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An Environmental Conscience – Part 1

While still living in Denver, I spent a year looking for work in Albuquerque.  My efforts yielded just two job interviews.  The first occurred at a heavy equipment dealership―the kind of machinery that levels mountains and carves valleys.  Had the dealership offered me a job, I would have gladly taken it.  Then I learned of the opening at the lumber company.  I interviewed there, and, after some dithering, Carlos offered me the position. 

That the job was in the “forest products” business made no difference to me.  My job history included being a cog in a wheel that leveled trees and ripped open the earth in order to expand residential development in Breckenridge, Colorado; that gutted a mountain on Colorado’s Fremont Pass for molybdenum; and that punched holes in the floor of the Gulf of Mexico for petroleum.  “Forest products” was just another industry to me.  I’d never seen the aftermath of a “clear cut”: the horrid felling of every single tree on a vast acreage for lumber.  I thought trees in the southern Rockies grew as fast as their cousins in, say, the Pacific Northwest.  And I’d never heard of an “old-growth forest,” which Wikipedia defines as “a forest that has attained great age without significant [human] disturbance” and is thus a strongbox of nature’s original “blueprint.”  My goal now was financial security in my new home and advancement in the data processing field.

Regardless, my new love and my new life in New Mexico, as well as my natural curiosity, were beginning to expand my view of the world.  As a result, I was gradually developing an environmental conscience.  Fueling this moral reckoning were the almost sacred joy I experienced in my hikes and backpacks into the pristine forests and deserts of the Southwest; my broader consideration of the writings of Edward Abbey―beyond the romance, plant identification, and wilderness escapades and into his polemics about America’s lust for natural resources and “growth for the sake of growth”; and simply a greater awareness of regional and national environmental issues and activism being addressed on television and in Albuquerque’s daily newspapers.  Such a conscience was making me increasingly uneasy at the lumber company. 

For years while living in Denver, I noticed a little sign in the second-floor window of what I assumed was an office of some kind overlooking Colfax Avenue in the city’s Capitol Hill district.  The sign read “Sierra Club.”  I was intrigued by that name, although I had no idea to what it referred. 

When, in New Mexico, I became a regular backpacker, I purchased at an independent bookstore Words for the Wild: The Sierra Club Trailside Reader.  Pocket-sized, the book fit easily into my backpack and pants pockets and kept me occupied in my tent during those hours in the mountains and deserts after sundown or during a rainfall.  Published just a year prior to my arrival in New Mexico, the book was an anthology of “nature writing.”  It included an essay on the Colorado Plateau by Abbey, reacquainted me with the words of Thoreau and Emerson I’d first read at Hobart, and introduced me to such authors as John Muir, Aldo Leopold, John Graves, Wallace Stegner, and Colin Fletcher.  Its copyright page informed me that the “Sierra Club . . . has devoted itself to the study and protection of the earth’s scenic and ecological resources―mountains, wetlands, woodlands, wild shores and rivers, deserts and plains”―all of which sounded interesting and worthwhile to me.  So I checked the phone book and discovered that there was a chapter of this “Sierra Club” in Albuquerque.  After attending one meeting at the chapter’s office in a modest storefront, I joined.

At the time I joined, the dominant topic of conversation at the club’s meetings was the efforts by a broad spectrum of Albuquerque conservationists to transition Petroglyph State Park, at the western edge of the city, to a federally-managed “national monument.”  Linda and I had visited the state park a number of times after re-uniting in New Mexico, and I was all in favor of advocating for the loftier designation for the place and the additional protections that presumably went with it.  The chapter also discussed cattle grazing on New Mexico’s public lands―that is, lands managed by the United States Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management.  This coincided with my broader reading of Abbey: he was fiercely opposed to grazing on public lands at all elevations.  Grasslands denuded and riparian areas―watercourses that attract thirsty cattle―trampled and fouled with urine and manure were two of his reasons why.  I, too, was starting to understand those reasons.

And then there were a couple topics, in the chapter’s regular discussions and in literature available at the office, that particularly grabbed my attention.  The first was logging on the federal forests of the Rockies, the Sierras, the Pacific Northwest, and Alaska.  Not surprisingly, the club was opposed to clear-cutting in these forests; yet it also had issues with selective logging―the felling of a tree here, a tree there―in the same.  The second topic was specific to New Mexico and tied to the first: habitats for two New Mexico wild birds, the Mexican spotted owl and the goshawk.  Before joining the Sierra Club, I was vaguely familiar with these two species as a result of participating with Linda in bird-watching expeditions in New Mexico’s Sandia and San Mateo Mountains.  Logging in New Mexico, the club maintained, was threatening these habitats and thus had to be checked.  I frankly found this hard to believe, given what I perceived to be the breathtaking vastness of New Mexico’s forests; however, if the Sierra Club affirmed it, I took it as gospel.  As a result of all this, shame crept over me, and I tended to be distant at the chapter meetings, hoping none of my fellow members would inquire about what I did for a living. 

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