Colorado, creative non fiction, New Mexico, san luis valley, southwest

“Ecodefense”?

Teaching opportunities at Adams State dried up after one year, and I once again looked for work.  One afternoon, while checking the mailbox at the end of our driveway, I found a note left by Wayne, informing me that an Alamosa “environmental organization” was looking for an office manager.  I phoned the number included in the note, spoke to “Chris,” the director of the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, and we agreed to an interview.  Chris told me the interview would be conducted at the KRZA building, where the organization had an office of which I was unaware, even though I had been volunteering once a week at the station.  I knew nothing about the Ecosystem Council.  

In any event, because Wayne identified it as an “environmental organization,” I assumed that, at the very least, it dealt with issues of wilderness defense around the Valley, and this greatly intrigued me.  Here, I thought, was a possible opportunity to go beyond simply waxing romantic about wilderness and actually engaging in the nuts and bolts of protecting it, a chance to make amends I felt were necessary following my employment at the embattled Albuquerque lumber company. 

The interview occurred with Chris and “Howard,” the latter a Council board member.  There was the inevitable question of what got me interested in environmental advocacy, and I mentioned my years of hiking and backpacking in the Southwest, my membership in the central New Mexico chapter of the Sierra Club, and my master’s thesis celebrating the various landscapes of New Mexico.  I felt good about the interview.  However, a week went by without hearing from the Council, so I phoned it, inquiring about my status, and Chris offered me the job.

The Council’s small, dank, and dusty office was at a front corner of the radio station’s first floor.  Daylight dulled by sheets of plastic―the poor person’s “storm windows”―filtered through the two large glass windows hung with faded curtains.  Two massive recycled wooden desks were there for me and Chris; on mine sat a personal computer.  A number of books stood on a shelf.  I was hoping for at least one by Abbey or “ecodefense” champion Dave Foreman, and was disappointed.

The Council was incorporated as a non-profit several years prior to my hiring.  Chris, who came aboard about six months before me, and I were its only paid staff.  The organization’s board included a physician’s assistant, a woodworker, and a respected Alamosa artist who painted landscapes in oils when he wasn’t working, during the growing season, for a Valley lettuce company.  The Council’s main goals were building recognition and credibility in the Valley, and securing legal advice. 

I initially worked 25 hours a week, answering the phone, researching and adding names and addresses to the mailing list database on the computer, writing grants, preparing the minutes of the board meetings, representing the organization at events of environmental interest in the region, and documenting the organization’s field projects.  I often worked alone, as Chris commuted to the office from her home in Crestone, an hour’s drive, only twice a week.  The independence and solitude suited me.

Chris struck me as a classic representative of a considerable slice of the Valley’s population.  Some 10 years younger than I, she arrived in the Valley―from exactly where, I did not ask―with her husband two years before me.  A native of Cleveland, Ohio, and a college graduate, she indicated that she worked briefly on, of all things, one of David Letterman’s “Late Night” shows―in what capacity, I never asked.  She was a hale and solid woman who eschewed make-up, her cheeks rouged by the Valley’s sun and wind.  She would have looked at home on the coasts of Ireland.  Her long hair, unstyled but not unkempt, often arrived at the office damp from a shower and shampoo.  Her clothes were always clean, but casual, and many of them might easily have been purchased at a Valley secondhand store.  Her running shoes were worn.  Chris was irrepressibly upbeat and generous, and struck me as someone utterly incapable of mind games and power struggles.  From the beginning, she frequently sought my opinion on a wide spectrum of matters, and I had rarely felt so valued in a new job.  

Somewhat to my dismay, however, there wasn’t the slightest bit of drama at the Council office during my first months of employment.  There were no complaints about road closures or dirt-bike and all-terrain vehicle restrictions.  There were no challenges to timber sales in the Rio Grande National Forest.  There were no phone calls griping about threatened fish and game habitats or polluting businesses.  The office rarely had visitors, and the phone rarely rang.  Indeed, I realized that the council was truly unknown.  Nonetheless, I quietly went about my job as if I were still the scrivener at the instrument repair company in Denver a quarter-century earlier.

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An Environmental Conscience – Part 2

Soon, it seemed that issues regarding America’s management of its national forests were proliferating on television and in the print media.  One evening, I watched a segment on television’s MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour that dealt with the 1988 forest fire that charred a third of Yellowstone National Park and parked for weeks a pall of smoke in New Mexico’s normally crystal-clear skies.  The segment questioned the wisdom of our country’s nearly century-old―and sacred―Smokey-the-Bear policy of extinguishing by whatever means all forest fires.  Such fire suppression, more and more people were concluding, was causing a dangerous buildup of fuel―logs, grasses, and shrubs―on our forests’ floors, which in turn was causing more needless conflagrations like the one in Yellowstone.

In the New York Times, a representative of the forest products industry weighed in on the Yellowstone fire.  He maintained that still standing, although “dead and dying,” timber contributed greatly to the conflagration, and thus proposed that the industry be permitted to remove such still-profitable timber before the possibility of any fire.  However, this practice would mean more logging roads carved into the national forests, which, not surprisingly, environmentalists opposed.

On another occasion, Linda and I listened to actor Paul Newman narrate a television program entitled Ancient Forests: Rage Over Trees, which dealt with logging in the Pacific Northwest.  It included a scene of young people―they could have been my blossoming children―blocking a road to a timber sale.  During the scene, amid logging trucks at a standstill, a man, wild-eyed and frustrated, was expressing outrage at the blockade.  He happened to be missing an arm, which, in my imagination, only added to his menace; that he was defending an industry that very possibly had been responsible for the loss of that limb only added to the peculiarity of the sight.  (Today, the Bureau of Labor Statistics lists logging as one of America’s “10 most dangerous jobs”; this was likely true back then, as well.) I’ve never forgotten this man.

Eventually, I became acutely aware of another New Mexico environmental organization that had jumped into the logging-on-public-lands battle.  Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians was beginning to challenge in the courts virtually every one of my company’s timber sales in northern New Mexico.  The organization’s name was rarely mentioned on my second floor, but when it was, usually on the lips of Carlos or one of the foresters, I merely listened in silence with a blank expression.  On one occasion, a forester―the friendly, hardworking fellow with whom I toured the timber sale outside of Cuba and shared a hotel room at the annual meeting in Phoenix―angrily spat, “I don’t give a shit about a spotted owl!”  On another occasion, a different forester was recounting a meeting he attended that occurred in some government chamber in Santa Fe.  In addition to the director of the Forest Guardians, the meeting likely included a judge, lawyers, and Forest Service big shots.  The forester mocked the behavior of the director at this meeting, depicting him as some sniveling, candy-assed tree-hugger embarrassing himself while attempting to play upon the emotions of the participants. 

Meanwhile, at the lumber company’s annual meetings, the question of how to grapple with the threat posed by “the environmentalists” was of course on the agenda.  During the resultant discussions, I once again only listened, my expression as enigmatic as a wall of trees, my skin crawling.  

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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.