and pleaded guilty to charges of burning public and private property, depositing burning material on forest land, second-degree criminal mischief, and endangering another hiker.

The teen’s attorneys argued the fine was exorbitant and even against Oregon law. They called it “cruel and unusual punishment.” But the judge wasn’t having it. He said it was “clearly proportionate to the offense because it does not exceed the financial damages caused by the youth.”

Is it cruel and unusual? Individuals starting forest fires is nothing new. In addition to teenage rabble-rousing, camping and target shooting yield plenty of blazes every year, and the required restitution usually pales to the actual damages. But the sum charged in the Eagle Creek case is unusually high. Other minors who have started fires were required to pay no more than $160,000, according to a roundup of such cases by Oregon Public Broadcasting. The closest fine of this magnitude I could find was of an Arizona man who, in 2002, was ordered to pay $28 million for his role in starting a 469,000-acre blaze. (A seasonal firefighter, he started the fire to gin up work.) That’s about $60 an acre.

A.B.’s per-acre bill? $762.

How Much Is Fair?

Historically, judges have looked at people who start fires differently than companies who start fires—even if they just made a mistake. For example, a 2007 blaze ignited by a power line has cost San Diego Gas and Electric $2.4 billion in settlements. But once a party, be it a corporation or person, is determined liable for causing a wildfire, the ultimate complication arises: How much must they pay?

One tricky part of this calculation is that while a person may have started a fire, they don’t play an active role in trying to put it out. That may seem like an odd point to consider, but, in fact, some people have prevailed in court by arguing that the government was inept at extinguishing fires they started. There is also the argument being made by California’s Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility being investigated for possibly starting the wine-country fire that killed more than 40 people. It says the massive and fatal fire was a “new normal” caused by climate change.

What does all this mean for a 15-year-old staring down a $36 million hole? Yes, he did wrong by starting the fire, and he should face proportionate consequences. But he’ll also certainly be paying for some actions he played no role in. This teenager had nothing to do with past decades of fire suppression that choked the understory with shrubs and small trees, and he has played a minuscule role in the climate change that dried up all that vegetation. Tweak those variables and his firework might have fizzled.

It’s easier to blame companies for enormous, life-threatening fires, but saddling a minor with so much liability forces reconsideration. Many of us could have been in that situation—hell, I’ve shot Roman candles into sagebrush plains loaded with cheatgrass that’s just waiting to burn. But I didn’t think of that when I was 15.

According to one study, humans cause 84 percent of wildfires, and our penchant for greenhouse gases has doubled their severity. We need to recognize this, of course, and be more careful outside. But occasionally a teenager is going to break the rules. Should they be fully responsible for our collective misdeeds?

California’s $4 Billion Plan to Get People Outside

18 May

The phrase “the great outdoors” evokes certain landscapes: towering spires, roiling cascades, undisturbed deserts. Yosemite, Moab, Acadia, and the like. These are places diverse in flora, fauna, and geology, but the outdoor spaces Americans cherish and have accordingly preserved often share one trait: For most people, they’re hard to visit.

“We’re increasingly urban as a population,” says Rue Mapp, founder of Outdoor Afro, an organization bent on getting more black people outside. “We have to imagine conservation that doesn’t look like the more traditional viewpoints.”

In June, California will have a chance to shift the state’s policy in that direction. If voters approve Proposition 68, the state will dedicate $1.3 billion to creating and maintaining parks in underserved communities, many of them low-income where residents are people of color. At a deeper level, though, voters could endorse a new vision of outdoor policy at a time when governments, nonprofits, and companies alike are concerned with diversifying outdoor recreation. If we want to get everybody outside, it’s time to bring outside to everyone.

Prop 68 is a sweeping $4 billion package that finances numerous environmental and public health projects. Bonds devoted to parks aren’t uncommon in California, but rarely do they so specifically target spending in areas where concrete overwhelms trails and trees. The bill was originally sponsored by state senator Kevin de León, and as it has come up through the legislature, it has won support from Republicans and Democrats; the op-ed boards of nearly all major California newspapers have also gotten behind it.

The proposition would sling $725 million to the creation and expansion of parks in neighborhoods that lack them and another $200 million to cities and counties to improve their degraded park spaces. The state’s natural resources department will distribute $30 million in grants to improve trails. A quarter of that can be used to create a transportation system that would shuttle kids to the trailheads. And it’s not just park spending that’s being reconsidered with Prop 68. Much of the $767 million devoted to land conservancies is earmarked for landscapes abutting Southern California’s metropolises, rather than far-flung preserves in rural areas.

The spending could yield projects like the Chollas Creek Regional Park, a proposed 32-square-mile park along a polluted San Diego waterway. “Chollas Creek, historically an important settlement for Native Americans, has been a habitat for diverse plants and wildlife,” Ruben Arizmendi, chair of the Sierra Club’s San Diego chapter, wrote in the Union-Tribune. “Today, it is commonly viewed as a neglected natural and cultural resource. Advocates hope to restore the open space to increase the quality of life for the disadvantaged communities in the area.”

By funneling money toward urban areas, Prop 68 signals a major shift, which you can see by looking at how money was spent in California’s last big parks-angled bond, passed in 2006. An analysis by University of California, Los Angeles professor Jon Christensen showed that funds from the $5.4 billion bond went mostly to areas that already had plenty of parks and access to protected landscapes. That’s partly because the money was split evenly among urban and rural areas, which sounds equitable until you consider per-capita spending: $9,860 were spent per rural resident, compared with $161 per urban resident. But Prop 68 focuses on per-capita grants so that parks with the highest user base receive the most funding.

“I’m in my local park so often that I’m aware of the changes in it, I’m aware of the maintenance in it, I’m aware of the seasonal shifts,” Mapp says. “That, to me, is the heart of this bill. It’s just about building that close-to-home way of relating that fits into the lives of busy working families.”

As organizations from the National Park Service on down consider how to diversify the outdoor crowd, the spending in Prop 68 acknowledges that a fundamental piece of that equation is removing barriers to experiencing nature. As writer Latria Graham writes in a recent Outside feature, there’s a perception that people of color don’t like the outdoors. That’s completely untrue. The problem is access and a more than unwelcoming history with the parks, some of that were touted, Graham writes, as “an escape from urban sprawl, at a time when urban was shorthand for blacks and immigrants.”

If that history is ignored and multicultural groups aren’t made to feel welcome in the outdoors, the constraints will persist. But Mapp, who supports Prop 68, says more local parks financed by the bond can erode those barriers in California. “So many low-income folks, and people of color who aren’t necessarily low income, need to have a stake in parks like never before,” she says. “This gives us a chance to address the vulnerabilities, but also the possibilities of people being able to live better lives through access to our parks and to our coasts.” And local access, Mapp theorizes, breeds interest in larger conservation measures. Kids with access to a neighborhood park are more likely to care about climate change, pollution, invasive species—issues that affect Southern California just as they do the Arctic.

Increasingly, the United States is an urban nation. So thinking of nature not as a destination but as an everyday setting could be the best way to give everyone a chance to get outside.

How to Make Millions While Saving a Forest

7 May

The Sealaska Corporation is a for-profit company collectively owned by some 23,000 Native Alaskans from the Haida, Tlingit, and Tsimshian tribes. Since its creation in the 1970s, the company has made much of its money by logging in Alaska’s southeast islands. But beginning this year, that equation will flip: Sealaska stands to earn millions by leaving trees alone.

In March, Sealaska received approval to participate in California’s cap-and-trade marketplace. That means the corporation will preserve 165,000 acres—45 percent of the forestland it controls—for 110 years to serve as a carbon sequestration bank. In return, Sealaska can sell carbon-offset credits to California companies that must curb their emissions under state law.

For now, investing in the carbon-offset market has been restricted to privately held land, which is why tribes and Native corporations like Sealaska have become such big players: They control a lot of forestland. In all, at least nine Native groups, from the Nez Perce in Idaho to the White Mountain Apache in Arizona, have invested in forest-based carbon-offset projects. Conservationists are keeping an eye on their success, because, if done right, it could also revolutionize the way companies profit on public land leases.

“We believe that it fits perfectly with our balanced land-management approach,” says Sealaska CEO Anthony Mallott. “We keep every acre with the foremost thought of best use in a community, cultural, and financial framework. Carbon was the perfect opportunity.”

California’s cap-and-trade program, which kicked off in 2013, promises to cut emissions in the state 40 percent by 2030. It will achieve this, in part, by setting pollution limits for certain industries and by requiring those that exceed the limits to invest in programs that offset their pollution, like carbon-trapping forests. Sealaska’s carbon-offsetting investment is expected to offset 11 million metric tons of carbon—the amount that 2.36 million cars emit in a year. With current offset prices at about $12 per ton, the credits could generate more than $100 million in revenue. No commercial logging will take place there, but that’s not to say the forest will remain untouched. Mallott says Sealaska can still develop its subsurface rights and tourism projects—think trails or lodges—and tribal members will be allowed to cut trees for totems, canoe construction, and other cultural uses.

“It’s another revenue stream that tribes are able to develop within their current conservation practices,” says Bryan Van Stippen, whose Minnesota-based National Indian Carbon Coalition advises tribes seeking to join carbon markets. “To me, it’s a win-win for everybody.”

It’s fitting that tribes and Native corporations are readily considering offsets. It wasn’t until the 1970s when most tribes were granted control of their forestland, and ever since they have been heralded for their resilient forestry practices. Some tribes sign on to these carbon-offset programs to preserve cultural resources, while others might do so purely to monetize land that’s less ideal for timber harvest—in fact, most tribes in the carbon market have maintained their logging operations, and instead of clear-cutting forests, they selectively harvest trees. For example, tribes could wait 60 years instead of 45 to cut second-growth trees, allowing more carbon to be stored before a tree is cut.

“Commercial logging operations are still able to operate with sustainable management practices,” says Van Stippen, adding that Sealaska and the other tribes around the country that are investing in carbon offsets are “maybe changing a few of their practices but are not putting a hindrance on their commercial operation.”

This system, so far, has been kept to privately owned forests. But the idea of leasing publicly owned land for carbon banks is gaining attention from researchers.

Under the current system, forestland leaseholders turn a profit by cutting and selling trees. But what if companies could bid on leases with the idea of conserving the land as a carbon bank? It might actually be more profitable than doing so on private land, because federal leases present a relatively low-cost option on a massive scale. There is plenty of potential for national forests to act as a carbon sink, and according to the U.S. Forest Service, America’s public forests already offset 16 percent of our annual carbon emissions.

It’s not illegal to lease land for carbon sequestration. There just hasn’t been an executive order or any legislation that says you can do it. Because of that, most offset developers won’t consider projects on public land—yet. And all it might take is pressure from the private sector after they notice Sealaska and tribes turning big profits.

Could Ryan Zinke Lose His Job?

24 Apr

Ryan Zinke’s first 13 months as interior secretary—a period punctuated by investigations into his conduct and dubious spending of taxpayer money—were summed up in a recent internal investigation. On April 10, the Interior’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on Zinke’s hasty reassignment of 27 career staffers, many of whom worked in climate science and conservation, and a disproportionate number of whom were Native Americans. The move was called politically motivated and illegal by some. But OIG investigators couldn’t make such a determination, because the reassignment team “did not document its plan or the reasons it used.” Essentially, his department kept bad paperwork.

The report’s findings are consistent with how Zinke has run the department. Time and again, his decisions have been made in a rushed fashion with little public input or transparency. Take his sudden plan to reorganize his 70,000-employee department, or to throw open offshore drilling areas—decisions that upset both conservatives and progressives.

James G. Watt was the last interior secretary who generated so much controversy—and he lost his job. But that was only after he became a political liability for Ronald Reagan. Thirty-five years later, in an administration swirling with controversy and under a president who cares little about traditional professionalism, it seems Zinke can do pretty much whatever he wants.

Consider yet another OIG report released this month, this one on Zinke’s penchant for booking chartered airplanes. Investigators looked into a June 2017 trip, during which visited the Golden Knights hockey teams and gave what DOI described as “sort of an inspirational-type speech, one that a coach might give." The problem was that Zinke charged taxpayers $12,375 to charter a flight from Las Vegas to Montana after the speech, in which he didn’t even mention Interior, according to the report. It turned out the hockey team had also offered to reschedule his talk so he could book commercial flights. Zinke shrugged off the speech as one that happened to coincide with a nearby event with county commissioners, though OIG found that his schedulers booked that appearance after his plans were finalized.

Neither OIG report will likely lead to any disciplinary action. But they provide a window into Zinke’s priorities. The hockey team Zinke spoke to is owned by William Foley II, a billionaire who donated to Zinke’s congressional campaigns, and Zinke’s speech, according to the OIG report, was all about his time as a Navy SEAL. Nonetheless, Daniel Jorjani, Interior’s acting solicitor, told investigators the occasion “aligned with the DOI’s priorities.” The trip, funded by taxpayer dollars, was “ten thousand percent compliant” with Interior’s mission, he said. 

The DOI seems at ease arguing that catering to donors and espousing the merits of Zinke’s Navy career are department priorities. (There’s speculation Zinke will gun for higher office in the near future.) In a way, it’s more of the same. Zinke has shown he values private interest over public comments when it comes to land, and that his department’s priorities are heavy on use and light on conservation.

If the past year is any indication, the latest OIG reports will result in little more than some bad press for Zinke. For one, there’s always another Trump-related scandal that sucks up more oxygen in Washington. Plus, Scott Pruitt is probably receiving more discussion in the Oval Office than Zinke. The lone instance of a reported feud between Zinke and Trump came after the quick exemption of Florida from Zinke’s offshore drilling proposal, but it was later revealed that the White House orchestrated the stunt to give a win to Governor Rick Scott, a longtime Trump supporter who’s running for the Senate.

Compared with Watt, the secretary who served under Reagan, Zinke has done plenty more that could cost him his job—like his office spending, vacations with a security detail, use of a personal e-mail address, public questioning of staff loyalty, treatment of minority women, obsession with flagspotential censorship of science, and aversion to diversity.

Two other government agencies have said they’ll investigate Zinke’s travel and reassignments. But unless those turn up documented illegal behavior, it’s hard to imagine Zinke will get the boot.